So You Wanna be a Fighter? Part 3

TAGS: tournament, rusbridge, flexibility, fighter, cosgrove, even-esh, MMA, training

This is part three of a three-part series.

This is the final installment of the series—where my transition from powerlifter to entering a mixed martial arts (MMA) tournament takes place. Weight cutting and tournament results and what I’ve learned regarding strength and conditioning for MMA are just ahead!

The tournament

I won in the intermediate 185-lb weight class. I went up against two opponents in back to back fights with approximately two minutes rest between fights. The first was a finish—arm bar at the end of round two. It was either a hyperextension or a break at the elbow, but my opponent couldn’t continue to the next round or finish the tournament. My second fight went the distance, and I dominated. I had a few chances to end the fight via submission, but I wanted to test my gas tank. I ended up well ahead in points and won.

After the tournament, I went to a rib festival with my parents and brother, who travelled 550 kms to support me (approximately 343 miles). Then I had to score a quick nap before working the midnight shift as a security guard. Thought I was going to drag out the suspense a bit more, huh? Nope. As everyone reading this knows, the journey is far more important than the results. The process is what defines you, not the gold medal (although I’m not going to lie—it is pretty sweet).

Lesson #1: Flexibility on the road to success is vital, and every crisis is a challenge.

Based on my experiences on the mat, I knew I was very strong, so this wasn’t a question. But my conditioning wasn’t that great. I spent a couple months ramping up with two conditioning sessions per week and only one strength training session. (See my second article for information regarding the methods used.)

As luck would have it, the tournament was bumped up by a month, which threw off my peaking phase. This was mentally difficult to deal with because I was getting off on the volume of sacrifice that I was enduring. I knew it would make me harder internally. After taking a week to refocus, I upped the intensity greatly—pushing the sessions for increased intensity, not duration. It paid off, and I never felt tired during the fight, despite the fact that I had very little rest between matches.

Lesson #2: Education is the grandfather of greatness.

Weight cutting is plain hard. There is no way around it. If you haven’t experienced it, I highly recommend you avoid it at all costs. However, detailed, careful research is vital. I spent hours reading about various methods and tactics on how to drop weight quickly and rebound. My first attempt at cutting 12 lbs was successful, but it left me totally drained. After developing an early lead on points, I lost a jujitsu tournament because I ran out of gas. This embarrassed me greatly, and I spent countless hours learning the best conditioning methods. I knew I needed a better method for my next attempt.

After all the research, I decided to try Matt Kroc’s method of using a hot bath combined with drinking distilled water the week before. Matt uses a hot bath and steams the room. Then he uses short, cooling off periods to cut incredible amounts of weight in a very short time. His repeated success meant that it worked, so I gave it a try. However, if the weight didn’t come off, I knew I’d have enough time to hit the sauna at the local YMCA and get it off the hard way. This wasn’t ideal though because my last sauna adventure led to too much fatigue the next day. Because I had a 24-hour weigh-in, I could easily make weight and rehydrate safely. I was walking around at 198 lbs after eating the night before, and I woke up at approximately 195 lbs. After three hours of taking 30-minute cycles in the bath, 20 minutes in the steamed bathroom, and two minutes of cooling off time, I was down to 185 lbs on the nose. All that was left was a 50-minute walk across town to the weigh-ins in the summer heat. Smart? No, but it was all part of the journey.

Sweating it out in a tub was incredibly difficult because you have to have the determination to stay submerged for a long time before donning sweatpants, socks, a toque, and an EFS hoodie. It’s brutal, but I knew if I could do this, no one would beat me. The mental edge of pushing past where I thought my opponents would take themselves to truly find that pit where I wanted to quit and didn’t was invaluable.

Refueling was simple. I took in some Pedialyte mixed with water, G2, fresh fruit, and some homemade oat bars. Within two hours after weigh-ins and after my 50-minute walk home, I was back to 196 lbs. After a small nap and a few more small meals, I was easily up to 198 lbs.

Lesson #3: Prepare, perform, and prevail.

For weeks, I spent hours each day visualizing the worst possible scenarios where I was in my weakest positions, smaller than my opponent, or weaker than my opponent. For every failure I imagined, I developed a clear answer to avoid it. It was like being caught in a loop—seeing failure, rewinding the tape, and recreating it so I was victorious. Imagining myself lose in the first minute against the first opponent and imagining myself lose in the championship fight helped me condition myself to handle the fear of failure. I knew what it might feel like to be in bad positions thanks to the mat training, but this gave me a clearer understanding of the chaos I might endure.

On the day of the tournament, I received a call. The jujitsu and MMA events had been switched, and I was almost late. I got myself ready as best as possible, but I didn’t have the best preparation because I figured I’d have more time after waking up. Next time, I will prepare for chaos beyond reasonable measure. I’ll arrange all food and equipment 24 hours in advance. Although it was a stressful situation, I focused on getting my butt in gear. This wasn’t a time to focus on chaos but embrace it.

Ironically, I had about a two- to three-hour delay before my weight class was called to the mat. There wasn’t a clear time for when I would step up, so I focused on doing plenty of small warm ups every 30 minutes to calm my nerves and prepare in case I was called to perform. It was better to burn a bit more energy and be better prepared than risk stepping up without the proper warm up. Light rolling and situational escapes combined with the Parisi warm up kept me sane, but I mistakenly didn’t warm up by hitting pads. My hands were a bit unfocused, especially in the first round of the first match. Note to self for next time—absolute and total preparation. I may even make a list to carry with me so I don’t forget anything.

My class was called as I snacked on some berries and pineapple, so I hopped up. I had two opponents, so I’d have a minimum of two fights to compete in to win the gold. As I stepped up to my first fight, I knew I had a size advantage. My coach reminded me of the hard work I put in, and I got myself mentally ready. There wasn’t anything that was going to cause me to fail in front of my family, the friends who came to watch, or my team. Least of all, I couldn’t disappoint my coach or myself. There wasn’t any stopping me.

As I stated previously, I won via an arm bar and my opponent’s inability to continue. It wasn’t the smoothest fight, and I was in a few bad positions. However, great coaching and staying calm helped me. Utilizing a drill we’d performed a hundred times, I was able to smoothly transition from a loose triangle into an arm bar instinctively. It was literally on before I knew it happened. Just before the round ended, I “heard” several pops—the sign that my opponent’s elbow would be out of commission. One down, one to go.

In the next fight, I stayed a bit loose and enjoyed the process. My teammates reminded me that all of the training I had done gave me a distinct ‘visual’ advantage (he wasn’t in great shape and I was on my way to being jacked). I calmly executed takedowns and submission attempts and was more dominant in the striking (my weakest element). I won easily.

Accepting my medal was the most important moment of my life to date. Sure, it wasn’t an amateur or professional fight, but I learned that with determination and hard work, I could do anything.

Lesson #4: The journey is never completed. Each stop along the way is an opportunity for growth.

Shortly after winning, I figured I would be gearing up for an amateur fight—a step toward my professional fighting ambitions. A job loss sidelined me, and I spent four months struggling. Most people would see this as a setback. I couldn’t afford to train, and the stress was almost unbearable. There were many times I thought I would break, but I didn’t. I persevered thanks to a great support team. You all know who you are and the impacts you had on me.

During my time off, I went to the library six times a week and read. Spending many hours failing to even get an interview was brutal, but I knew I couldn’t give up and live in my parent’s basement again. During this time, I learned so much about myself and became a much strong(er), better person. Pressure isn’t a tough day at work, trying to talk to that hot girl at the bar, setting a PR on lifts you couldn’t perform for years thanks to injuries, or getting punched in the mouth by a professional fighter. It’s going hungry because you can’t afford to pay your bills. It’s avoiding dead end jobs because you know you’re worth more. It’s forcing yourself to address the fears in your life and moving past them.

I trained daily, experimenting with my conditioning program and eventually developing my own method. My strength training was also refined to what I feel is an optimal, easily customizable program for any MMA athlete. Eventually, I found a job. I’m still struggling, but I can train again. Things are amazing, and I’m now paving the way to enter the underground strength coach field in Ottawa, Canada. It has gone from something I wanted to something I believe in.

Conviction is the only way you will reach your goals, not writing great lists or telling all your friends about your ambitions. If you believe it in beyond all measures, you will find a way.

Opportunities exist all around you, but focus and hard work are the only keys to success. Always persevere, and always be prepared to sacrifice everything you have for what you believe in. Sacrifice defines a part of me. I get off on it. This is my trigger, and I’ve seen countless people not willing to give into it in order to better themselves. Find your own trigger and amazing things will happen.

Lesson #5: If strength is what you train for, let it define you completely in every aspect of your life.

I followed Jim’s 5/3/1 for a while, but I felt it was too great a volume given the demands of constant training in MMA. This isn’t a knock on his program though. I experienced great success while on it. It’s easy to follow and works.

Given the demands of conditioning, the volume of grappling and striking, and the limited recovery time, I knew I needed a smaller, simpler training program. So what did I do? I cut out everything that wasn’t vital.

It looks something like this:

Week one

  • Squat and military press, 80% X 5
  • Body weight chin-ups X AMAP X 4 sets
  • Weighted ab work, 2–3 sets X 2–3 exercises

Week two

  • Squat and military press, 90% X 3
  • Weighted chin-ups X 3–5 reps (always aiming for a PR in weight or reps)
  • Weighted abs

For weeks three and four, I substituted deadlifts for the main lower body lift and followed the 80/90 wave. For my upper lifts, I rotated between dips, dumbbell floor presses, and low incline presses. These were generally done for a higher rep range, which allowed me to build strength but not power. My shoulders have always been injury prone, but I feel they’re now much stronger. Kroc rows replaced chin-ups and were rotated once or twice a month. Barbell rowing built up my lat strength considerably and made up the rest of my lat training.

That’s it. It’s pretty basic, and I set some PRs that matched or beat my coefficiency compared to when I was a single ply 246-lb powerlifter. I’d say it works pretty well, and I’m currently working with a few fighters to see if the volume is enough for them. So far they have experienced some significant gains in strength.

As for the conditioning, I keep it simple. I did basic barbell or dumbbell lifts, some body weight movements, and some sprint/anaerobic cardiovascular exercises in a chaotic circuit. I feel that the overreliance on sets with uniform reps, weights, and time is ineffective at replicating the chaotic demands of MMA. Tabatas are great for general conditioning and building a base, but I feel my method is slightly unique and, judging by my heart rate, effective.

By combining several methods, I can teach myself to apply power in a fatigued state and switch to intense bursts of speed. At this point, I don’t want to outline the program because it is still in the experimental stage. Several friends and EliteFTS readers who have contacted me are going to be my guinea pigs. If it works, I’ll write an article outlining what I feel is a very effective method.

Final lesson: There is always an escape.

I hope this series has been beneficial in some capacity. EliteFTS has been incredibly good to me by allowing me this forum to discuss my personal journey and strength and conditioning for MMA athletes. MMA athletes make up a very small segment of their readership. There is an incredible amount of crap out there—gimmicks, gurus, and fads. Stick with the fundamentals of strength and do your research. However, if you feel more discussion is required, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love the opportunity to share my views on a more regular basis. Contact Dave and Jim if there is a great demand for the voice of a competitive fighter on the Q&A and perhaps they will find an appropriate source. Otherwise, continue to do your research and support the legitimate coaches on this site—Martin Rooney, Alwyn Cosgrove, Zach Even-Esh, and Rob Pilger. They are brilliant men with years of experience coaching elite athletes.

 

 

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