The fighters you see on TV were once green professionals, fighting in front of small crowds for a few hundred dollars and travel money. Almost every week, I am at a local MMA event in the Southeast watching new pros make their debut. With the shear number of gyms popping up, I am seeing more fighters who are ill prepared for their pro debut. In many sports, this may make little difference. However, in MMA, where violence is honed to a fine edge, there is the potential for serious injuries. My first inclination is to blame the promoter/matchmaker, but they are only partially accountable. The lion’s share of fault lies with the fighters, coaches, and managers. It comes down to knowing when a fighter is ready for a pro debut.
In my gym, that’s an easy question to answer: When I say so! I have made my share of mistakes, but I have learned a lot over the last 11 years. Below are the five factors I believe must be weighed prior to a fighter making his debut in professional MMA.
This is the most important aspect of the game for an aspiring pro fighter. Most amateur fights have three-minute rounds. The bump from three-minute to five-minute rounds is a huge difference. An aspiring pro should have an extensive strength and conditioning program under his belt and a solid camp leading up to the debut. No matter how prepared a fighter is, it’s never enough for that first fight.
2) THREE GAMES (STANDUP, CLINCH, GROUND)
Professional fighters need to be well rounded. Having a weakness in one area is harder to mask at the pro level. At a minimum, young pros should have solid boxing, a strong clinch, good sprawl, and more experience than a blue belt in BJJ. Expertise in one area can make up for weakness in another area with the proper strategy and gameplan.
An amateur career is necessary. Competitive experience in any of the disciplines that constitute MMA is acceptable, though a wrestling/grappling background is generally preferred. Fighters should have a minimum of five amateur wins, with at least one of the fights being a real test.
4) PEER REVIEW
The best way to prepare for a professional debut is to train with other pros. Often, this will take place in the form of a mock fight. If a fighter can survive and even excel in the cage for three, five-minute rounds against a seasoned vet, he will be prepared against another green pro.
These are the qualities that only an experienced coach is qualified to determine. Regardless of what we call them—toughness, heart, fortitude—these qualities will often dictate victory. A fighter who works hard, learns to deal with adversity, and listens to his coaches has a great chance of becoming successful in pro MMA.
MMA is a serious sport. The line between victory, defeat, and injury is razor thin. Fighting professionally raises these stakes considerably. Correct preparation requires thousands of hours of hard work. Even when a fighter is ready, it’s important to have smart matchmaking. Only an inexperienced coach would allow a fighter to make his pro debut against Dan Severn for $200—which I did to Forrest Griffin in 2001. Nowadays, I try to match a green pro against another green pro, keeping my eyes open for matches that give my fighter a stylistic advantage.
The rush to turn professional (and make some money) must be carefully examined. More money can be made with a good career that starts out with the right foundation—a reputable gym, smart coaching, and a solid skill base. Fight smart fights rather than jumping into the deep end for instant gratification. It’s not as easy as it looks, and a fighter’s health and longevity in the sport necessitates proper preparation. It takes patience to do it right.