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Falcons are first NFL team to embrace MMA training

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga.

He wanted to puke.

This usually happens when NFL players begin mixed martial arts training.

But Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Curtis Lofton kept down his protein shake while waddling back and forth with an 80-pound punching bag. An exhausted Lofton finished the exercise by slamming down the bag and striking it with such force that the insides came out the top.

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In a few months, the Atlanta Falcons will try to beat the stuffing out of their opponents. And it’s core-strengthening, resolve-testing drills like the ones Lofton and his teammates are doing that will help those efforts.

The Falcons have become the NFL’s first franchise to begin a team-sponsored MMA program for its players. The sessions are run by MMAthletics, a company formed by FOX Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer and Ultimate Fighting Championship star Randy Couture. A dozen Falcons players have volunteered for the innovative training done in conjunction with Atlanta’s traditional offseason workouts. Another four-to-eight players are expected to join.

“We’re always looking for new and progressive ideas as far as training and offering our team supplements to the athletic performance model we have in place here,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told FOXSports.com. “This was something we were comfortable with as far as conditioning but even more importantly the idea of having MMA help the players with their leverage, hand quickness, and things that could help them within the trenches taking on blocks and battling inside.”

Unlike with their UFC brethren, there isn’t sparring during these hour-long workouts. But the physical and mental stress endured makes Falcons players feel as if they’ve just gone five rounds with Georges St-Pierre.

“You get some great conditioning out of it,” Lofton said after Wednesday’s workout inside the Falcons field house. “Plus, there’s a lot of carryover to what we do on the field. We do some Muay Thai (for core-muscle and hip development), wrestling, working on our hands and getting guys off you. We work on body leverage, too, which is important. Whoever is the lowest man controls the other man.

“It’s really intense. This is our second workout for the day. Some of this is just pushing it to do whatever else you’ve got to do to get better.”

Glazer said that “fighter mentality” is what MMAthletics tries to instill in NFL participants.

“If you hit me once, I’m gonna hit you back five times,” said Glazer, a long-time MMA practitioner. “When the cage door shuts, your job is to break the will of the man across from you. It’s the same with football. When the game starts, essentially that cage door shuts. It’s your responsibility not to lose. We find what a player’s breaking point is and re-establish it every few days. By the end, football has become easy.

“I’m training (Houston Texans linebacker) Brian Cushing in Los Angeles. When he went back to the Texans’ OTA practices, he called and said he couldn’t believe how easy it was. He was the only guy not huffing and puffing.”

Glazer’s involvement with Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen helped lead to the formation of MMAthletics. Allen cited the progress he made working with Glazer at Arizona Combat Sports as a major reason for his breakout season of 2007 in which he went from 7½ sacks to a league-leading 15½. Allen even hired another of Glazer’s fighter friends (Alex Karalexis) to continue in-season training. San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis and Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart also rave about time spent with Glazer in 2009.

Glazer began receiving so many individual player requests that he partnered with Couture, who runs his own MMA training facility (Xtreme Couture) in Las Vegas. The duo then expanded their training program to mesh with other sports. MMAthletics has partnered with a professional lacrosse team (Edmonton Rush) and is receiving inquiries from the NHL and Major League Baseball.

“The training program takes many of the same drills and techniques we use as fighters,” Couture said. “Jay and I tweaked them to become sport- and position-specific, especially the wrestling.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith became sold on the idea in February when meeting with Glazer and Couture at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

“There’s a lot of carry-over to football with some of the disciplines they were talking about -- wrestling, leverage (drills) and martial arts with the kicks to open up hip flexibility,” said Smith, who has a weight-training background from his younger days working under Nautilus founder Arthur Jones. “That sparked my interest. I felt if guys were going to go out and do this on their own, why not bring this service into our team and make it available for the guys?

“I’m very impressed with what’s happened the first two weeks. I think the players are really enjoying it. It’s just another part of their repertoire of things they can do to prepare themselves for a long 16-game season.”

Glazer flew to Atlanta 1½ weeks ago to run the first two sessions before handing the reins to renowned MMA fighter Frank Trigg.

“When you’re an athlete on the field, you need to be able to stretch,” Trigg said. “We do a lot of Muay Thai to get guys to open their hips and be more athletic and explosive. A lot of people talk about how they need a half-second off their (40-yard dash) time. We’re talking here about 1/100 of a second. That’s the difference in opening a hole so a running back can get through it or closing the hole and stopping the back from coming through. It’s the difference between a 25-yard gain and a five-yard loss.”

Couture is set to visit next week. Besides getting hands-on work with the most storied fighter in UFC history, Couture also will try to make Falcons players psychologically tougher.

“When you’re in that cage and you break someone’s will, you can actually hear it,” said the 47-year-old Couture, who recently signed a multi-year UFC contract extension. “It sounds like a twig breaking. We’re trying to get our guys to have that same mentality when they go into a game -- impose their will and try to break the will of the players they’re facing.”

Glazer left a positive impression during his training time with the Falcons.

“He definitely has a passion for it,” Lofton said of Glazer. “You can tell he loves training. You could tell he got a kick out of kicking all our butts. He may be a little guy, but he still kicked our butts.”

Getting an NFL team to buy into MMA training wouldn’t have been possible 14 years ago when the genre was branded “human cockfighting” by Arizona senator John McCain. But tighter rules and regulations have helped the sport gradually gain mainstream acceptance.

“MMA for a lot of people has an element of being barbaric,” Dimitroff said. “It’s not 100 percent ‘lose your mind’ and do whatever you can to get that person down. These are calculated moves and assessments as far as approaching and defeating the individual in front of you.”

The Falcons will train with MMA Athletics into May and possibly beyond. Glazer said another NFL team he refused to name will begin workouts in May.

Asked about the perception of a journalistic conflict-of-interest, Glazer said, “I think people understand I have two careers. I have a love for MMA, I used to fight and now I teach. My NFL job is about getting information and building relationships. Doing this is only going to help so I can continue to give fans scoops and inside information faster.

“Some of the people who say there is a conflict have written books with players and made six-figure sums shacking up with that player and his family for a little while. There’s no difference in that than what I’m doing.”

While the MMA Athletics sessions don’t guarantee a winning season, there already is a difference in the 2010 Falcons. The training has promoted close bonding as players work in groups of four and encourage each other to complete drills that leave them huffing and puffing.

“You’ve got to work together,” Lofton said. “You form relationships off the field. When you get on the field, you’re going to trust each other. It’s going to make us a better team.”

And potentially one that nobody wants to face.

“We try to make guys more violent,” Glazer said. “By the end of game, we want whoever is playing our guys to not want to shake their hand. We want people to say, ‘Going against these guys really sucks.’”
Tagged: Falcons, Vikings, Texans, Curtis Lofton

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