The Tough Life and Training of Ultimate Fighters

UFC: Main Event


"Have you ever been close to dying before? Like maybe a car just missed you? You know that rush you had? That's what it's like," says Ken Shamrock when asked to describe the feeling of standing inside the fence-enclosed octagon cage, surrounded by 10,000-plus rabid fans, waiting to fight a man who quite possibly has every intention of choking him into submission or breaking one of his legs.

Across the gym is light heavyweight Chuck Liddell, nicknamed "The Iceman" because the intense adrenaline rush of the octagon ceases to rattle his nerves the way it would the average warm-blooded male. He's only 6'2" and 205 pounds, but hell, the guy's got a Mohawk, and a tattoo on the side of his head. A former college wrestler and kickboxing specialist, Liddell admits he doesn't have the submission expertise of Shamrock, but he adds that in his last fight, "I knocked a guy out with a kick to the head." Who needs submission?

"The most gruesome thing I ever saw was when Ken Shamrock reverse heelhooked a guy and twisted his foot the opposite way. The guy was just screaming," says jujitsu expert Frank Mir. "He basically just destroyed the guy's lower leg."

These are the gritty outtakes you gather from spending a few hours with three of the fiercest fighters in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) circuit as they attempt to simulate a bloody sport for a magazine photo shoot, which, by the way, is impossible. So, who are these guys? According to Shamrock, they're the best overall fighters in the world, and some of the most well-conditioned athletes. But to the average onlooker unfamiliar with the UFC, they're a violent bunch of undisciplined homicidal maniacs. Why else would they be locked in a cage three times a year to fight each other?

A Strong Defense

Brutal is the last thing Shamrock would call the UFC. "Unless you're going to call boxing or football brutal, I wouldn't call this sport brutal." Ironically, these words come shortly before the 39-year-old, still tabbed "The World's Most Dangerous Man," scrolls down an abbreviated list of the most gruesome injuries he's ever caused: "I broke a guy's jaw, snapped a guy's neck, broke an ankle, broke a knee - I was a pretty good submission specialist in my day, and I did break a lot of legs and arms. But it's not on purpose. I don't go out there saying 'I'm gonna break this guy's leg.' But I go in aggressive."

"It's a lethal sport, but it's not brutal," says Mir, who's 15 years younger, 40 pounds heavier, and, in case you hadn't guessed yet, probably more dangerous than the legendary Shamrock.

"If you and I put on football helmets and beat each other with sledgehammers, fuck, that's brutal. But if I hand you a knife and in one move, boom, I'm finished, that's lethal. That's more like what you see in the UFC [minus the knife]. Because the moves we're allowed to use are so lethal, a fight can end so fast that there's not a lot of trauma to the body."

Brutal or not, a hyperextended elbow, a fractured tibia or a fighter knocked out cold on a blood-stained canvas isn't exactly uncommon in the UFC, originally promoted as the most vicious sport in the world, a primitive battle where two men enter the octagon and one man leaves.

"That's how the [UFC's] original owner marketed it, and it was great because they sold 300,000 pay-per-views," says Dana White, president of the UFC. "But eventually Senator [John] McCain and a bunch of other politicians came out and said, 'This is wrong and we want it off cable.' So when we bought the company about two-and-a-half years ago, we did the exact opposite of what the old owner did. He went away from sanctioning, whereas we went to the athletic commissions and asked, 'How can we work with you to make this sport safer?' We wanted this thing to be what it really is, which is a sport. Now, all places where you'd see a boxing event - Nevada, New Jersey, Florida, Massachusetts - this is sanctioned.

"The difference with this sport is that in boxing your job is to pound a guy in his head until you knock him unconscious," says White. "One of the biggest misconceptions about boxing concerns the gloves. The glove wasn't created to protect your head; it was created to protect your hand so that you could hit a guy in the head more times without breaking your hand. The nature of that is much more brutal than what you see in the UFC."

UFC Rules

"No Holds Barred" pretty much described the UFC at its inception, circa 1993. A decade later - the UFC just held its 43rd competition in Las Vegas on June 6 - 30 or so new rules have been added to cut down on the brutality and to make matches more viewer-friendly (see "What UFC Fighters Can't Do" for a few examples).

Still, Mixed Martial Arts (the sport in question, of which the UFC is one governing body) is a lethal combination of over 30 disciplines of fighting, including boxing, judo, karate, kickboxing, jujitsu and wrestling. Fighters are left alone with a referee inside an octagon-shaped cage, bare-chested and shoeless, with nothing but thinly padded gloves to lessen the impact of their strikes. Outside of the outlawed moves, everything's fair game, including kicks, punches, knees, elbows - you name it.

A nonchampionship bout consists of three five-minute rounds, while a championship match goes five rounds; both have one-minute rest periods between rounds. There are several ways for a fighter to win a UFC match, as many fail to go the distance. Like boxing, a fighter can win by decision, knockout or technical knockout, or by any number of submissions, which is a UFC trademark.

Here's the deal with submissions: A guy gets you in a position where (a) he's got you in a choke that you can't get out of or (b) he's about to do serious damage to a joint (knee, elbow, ankle, what have you) or break one of your limbs. You tap out, either physically, by tapping on the opponent, or verbally - think of it as crying "uncle." Crippling injury averted, fight over.

"One of the greatest things about this sport is that you're able to tap out," says White. "These guys know when they're caught in a bad position, and they can tap out and it's no big deal. Remember when [boxer] Roberto Duran said 'No mas?' He was ridiculed for the rest of his career. That's not how it is in the UFC.

"Submission fighting [usually occurring on the ground] is absolutely fascinating. The whole premise of ground fighting is the belief that 90% of all fights end up on the ground, and what do you do when you're there? I'll tell you this: If you went to a submission fighting school for a month, the average guy on the street wouldn't even be able to hang with you. You'd be schooling all your friends left and right."

Cage Dwellers

One thing the uninitiated may find surprising is that most of these guys are college educated - many wrestled in college, which is one reason they're able to compete successfully in the UFC, and earned their degrees. Another revelation is that since they're martial artists, they're very respectful.

In Mir, you've got a pure fighter with the build of a middle linebacker: 6'1", 253 pounds, with mammoth quads and glutes barely hidden beneath black jujitsu shorts. Raised by martial artists, and with tattoos spanning from arms to abs, Mir has fighter written all over him, literally. But you'll also notice he has an All-American look and a voice mimicking Ben Affleck's. Cover-model looks not withstanding, Mir, a submission specialist, could bust your knees or close off your windpipe in seconds if he pleased. Not that he'd do that - unless you were in the ring with him, of course.

Same with Liddell, minus 50 pounds, give or take. At one point, he's throwing flying kicks at a heavy bag, nearly bringing down the roof of the gym; the next moment, he's answering your questions about the UFC with gentlemanly candor. "It's a tough sport," he says. "But we're not Neanderthals. The guy I'm fighting next, Randy Couture, I'm gonna try and rip his head off [in the ring]. I'm gonna try to hurt him. But I like him, he's a nice guy. We're actually doing a training seminar 10 days after the fight."

And check Shamrock out. This may very well be the toughest-looking guy you'll ever see, with a face weathered like rawhide and a nose that looks like it's been slammed up against a chain-link fence a few hundred times. Can't imagine why. But he'll chuckle when you call him The World's Most Dangerous Man, saying it's a name that's way off base. Then ask him what he'd do if a random drunkard in a bar wanted to throw fisticuffs with him. "Nothing would happen. I'd walk away. I don't have time for that," he says.

Nefarious bunch of guys, huh?

Fighting Conditions

They say the UFC fighter is the most well-conditioned athlete in the world. Shamrock, in the twilight of a career that currently sees him doubling professional wrestling in Japan with the UFC, is a model of smart training. Dinosaur training, as he calls it, where he lifts odd-shaped and weighted objects like sandbags and oversized barbells. At 39, his physique is more chiseled than his younger counterparts, Mir and Liddell.

Nothing against those guys, though. Liddell spars and wrestles six days a week on top of lifting three days. "In the UFC, all the guys have expertise in all facets of fighting," says Liddell. "And you have to train for all the different areas. It's a different kind of conditioning for wrestling than it is for striking [stand-up fighting]. You can be in great striking shape and then as soon as you go to wrestle you're sucking wind, and vice versa. A lot of it has to do with comfort zones - it's more comfortable to just wrestle or to just strike."

Mir, a 24-year-old phenom whose body does anything he asks of it, which he takes full advantage of, walks me through a typical day of his training schedule.

"My training breaks down into three different aspects: striking, grappling and conditioning. In a striking session, the primary focus is sparring, with anywhere from 4-8 rounds of live sparring, using all the rules of stand-up fighting that we're allowed. We use focus mitts, do bag and mitt work, pretty much what a kickboxer would do for one session.

"In a grappling session, we introduce ground fighting. I'll take people down and work on submissions to emphasize more of the close-range fighting of our art.

"The conditioning portion of my training is where I do the running, sprints and weight training. I lift weights four times a week and run anywhere between 2-4 miles, 2-3 times a week. At the end of running sessions, I'll do 5-10 40-yard dashes.

"The three rotate depending on which is going to be the hardest that day. For example, if my sparring is going to be the hardest, I'll save it for the evening when I have all my meals in me and I'm not as stiff as in the morning."

A typical day for Mir begins at around noon with two hours of sparring, with some shadow boxing and focus mitts at the end, depending on what he and his trainer feel he still needs to work on. He also trains his abs during striking sessions, by having someone bounce a medicine ball off his stomach or pound away at his midsection with gloves at around 60% intensity.

He then goes home, grabs a meal, relaxes and is back at the gym at 5:30 for an hour-and-a-half-long grappling session. This is where it gets intense.

"One drill we do is the shark drill. I'll be in the middle of the ring and 4-5 guys will be along the outside. Each guy will have a priority: One guy's priority is to box with me, one guy throws kicks, one guy tries to take me down, one's priority is to be inside my guard throwing punches, and another starts on my back. I sit in the middle for seven minutes and my coach sends one guy in at a time for 30 seconds to a minute. When one guy leaves, another comes right at me. That way each guy can fight hard and fresh, whereas I don't get a rest.

"The training is actually harder than the fight. The shots are for real - we wear headgear to train. If everyone in the gym is throwing half-assed strikes, when I get into a fight, it's going to be a lot more nerve-racking. But if for the last six weeks I've seen guys throwing everything at me and then I see a guy in a fight, I know that the worst he can do is match what my partners were doing. He can't surpass; I've had four or five guys going as fast as they can, and no one human can match that."

Mir's lifting routine is broken down into push, pull and legs (see Frank Mir's Lifting Regimen). "Lifting for me is really just about keeping my tendons strong and helping prevent injury. I go heavy on most lifts, around 5-6 reps, to increase power and strength. I'm really not concerned with what I look like, as a bodybuilder would be. How good would I look lying on my back after getting knocked out?"

High Caliber

So, upon closer inspection, maybe "brutal" isn't exactly the best term to use to describe Ultimate Fighting. Gruesome? At times, yes - but then again, so is the NFL.

At least one thing can't be argued. Those who fight in the UFC are martial artists and athletes of the highest caliber. If you doubt that, well ... go right ahead, step in the octagon and tell them yourself.

To learn more about the Ultimate Fighting Championship and its participants, visit www.ufc.tv.