Training while isolated: How top MMA fighters and coaches are adjusting to COVID-19 pandemic

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

Professional fighters are used to living in precarity, what with their lack of salaries, year-round health insurance, pensions, or employment status, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to safely and adequately do their jobs and pay bills. Many have had fights canceled and other fighters and coaches with bouts still on the calendar are struggling to figure out how to best prepare without the benefit of the bare necessities of fight preparation as shelter orders and social distancing have prompted many gyms to close up indefinitely.

Several of the pro fighters UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon works with have fights on cards that have yet to be canceled, but the pandemic has forced him to unexpectedly close his Lauzon MMA doors in Massachusetts for the time being.

“I really don’t f---ing know what we’re going to do. I’m really surprised the UFC hasn’t canceled more of the fights,” Lauzon told Yahoo Sports.

The uncertainty of not knowing whether or not fight cards will go through, coupled with the financial stress not knowing if pay is coming after months of work is compounded by the difficulty of adequately preparing while cooped up in their homes, Lauzon explained. For his students, both pro and civilian alike, Lauzon has already begun implementing remote digital teaching plans.

“I’m figuring it out,” he continues. “I think I’m going to do more pre-recorded content for them. I’m basically going to break things down and I’m going to have them send me video clips of them competing and break it down, live.”

Joe Lauzon says he's "surprised the UFC hasn't canceled more of the fights." (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Joe Lauzon says he's "surprised the UFC hasn't canceled more of the fights." (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Retired former WEC champion and UFC veteran Gabe Ruediger now coaches full-time near Los Angeles. He’s also turned to video teaching after several of his pro fighters had bouts canceled and he was forced to close down his Kaiju MMA & Fitness facility for the time being.

“It’s a great time to work on footwork, on hands, on head movement. And the other [thing] you have control over is your cardio,” he advised.

With so much uncertainty, Ruediger is telling his charges that it’s time to rely on their own mental strength and on one another. “The main thing is to stay the course,” he implored.

“This is one of the things I find with fighters versus athletes. Athletes, everything comes easy for them, so they don’t know what it is to push past their own abilities. A fighter is a person who says ‘I’m not going to get this right away but I’m going to work with all of my ass to f---ing make it.’ So you need that fighter mentality, and two, a group of likeminded people who are going to help you through that scenario.”

UFC veteran Florian on the need for journaling

Former three-time world title challenger Kenny Florian now helps coach the likes of featherweight contender Ryan Hall from his Meraki Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym in Los Angeles. Florian says he does not envy the almost impossible position active fighters find themselves in right now between financial insecurity and choosing between added exposure to the coronavirus through ordinarily proper training and being unprepared for any possible upcoming bouts.

In order to make the most of the dire situation, however, the cerebral Florian — who is developing a forthcoming technical instruction video program — says he is immersing himself in deep study and thought and encouraging his athletes to do the same.

“As humans we’ve been able to find safety for the most part … because we’ve been able to develop various technologies, we’ve been able to use our mind to overcome some insane environment conditions, or defend ourselves or be able to hunt animals that are far superior, physically, than us. What separates is our mind and we have to utilize that the best that we can when we’re thinking about things like martial arts,” he explained.

“There’s all these things that you can investigate to really look into the different situations whether it’s researching how Floyd Mayweather deals with punches, or what is ‘Wonderboy’ [Stephen Thompson] doing with his footwork and kicking game to make him so successful. It’s about being able to go out there and look and see what’s working, what’s not and taking it a step further eventually and saying, ‘alright how do we make this better?’ Yes, that takes training, but it also takes a lot of thinking about it. A great way to do that is watching, taking notes and journaling.”

Ryan Hall talks turning weaknesses into strengths

Hall still has a fight scheduled for May 2 against Ricardo Lamas, though whether or not that card will take place is very much in doubt, considering how volatile the situation is and how quickly other events have gotten scrapped in the past weeks. Hall usually spends large portions of his training camps in Montreal and Los Angeles, in addition to at his Northern Virginia 50/50 Martial Arts Academy, and so much of his planned training has been closed off to him ahead of this bout, especially since he’s also had to officially close up his own gym.

Without the usual breadth of training partners, facilities and direct access to coaches, Hall is doing what he can for as long as is reasonable and has pointed advice for his students and teammates. “I would try to build capacity. I would try to build the ability to do something. It’s almost like having money in the bank,” he reasons.

“You could use it for charity, you could use it to fix something in your house, you could use it to buy a sandwich, but it gives you the opportunity to go out and distribute it as you see fit. If you don’t have any money in the bank, it’s difficult to accomplish that. So, right now many of us have a great deal of time on our hands, and oftentimes more than we had, prior. Right now, I’m spending time reading books I might not have otherwise read, and working on tools I might not have otherwise worked on.”

Hall says unexpected time off or away from competition is a great time to either shore up weaknesses or experiment with new weapons. “ ... Take something that, if I was in fight camp maybe I wouldn’t fiddle with, but these days I don’t feel the pressure of an upcoming situation so I say, ‘Hey, maybe we can try that kind of esoteric technique and see how it works out. Maybe I can take some fundamental piece of my game that hasn’t been working well or that has always been missing and spend a lot of time on it,’ ” he explained.

“This would be a fantastic time to focus on a weakness. There’s no pressure to do anything else. So we can see if in 30 days, or 60 days, or however long this all lasts, we can make this weakness into a strength.”

MMA coach Jason Parillo still demanding dedication

Jason Parillo has coached five different MMA world champions. He is skeptical the upcoming cards still scheduled will actually take place and emphasizes how difficult this makes things for fighters psychologically.

Still, the RVCA gym chief emphasizes that the type of lonely, unglamorous work that is still available to fighters in shuttered states like his own in California are always what separate the elite from the pedestrian.

“What can they do? Keep in f---ing shape, asshole,” he commands his fighters.

“Go in your backyard, do your burpees, do your push-ups, do your sit-ups. If they’re not letting you leave your house, run in place till you’re f---ing blue in the face. Guess who else can’t do anything. The f---ing guy you’re fighting.”

Parillo says his fighters still contact him for daily plans, and he clearly demands that type of dedication from his stable. “They want to work because they want to be ready. They want to be ready when it comes. Real fighters will be ready when it’s time to go because they’re getting it done, they’re doing what they need to do,” he said.

“The most successful fighters are working when they’re by themselves. They’re not just with their coaches, they’re working by themselves. Now, what they’re doing by themselves, they’ve been doing that their whole f---ing lives, before ever being quarantined. They’ve always been plugging away, from watching videos to wrapping your f---ing mattress around the tree in the backyard and just punching the f--- out of your mattress and kicking the f--- out of your mattress against the tree. Those are the guys who win fights regardless and continue to win and end up being champions.”

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