30 April 2015

PINNACLE PERFORMANCE: ARE MMA FIGHTERS THE ULTIMATE ATHLETES?

Daniel Gallan

If you could amalgamate different elements from different sports to create the perfect athlete, what would you take? The endurance of a marathon runner, the agility of a gymnast, the speed of a sprinter, the dexterity of a basketball player; each sport has its own unique skill sets and requirements. In our latest interview, Richard Quan, owner and trainer at Fighting Fit Militia in Johannesburg explains to us why he thinks mixed martial artists are as close to the perfect athlete as we are ever going to get. 

 EFC Bantamweight champion Demarte "The Wolf" Pena launches a left knee against Francois Groeneweld at EFC 34 at the Big Top Arena, Carnival City, Johannesburg.  Image by  Anton Geyser .

EFC Bantamweight champion Demarte "The Wolf" Pena launches a left knee against Francois Groeneweld at EFC 34 at the Big Top Arena, Carnival City, Johannesburg. Image by Anton Geyser.

On May 2, Floyd “Money” Mayweather and Manny “Pac Man” Pacquiao will finally touch gloves in what has been billed the “fight of the century”. Millions around the world will be glued to their TVs, some paying between US $90 and US $100 on pay-per-view. Tickets for the fight at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas start at a staggering $3 749 and reach over $117 000 at ringside.

In a 60-40 split, the American with the diamond dusted, gold flaked, $100 dollar bill embedded, $25 000 mouthguard will earn over $180 million for the fight while the Filipino congressmanand family man will take home at least $120 million. These are astronomical figures and must certainly mean that these are the two greatest fighters and athletes on the planet.

Not according to UFC star “The Notorious” Connor McGregor. The Irishman is known equally for his bravado and pedigree in and out of the octagon and stated that it would take him less than thirty seconds to “wrap around him (Mayweather) like a boa constrictor and strangle him.” He added, “I don’t look at a man who’s an expert in one area as a specialist. I look at him as a rookie in ten other areas.”

In a straight up boxing match, Mayweather would surely win, but it’s hard to argue with McGregor when he says his all-round skill would simply be too much for the undefeated champion. Kicks, take-downs, submission holds, elbows, knees; these are all attacks that Mayweather and every other boxer has never had to deal with. Does this mean that mixed martial artists are the most complete fighters on the planet? According to trainer Richard Quan from Fighting Fit Militia in Sunninghill, Johannesburg, MMA fighters are undoubtedly at the pinnacle of human performance. 

“An athlete is not about being able to do one task. When it comes to the peak of human performance - the human body, MMA fighters are at the very top.” Quan’s fighters are amongst the best in South Africa with promise of global recognition to come. Gareth “Soldierboy” McLellan has already made his UFC debut and Quan is certain that current EFC champions Boyd Allen (featherweight) and Demarte “The Wolf” Pena (bantamweight) will soon be among the best in the world.

Quan doesn’t stop there, “Body builders are not athletes. A marathon runner is not an athlete. Just because you can run 50km down a road doesn’t mean you’re an athlete.” There are many that would disagree with Quan, as I did during our interview, but he does have a point. He stresses that he does not want to disrespect another sport as those at the top haven taken years to develop their skills, but he is adamant that if aliens had to come down to Earth and pick the ultimate human, he or she would be an MMA fighter.

CONQA: How does fighting fit differ from other types of fitness?

Richard Quan: First thing to know is that we train for performance. Today, people think that if you look good, you’re fit, but that is not the case. Some of the best fighters look like an average Joe. Secondly, our conditioning is different because in no other sport outside of combat sport do you have to take as much physical punishment as we do.

CONQA: What is an average day at training for an MMA fighter?

RQ: We train 5-6 hours a day but the important thing is that we cycle through programmes. We can’t have the same training session on repeat. Depending on how close we are to a fight we either increase or decrease loads and focus on different elements. Some days focus on kicks, some days focus on wrestling. Generally training days are divided into 3 sessions with 2 sessions focussed on skill work and 1 session dedicated to strength and conditioning. But we cycle through them. We can change cycles daily, weekly, or monthly depending on what we are trying to achieve.

CONQA: What is the focus during training?

RQ: Strength is top. Strength is the elite. Strength doesn’t mean how hard you can hit or how much you can lift. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, and I work with a variety of athletes from football, to tennis, to swimming; strength is the common thread amongst champions. A stronger athlete exerts less energy performing the same task as the athlete that isn’t as strong. That energy conservation is obviously vital.

CONQA: How do you improve strength?

RQ: It’s sport specific. Fighters used to run 20km every morning hoping to get fitter and therefore become better fighters, but that way of thinking is outdated. MMA is our sport and therefore to get fit and improve strength, my fighters need to replicate in training what they’ll face in the cage. They wrestle, they spar, they hit bags, they do drills. Fitness comes on the mat. It’s the same with any other sport. Basil Carzis (head of strength and conditioning at South African Rugby) gets his players fit by putting them through drills that simulate match environments. Fitness for fitness’ sake will make you look good and feel good, but it won’t make you a champion.

CONQA: What nutrition programmes do you put your fighters on?

RQ: Thanks to the fitness industry, people have become lazy. The industry appeals to those looking for a quick fix and turn to so called “experts” who just throw out ‘diet A’ or ‘diet B’ until something works. Every athlete’s body is different. How the athlete was brought up is important. What his body can process will be unique. For example, I’m Asian and I can process rice better, but Westerners can process wheat better. It all depends on the individual.     

CONQA: What are your thoughts on the Tim Noakes diet?

RQ: Tim Noakes is not a nutrition expert. His ideology is fine for the modern man who sits on a couch but no athlete in the world could use it. Our energy output throughout the day is much higher than an average person. What if an athlete’s body can’t process meat or fats? There is no ready-made, pre-packaged diet or training programme that will turn an average Joe into an athlete. Everyone is unique and therefore the training methods have to be. Your body is a machine and you need to understand it before you can fuel it efficiently.

CONQA: If everyone is unique, how do you create a programme for an athlete?

RQ: You have to assess what his or her goals are. Then you have to separate the strengths from the weaknesses. In our sport, weaknesses can get you knocked out so you have to improve them. However, you can’t focus too much on weaknesses as that can be disheartening.

CONQA: Do you think that MMA is the sport that best represents peak human performance?

RQ: MMA has something that no other sport has: a life skill. Kicking a soccer ball or hitting a golf ball is not a life skill. The only other people that can understand us psychologically are those in the military or law enforcement. We have a warrior culture. Other sports use violence and combat as a metaphor; we use them as a way of life.

CONQA: How do you feel when you see people out of shape? Do you encourage people to join your gym?

RQ: Truthfully, I hate it. Modern society has made us soft and men have lost what it means to be a man. Most men don’t have the four essential pillars in life: growing your own food, building your own shelter, keeping your body healthy, defending yourself in combat. These are the pillars of being a man and if you can’t fulfil those requirements I believe you are less of a man. In my gym, we’re a tribe of real men. We believe in the ethos of what we are doing and we’ll defend that ethos. This is a sport and many people provide for their families through this sport but what separates MMA is that we embody a lifestyle more than any other sport. There are a lot of loud mouths in sport but how many of them can actually throw down? In MMA, we let our behaviour do the talking.

The dream fight between two of the loudest fighters in their respective sports will never happen. Mayweather may well retire after facing Pacquiao but the point is moot. The debate as to which sport supplies the greatest athletes will probably rage on forever. What we do know is that you are welcome to take it up with champion trainer Richard Quan and his team of elite fighters should you disagree with him. 

Richard Quan is a trainer and co-owner at Fighting Fit Militia. He has a personal MMA record of 7-0. His specialties include Muay Thai, MMA, CrossFit Conditioning and free style wrestling. Visit their website here.  

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