MMA training pays off for non-fighters
In 2006, defensive end Jared Allen had a perfectly fine season for the Kansas City Chiefs: 65 tackles, 7.5 sacks. The former fourth-round pick out of Idaho State had become a very good defensive lineman, but not nearly a Pro Bowler.
Allen got to talking with Jay Glazer, the FOX Sports NFL insider and mixed martial arts fanatic and trainer. Perhaps, the two wondered, training in mixed martial arts in the offseason could improve Allen's performance on the gridiron. So they tried it. The offseason results were astounding. Allen added muscle and flexibility while shedding 25 pounds from his 6-foot-6 frame. He opened up his hips to improve mobility and got his hands flying to better avoid blockers and get to the quarterback.
When he came back for his contract year, Allen added eight sacks to his previous year's total, leading the NFL with 15.5. He made his first Pro Bowl, which he'd eventually do three years in a row, and he signed the then-largest contract in NFL history for a defensive lineman, getting $73 million over six years with the Minnesota Vikings.
"More than anything, it pushed his breaking point to a whole 'nother level," said Glazer, who later formed a company with UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, MMAthletics, that trains other pro athletes in MMA. "Come that fourth quarter, the guy across from you is dragging their tongue on the ground, and my guys are saying, 'This is nowhere near the crap that Glazer and Couture put me through.'"
As the UFC has exploded onto the sporting scene in recent years, becoming one of the first new sports in recent memory to gain a foothold in the American mainstream, athletes in other sports have taken notice. At its highest level, MMA fighters are in impeccable shape. They combine full-body strength and punching and kicking power with flexibility and stamina in a way no other sport does. Maybe, athletes in other professional sports wondered, there's something to the MMA training regimen.
After all, the basic motions of MMA fighting — punching and kicking — mimic the basic motions of many sports. Throwing a punch is a similar motion to swinging a baseball bat, throwing a ball, swinging a golf club: generate power from the lower body, rotate the hips, explode. Kicking simulates how receivers and cornerbacks make a cut. Double-leg takedowns simulate tackling. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis tried MMA training soon after Allen did, and he dropped two belt sizes, gaining muscle and power without losing any weight.
"I fell in love with it," DeMarco Murray, who trained in MMA before the Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the third round this year, said in a recent video for MMAthletics. "From what I feel you get an even better workout, working a lot of muscles I've never worked before in my eight or 10 years playing football. I just got better in such a little time."
As a running back, Murray's MMA training regimen was different than Allen's. The focus was on fighting maneuvers that would help him drive forward, explode through the line, add extra power in his hips and keep his knees up.
The MMA training regimen has found in-roads in other professional sports. Glazer's company has worked with professional baseball, hockey and lacrosse athletes, training more than 60 players in all. But in no sport has offseason MMA training taken off quite as it has in the NFL. The big names who've trained in MMA techniques in recent years is almost a who's who among the NFL elite: Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, Houston Texans Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Cushing, Texans backup quarterback and former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, Packers running back Ryan Grant, Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller, longtime fullback Lorenzo Neal, even 49ers Pro Bowl kicker David Akers. In 2010, the Atlanta Falcons became the first NFL team to sponsor offseason MMA training for the entire team. Glazer said he'd worked out MMA training deals with five other teams for the most recent offseason, but the lockout precluded that.
The professional athletes don't get punched in their MMA training. They know they have to protect their bodies for the football season. Instead, there's a ton of wrestling, lots of leg and hip work, lots of work to help with leverage, all practicing those practical, body-on-body strengths. Where lifting weights can make an athlete's muscles stronger, yet tighter, MMA is the rare exercise that makes you stronger and looser.
The match between the NFL and MMA training seems made in heaven. They're two of the world's most violent sports, but the gladiators in each must do battle in a measured, focused way.
The key, though, is getting these athletes to think like a fighter. It can be easy, after making a mistake in the NFL, to take a few plays off, take a quarter off. But if an MMA fighter sulks after making a mistake, they're going to get socked in the face again the next moment.
"I get my guys to be more violent than anyone else," Glazer said of his MMA trainees in the NFL. "I take these dudes to a dark place, and football becomes much easier. It's a violent atmosphere, a very, very intense atmosphere. An hour in, you're dying — man, you're dying 10 minutes in. It's an hour-15 of the most brutal workout you've ever had in your life."
All of which has added up to MMA trainees like Jared Allen or Clay Matthews or Patrick Willis becoming among the most feared players in the NFL.
"Every single day I'll find a guy's breaking point and move it, push it and push it and push it," Glazer said. "Our whole thing is you own your space. You break that guy's will across from you. I want every one of these guy to think, when this cage door's shut, you gotta get that guy across from you to tap out."
You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.