The Eye Test
Athletes in general these days seem to be hyper-specialized in their fitness, and have the bodies to match. Even golfers tend to be pretty darn fit. But there are also many overweight athletes, including some heavyweight fighters that carry extra pounds around the middle. But as a species, MMA fighters are generally shredded, and science corroborates what our eyes tell us to be true. Wrestlers and boxers frequently hover in the 5-9% body fat range, giving them some of the lowest body fat percentages in sport. This is due to two factors: training regimens, and making weight.
Granted, the lowest body fat percentages are found among bodybuilders, but their body composition is largely a function of diet, whereas the MMA fighter is lean by virtue of training. Case in point, I once worked with an internationally competitive bodybuilder who did zero cardio—no running, no treadmill, no cardio classes—just weights and food. He had barely an ounce of fat on him, but literally could not run a mile to save his life. No disrespect intended, but that’s not a comparably conditioned athlete. MMA fighters, like ultra-endurance athletes, find it incredibly difficult train and not be ripped or lean. Still, as the example of a bodybuilder suggests, your physique doesn’t tell the whole story.
The Fitness Test
Professional soccer players run between 7 and 9.5 milesin a match. And they don’t just run, they stop, start, cut, and sprint. Basketball and tennis players run fewer miles, but the explosive nature of those sports can make them equally challenging. Football, rugby, and hockey players have both raw strength and speed, but also tons of anaerobic power. Not only that, the players in those sports are frequently on the receiving end of hard impacts, which take a grueling toll on the body.
With all the tough sports out there, there has long been debate as to who the best athletes are. For years, skill-based competitions and gladiator TV shows have attempted to answer the question of which is the most difficult or athletic sport. Which sport produces the best all-around athlete is still up for debate. But with the emergence and evolution of MMA, the debate for which sport produces the best-conditioned athlete is over.
In the world of the martial arts, there has been a similar debate about which martial art reigns supreme. For years, people have pondered whether the wrestler beats a jiu jitsu fighter in a match, or whether the boxer beats a kung fu fighter in a brawl. While there is not one predominant answer, the consensus is you need to have a little bit of everything to succeed in a real fight. This question gave birth to a new hybrid sport: Mixed Martial Arts. But MMA didn’t just answer the question of dominance in fighting; MMA’s emergence also settles the debate of which athletes are the best conditioned.
The conditioning of an MMA fighter is second to none. But don’t just take my word for it. Leading publications like ESPNalso contend that MMA (and the sports that comprise it) takes the cake when it comes to conditioning. MMA essentially is a hybrid of several martial art disciplines, namely boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu jitsu. ESPN’s rankings of sport were based on several variables, from strength, to speed, to agility, to power. Among the top sports, boxing received the top rank, while wrestling and martial arts were fifth and sixth, respectively.
To be skilled as a mixed martial artist requires proficiency in several disciplines, which means you need to perform well in all fitness modalities: endurance, strength, power, speed, flexibility, agility, hand-eye coordination, and durability. Martial artists must display both anaerobic power and aerobic endurance to be successful. Furthermore, a martial artist must be limber and hyper-flexible to grapple well or perform feats like kicking over their head.
MMA training methods are downright brutal where it comes to efficiency. Boxing in a ring burns 844 calories an hourfor a 155lb person, which is the exact same number of calories burned for jumping rope (also a typical MMA/Boxing conditioning tool). I’ve been to both wrestling practices and boxing classes, and the thought of combining the two in one day the way MMA fighters do seems like scaling Mount Everest while doing jump squats. But assessing the difficulty of MMA simply based on the physical aspects only paints half of the picture. While MMA features incredible strength, power, and endurance, the hardest conditioning is dealing with the massive element of fear that’s baked in to the mix.
The Psychology Test
Former UFC fighter Cody Donovandescribes MMA like this:
“Imagine yourself sprinting across a field as fast as you can. You’d be tired. Now imagine sprinting across that field with a tiger chasing you…between the fear, adrenaline and work from sprinting, you’d be beyond exhausted. That’s what a martial artist deals with every time he steps in a ring.”
One of the earliest marital artists was the famed Japanese swordsman, Miyomoto Mushashi. In the mid-1500s, Mushashi competed and was undefeated in a record 60 duels. These literal life and death matches gave meaning to the phrase ‘high stakes.’ `
While modern martial artists don’t literally fight for their lives, MMA fighters still ‘play for keeps.’ That is, every time they step in a ring or octagon, they know that they could be permanently changed when they step out. The high stakes competition of MMA represents a fighter’s livelihood, confidence, and health. That spirit of the ancient duel remains. However remote, the possibility of death is still in the back of a MMA fighter’s mind.
Winning a martial arts fight comes down to hurting, disabling, or knocking out your opponent. While the byproduct of some sports like football and hockey may include physical violence, it isn’t the end goal. Thus, the physical and psychosocial components in MMA are unlike any sport. Between the physicality of fighting and psychology of facing someone who is trying to take everything from you, there is simply nothing more exhausting than MMA.
The Unanimous Decision
Ultimately, there are lots of tough sports. It could be argued that some sports are more athletic than MMA. But when it comes to conditioning, there’s simply no comparison. MMA fighters are without rival when it comes to fitness and conditioning.
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