Next man up.
No other sport needs that man the way MMA needs that man. It’s not like other games, which have extensive feeder systems and depth charts and backups for every backup. MMA is just a collection of contractors in a low-gravity orbit. And since the sport is violent, injuries are common. Practice and preparation exact heavy tolls. New blood is always needed.
In the UFC, as in all promotions, most cards see at least one participant forced to withdraw because of injury. Last month, UFC 170 saw five. A fighter can go down months before fight night or barely a week out.
But as the people like to say, the show must go on. So when the inevitable happens, the scramble for a replacement ensues. Sometimes it’s a top prospect tearing up a regional circuit. Other times, it’s a geographically convenient veteran. Other times, it’s the MMA equivalent of baseball’s “player to be named later,” a piece of wetware thrown in to balance the equation. Each and every time, though, what amounts to a simple Band-Aid for fight fans doubles as a make-or-break audition for the replacement, with the casting call typically unfurling over a two-minute phone call with a UFC executive.
Last October, Andre Fili received that call. And he said yes because he had to, because it was the UFC. Spurn its attention once, and it’s not likely to favor you again. They went to their Rolodex for him; now he’d have to go to the wall for them. And if they knew how far he had to go, he probably wouldn’t have been first on their list.
Jumping Around In The Parking Lot
On October 5, the contours of Andre Fili’s life were representative of anyone in MMA’s semi-pro trenches. The sport is rewarding in its ways but not lucrative or even self-sustaining until you’re pretty high up. MMA is by nature a futures market: Would-be careerists deposit hour after precious hour into their knowledge base and physical condition in the hopes they can someday draw on what they’ve built.
But try feeding that line to the phone company. Along with the endless string of workouts, you need a way to make ends meet, and one you can shoehorn around your gym time.
Hence Fili, tucking in for another beautiful Saturday behind a desk in Sacramento, California. His job is to coordinate upkeep on foreclosed properties, and his employer is a sympathetic one, a kind of professional oasis for would-be fighters in the area who prefer to draw their paychecks when the gyms are closed. Such is the case for Fili, a member of Team Alpha Male, a fight team populated by UFC studs and king-pinned by perennial contender Urijah Faber.
An aggressive striker and a natural athlete, Fili had first walked through Team Alpha Male’s doors wearing a police monitor around his ankle, a memento of his recent past, when fighting had been something he did, if you like, for the love. But he was also a thoughtful kid, one who liked to battle rap and read sci-fi novels. His talent and his friendliness led the team to take a shine to him, and soon Fili was singing for his supper on local MMA circuits.
By last October, at age 23, Fili had been holding to that grind more or less his entire adult life, amassing a 13-1 pro record while Team Alpha Male carved him into a more finished human product. Fili had emerged as one of the nation’s top up-and-comers.
But that was his other life. That Saturday, he was just another dude manning the phones. It was a good thing for him the boss was friendly, though. Otherwise, the scene he made that morning might not have boded well for Fili’s continued employment prospects.
“I looked down and saw I had a missed call from Urijah Faber and both of my managers. I told myself to calm down, but my heart was racing,” Fili said. “I walked outside and called my manager.”
His manager had some good news.
“He said, ‘Hey, if you want to fight in the UFC, now’s your chance,’” Fili recalled. “I just said, ‘Hell yeah.’ Over and over again: ‘Hell yeah!’ I was jumping up and down in the parking lot. I think I got a little teary-eyed. I was losing my damn mind.”
Charles Oliveira had gotten injured during his training camp. The promotion needed someone to take his place and fight Jeremy Larsen at UFC 166. That was October 19, exactly two weeks away.
Hell yes, Fili continued to say. But deep below that “hell yes,” there was an asterisk.
A few months before, out of a need to stay busy or perhaps out of some small desperation, Fili had accepted a regional fight at welterweight. It was to be his professional debut at 170 pounds. Problem was, the UFC didn’t want him at welterweight. They wanted him at featherweight, his typical weight class—145 pounds.
As he cavorted in his employer’s parking lot, Fili weighed 178 pounds. He couldn’t even bring himself to tell his manager.
“My gut dropped when he said featherweight,” Fili said. “He didn’t know I was that heavy. He asked me what I weighed and there was this little pause. I was 178, but I told him I was 175. I didn’t want to let him know how big I was.”
Never mind. Hell yes. Now Fili had two weeks to ready himself for his make-or-break shot. Professional fighting or property upkeep? Two weeks to prep for a new opponent and his debut under the brightest lights he’d ever faced, with more money on the line than he’d ever seen. Oh, and he had to lose 32 pounds.
“I clocked out,” Fili said, “and went on a run.”
Making The Cut
Plenty of fighters cut 10 or even 20 pounds in as little as 24 hours. Back when Anthony Johnson competed at welterweight, for example, he wrung as many as 50 pounds out of his body before stepping on the scale. Fili’s fellow Alpha Male Urijah Faber himself is known for making steep weight cuts before he fights at 135 pounds. It’s standard operating procedure in MMA, boxing, and wrestling. The combat sports community scoffs at the general population’s idea of safe weight loss, which the CDC puts at two pounds a week.
But those bigger cuts are usually the end game in a longer plan, the final water weight sweated or diuretic-ed out as the final line item on a pinpoint agenda.
No such plan was in place for Fili. In fact, he was going the other way, having gained 13 pounds over his normal “walking around” weight of 165 in anticipation of his welterweight debut. He would now need to slam open the reverse thrusters and drop 18 percent of his body weight in two weeks.
Drastic or improper cuts carry risks. In September, Brazilian fighter Leandro Souza died shortly after passing out during his weight cut. In his wrestling days, UFC light heavyweight Daniel Cormier nearly died and missed out on the 2008 Olympic games after his kidneys failed while his cut was in progress.
The examples go on and span every combat sport. Every so often someone makes noise about changing the system, but it’s difficult to conceive how anyone can get the horse, surely feral and ornery by now, back in the barn.
Thankfully, weight-cutting has become more scientific in recent years. But Fili’s circumstance was still unusual. As such, even though he was facing a multitude of challenges associated with his Next Man Up-ness, every aspect of his life instantly took on the look of ballast.
Over the side went every social interaction. As the news came out that Fili would debut at UFC 166, the interview requests came pouring in. More than he’d ever fielded before. He pitched those over, too. But perhaps the toughest item to toss in preparation for Larsen, a hard-nosed Arizona brawler, was actual training.
“The call was so late there was no time to work or prepare or think about it,” Fili said. “I knew Jeremy Larsen was a tough opponent, but at that moment the cut was my biggest opponent. Everything else had to be on hold. I had to make weight, I had to get to Houston, and I had to beat a guy up.”
Fili had made big cuts before, but never quite this much, and even then, he did it over two months, not two weeks. It was clear that grilled chicken, distilled water, and extra sauna time wasn’t going to get it done. It was going to mean pushing every fiber and every humor to the failure point, then resting and refueling just enough to do it again as soon as humanly possible.
The first step in handling these matters is recognizing that you need help. That’s one area where membership with Team Alpha Male has its privileges. Enter Mike Dolce, the sport’s presiding nutrition guru. Think Winston Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, only wearing a fitted T-shirt instead of a tux. When it comes to cutting weight, Mike Dolce solves problems.
“He came in with a game plan and told me exactly what to eat and when to eat it,” Fili said. “It was light meals four or five times a day, lots of lean protein and vegetables and stuff. I was eating every couple of hours.”
The workouts had to be optimized, too. As hard as it might be to believe, regular fight training, even at the intense end of the spectrum, is simply not enough when you’re trying to burn off a medium-sized kettlebell. Time to crank up the crossfit.
“I was doing crossfit and running about six miles a day in addition to the other stuff,” Fili said. “Between the runs and the training, it was four or five workouts a day.”
Once the pattern was in place, it was lather, rinse, repeat--pausing only to sleep. Still, it wasn’t enough. Coming down the stretch, it was time to bring out the big guns.
“It came down to the wire,” Fili said. “It was really touch-and-go. You have to do everything you can.”
Epsom salt baths, for one. But those are actually pretty pleasant. It’s just a hot bath with salt that makes you sweat a lot. Ever salted a slug? Same idea.
Would that it ended there, though. In an absolute value context, sauna time isn’t bad, either. But this kind of sauna time left Fili dessicated.
“When you’re already dehydrated, and all you want to do is eat and get something to drink, and you still can’t for another 24 hours, it’s terrible,” Fili said. “You can literally feel it drain the energy from you. You get light-headed.”
But even the sauna wasn’t going to get it done. Time for The Suit, the full-body nylon sheath worn while exercising that holds in heat and forces the body to give up its final fluids. These so-called “sauna suits” may carry better branding than the trash bags worn by high school wrestlers, but they’re no less brutal.
“It felt like death,” Fili said. “It gets so much hotter than an actual sauna.”
Feeling worse and worse by the day and then by the hour, Fili kept at it because he was Next Man Up. So he continued wearing out the scale, sleeping fitfully, missing friends and family, wondering what it would be like to fight in the UFC, wondering what would happen to him if he lost, watching the sweat pour out of his sauna suit in rivulets, and doing it all over and over again.
Check out Part 2 tomorrow.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.