In the first decades after the UFC debuted in the United States, martial arts training went through a unprecedented boom as gyms started popping up all over the world to train fighters for the new sport and to cash in on the new wave of students drawn to training in MMA to get in shape. Instead of the tightly controlled secrecy of the old system in the new one, the effectiveness of the technical innovations made by fighters and their trainers were proven in the unforgiving crucible of the ring. The mechanics of fighting leapt ahead exponentially as different styles experimented with the best ways to counteract the strengths and weakness of others. First, it was BJJ then wrestling, then strikers developing takedown defense, then Muay Thai developing as a reaction to grapplers, Greco roman dealing with Muay Thai- etc. on and on. A new uber martial art developed by taking what worked best from each discipline and ruthlessly discarding everything else, in an open sourced messy renaissance. In my work I would travel to many of the prominent gyms in the sport where these advances were being made and it was in these places that I saw the real heart of mixed martial arts.
The first professional gym I visited was Team Quest in Meticula California. When I walked through the door the sound of a huge man hitting an enormous tire with a 20-pound sledgehammer thumped heavily through the air, accompanied by a cacophony of grunts, shouts, and exhalations emitting from a room full of fighters going about their workouts.
Where did they find a tire that big? I wondered.
The gym was filled with punching bags, a boxing ring, plyometric steps, free weights and a more exotic array of equipment: the mammoth tire which I later learned weighs 400 pounds, a long climbing rope hanging from the high ceiling, kettle bells and a collection of mysterious-looking blue metal bars. There was also Red Man, the long-suffering 130-pound practice dummy the team used for developing throws and slams.
The conditioning coach, Dr. Ryan Parson, stood to one side of the gym floor, giving instructions to his fighters in a steady, monotone voice, relentless and commanding.
“Hit the tire,” he told the huge man. “Climb the rope,” he ordered another fighter who then shimmied straight up to the ceiling. “Pick Red Man up and slam him on his head… and again.” Red Man, it seemed, had a tough life. “Don’t rest, don’t rest,” Dr. Parsons said if anyone started to lag. “Go to the pull-up bar, go, go, go!”
“By calling out the exercises,” he explained to me later, “It teaches guys to listen and builds rapport between an athlete and his coach. In a fight anything can happen so a fighter has to be able to listen to his corner.”
The team ran through four or five drills that focused on ground technique. They paired up and practiced how to clinch an opponent, how to take him down, how to pass his guard, and how to maintain a dominant position. They did escape drills and, even though the founders of Team Quest came from a wrestling background, a lot of what they were practicing was Jiu-Jitsu.
Dan Henderson, one of the original founders of Team Quest, took the drill a little farther than the rest, escaping to a standing position before resuming his position on the ground and beginning again. Henderson is an MMA legend and, along with his friends Randy Couture and Matt Lindland, was the first to really adapt Greco-Roman Wrestling for mixed martial arts. His teeth were knocked out years ago courtesy of a head butt during training and when he was on the mats he kept his false ones in his office beside his two world title belts.
After the technique drills were done, they all started to spar. The fighters worked six five-minute rounds, switching partners at the end of each round with no rest in between. The sparring became more realistic and intense as the rounds progressed. They began with takedowns and defense at about three-quarter speed in the first round. By the sixth round, they were punching, kicking, and slamming each other around, doing everything they would in a real fight. The ordeal was designed to require the maximum effort by the athletes at the finale and to simulate the late round push that is often the difference between victory and defeat. Once I saw Henderson miss a step and collapsed to the floor with a thud, his legs shaking from the exertion. He stayed on the floor for a few seconds before he leapt up and was at his final sparring partner’s throat. Of all the fighters in the room, the only one who never looked tired was Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
Miller had the sort of dangerous charisma sometimes found in people who are half-crazy. Thoughts raced through his mind faster than his mouth could download them. Within twenty minutes of first meeting him, he was pitching me a column, authored by him, for the magazine. He produced writing samples from behind the welcome desk he kept for just such an occasion. Then he told me in his rapid-fire, meandering, stream-of-consciousness way, how he discovered his calling in life as result of a backyard scuffle with a friend.
“One day my friend shows me this tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship,” Miller said. “After I saw it I was like ‘man I can beat all of those guys up,’ not realizing that there is a lot more to it than being able to take a punch and punch a guy back. Well one day he asks me to spar and I say, ‘against little you?’ So we go in the backyard and he kicks me in the stomach. I take him down and before I know it he has choked me unconscious with a triangle choke. I didn’t even know what it was. When I woke up I told him, ‘Man that was awesome! I have to learn that.’”
From there Miller went on the road, traveling wherever he needed to get the best training. When I first met him at Team Quest he’d amassed a solid record with his no frills, dogged fighting style. He was Henderson’s most frequent sparring partner and the word was that he was nearly impossible to submit.
A Silver Medalist in Greco-Roman Wrestling in the 1992 Olympics Dan Henderson smiled a wide, toothless smile and leaned against the wall. I commented on how well conditioned all the athletes at Team Quest were. He explained that the concentration on conditioning comes from the team’s wrestling background and noted that MMA was less arduous than the competitive wrestling he used to compete in.
“Today I may fight three times a year. When I wrestled it was maybe ten or twelve tournaments a year with five matches a tournament. So our wrestling background has built mental toughness. I mean, you fight the way you train, and we don’t quit when we train or when we fight.”
It was one of the big advantages wrestlers like he, Lindland and Couture had when they first started breaking into the sport. He mentioned that he thought he could beat Fedor Emelianenko a man considered at the time unbeatable. Fedor had just defeated Dan’s old training partner Matt Lindland in less than 2 minutes and outweighed Henderson by 50 pounds. I thought Dan was deluded, the way all good fighters are, but I remember he said it without a hint of bravado, just one predator sizing up another.
After Dan left the gym I saw Parsons. “Hey Doc, can I try some of the exercises I saw you guys do at the beginning of class? “ I asked, making a spur of the moment decision.
“ Sure,” he said “come back tomorrow at 11:00.”
“Why did I do that,” I wondered.
“ Are you ready?” Dr. Parsons asked me the next day. He’d had me come at 11:00 because we’d have the gym to ourselves and I wouldn’t hold things up. He was going to run me through two 5-minute sets and I was supposed to keep the intensity up throughout. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” I told him.
“Pick up the hammer and hit that tire,” he said,
“Is there some technique to it?”
“Yes, there is, you pick the hammer up swing it over your head and hit the tire.”
“I see,” and so it began.
“Keep hitting. Breathe. You’re doing well,” he said looking at his stopwatch.
This isn’t as hard as it looks, I thought.
“Start doing push-ups.” Still not so bad.
“Climb the rope, touch the bar at the top, and come back down.” I made it all the way up but I burned my hands sliding back down too fast.
“Run down there and jump up and down on the box,” he said, referring to the plyometric step. I started to wonder how much time was left.
“Go do pull-ups” I was now officially gassed and embarrassed by the fact that I could only do a couple of pull-ups without relying on the nearby wall for help.
“Pick up the medicine ball and slam it down as hard as you can.” Hard but easier than the pull-ups. “Sprint down there and slam Red Man.”
“How?” I gasped, thinking he would give me some secret leverage trick that will make the task easier.
“It doesn’t matter, just do it. Pick him up and throw him on the ground.” Technique was not the point, physical exertion was.
“Again, slam him until I tell you to stop,” his instructions came in the same constant cadence I remembered from the day before.
“Do wind sprints to that wall and back. Keep going.” This sucked.
“Now jump up on the ring and down.” Parsons expected me to be able to jump from the floor to the apron of the boxing ring, but I had to use my hands for an extra boost at the last second.
“Now take this medicine ball and do squat jumps to the wall and back.”
“Now throw the ball and hit the X on the wall,” He said pointing to a blue X high up on the wall by the pull-up bars and climbing rope.
“Do it and catch it on the way down, and do it until I tell you to stop,” he said matter-of-factly.
Eventually, he told me that five minutes had elapsed and I could stop. My arms were on fire, I was out of breath, and my head was spinning, but I hadn’t had a heart attack and I hadn’t thrown up so I was thankful for small mercies! That wasn’t so bad, I convinced myself.
“Rest a little and we’ll do the second one,” he told me.
Ouch! In my momentary hubris I’d forgotten that I am supposed to do two circuits.
After a charitably long rest, I embarked on a second 5-minute circuit. Identical but much harder to get through. On my third swing at the tire a wave of sudden exhaustion hit me all at once. I now understood what Dr. Parsons meant when he emphasized the importance of barking out each step of the drill. At a certain point you become so fatigued that you simply don’t have enough energy to deploy to both conscious mind and your body at the same time. Whatever mental dialogue you have ceases and the voice of the coach is like a rope, pulling you along as your body performs what it is instructed to do. Even though I felt like quitting 20 seconds into the second set, I didn’t. Instead I grunted, gasped, and groaned my way through the second circuit. I attribute this to the fact that the fear of shame is a powerful motivator and I will also mention that, while my shit list is not very long, Red Man is on it.
Later in the day I was feeling good about making it through Parson’s workout so when I saw Henderson, on the edge of the ring watching two fighters spar, I mentioned that I’d done a circuit.
“ Did you climb the rope?” he asked skeptically, still watching the guys in the ring.
“ I did.”
“ Did you throw Red Man?”
“ Did you flip the tire?”
“ Uh, no,” You’re supposed to flip that giant thing over? Hitting it with the hammer was hard enough. Had Parsons not asked me to because he thought it would be too difficult?
Henderson turned to look at me. “Ehhh,” he said with a “so what” shrug and turned back to watching the sparring in the ring.
I was leaving the next day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the tire. My mood fluctuated between steely determination to try to flip the thing and visceral dread of the embarrassment if I failed.
“I have to see if I can turn that thing over,” I told Parsons when I came back later in the afternoon, pointing to the tire.
“You want to try to flip the tire, huh?” he smiled, “let’s do it.” Miller, the team striking coach Shawn Tompkins, and a handful of others stopped what they were doing to watch me. I slipped off my shoes and slowly approach the tire across the mat, sizing it up. I’ve never flipped an object even remotely as heavy as the tire so I had no frame reference for how hard it would be. As I got closer it looked more and more immovable. I knelt down and gripped it underhanded and heaved for all that I’m worth and the tire came up about six inches.
“ Get under it,” Miller said, “change your grip and use your legs. Push it more than lift.” It was a good tip and after some straining and grunting the tire slowly lurched up and over, crashing satisfyingly to the floor.
As the tire hit the ground Miller started jumping around, whooping and hollering like a lunatic. “That’s what I’m talking about! Editor-in-CHIEF, bitches!” he cheered and I got about 30 seconds of “good jobs” from the rest of the guys watching. A wave of relief washed over me that my little stunt had worked in my favor and Miller and I became friends from that point on.
The next day when it was time for me to go I dropped by on the way to the airport to tell the team goodbye. I noticed a rack of Team Quest merchandise. There were T-shirts and various types of fight gear and equipment. I pondered a rack of baby hoodies bearing the logo of this fearsome fighting club and the maxim Pain is merely weakness leaving the body.
As I made my round of goodbyes, there was a kickboxing class being run by Tompkins finishing up. Several young women were in the class, their faces contorted into grim and bellicose expressions as they concentrated on their punches and kicks.
When the class ended and they began to file out, these women, who moments before seemed so intense and violent changed back into themselves; into the people they were outside of the gym. They sounded like little birds chirping as their goodbyes bubbled through the air in the cheery strains of Southern California.