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Mixed martial arts (MMA) is the fastest-growing sport in the world, with fight tournaments selling out stadiums across the US, Europe, Japan and Australia. In May, this pugilistic spectacle finally invaded Singapore with Martial Combat, dubbed by organisers as “Asia’s Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts Fight Championship”.
Fighting their way into the ranks of Martial Combat’s pioneering cohort of champions were some of the best MMA fighters from around the world who train in the region.
One of the most seasoned is Ole “Iron Fist” Laursen, a Dane of Filipino descent who now fights out of The Legacy Gym in Thailand (www.legacygym.com), which he started. Coming into Martial Combat, the former Danish kickboxing champion held a professional kickboxing record of 34 wins (10 by knockout) and 19 losses, with two wins and two losses in MMA. Laursen won his fight at Martial Combat by submitting his accomplished Brazilian opponent via a rear naked choke, bring his win tally to three.
Also fighting out of Thailand, but with the Tiger Muay Thai and MMA gym in Phuket (www.tigermuaythai.com), was Wiktor “The Slayer” Svensson. The Swede is a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and a Bangkok submission grappling champion, with a professional fight record of five wins and one loss in Muay Thai, and two wins in MMA (his second win came at the tournament via an armbar submission).
And, finally, fighting out of Evolve Mixed Martial Arts in Singapore (evolve-mma.com) was Mitch “The Dragon” Chilson (in picture, right). The American is a professional Muay Thai and MMA fighter with a record of eight wins (five by knockout) and one draw (his last win was also at Martial Combat via a stunning knockout). He also happens to be a Men’s Health advisory board member, and a strength and conditioning expert who has advised top professional athletes around the world. Evolve MMA was also the only gym to represent Singapore at Martial Combat.
The training to compete at the top level of MMA is incredibly intense. “A high-level MMA fighter is the most extreme athlete on the face of the planet,” says Chilson. “An MMA fighter not only has to know Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, boxing and wrestling, he also needs an intense strength and conditioning programme, and a sports performance diet.”
He’s not kidding. For mixed martial artists to find success in this sport, they need to be masters at every art, not just one. If a fighter were only great at boxing, for example, he would most likely be easily tackled to the ground by a skilled BJJ fighter and made to tap out from a submission move.
Likewise, a wrestler with little striking knowledge would find it hard to deal with the arsenal of punches, kicks and elbows that a Muay Thai fighter is able to throw at him while both of them are still on their feet. Learning to be proficient in so many styles can be as difficult as mastering several languages at a time. And to do this, professional MMA fighters are always training to improve their technique in the various styles. That means they have little time for anything else.
“My friends tell me I’m a boring guy to hang out with,” says Svensson. “But reaching my personal goals requires me to train two to three times a day, six days a week.”
NERVES OF STEEL
It doesn’t stop with training the body either. The mind, too, has to be honed to perfection. “One of the most challenging and underrated aspects is the mental component,” explains Chilson. “You need razor-sharp focus, the ability to perform under immense pressure and 100 per cent belief in yourself. Above all, you need to be ‘unbreakable’ in terms of your mental fortitude.”
There’s a saying in the professional fight world: The fight is won or lost not in the cage, but in the gym. Explains Laursen: “I remind myself that my opponent is also training intensively for the fight. Like me, he’s trying to claim his dream, and I’ll have to work harder and be even more devoted than he is to beat him.”
When it eventually gets to fight night, the emotion a fighter feels can range from excitement to nervousness. “After all the training and dieting to prepare for the fight, you need to be in a ready mindset,” says Chilson. “I prefer to focus on positive emotions before I fight. Mentally, I envision myself winning. I also try to imagine myself in a tough fight and finding a way to win. I like to be relaxed and focused during a fight.”
The same positivism is also important to Svensson. “The most dangerous fighter in the world is not an angry fighter but a happy fighter. And when I’m walking into the cage or climbing into the ring, I am the happiest person in the world.”
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
The sport has something of a no-holds-barred reputation, with accusations that it’s a barbaric, gladiator-style spectacle. But, in truth, an extensive list of rules protects the combatants from serious harm. The worst injury a fighter has suffered in a sanctioned bout since the sport’s inception in 1993 was broken bones. Compare that with the frequency of deaths in boxing and horrific broken legs in football, and it’s clear the sport is not as dangerous as it looks.
“The safety of our sport is crucial, and the people involved know this,” says Laursen. “That’s why we see so few incidents. Because of qualified referees, we hardly see any bad call or stoppage that comes too late to prevent serious injury. The problem we see more often is that of stoppages being called too early.”
WHY THEY FIGHT
Don’t be fooled into assuming that fighters do what they do simply because they take pleasure in meting out violence on their opponent. For a lot of them, their craft is about discipline and the continuous quest to better themselves. “I compete to test myself – to become a better martial artist,” explains Chilson. “Martial arts is about constantly improving yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”
Watch another top selection of fighters battle it out live on Martial Combat, June 16-17, Resorts World Sentosa. Or watch the TV broadcast on ESPN Star Sports. (Visit www.espnstar.com for broadcast details.)
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FIGHTER >> A summary of Mitch “The Dragon” Chilson’s training routine.
• 60-90 mins running, and strength and conditioning work
• 60-90 mins boxing
• 60-90 mins Muay Thai
• 60-90 mins wrestling
• 60-90 mins Brazilian Jiu-jitsu
• 5-6 pre-planned meals and multiple supplements