At the Olympic Games, the decathlon champion is traditionally acknowledged as the premier athlete. With rare exceptions, these men are not the best in the world at any one discipline. They cannot outrun the best sprinters, outleap the best jumpers or throw further than the discus and shot put specialists. What distinguishes them is that they are outstanding in a wide range of events.
Decathletes are, by definition, amazing athletes. However there are other sportspeople who train just as hard, excel over a range of disciplines…and do so while trapped in a cage with another person who is trying to knock them out or break their limbs. Champions of the UFC (the peak mixed martial arts [MMA] competition) are not only entitled to recognition as the best fighters alive, but should probably be considered the best athletes on the planet as well.
The finest MMA fighters are highly proficient in striking with fists, knees, elbows and feet. They are exceptional freestyle wrestlers. They usually know some judo throws and Muay Thai clinching. They generally have a high level of Brazilian jiu jitsu (or other submission grappling) knowledge and skills.
This diversity of technical proficiency is remarkable in itself. However, the greats of the octagon combine this with exceptional physical attributes: speed, strength, flexibility, endurance, courage. Obviously, some individuals excel in one area or another.
Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez have incredible strength, Clay Guida has freakish endurance, Nick Diaz demonstrates the flexibility of a rubber-band. Even among the sport’s elite, some men stand out as physical prodigies. Melvin Guillard has superb strength, speed and conditioning. Rich Franklin, the world’s toughest maths teacher, works like a maniac in the gym. Randy Couture’s extreme fitness has allowed him to fight much larger men into his mid-40s. BJ Penn can stand in a swimming pool with water above his waist then explode with a jump and land on the pool deck.
Probably the greatest athlete in MMA is Georges St-Pierre, UFC welterweight champion. He routinely fights over the 25-minute championship distance, a brutal test of endurance. He can do some amazing things that illustrate his coordination and power (although it’s oddly pleasing to discover that there are some other things he can’t do).
GSP’s strength and conditioning coach Jonathan Chaimberg guides him through plyometrics, Olympic-style weightlifting and general gym work. “We’re all about anaerobics,” Chaimberg has said. “We’ll do sprinting, uphill runs, sled work. We’re working on making him more explosive. Since he’s training boxing, muay thai, wrestling, and jiu jitsu, he’s getting a lot of muscular endurance work so (in the gym) you focus more on power, speed, and strength.” Cross-training…and a lot of it…is the key to MMA fitness. Obviously triathletes also cross-train, but they place less emphasis on strength, flexibility or explosive power. A sprint-specialist roadrace bike rider like Mark Cavendish has enormous endurance plus explosive strength but limited flexibility.
Elite tennis player Rafael Nadal has extraordinary endurance and speed, but loses points in the strength category.
Top boxers have resilience, courage and great endurance…but they are not required to condition their entire bodies for varying types of assault from any angle. Nor do they have to acquire the suppleness required for a leg triangle submission or the strength to withstand an omoplata.
Many AFL players are stunning athletes, although in recent years there has been a trade-off between endurance (increased emphasis) and strength and muscle mass (decreased). While yoga sessions have become commonplace for Australian footballers, few if any work on their gymnastic-style flexibility like cage fighters.
Rugby league has a fair claim to being the toughest ball sport, but compare the frequency of collisions in NRL to the octagon. Also, like every team sport, participants get an opportunity to rest.
Not all UFC fighters are ripped and striated. Tim Sylvia and Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson carry significant body fat…but even they demonstrate strength, courage, power and enough endurance to win a lot more matches than they lose. Unsurpsingly, UFC president Dana White says, “These guys (MMA fighters) are, by far, the best-conditioned athletes in the world.”
by Buford Balony