You may have been an MMA fan for many years. And like myself, you may be perfectly fine with being just a fan, following your favorite fighters in their conquests from the comfort of your living room couch. But there are some fans who may yearn to strap on a set of gloves, tuck in a mouthpiece, and step into the cage themselves – as a professional MMA fighter. But what does it take to become a pro in this strenuous and often chaotic sport? Read on to find out.
A background in martial arts
MMA stands for ‘Mixed Martial Arts’ – as the name suggests, the sport is a mixture of various martial arts and combat sports. To succeed in MMA, at a minimum you need a base art which specializes in grappling (e.g, wrestling, judo, or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) and another art which specializes in striking (boxing, karate, Muay Thai just to name a few). Of course the most successful pros have years of experience in multiple arts. For example, Anderson Silva – widely considered as one of the greatest fighters in the short history of the sport – has a background in Taekwondo, Muay Thai, and boxing, along with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But quality matters more than quantity; once you’ve mastered your striking and grappling base, you can explore other arts and bring in the best elements of each system into your unique fighting style. The arts most fitting for MMA are the ones where participants do live sparring with each other, as merely doing katas does not prepare one to fight a resisting opponent. To date, wrestling and BJJ have been the most successful grappling base arts for MMA, while boxing and Muay Thai are among the top striking bases.
Dedication to training
In any realm, what separates an amateur from a professional? The fact that a professional is someone who does it for a living, as opposed to a hobby. That means a professional MMA fighter will spend most of their time in the gym, honing their art and preparing for the next challenge. Professional fighting requires intense training on a regular basis – not just once in a blue moon! Rarely, there are successful pros who hold a ‘day job’ – for example, UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic still works as a part-time firefighter and paramedic in Ohio. But this is an exception rather than the rule. To be a professional fighter, you have to dedicate yourself to training day in and day out, and accept the reality that you will spend the majority of your days rolling on the mats, hitting the pads, or doing road work to improve your cardio.
MMA is not a sport for the faint at heart. Do you really want to get punched and kicked in the head, put into painful submission holds, and occasionally lose your consciousness as a part of your occupation? If these occupational hazards don’t fit into your ideal job description, becoming a professional MMA fighter just isn’t in the books for you. As an MMA pro, you will lose. You will get beat up. You will get hurt. You will have surgeries to fix the inevitable ligament tears and bone fractures. If you make it to the highest levels of the sport, you will get humiliated by your opponent in front of thousands of people in attendance and millions watching on live television. You may even end up with traumatic brain injury and CTE, before your career is over. Does all of this sound unpleasant? It takes a special kind of mentality to be successful in this sport. In the immortal words of UFC president Dana White, “do you want to be a f*ing fighter?”
As with any sport, while dedication and hard work will take you places, you can only climb so high without some natural athleticism. This may not matter in MMA as much as it does in most other sports – the unpredictability of MMA and the variety of skill sets and techniques involved can offset for athleticism or lack thereof. However, at the elite level where the skills of competitors are nearly equal, athleticism may be the differentiating factor.
While some MMA fighters who have a strong background in collegiate wrestling and BJJ may jump right into the deep end of the pool and challenge for a major title after only a few fights – Brock Lesnar, for one, comes to mind – most have to start at a lower level and work their way up. This means starting out as an amateur, gathering experience and wins, and honing your skills before moving up to smaller local professional leagues. If you are successful there, eventually you may make your way to the major leagues of the sport, such as UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship or PFL.
Putting it all together
So after reading all this, do you still think you have what it takes to become a professional MMA fighter? If you are still young, have a bit of athleticism and the pre-requisite mental toughness, and don’t mind hard work and putting your body through the extremes, then pick a nearby MMA gym and start training! Not everyone is going to become the next Jon Jones or Conor McGregor, but with the right skills and dedication you may one day see the inside of the UFC Octagon.