By Justin M. Norton
If you’re a 30- or 40-something with the right mindset, MMA might be the ticket to the best fitness of your life.
Former Marine Tim Miller was tubing on the Guadalupe River in Texas when he had the 21st century equivalent of a Charles Atlas moment. The water levels were low and Miller, then 350 lbs., got stuck on the rocks just before some college guys drifted by and said, “Check it out, we got a beached whale here.” It was one thing to say it aloud, but even worse, they said it in front of his kids.
He knew it was time to make big changes. Miller considered CrossFit but was instead lured by Ohana Jiu-Jitsu in San Antonio. Almost inconceivably, the 38-year-old started training mixed martial arts, concentrating on Muay Thai. His goal is to get to 260 lbs. and take an amateur fight within a year.
It hasn’t been easy. When Miller started training, his blood pressure was almost 200/100. After his first day of shadowboxing and heavy bag rounds, he vomited and was left shaking. “My trainer almost called 911, and the room was spinning,” he says. Undeterred, he kept going to the gym.
Miller’s story might be extreme, but it’s not a rarity—the mid-life conversion to mixed martial arts. The trend spawned the Kevin James film Here Comes The Boom, about a portly ex-wrestler/science teacher who fights to raise money to save the school band program. With life expectancy ever-increasing and limitless options for fitness and training, people are doing more than just watching fights on television. Instead, adults are opting to get hit, kicked, and submitted.
Part of the attraction might be that MMA is a sport where the middle-aged—at least a few of them—thrive. Randy Couture didn’t retire until 47, after he got knocked out by Lyoto Machida’s now famous “Karate Kid” kick. Dan Henderson is a viable light heavyweight at 42. Mark Hunt and Anderson Silva turn 40 in two years.
Looking at age alone is deceiving, though. Couture started MMA in his 30s but was an Olympic-level wrestler. All of these fighters started serious training when they were young, often when they were children. They know exactly how their body responds and how to make it work under duress, and have logged countless hours in rings, gyms, and cages.
The majority of middle-aged people showing up to learn MMA don’t have that training—some don’t even have an athletic background. “With MMA booming, there are more older people looking for a challenge. They want to know if they can really do MMA,” says Jude Ledesma, part of a team that opened Modern Combatives MMA in Berkeley, California, in 2002. The gym, the first in the area to offer an integrated curriculum of striking, clinch, and ground training, has since expanded, and Ledesma even had a student in his 70s.
It is possible to train smart in middle age, whether your goal is to fight or get in peak physical condition. Trainers and those that have been there say middle-aged converts should have realistic expectations. Preparing for a fight is possible, and no one without competitive drive enters an MMA gym, but too much focus on the end result could make your training counterproductive or get you hurt—likely both.
“You have guys who are 38 and don’t think they will be GSP, but do think they’ll do a bunch of amateur fights and win, or get one pro fight. These guys can get banged up pretty bad when they get in the ring or the cage,” says Matthew Polly, who wrote about his midlife MMA training journey and eventual fight in Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts. “No one expects that they will just take up basketball and go in the NBA. People think that since it’s fighting, they’ll be able to just go do it. If you are middle-aged and compete, all it will be is a few times at the amateur level.”
Polly admits that the training regimen he followed and wrote about in his book wasn’t smart, even if he were in his 20s. He nearly passed out on the New York subway system after a tough training session. He sparred with younger fighters at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas who were much faster and more agile. Along the way, Polly learned a few lessons about doing it right.
When Polly started training with Phil Nurse, all sparring was below the neck. Now that he’s no longer training to fight, he’s returned to that method. “If you aren’t training to actually be in a fight—just for self defense and fitness—I don’t think there’s a reason to go hard to the head. Hard sparring is for competition. You can work almost all your techniques and get pleasantly knocked around, but those shots to the jaw and noggin are a young man’s game,” he says.
A good path is the right mix of intense MMA training mixed with weight lifting, stretching, core work, and agility. Spending hours on end in the gym might improve your skills, but may also necessitate a long chiropractic contract.
Polly says mid-life converts should also consider emphasizing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, especially if competition is a goal. “Jits is in some ways the sport for middle-aged guys who want to fight,” he says. “You are laying down, you don’t need to take any strikes, and it works. You can stop someone. It’s not tai chi, which doesn’t work.”
Keeping your pride in check is crucial. There’s a good chance that the person teaching you will be significantly younger. What matters is learning from someone who can help you improve, regardless of age. “If the person is able to get you better, that’s what you are looking for,” says ModCom’s Ledesma. “The idea isn’t to earn a golden ring to put on a pedestal, it’s to get measurably better.”
Hydration, nutrition, and ample sleep are even more important now than when you were younger and were able to shirk certain elements of training. Injuries also need the proper time to heal. If you are older, that likely means it will be longer. A willingness to skip practice or amend training when the body isn’t responding can prevent some of those injuries.
The lure of an actual fight remains strong for many, especially those that survive the grueling training in the initial months of MMA. Lisa Creech Bledsoe, a 46-year-old mother of three in North Carolina, hasn’t picked up MMA, but became a competitive boxer well into her 40s (she’s 2-2).
It started when Bledsoe’s husband bought a heavy bag for their sons. The boys ignored it, but Bledsoe embraced boxing and hard sparring. She credits combat sports for helping her marriage, her business, and her health. “I’ve learned that if I’ve hurt something, to give it attention and give it rest,” she says. “And I don’t spar more than twice a week. Some of the young people show up to spar and say it’s their day off from training!”
The hardest thing for Bledsoe isn’t training—she’s learned to do it smart—it’s finding people her age to fight. “When you get older, there are just fewer people and that makes it tough,” says Bledsoe, who admits she is “compelled” by MMA but plans to keep her training to boxing.
Tim Miller still remembers that day on the raft when he’s hitting the pads. At the time of this writing, Tim has lost more than 50 lbs. and is down to 295. He’s willing to see where his training leads, but feels the urge to compete. “It would be pretty amazing if I could put my best foot forward and do a fight,” he says.
Here are five MMA training tips for those who have logged ample years and time on the road.
Fighting is a possibility, but see how your body adapts and adjusts to training. Place learning and proper technique above everything else, and honestly monitor progress with a coach.
Space your training
Five times a week of hard training might not work if you are older. Instead, space maximal efforts with lighter training and strength and flexibility work.
Recovery is crucial
Proper sleep, nutrition, and hydration are even more important to an older body. Eat protein right after tough efforts, and don’t overlook intangibles like vitamins and reduced stress.
Don’t tough out injuries
It’s always a good idea to see a doctor when something hurts. It’s even more important with an older body. If you are in pain, don’t train.
Listen and ask questions
Be an attentive, hardworking student like everyone else. Focus and pay attention to the people who know best, regardless of age. You have nothing to prove when you are older so don’t be afraid to ask for more explanation of a technique.