“As real as it gets.” Often used as the tag line for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, it refers to the fact that the event’s bouts are as close to a real fight as the law and the fighters’ safety permit. The catchphrase also refers to Spike TV’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter.
In this classic interview, former UFC champ Randy Couture talks about what it takes to mold someone into a MMA fighter.
Black Belt: How do you start training someone who wants to be an MMA fighter?
Randy Couture: The first thing you need to find out is if he has a background in wrestling or judo or some other combative sport. You can play off that and develop other skills. The person’s basic fitness level is also important. You have to teach the kind of fitness needed for MMA competition through cardiovascular training, anaerobic training and inner-strength training.
Black Belt: What kind of athletic background besides combat sports would be an advantage? Football, sprinting, long-distance running?
Randy Couture: All those sports bring a particular foundation, at least at a fitness level, that you can play off, but I’m not sure any of them offers a distinct advantage in MMA. However, it’s important that the person has competed in something and has a competitive spirit.
Black Belt: Is competitive spirit something a person either has or doesn’t have? Or can it be taught?
Randy Couture: You can certainly test it. There are so many innate qualities that a person either has or doesn’t have, but you can still educate him, push him and see how far he can go. And you can constantly push that wall back until he can go further and further. Most people can go a lot further than they think.
Black Belt: Once you evaluate the person and learn about his background, where do you go from there?
Randy Couture: Being at the top level in this sport, I’ve developed some tools and techniques for conditioning a fighter’s body the way it needs to be conditioned and for developing the skill sets he needs to be well-rounded. So the next step is to set a training regimen that builds conditioning through sprinting, running, biking, weightlifting and circuit training. It also includes time on the mat, light sparring, mitt work, ground training and wrestling. The goal is to develop skills and tools he can rely on when he needs to.
Black Belt: Do you agree with those martial artists who insist you can get all the strength and endurance you need from doing your art, as long as you do it enough?
Randy Couture: To some extent that can be true. There are plenty of examples of people who don’t do any of that extra stuff. But when you get to the higher levels and want be the top dog, you have to do the extra stuff that will distinguish you from the others. You have to do those extras like increasing your foot speed and improving your dynamic, explosive power.
Black Belt: What comes next for the budding MMA fighter?
Randy Couture: Light sparring and putting him in different situations. You have to ensure he has an open mind and checks his ego at the door. He has to believe that he’s always going to learn something, and he has to put himself out there. He has to risk being tapped out, risk losing-not only in training but also in fights that will challenge him.
Black Belt: Say you’re training a grappler who’s got some decent skills. Do you try to perfect his grappling techniques, or do you focus on striking because it’s his weakness?
Randy Couture: I would spend more time-and this is the perspective I have as a wrestler who’d never been in a striking sport-on striking. Weaknesses have to be made into strengths. But the second you neglect one area of his training, somebody will point it out to him in competition. With a grappler, I would spend a lot of time on his hands and his ability to stop takedowns.
Black Belt: For the grappling portion of his training, which arts would you draw from?
Randy Couture: Certainly wrestling and jujutsu would be big components. I’ve also learned some things from judo players that I’ve found applicable. Wrestling is great because of the mat sense and intensity it brings, as well as the ability to take opponents down and control them from the top position. Jujutsu will teach him how to be on the bottom, how to fight on his butt and back, and how to find ways to not only submit his opponent but also to sweep and change positions. I would couple that with Greco-Roman wrestling, especially the clinch position, because in mixed martial arts, a fighter’s posture is so much more upright than in most grappling sports. It applies very well for infighting and being able to take an opponent down while controlling him.
Black Belt: What about for striking?
Randy Couture: Western boxing and kickboxing are the most effective striking arts for this combative sport.
Black Belt: Why not Thai boxing?
Randy Couture: I think Thai boxing fits with what Greco-Roman and clinch fighting do best: infighting. The elbows and knees are very effective tools at close range.
Black Belt: What are the essential skills and martial arts techniques you would cover?
Randy Couture: The fighter needs good balance and footwork. He has to be able to defend himself, use his hands and elbows to cover his head, parry punches, and slip punches, kicks and knees. He also needs to be able to throw a proper punch and execute good combinations of kicks and knees. From there, he should move into clinch range, where he works inside control, neck wrestling, trapping and ways to not only strike but also take his opponent off his feet. He has to meld wrestling with striking, especially from the open position. He can’t just go out with the intention of setting up his opponent and taking him down. It’s too obvious to work, too easy to counter.
Black Belt: Is that because fighters these days are too smart to fall into the traps that might have worked during the early days of the UFC?
Randy Couture: Yeah. Everybody’s cross-training, learning wrestling skills, learning to counter takedowns. A fighter’s got to be prepared and understand that his opponent is going to know what’s coming. And then he’s got to work at being adept on the ground-whether he’s on the top or bottom. He’s got to be able to scramble, sweep and get back to a neutral position-and find in those transitions opportunities to submit his opponent. Or if he gets his opponent down, he’s got to be able to keep him at a disadvantage so he can chip away at him.
Black Belt: Would you also teach him how to use the environment—the fence and the mats—of the octagon?
Randy Couture: There are definitely tactics for fighting in a ring and a cage. There are things he has to watch out for and things he can take advantage of.
Black Belt: How do you approach strategy? Is there one you always teach, or are there four or five ways you would introduce?
Randy Couture: It varies from opponent to opponent. Obviously it’s more difficult training younger fighters because you don’t have a lot of experience with them and their capabilities, and you generally don’t know much about their opponents. But as a fighter moves into the higher ranks, you get the opportunity to see a lot of tape of his opponents. You notice their tendencies and how their strengths and weaknesses will match up with your fighter’s strengths and weaknesses, then you figure out ways to win. They have to be willing to break themselves down and be honest about [their abilities]-and then go to the gym and do what it takes to execute that game plan.
Black Belt: Did you encounter any special challenges while filming The Ultimate Fighter?
Randy Couture: There were a lot of challenges for the athletes that created some challenges for me. Guys came in with different levels of conditioning. Some were really prepared and ready to go, and others had no idea what they were getting themselves into and consequently suffered physically, which made it difficult for me to push them. Some guys had better skill sets in some areas versus others. If I tried to focus on their weaknesses without singling out individuals, I couldn’t spend the proper amount of time with others who didn’t need that extra training. In general, I put them through a peaking phase as if, at the end of this, they were going to have a big fight. I tried to get them physically in the same kind of shape I get in for a fight.
Black Belt: What have I left out?
Randy Couture: The biggest piece that guys miss is the mental skill it takes not only to get through a training camp, but also to deal with the adversity of competition. They have to deal with the negative self-talk, and the jitters and the pressures of going out and performing in front of a bunch of people. They have to relax enough to do what they’re trained to do.
Black Belt: At the beginning of the UFC, it seemed like it was average guy against average guy, art against art. But now it’s Superman against Superman, and everybody knows every relevant art. Seeing how much the whole sport has progressed, are you limited with respect to how good you can make an average person who might weigh 170 pounds and have done 10 years of karate?
Randy Couture: It depends on the individual. We’re all blessed with certain gifts and abilities, and that average guy has those things, too. Maybe he just hasn’t tapped into them yet, and for some people, it’s going to take longer than others. There are so many variables that play into making a good fighter; mind-set is probably the most important. What does he think his limitations are? Is he willing to do the work to get where he wants to go? It’s almost more important than any physical gift he has.
Black Belt: What’s the optimal age to attend a training camp like the one shown in The Ultimate Fighter? If you’re a champ when you’re 40, that’s one thing. But if you start when you’re 40, that might be totally different.
Randy Couture: Again, it depends on your background: What did you do in that 40 years? I’m 41, but I’ve spent my entire life since I was 10 competing in sports. To take a 40-year-old guy who’s never competed in anything and get him up to speed physically and mentally for this combative sport is a big challenge, but it could be done. Will he be a world champion in a year? Probably not. Will he be able to compete within a year? He probably could.
Black Belt: What advice would you give to people who will read this article and aspire to compete in the UFC?
Randy Couture: The environment is a huge factor, so they should find a place where they’re comfortable and where they’re going to be exposed to all the pieces of the mixed-martial arts fight game. They should find a group of guys they can trust, guys who are going to teach them things and help them progress as a person and a fighter. You’re only as good as your workout partners.
Black Belt: What about advice for people who aren’t quite ready to move into a training camp? What about that 16-year-old in Kansas who thinks, “When I’m 20, I really want to be a fighter; but now I’m living at home and training three days a week”?
Randy Couture: It’s not too early at 16; he still has to find that right place, and hopefully it’ll be fairly close to home. It’ll be a little more accessible when he turns 18 because he can go his own way. If he has a wrestling program in his school, that’s a good place to start because it’s an organized sport, and most programs are pretty good at developing at least one piece of the game.
Black Belt: What about other options like going to the YMCA and doing boxing two days a week? Or lifting weights at home?
Randy Couture: Those are all pieces of the puzzle. If all he can work on where he’s at now is striking, then he should go to town on that and look for a different situation to add the other skills down the road.