Does 1+1+1 = MMA?

I’ve seen a lot in the 10 years I’ve been coaching mixed martial arts out of my gym in Athens, Georgia. I’ve watched the transition from the early days of fights in local gyms with make-shift rings and made-up rules to the big money pay-per-view fights held all over the world.

I was ringside coaching Forrest Griffin as MMA exploded into the mainstream on the first season of TUF. I’ve taken Brian Bowles from a skinny kid with some low-level high school wrestling to the WEC Bantamweight World Champ. During this time, I have worked to evolve my training and coaching techniques.

One of the biggest areas of development and advancement has been how I train athletes who come into my gym with little to no athletic background—in relation to MMA—and turn them into competitive fighters. My training philosophy is divided into three phases: standup, clinch, and ground. Strength and conditioning is the overlying factor. This is how I take a kid who thinks he can fight and turn him into a mixed martial artist.

“Fatigue Makes Cowards of Us All” — Vince Lombardi

With that philosophy, Vince would have made an outstanding MMA coach. Starting from the outside in, you can see that everything is encircled by strength and conditioning. Great S&C is needed not only to perform each technique but also to get us through the daily grind of training. We aren’t training just for strength, power, and aerobic and anaerobic fitness but also to remain durable. S&C is a component of everything we do in the gym, and it is a quality we try to improve every time we enter the gym.

The 10 Year/10,000 Hour Rule

Standup, clinch, and ground are the three technical areas where a mixed martial artist must be proficient. Because these areas take so long to develop, it is imperative to train them in isolation from day one to acquire the hours needed to become world class. This idea is especially important for the newer athlete. The goal is to create a powerful foundation in these areas as well as eliminate any weakness. Generally, a fighter will show more promise in one or two areas and we will nurture these as we improve all three games.

On a weekly basis my fighters drill wrestling, kickboxing, and BJJ. Even as these areas are trained in isolation, I am always gearing the techniques toward the middle of the circle, toward our goal of MMA. A simple example is the striking stance. This is modified from the beginning to allow a better transition when wrestling is added to the striking.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for an individual needing approximately 20 hours of practice per week for 10 years—approximately 10,000 hours—to achieve greatness. Although he is not talking about MMA directly, Gladwell makes a strong case for this rule across all endeavors.

Getting From A to B to C

The three blue areas represent the transitions from one game to another. As a fighter develops the basics of each game, we start to combine them in our sparring. We develop drills and change our sparring to focus on these transitions and extra elements. Add wrestling takedowns to kickboxing training, add submissions and striking to wrestling takedowns, add striking and working back to your feet to BJJ training. It can be as simple as working in and out of the clinch in kickboxing or doing hours of kickboxing with double legs. Drills and sparring can be broken down to mix and match any techniques in these overlapping areas. These drills allow us to take a fighter out of his comfort zone and figure out weaknesses. As a fighter gets closer to his fight, most of the training is done in these overlapping areas. This is the time that we start to adjust what may have worked from each game separately versus what works as a whole. We begin the process of drilling down each game to get to MMA.

What Does It Equal?

The red area of training is the sum of all of our drills and sparring and it equals MMA. In regard to time, this is the smallest area of training. I implement this strategy for a few reasons. First and foremost is practicality: the risk of injury is greatest in full MMA training. Some coaches might counter me with, “You can tone down the intensity,” but I believe this is easier said than done with competitive athletes. It is much more practical to remove elements as a form of control. Second, athletes have a tendency to settle into their comfort zone during full MMA training. If the best standup guy is smashing people on a daily basis he’s never going to get better at his ground game. We want to cultivate our strengths but we don’t want to rely solely on them. We want to work on improving our weaknesses, not shy away from them. Getting a fighter out of his comfort zone and using a training partner’s strengths to challenge the fighter’s soft areas is tricky for a coach and requires creativity. During the last eight weeks leading up to a fight, we begin to ramp up the intensity and volume of our full MMA training while always being as careful as we can be to avoid injury. We probably average no more than three to five rounds of full MMA in a normal week.

The HardCore Way

Hopefully this article gave you an introduction to how we train and drill at the Hard- Core Gym. It’s not as easy as taking one part standup, one part clinch, and one part ground. How these games are dissected, drilled, and combined is the key to MMA success. In upcoming issues, I will describe drills and training methods for each area and how we build complete mixed martial artists.

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