“Sport is 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical. Yet we spend 90 percent of our time training the physical aspect,” echoed the words of UFC Hall of Famer and MMA legend, Randy “The Natural” Couture from Steven J. Wong’s 2010 documentary, “The Striking Truth.”
MMA is a year-round job for those who train it in full-time. The average training camp lasts between eight to 10 weeks, six days a week and two to three times a day. For those competing at the highest level, the UFC, training has to be full-time or close to it to succeed as the fighter isn’t just training his martial arts skills but conditioning his body to stay in top shape.
Fighting in a cage or a ring and using a variety of martial arts from wrestling to Brazilian jiu-jitsu to boxing and Muay Thai, the MMA fighter engages in a high-intensity full body workout between seconds and 25 minutes. They have to give and absorb serious damage to their physical bodies so much so that it has become a norm in MMA for fighters to compete while having a form of injury. As the saying goes, “everyone fights injured.”
Between the training camps to the violent nature of the fights, MMA fighters exhaust their bodies for nearly the whole year. This type of lifestyle can take a serious toll on the mind. Repeated blows to the head or “fight exposure” as studied by a Cleveland clinic and collected by the Professional Fighters Brain Health Study were linked to slower brain processing power and are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (otherwise known as dementia pugilistica or in layman’s terms: “punch-drunk”).
Fighters who suffer from traumatic brain injuries like concussions are immediately flagged, as was the case with Joseph Duffy most recently for UFC Fight Night 76 in Dublin, Ireland. But those are cases where the damage is noticeable. In most cases, fighters take a pounding, “tough it out” and go right back into action paying little attention to potential symptoms of brain injury.
Resting or taking time off is an undervalued but very crucial aspect of combat sports. Not only does rest help fighters heal their bodies, but their brains as well. The time off may also help the fighters recover from being “burnt out” from the constant grind of training — the same burn out that likely led to two young UFC fighters in Frankie Perez and Jordan Mein to retire within the same week.
Former UFC light heavyweight champion, Jon Jones was just recently reinstated from his five-month suspension and his manager Malki Kawa has commented on his reinvigorated desire to train again. Former UFC welterweight champion, Georges St-Pierre retired from the sport two years ago after being burnt out but confirmed a desire to fight again. Frank Mir went on a four-fight skid but took a year off to rest and do yoga and came back successfully almost like a new fighter. Yet their cases are special and they represent the small fraction of truly elite MMA fighters who have made a lucrative living off of their sport.
However, in the case of the majority, time off simply is not an option. The cause is simple but understandable: They cannot afford to take time off.
MMA fighter pay has long been a sensitive issue within the MMA community. The debuting UFC fighter makes a disclosed $10,000 “to show” and $10,000 “to win” money and fights an average of two times a year. Assuming the fighter wins at least 50 percent of his fights (to keep his UFC job) he or she will make between $20,000 to $40,000, which is coming from the world’s top shelf MMA organization. Put it into perspective, the minimum pay of a WNBA player is reportedly $38,000, according to Iaian Kidd. Considering the training camps and recovery from injury, this isn’t just money per fight but for the whole year.
Plenty of fighters are young and have families. Most noticeable is the case of rising MMA talents like Aljamain Sterling and Will Brooks: two young elite fighters competing for the two largest MMA organizations in the U.S., UFC and Bellator, respectively. Sterling bemoaned not too long ago about putting his UFC career on hold to pursue studying due to the lack of pay. Brooks lamented on The MMA Hour a few months ago about his fight with Marcin Held being pushed back to November due to monetary issues.
Even UFC fighters like Eddie Wineland, Shane Carwin and Stipe Miocic had a need to hold down positions outside MMA. John Cholish, who was also a former UFC fighter, outlined in this article the costs of training for a UFC fight far outweighed what the company paid him. Cholish had to pay for his training camp, pre-fight medicals, travel expenses, international taxes and additional expenses such as additional medical costs and what he had to pay his coaches.
With the highly unpopular Reebok sponsorship deal taking money away from fighters, the issue on fighter pay becomes exacerbated and the reality of taking healthy amounts of rest between fights and training camp seems less and less likely.
For the aspiring MMA fighter looking to burst into the rankings or make a name for themselves, fighting more frequently and dangerously seems like the case especially given the short timespan in an MMA fighter’s career.
“You have a window of opportunity that’s about this big, if you’re lucky,” Dana White said in 2013 (h/t BloodyElbow). “If you’re talented enough, and you get in there and you do as many amazing things as you can in front of as many people as you can and make as much money as you can … who on this planet doesn’t understand that?”
Guys like Diego Sanchez and Mark Hunt made names for themselves with their longevity and involvement in dozens of grueling slugfests and are now being rewarded for them. That isn’t the case for most other fighters however.
St-Pierre in the same documentary above mentioned that most MMA fighters won’t make money out of the sport unless they dedicated themselves to being the best of the best. But even if the work ethic and talent is there, MMA progressively becomes more competitive and the reality is for the majority of fighters, a future as a lucrative MMA champion is just not likely.
But do not tell that to them. Do not dare say to an MMA fighter that they should give up their career to preserve their long-term brain health or because the financial return does not justify this type of damage to the body. They’re in this for the passion. And this is likely a contributing reason why most won’t take time off outside needing to build their resume as quickly as possible.
Time off is a luxury that is simply not an option for many aspiring MMA fighters. The window of opportunity for MMA fighters is a relatively short one and building a resume with constant fighting is the reality as much as compensation not matching the training and physical damage the fighters compile throughout. Enjoy MMA as much and as responsibly as you can for so many fighters put their bodies and long-term brain health on the line for this sport to continue.