Cubs outfi elder Reed Johnson is no stranger to pain. In fact it was last April 25, 2008, against the Washington Nationals when he dove off of a full sprint, going fully airborne and smashed headfi rst into the leftfi eld wall of Nationals Park, robbing Felipe Lopez of a sure-fi re triple.
And like a BJ Penn/George St. Pierre fi ght, the catch made highlight reel after highlight reel. While Johnson is proud to have made that catch, he isn’t a big fan of pain. However, watching others inflict it is another story.
Johnson is only one of many professional athletes of varying sports who have become rabid fans of mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. When he was with the Toronto Blue Jays, Johnson remembers teammate Howie Clark, also a big MMA fan, always trying to coax workout partners into arm bars. But as a resident of Las Vegas, Johnson has been able to befriend several fi ghters.
“Frank Trigg is one of my good friends back home,” Johnson said. “He’s a good fi ghter, usually sits around 170 or 185. Forrest Griffi n rehabbed his shoulder at the same place I did, so I had a chance to get to know him real well. Both of them really got me into the mixed martial arts. “But living in Vegas, we go to pretty much all the fi ghts were going on at Mandalay Bay, Hard Rock Café, MGM…Pretty much every time there’s a boxing match or UFC, we’ll go watch it.”
With the sport growing rapidly in popularity across the world, naturally athletes of other professions would be attracted to the dedication and intensity of mixed martial arts. Many professional athletes look upon MMA fighters not just because of the fighting skills, but rather to their dedication to training, their sheer will to be the best.
“Anything that prepares a fi ghter for fi ve-minute rounds could help [anyone’s workout],” said Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an avid fan. Cuban’s own HDNet gave the WEC its start several years ago, and suddenly a mogul of the NBA became a fan of MMA. “The cardio requirements are incredible,” Cuban added. “About the only thing I have tried are some of the core exercises.”
Likewise, Johnson said he enjoys MMA because he admires the rigors the fighters endure to get into peak physical condition before a fight, as well as being technically sound. It all comes down to preparation, something of which Johnson is a huge fan. “I think a lot of my offseason training and why I think I’ve been successful in the big leagues is because of what I put my body through,” said Johnson, a former all-state gymnast in California who as a youngster used to train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for two weeks every year.
“You see those MMA guys train and see how intense their workouts are and what they put themselves through not just physically, but mentally, to get ready for a fi ght, you just have a lot of respect for that,” Johnson added. “As a guy who takes pride in preparing himself….I just respect those fi ghters so much.”
Indeed, toughness and admiration is a recurring theme among other sports professionals. This is especially true of athletes who are involved in physically punishing sports like football and hockey. Take for example LA Kings forward Raitis Ivanans.
He’s known as the Kings’ “enforcer.” You know the guy—the one who takes physical umbrage with opposing players who try to pick off any of the Kings’ top scorers. And at 6-4 and 256 pounds, Ivanans usually is the largest human on the ice when the Kings take the rink. He’s also a huge— excuse the pun—fan of MMA. “I started watching mixed martial arts as a kid all the time,” said a grinning Ivanans, exposing a couple of gaps where teeth used to sit. “I used to watch all the guys—Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie—but it was rare because I was the only one of my friends who was into it.
“But when they started doing the UFC, then it was on Spike TV, I got really hooked,” Ivanans added. “I will buy all the pay-per-views when they come out.” The native of Latvia is “tough” in every sense of the word. Consider that he missed seven games in 2008 after getting caught in the crossfi re from teammate Rob Blake, during a game against the San Jose Sharks. Ivanans had facial surgery to repair a fractured cheekbone by putting a screw in his cheek.
He returned to action just 10 days later. But Ivanans is quick to admit that throwing down gloves on the rink is nothing compared to MMA fi ghters. “Overall, the work these guys have to put for MMA is amazing,” Ivanans said. “It’s not just the boxing, it’s the ground training; it’s the conditioning. It’s just amazing.”
While the conditioning for a hockey player on skates certainly is different than MMA fi ghters, Ivanans said he gets a little taste of it in the summer and understands the intensity, even if it’s only on the periphery. Plus the training might seem to help his “enforcing.”
“I do a little boxing during the summer in the offseason,” said Ivanans, who resides in Rockford, Ill. “Punching a heavy bag for three minutes is totally different than skating on the ice. But you can really get to understand just how tough MMA fi ghters are.” For Johnson, incorporating some of the MMA training was helpful and easy, too. Besides consulting Trigg and Griffi n, MMA workouts are popular all over the Internet.
“You can just punch in a fi ghter’s name in YouTube and watch their training regimen and get some ideas from them,” said Johnson, who came into spring camp 10 pounds lighter. “A lot of fi ghters rarely have back problems and you wonder why that is. I think it’s because they do so much cardio and core work and keep their weight down.”
One exercise Johnson learned from Trigg in his core regimen is the side plank. He’ll do planks with dumbbells or kettle bells on the floor. Of course, if those get too easy, he’ll incorporate a bosu ball. And if that gets too easy, he adds a swiss ball. They might all have different reasons why they love MMA, but one thing Johnson, Ivanans and Cuban all agreed on: Fedor Emelianenko is a beast.
“I don’t really have a favorite fi ghter,” Ivanans said. “But I really like Fedor. I like his attitude, how calm he is; he’s not cocky.” “I thought Liddell/Ortiz 2 was pretty good; it had a lot of energy and the crowd really liked how they got on each other. Those two honestly don’t like each other. But I’d really like to watch Fedor fi ght in person. Hopefully the UFC will give him what he wants and he’ll get to fi ght Brock Lesnar or someone like that. Fedor’s one of the most revered fi ghters in the world.”
While Cuban is a big fan of FIGHT! Magazine’s own Jason “Mayhem” Miller and any of Roy “Big Country” Nelson’s IFL fi ghts, his favorite fi ght so far was Fedor/Arlovski. “The strategy and intensity of [boxing and MMA] are completely different,” Cuban said. “Boxing has more of an ebb and fl ow throughout a match. MMA on the other hand is spontaneous. There are so many ways to end a fi ght that you can never look away.”
Likewise, there are parallels between the excitement Ivanans and Johnson experience when entering their home arenas and an MMA fi ght. “It’s the atmosphere of MMA,” Johnson said. “You get that adrenaline rush playing six months out of the year at Wrigley Field where it’s sold out every day. Then you go home and there’s nothing. So you go to the UFC fi ghts and there’s so much action. Those guys are warriors.”