Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd is kicking his training up a notch.
The whap and slap of roundhouse kicks and focus-mitt sparring can be heard constantly outside the front doors of Power MMA Fitness in Gilbert, Arizona. These are hardly the sounds familiar to baseball fans visiting the Valley of the Sun during spring training. However, inside the gym is Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd—grunting, sweating, and kicking during his daily Muay Thai routine. The 34-year-old Byrd has been practicing Muay Thai for the last two years after deciding to supplement the boxing workouts that he has maintained since he was with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2002.
“I was looking for a change of pace,” Byrd says. “I’ve boxed for a while and did it while I was playing with the Phillies. But I wanted to incorporate kicks. I heard about Muay Thai, so I checked it out. It’s been great. I needed something high intensity.”
Byrd has dropped 40 pounds since starting his new workout routine, as well as from a change in his diet after he discovered he was allergic to wheat and milk. For much of his career, Byrd, a former baseball and football standout at Sprayberry High School in Marietta, Georgia, has looked more like a linebacker than an outfielder. Today, thanks to his new workout regiment, Byrd is more sleek and streamlined like a fighter, which should translate into more speed and quickness on the diamond.
Coming into spring training, Byrd looked like a spring chicken— the weight loss augmented his speed as well as his stamina. According to Byrd, the workouts have greatly improved his balance and flexibility.
“More guys I know are using martial arts to get in shape,” says Byrd. “I don’t know how many guys are taking it to this level, but I love it. It’s really given me a physical and mental edge.”
Teammate Reed Johnson knows the value of MMA training. For several years, the Las Vegas-area resident trained with former UFC champion Frank Trigg. The training helped Johnson overcome nagging back issues that had plagued him during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“The workouts hit your core, which is what I needed to help strengthen my back,” Johnson says.
For Byrd, some of the movements of Muay Thai are very similar to baseball actions. A roundhouse kick requires balancing on the balls of your feet, shifting weight, and rotating the hips through. Similarly, in the batter’s box, hitters must have proper weight transference and “load” as the pitch comes in. The hip and trunk rotation can give a hitter’s swing more power and synchronicity.
“When you’re hitting, it’s the same motion,” Byrd says.
Power MMA and Fitness is co-owned by UFC fighters Ryan Bader, C.B. Dollaway, and Aaron Simpson. The trio of former Arizona State Sun Devils broke away from Arizona Combat Sports a couple of years ago to open their own gym, which offers classes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, boxing, wrestling, and Muay Thai.
Working with Power MMA trainer Daniel Brandt, Byrd seamlessly puts combinations together, throws flying knees, and works his Muay Thai clinch.
“I wasn’t surprised at how easily everything came to Marlon,” Brandt says. “The guy’s a professional athlete. His body control and coordination are elite. He picked it up pretty well.”
For Byrd, martial arts feel fluid and natural to him. When he’s back home in Chicago, Byrd works out with trainers Robert Co le and Aaron Swenson at L.A. Boxing, which is just a few blocks east of Wrigley Field. Byrd spars for an hour in three-minute intervals with one minute of rest in between rounds. Afterward, he goes to the heavy bag, working on his kicking and punching techniques. When he puts it all together, he’s pretty scary in the ring and on the diamond.
“Everything is working in conjunction now,” Byrd says. “In Muay Thai, you’re thinking, ‘Check a kick, throw a punch,’ or ‘throw a kick and follow it with an elbow, then the knee.’ In baseball, you have all these moving parts, too, so the transitions become more natural the more you practice. Martial arts has definitely helped me out on the diamond.”
Team: Chicago Cubs
Experience: 10 years
Career Batting Avg: 281
All-Star Selection: 2010
“In baseball, you have all these moving parts, too, so the transitions become more natural the more you practice. Martial arts has definitely helped me out on the diamond.”