In the midst of sharing practice room war stories from his days at Miletich Fighting Systems, author Sam Sheridan got to the heart of why so many of the gym's UFC champions—Jens Pulver, Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia—went through notoriously brutal twice-weekly sparring sessions. “Sparring served this great purpose in that it really toughened you up,” Sheridan said. “And MMA in those days was really so much about toughness and being hardnosed, and that’s why wrestlers were doing so well. But I think in the end, it also was the doom—you spar that hard, you wear guys down and you shorten careers. Guys get hurt more and can’t compete, and you just get burned out in the gym.”
Three- and four-a-day workouts were an anxious reaction to the arms race that accompanied the UFC's growing profile. Hard sparring, overtraining, and injuries became the status quo. And in the mid-2000s, MMA's quintessential gym rat was also one of its most recognizable faces: Forrest Griffin, whose ascendance from the OG Ultimate Fighter to light heavyweight champion was a quasi-metaphor for the sport itself. As hard as he fought, by all accounts he trained harder, occasionally to his detriment—a shoulder injury scuttled a fight with Antonio Rogerio Noguiera, MCL and ACL injuries scratched a meeting with Phil Davis, not to mention the unseen toll left by all those extra hours in the gym. "I trained a little stupid," Griffin, who retired in 2012, told a group of reporters last week. "I didn't know any better and I was young and had a big ego. I spent a little too much time standing in front of people I shouldn’t have…"
Now, with injuries ruining fans’ expectations and threatening the promotion’s bottom line, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy and brain injuries becoming documented problems in MMA, and with a growing consensus that training like it’s fight night only benefits you if you actually make it to the arena on the appointed day, a question emerges: how can fighters get ready to fight and minimize hurt in a sport where hurting is often the whole point?
Last week, UFC representatives including Griffin—now the UFC’s vice president of athlete development and the only retired celebrity executive to survive a round of layoffs—led media on a tour of its new Las Vegas headquarters under construction. The centerpiece is the UFC Performance Institute, slated to open later this year.
The two-story, 30,000-square-foot training center will feature a 40-yard track, sleeping pods, cryotherapy chamber, devices that mimic high-altitude training, a boxing ring, and a host of bells and whistles to record and measure fighters’ physical output. Designed with input from Griffin, the intention is for UFC fighters to rotate through by appointment to rehab from injuries or learning best training practices to bring back home.
During the tour, Griffin touted an Octagon equipped with high-speed, high-definition cameras and a video analysis room—key contributors to reducing fighters’ reliance on career-shortening sparring sessions. “One of the things we’ve found is that you get hurt sparring a lot—so you want to minimize your sparring, but you still have to spar,” Griffin said. “You still have to go what we call game speed. So you’ll do that, and to get the most out of it, you’ll break it down: you’ll do film study here. You’re encouraged to do film study, like every other major sport. That’s why we’re building this: to be on parity with every other major sport.”
As a remedy for reducing injury plagues and preventing fighters from competing under they're broke-down and punchy, bringing fighters to visit a million-dollar gym in Vegas, videotaping their training, and hoping that painstaking and thoughtful analysis will replace pissing contests when they go back home to their usual training partners seems like wishful thinking. At the same time, most camps have come around to understanding that sparring until you can't see straight twice a week eventually stops helping you. There's no better contrast than the sudden drop offs of so many Miletich champions against the late-career title run of Robbie Lawler, the gym's one alumnus to largely steer clear of gym wars.
For a stubbornly individualistic sport with such reverence for doing things the hard way, a promoter-sanctioned, brick-and-mortar monument to using data, technology, and analysis to save fighters from unnecessary punishment is encouraging. Having an ambassador from the old (or at least older) school along to ensure the next generation doesn’t repeat his mistakes is a step forward for the sport itself. "[MMA is] a violent sport," Griffin said. "You're going to get hurt doing this sport. But let's minimize it. Let's get hurt as little as possible."
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