The quality of a fighter’s training camp or their fight preparation is often highly indicative of how well they will perform on fight night. Numerous factors come into play here. The sport of mixed martial arts is evolving quite rapidly. Coaches and fighters are frantically trying to get this fight-prep thing down to a science.
If the fighter’s camp or fight preparation starts too early or too late, he or she will not physically peak on fight night. How do we know what’s too early and what’s too late? We learn through trial and error, of course. This takes time, and we are still going through the meat of this process.
Another factor to consider is how much training per day the athlete is going through. This should be under tight control by the fighter’s coach, and monitored periodically to ensure he or she isn’t overtraining. For example, checking a fighter’s resting heart rate first thing in the morning is an excellent biomarker for an athlete that is simply doing too much physically for their bodies to handle.
What types of training is the fighter doing? Are they doing too much conditioning and not enough skill work? Maybe they are like the legendary BJ Penn, and have so much skill they don’t believe conditioning is necessary.
Who are the fighter’s training partners during their fight camp? Is it a better idea to throw them to the wolves every week? Doing this could wear them down and/or lead to an injury. Coddling a fighter can’t be the answer either. Physically, they may be fresher than their opponent. Being stronger mentally though isn’t likely.
On top of all of this, we are talking about an individual’s performance. Even with a quality camp and consistent training, like any competitor, sometimes fighters can just have an off night. Just a split second loss in concentration will often lead to an early night and a trip to the hospital. So, there are many questions that need to be answered. Let’s get to it!
How Much Training?
Let’s start with the overall length of the camp. 8-12 weeks is the time frame most fight coaches shoot for with their athletes. They can get away with 6 weeks if the fighter is already in decent shape with not too much weight to lose. I haven’t heard of any camps longer than 12 weeks. This is plenty of time for a fighter’s speed and stamina to physically peak as close to fight as possible.
How about the length of each training session? When mixed martial arts had just hit the scene, many fighters were looking to train hard for 6 hours/day. They would do 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the afternoon or evening. This isn’t very sustainable. After several weeks of this overtraining will begin to set in, performance is limited, and the likeliness of an injury occurring increases dramatically.
Two/days still are imperative for the simple fact that most of the fighters today are doing it. They have to live on the verge of overtraining. All of the best athletes in the world do 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours again in the evening for 6 days/week. This seems to be the schedule most pro fighters are keeping.
Where does conditioning fall into this schedule? Is it before or after your skill work that day? This one isn’t as cut and dry as too much or not enough. We can take a look, though, at some of the benefits of skill work before conditioning and vice versa.
Let’s say a fighter does their skill work from 8:00 – 9:15 am by hitting focus mitts and drilling Jiu Jitsu. Immediately following that you have a hard conditioning session. This is an efficient 2-hour session. This is due to the type of skill work, and this particular training doesn’t tax the body enough to slow down the strength and conditioning session.
Scheduling a long (60 minutes) sparring or rolling session for a fighter either before or after his strength and conditioning session can be very problematic. Conditioning before sparring almost always means the fighter will get hit more, taken down easier, and the possibility of the fighter incurring an injury goes up. Sparring or rolling before conditioning is enough to grind down a fighter’s fast and slow twitch muscles respectively.
To do something faster than you’ve ever done it, you have to do it faster than you have ever done it. It’s not nuclear engineering. Running up hills will help you in numerous ways. It won’t help you get faster though, at least not directly. This is why strength and conditioning sessions, especially those focusing on power development need to be completed when a fighter is adequately rested and recovered.
Let’s put aside individual differences like slow/fast twitch muscle ratios, age, weight class, and mental strength. The most efficient camp for mixed martial arts fighter will likely last around 10 weeks giving the coach ample time to slowly and safely build up to a fighter’s peak; two 2 hour sessions in the morning and evening while avoiding stacking sparring and conditioning back-to-back. Doing this 6 days/week monitored by a competent coach should have the fighter ready to strike first, fast, hard, and last.
As strong as a fighter is, they more so resemble play-doh than a rock when in the hands of their teachers and coaches. Depending on a fighter’s skill development and fighting experience though, he or she could be more or less pliable to their coach. The latter can actually be a good thing. Sometimes fighters are nearly complete when they go to a new coach for their next camp. They just need one or two more pieces to their puzzle, and don’t need to get broken down and built up completely.
With this power, comes extra responsibility for the coach. I have fought and coached in the same promotions, and I can say with the utmost confidence that coaching is more stressful than fighting. Throughout the camp, this is arguable. On fight night though, the fighter is having fun. More importantly, he or she has something the coach simply does not. That is control.
Let’s look at some more ways coaching can make or break a fighter’s preparation to compete. We talked about fight training and injury prevention through appropriately timed skill, conditioning, and sparring sessions.
The quality of these sessions is just as important as the timing and frequency. First, a coach needs to have a fighter’s respect. Some coaches accomplishments speak for themselves and some coaches have to prove themselves to the fighter. The respect must be there because just like the fighter has control during the fight, the coach must harness that power for the 8-10 week duration of camp.
If the fighter is training for an MMA fight, they need an MMA coach. This is becoming more and more commonplace in the fight game. There isn’t anything wrong with a fighter working with a specialist, but there must be a clear definition of the coaching power hierarchy.
A boxing coach doesn’t know what they don’t know. If they tell a fighter to change his level and turn his body to land a jab to the gut, they may or may not realize it’s easy as pie to counter with a lead head kick. The shin is a significantly more powerful weapon than the jab as we know. The mistakes can grow larger when you take into consideration the transitional possibilities going from standing to the ground and vice versa.
A fighter having good training partners in their camp to work with may be the most important factor of all regarding their preparation to compete. If the fighter has knuckleheads with too much ego (or too much ego of their own), submissions are cranked, punches break noses, and knees are cracking ribs sharply. My first coach always told us “Train smart, train tomorrow”.
Even though mixed martial arts is an individual sport, one cannot expect to succeed on a high level without a quality camp with experienced disciplined coaches and training partners. Now we have to ask another question. Are these training partners below the fighters level, above their level, or do their skills match up or compliment each other?
Hopefully, there is a mix of training partners below, above, and at their level. This is of course within reason. Pros should mostly train with pros. If the ammy guys conduct themselves in a professional manner with little or no ego, they can get in on the action as well.
When the fighter trains with someone below their level, it is an opportunity for them to try out a new combination, sweep, takedown, or submission etc. It is an opportunity to fine tune their game without too much worry of getting caught with something.
A training partner above a fighter’s level is an essential piece of the puzzle as well. Iron sharpens iron as we have all heard before. While a fighter must believe they will win the fight no matter the disparity in skill level, experience, and/or athleticism, they still have to be put in bad situations. Essentially the coach is planning for the worst with the fighter and having them practice how to perform to the best of their ability against a tougher opponent.
Sometimes a fighter gets the opportunity to compete in the gym with someone near or on their level. Hopefully, these sometimes turn into “most of the times”. This is their opportunity to go hard without rattling a monster’s cage or hurting one of the new guys. If the promoter did their job right, the fight they’re training for will pit them opposite someone who mirrors their skill level closely.
Fight camps are evolving as rapidly as the sport itself. Coaches are finding more and more sophisticated and challenging ways to train their fighters. Preparation breeds confidence. There is no amount of preparation, performance enhancing drugs, or conditioning can replace confidence. Fighters need an undying belief in themselves, and a calculated experienced coach can keep them there all the way to the post-fight interview.