The year was 1993. The venue – Denver, Colorado. Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, was holding its debut event. UFC 1 (later aptly renamed, UFC 1: The Beginning) was a live pay-per-view event on cable TV. The hook? “Eight of the deadliest fighters in the world” will compete inside an 8-sided ring for the prize of $50,000.
These fighters ran the gamut of martial arts fields. The showcase had a kickboxer, a karateka, a jiu jitsu specialist, a tae kwon doin, even a sumo wrestler. Fights broke out the entire evening, and they weren’t exclusive to inside the ring.
Today, mixed martial arts, or MMA, is wildly popular and counts celebrities like David Spade, Paris Hilton, Snoop Dogg, Jason Statham, and Mike Tyson as fans. But before the modern incarnation, MMA traces its roots all the way back to ancient Greece.
In 648 BCE, the ancient Greek armies combined wrestling, boxing and street fighting in a ferocious contest called pankration. A particular favorite of Spartans, this involved hitting, kicking, and even strangling. The only way to win was to have your opponent accept defeat or render him unconscious, or in some cases, dead. Other than biting and gouging, there were no recognized fouls. The sport faded into obscurity after the Olympic Games was banned by Theodosius I in 393 CE.
MMA experienced a reemergence in the 20th century through vale tudo in Brazil. Roughly translating to “anything goes,” the combat sport was made famous by the Gracie brothers, Carlos and Helio. The siblings, who already had a jiu jitsu gym in Rio de Janeiro, advertised what they dubbed as the “Gracie Challenge.” They would then take on any challenger in a contest reminiscent of pankration.
MMA in Modern Times
Mixed martial arts entered global mainstream consciousness after the Gracie family brought their trademark jiu jitsu to America in the 1990s. In fact, it was Helio’s son, Royce Gracie that emerged the champion in UFC 1.
UFC became the premier promoter for MMA events. From the initial 86,000 viewers of UFC 1, the numbers increased to more than 300,000 by the third event. In 2001, rules were set in place to make the sport less dangerous. Weight classes were added, along with rounds, time limits and a list of fouls. No longer just a no-holds-barred spectacle, fighters were forced to train more extensively and expand their skill sets. The same committees that regulated boxing and similar sports also took UFC, and MMA, into the fold.
UFC developed into a very profitable organization and attracted fans around the world. It also gave birth to the sport’s biggest stars like Randy Couture (aka “the Natural”) and Chuck Liddell (aka “the Iceman”). A reality TV show in 2005 (The Ultimate Fighter) awarded a UFC contract to the winner, further enticing fighters to give MMA a try. By 2013, the show had women participating as well, both as fighters and coaches. But MMA is not without risk.
The Dangerous World of MMA
Mixed Martial Arts is a hybrid combat sport. Every MMA practitioner is an expert in one or more fighting disciplines – boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ), Japanese jiu jitsu (or jujutsu), karate, Muay Thai, kickboxing, judo, and many others. It therefore goes without saying that training to be an MMA fighter is not going to be easy.
Take for example Irishman Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. Arguably the most famous in the UFC roster of fighters, he has a team of experts that handle every aspect of his training regimen – from exercises to nutrition.
Kron Gracie, grandson to Helio, does one hour of sparring before doing self defense-focused MMA training. Then he goes to do another hour of running or a 2-hour bike ride. He also does 100 pull-ups and dips as well as cardio. Because of all his activities, he needs to eat light meals every 3 hours, every single day.
Retired MMA athlete Georges St-Pierre used to train 6 days a week, with 2 training sessions per day. He mixes kickboxing, takedowns, submissions, boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu and Muay Thai and further adds sprinting and strength-conditioning.
With the intensity of training, it’s not unheard for fighters to get injuries even outside of the octagon. A study conducted in 2015 showed the most common injury locations:
The 2 most common moves resulting in injury are:
1. The Armbar
Predominantly used by wrestlers, the armbar is usually employed to elicit submission. This move hyperextends the elbow joint.
2. The Triangle Choke
The triangle choke stresses the cervical spine. It can cause multiple injuries including sprains and fractures.
So, while MMA is no longer the “barbaric” sport it once was, you still need to ensure you are properly prepared to take on the rigors of training for it. No one knows this better than the champ champ McGregor.
The McGregor Principle
Conor McGregor may have the brash image but he’s not reckless when it comes to MMA training. He notes the principles one needs to adopt before even starting MMA training.
Diversity in workout routines not only allows you to target different muscle groups. It also lets you practice different disciplines and improve your fighting arsenal.
In McGregor’s own words, “Machines don’t use machines. And I am a machine.” And he’s not wrong. Bodyweight exercises have many benefits, including building strength and endurance as well as improving balance.
4. Eat Clean
Put an emphasis on “good quality” food, whether they be meat, greens, or carbohydrates. And while it’s okay to indulge your cravings occasionally, do not go overboard.
Mr. Notorious believes one needs to stay mobile to maintain flexibility and avoid injuries. For starters, he makes sure to stretch everyday to keep himself limber.
The Way to an Injury-Free MMA Career
It may not actually be possible to have an MMA career and escape unscathed. But at least you can limit the injuries you might sustain in the process. And the easiest way to do that is to focus on these three things:
1. Strength & Conditioning
Invest time in a strength and conditioning program. Start by working out three times a week. Some of the best exercises for increasing strength are:
· Bench Press
· Military Press
· Chin Ups
· Step Ups
· Power Snatch
Choose any 3 and do 3 sets of 5 every other day.
For conditioning, you can add 10 minutes of any of the following:
· Kettlebell Clean and Jerk
· Walking Lunges
· Farmers Walk
· Vertical Lift
For locomotion conditioning, you can also try doing duck walks which help in decreasing knee pain.
Mobility is defined as the capability to move readily. This is an important skill for any athletic person. Sadly, it’s also often ignored during training. Greater mobility means being able to do kicks and passes more easily.
Myofascial release is one fantastic way to improve mobility. The fascia is a thin, elastic type of connective tissue wrapped around the muscle. Due to overuse and trauma, the movement of this tissue can become restricted. Myofascial release relaxes the muscles and improves circulation to improve mobility and relieve pain.
One easy way to do this is by using a sports recovery device like a massage gun.
Percussive therapy helps target the knots and trigger points in the muscles. With the steady pressure, knots are released and loosened making for better ease of movement.
Warm up muscles before a session by spending a few minutes with a massage gun. You can even use it between sessions to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and after the sessions to help you recover faster.
Flexibility, as defined by dictionary.com, is the “quality of bending easily without breaking.” Not breaking certainly sounds good, doesn’t it?
Doing any athletic activity requires a level of flexibility. To improve flexibility, make sure you do dynamic stretching that allows muscles and joints to go through a full range of motion. For MMA, use a massage gun to stretch your muscles or do the following stretches for at least a minute:
· Head Rotations (Neck Stretch)
· Shoulder Rotations
· Arm Circles
· Knee Tucks
· Inside and Outside Leg Rotations
· Hip Circles
· Shin Pulls
· Trunk Twist
The MMA Obsession
Mixed Martial Arts has come a long way from being called “white collar cage fighting.” From the gym of the Gracie brothers in Rio to the US, and to the rest of the world via different organizations like Bellator MMA and ONE Championship in Singapore, MMA has swept the globe.
With proper preparation and techniques along with the help of massage guns and other sports recovery tools, MMA could be less about injuries and hurting yourself and more about pride as every MMA athlete intended.