As the first fight fans enter the arena, most of the event's participants have already begun their pre-fight ritual. For some, it's as simple and standard as a No. 2 pencil; for others, it includes enough quirks and repetitions to spin even Turk Wendell into a dizzy stupor. The sights, sounds and even the smells of the venue play a role in these regimens. Welcome to the pre-fight warm-up. There is much more involved in this backstage preparation than most realize. Warming up is a means that leads to an ever-important end. While each fighter has his own pre-fight regimen, whether scientific or intuitive, each realizes he must "clock in" well before the fight begins. According to exercise physiologist Eric Sternlicht, PhD, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology at Occidental College in California, every fighter's warm-up goal should be to prepare his physiological system for a higher level of performance. "You are warming up the body; you are increasing the core temperature. In doing that, you are preparing your heart, lungs, muscles and other organs for a higher level of function," he says. Real Fighter recently went backstage with five of the sport's most competitive warriors to learn the specifics of how they gird for baffle. Then we got the good doctor to weigh in on the efficacy of each one's pre-fight prep.
PRE-FIGHT PREP: The late James Brown may have been known as the hardest-working man in show business, but in MMA circles, nobody puts more sweat into his livelihood than boxer-turned-MMA fighter Marcus "The Irish Hand Grenade" Davis. His pre-fight warm-up reads like an NFL head coach's playbook - strict and precise with no shortcuts.
Davis' intense backstage preparations are fluid and automatic. He begins with 20 minutes of aggressive stretching, followed by 30 sprawls and 30 knees. Davis then performs eight three-minute rounds of MMA shadowboxing, including punches, knees, elbows, kicks and sprawls. As if that's not enough, he moves on to light grappling for up to 10 minutes, then concludes with three to five minutes of intense mitt work. Finally, it's on to stretching and a prayer before strutting into the ring.
"It took years to fine-tune my regimen," Davis says. "As a boxer, I performed stretching, a little shadowboxing, and maybe three rounds of pads. MMA is a lot different. Too many tools are being used to limit yourself to just shadowboxing and pad work. You need to grapple, pummel, sprawl - you've got to work it all. I know this about myself because my worst round in the gym is always my first, and I get stronger each round afterward."
STERNLICHT SAYS: "Once you step into the ring, you experience a massive adrenaline rush. Your body pumps blood to your heart and brain. However, it's also pumping it away from your muscles, which you need in a fight. By performing such a comprehensive warm-up, Davis has already experienced that initial adrenaline surge, so when it happens again, he doesn't experience the same degree of sucking blood away from the muscles.
"However, pre-fight stretching is generally not a beneficial part of warming up, although you see it in numerous sports, not just MMA It's better to keep your warm-up rhythmic. Flexibility should be worked on during and after training sessions. Come fight time, you either have it or don't."
PRE-FIGHT PREP: After achieving success as an All-American amateur wrestler, Cole threw his hat into the MMA ring and has earned a spot as the heavyweight team member of the IFL's Wolfpack. As a lifelong wrestler (he began at the tender age of 7), Cole knows a thing or two about mats. "I like to jump right into the ring and get a feel for the surface. There are different slippery spots on the mat, such as the different logos. Knowing where the spots are gives me a certain peace of mind."
Cole's warm-up varies depending on where his fight happens to fall on the card, as well as on his specific game plan. "I might work on shot defense, work my hands or work in the clinch. I like to really get things going and 'burn out' my lungs. Two fights prior to mine, I will slow it down and regain my lungs," he says.
Cole keeps track of time by warming up while watching the rounds of preceding fights on closed-circuit television backstage. He stays focused by relying on a quote from his grappling days: "Repetition creates perfection.' I try to be repetitious and keep a good sweat going. I just try to stay cairn and get my body ready by performing jumping jacks and running in place. My main pre-fight objective is to keep my heart rate up and allow my lungs to recover from my earlier warm-up pace."
STERNLICHT SAYS: "Cole is smart to concentrate on explosiveness rather than static stretching. The body's core temperature is basically 37 degrees Celsius at rest; most cellular functions are optimal between 39 and 41 degrees. You need to warm up two or three degrees to get your muscles as powerful and strong as possible, and to get your heart pumping effectively so that you get oxygen, nutrients and blood to those muscles. That's why doing rhythmic, full-body motions during a warm-up is so important."
PRE-FIGHT PREP: Known for performing celebratory cartwheels after a victory, Ivan Salaverry is as charismatic a fighter as you'll see in MMA.
Underneath the showmanship, Salaverry brings K-1-level kickboxing mixed with a vicious, submission-first brand of jiu-jitsu. You might expect his pre-fight preparations to be just as frenetic as his leave-it-all-in-the-cage histrionics, but you'd be wrong.
"When I enter a venue, I try to relax my muscles and my mind," he says. "I'll do some light stretching, but basically I try to take it easy. It can be hard sometimes when you see the other fighters amped up and you feel the excitement of the crowd, but you have to hamess yourself back from that."
Regardless of the backstage surroundings and circumstances, Salaverry knows when it's time to become active. "Three fights, maybe four fights before mine, I slowly start warming up. I'll do some jumping rope and stretching, then hit the Thai pads. I'll throw some light combinations, nothing hard, nothing banging. Then I'll do some grappling. I try to prepare for ground-and-pound, or maybe bettering a position. I go through a slow evolution to a very focused, straight-faced situation," he says.
STERNLICHT SAYS: "Typically, the shorter the event, the longer the warm-up. If you're going to fight three short rounds, your warm-up would be much longer than if you're going to fight 12 rounds. There is an intensity known as 'maximal steady state,' which is the highest intensity that you can maintain for a prolonged duration. Most athletes do some type of cardio work, and know that if they try and go above this pace, they're not going to be able to sustain that for very long. For elite athletes, it's close to all-out effort. Yet you need to do some of those all-out efforts interspersed with low- or lower-intensity sustained efforts during the warm-up."
PRE-FIGHT PREP: For the human body, there's no such thing as going from zero to 60 in seconds flat. That is, unless your name happens to be Travis Fulton, who is known throughout MMA circles as The Ironman due to his hectic fight schedule. A veteran of more than 200 professional MMA matches, Fulton has spent more time fighting in the ring than most people spend doing anything else than sleeping.
However, when it comes to a pre-fight regimen, Fulton doesn't actually have one. "Does playing the UFC video game count?" he cracks. Aside from a few unorthodox grappling drills, Fulton has never applied a single scientific approach to his pre-fight prep. "I understand all that stuff. I understand why guys do it. It's just never been necessary for me. I mean, I've had over 300 fights. When it comes to warming up, I know that I'm not normal," admits The Ironman.
STERNLICHT SAYS: "It's not recommended to go into a fight cold, although I believe Fulton does perform visualization, which is helpful. Visualization gives you what is known as a sympathetic discharge. When you start to think about [an imminent event], your body releases chemicals, your heart rate goes up, and you can actually start to sweat. So it seems he is setting up the neural network and the neural pathways for him to go out and do what he has to do. He's doing his warm-up mentally rather than physically. However a combination of the two would be optimal. He should really do both."
PRE-FIGHT PREP: Mark Hominick is capable of knocking you out with either hand, both feet and each knee. The Canadian has been known to prevent the takedown better than anybody not named Liddell. In accord with his no-nonsense persona, Hominick likes to arrive at the arena early and get down to business. "As soon as
I arrive, I do some light shadowboxing and feel the surface of the mat," he says. "It's about a 10- to 15-minute run-through."
Hominick starts working up a serious sweat 45 minutes prior to his fight. He begins with five minutes of static stretching, then gets his shadowboxing in. "Then I go to the pads and start banging them out real hard. From there, I do some wrestling drills and pummeling. I don't like to get too involved in the grappling. I work on takedown defense especially, because that's my game. I then go for 30 seconds on the pads real hard. Then I bounce in place a little and get back on them." Hominick doesn't count sets in his warm-up, but focuses on main- taming a steady heart rate. If he starts getting worn down, he'll lightly bounce for a few minutes.
"About five minutes before I get called, I'll put on the MMA gloves. Then there's the walk to the ring. Certain athletic commissions like for you to stay at your spot for the entire fight before yours. That makes if hard to gauge where you're at physically. For example, if it's before a five-round title fight, you may be [in your backstage spot] for as little as five minutes or as long as 25 minutes."
STERNLICHT SAYS: "If I were one of these athletes who had to stand in place for a while before a fight, I would bring a jump rope or do some shadowboxing or running in place to keep the blood from pooling and to help clear waste products."