When I was offered a review copy of this book by Jonathan Gelber, M.D., I was skeptical; I’ve seen popular books on sports medicine done very badly in the past. I was keen to see how Gelber had approached it, though, so I agreed to take a look.
Two years ago, I retired from MMA competition. My last fight was on Cage Warriors against now UFC champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. I knew at the time that it was probably going to be my last outing; after 12 years in the sport, it was time to move on and do other things.
2016 has seen both the return of Cage Warriors to the UK, and TUF23 pitting Jedrzejczyk against Claudia Gadelha as the first pair of coaches from the women’s 115 lbs division. Three English women competed – Kate Jackson, Lanchana Green and Helen Harper. It’s a good time for European and women’s MMA, and it seems a good time to reflect on life after fighting.
As far as the MMA world is concerned, retirement is the end of the book. What happens after a fighter hangs up their gloves is something that we don’t generally give a lot thought to – often including the fighters themselves. An MMA career is a story in its own right, with its highs and lows, and we may forget that it’s just a chapter in something larger. Perhaps this is one of the reasons athletes find retirement so difficult; it’s seductive to keep chasing after that Hollywood ending (the one where we make another comeback, win a world title, and go out on a high) long after it makes any sense, because that’s how we want the story to finish.
In reality, though, the book doesn’t end there. Every fighter however famous or successful will, sooner or later, experience the point in their life when the cameras stop rolling, and the fans move on – but life continues regardless. There are still blank pages to be filled, whether we’ve thought about it or not.
“Do you miss fighting?”
I’m asked this question often, and yes, I do – all the time. There’s certainly plenty I don’t miss about the fight world. I don’t miss the politics of MMA, or trying to balance fighting and making a living, or sacrificing time with friends and family, missing out on celebrations and holidays. I don’t miss feeling constantly sore and exhausted from training, worrying about injuries, or having to train through pain when my body’s telling me to rest. But despite all that, there’s something about competing in MMA that nothing will ever quite replace for me.
I miss being in the gym with my team mates every day, being part of that team effort, and the sense of family that goes along with that. I miss the excitement of having a big fight coming up, the drive to train harder, being pushed to the limits of what I can do, and realising that I’m capable of more than I imagined. I miss the intensity of competition, the feeling just before a fight when everything is sharp and bright and I’m truly alive.
We find pieces of that in other places. Many former fighters coach, which brings its own unique rewards as well as being a substitute for what we miss. I still train jiu-jitsu, and have plans to start doing some grappling competitions again; it’s not all-consuming for me in the same way that MMA was, but it’s easier to balance with a career and family. Leaving the world of professional fighting behind has meant re-evaluating my relationship with the sport that consumed so much of my life, and looking again at what I love about it now that I’m away from the distraction of the big shows and fans and the media. I’m training for the sake of training, and not because I’ve got a fight coming up. This involves a whole different mindset that still seems alien at times.
The last couple of years have given me the opportunity to focus on some other things. Life is all about trade-offs. We have only a limited time on this planet, and there’s a lot to see and do in that time. Doing one thing to a high level means making sacrifices and giving up opportunities elsewhere. There’s a time for that, certainly, and I’m glad that I did; but I’m taking the chance now to explore other sports and learn some new skills. I’ve started climbing: there’s something about getting to the top of a hard route that I’ve been working on or being out on the rock, halfway up a cliff face, that pushes some of those same buttons that fighting once did. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s opened my eyes to a whole new set of challenges.
As a fighter, it’s easy to put off things that are important in the long term, but not as immediately attention grabbing as that fight coming up. Finances, long term plans, investing in the future – the boring stuff. Fighters are really good at delaying gratification, as long as it’s on an eight week schedule. Anything happening after fight day was on “the other side”; it might as well have been the distant future. Over the last few years of my fight career, I became aware of a growing list of things that I was avoiding dealing with: some practical, some personal. Perhaps, in a sense, being a professional fighter had become a way of running away. You can only postpone the future for so long, though, before it catches up with you.
Fighting is inherently a selfish pursuit – it has to be. It means focusing on what you need to do, putting your training and preparation first at times when you’d rather not. The sacrifices we make inevitably affect the people around us, and put a strain on families, relationships and friendships. It feels good, now, to be able to skip training sometimes and spend time with my partner instead, or to go and watch my son play football. I’m enjoying spending weekends with my family, or outdoors falling off a bit of rock instead of in a gym, sports hall or arena.
The relative stability since I stopped competing has been good for me, but even after two years I’m still adjusting to it. Fighting is about negotiating a series of crises; and to quote Chekhov “any fool can handle a crisis, it’s the day to day living that wears you out”. Fighting can be stressful, but that kind of stress is balanced by the simplicity of having a single minded focus. Get up, eat, go training; day to day decisions comes down to “will this help me win the fight?”. Everything centers around that one goal, and other stresses fade into the background. It’s tough, but simple; the sort of stress that comes in a definite form, with a straightforward plan of action: train until you’re too tired to worry about it, sleep, then train some more. Getting things done without the pressure of a fight to concentrate my mind is a skill I’m now having to work at; it turns out that after a decade of lurching from one adrenaline spike to the next, adapting to a more comfortable and sustainable routine doesn’t always come naturally.
I knew when I retired from MMA competition that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking backwards. It was a chapter of my life; one that I’m proud of, and that I learned a great deal from – but I’m keen not to define myself by what I’ve done in the past. Part of the challenge of building a career away from the sport has been letting go, not clinging too tightly to what was or what might have been, but looking to what lies ahead. I’m fortunate to have a job that I love, that allows me to continue working with fighters and athletes as well as the general public. I’ve got a great relationship and family, I’m in the process of building a business and I’ve got plans that I’m excited about for the future. Life is good.
I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. Being a professional MMA fighter is taking a gamble; however talented you are and however hard you work, there are no guarantees. For every fighter who is successful and walks away on their own terms, there are many, many more who sacrifice careers, relationships and physical health to the sport only to be left with little more than memories to show for it. Few MMA fighters get into the sport primarily for the money (there are certainly easier ways to earn it). We’re caught up in the adventure; young enough to feel that we’re indestructible and have all the time in the world – and it’s all too easy not to notice the other opportunities slipping by until it’s too late.
I think it’s helpful to look at a professional MMA career for what it is – a short segment of our lives, not all of who we are. If I were to offer any advice to someone starting out in the sport, it would be to put your heart and soul into it, for sure – more so, because you have a limited time to do it – but give some thought to what comes afterwards. Don’t neglect life outside fighting, because one day you’ll need it.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes
As a few of you know, I’ve had some exciting projects in the pipeline recently. This is one of them. I’ve been working with the guys at KBTEducation to put together a strength and conditioning course specifically with the needs of fighters in mind. It’s aimed both at PTs and conditioning coaches who work with combat sports athletes, and combat sports coaches who want to update their S&C knowledge, or gain a recognised qualification. It’ll cover general conditioning principles, together with the sport specific knowledge to help you apply them.
This course might be for you, if you’ve ever wanted to know:
- the fastest ways to make your fighters stronger and more powerful;
- how to fit strength and conditioning work into your fighters’ training plans;
- how to train for endurance that’s specific to the demands of MMA;
- how to structure a fight camp so that your athlete peaks at just the right time, without overtraining;
- how to train smart, to reduce the risk of injuries;
- how to make sure your fighter doesn’t blow all the hard work by screwing up their weight cut;
- plus lots more.
The first course is set for the 7/8th of May in the West Midlands, with more dates and venues to follow.
Places are going quickly – so have a look here for more information, or to book. http://www.kbteducation.co.uk/news/strength-and-conditioning-for-mixed-martial-arts/
There are some people you roll with who are focused on getting it right; they’re the technical guys and girls who’ll push you, but you always feel like you’re getting something out of it. If you’re training, they’ll be good training partners and if you’re competing they’ll fight hard but cleanly.
And then there are those who are more interested in winning every roll at all costs. When you train with them, there’ll be thumbs in eyes, flailing elbows, fingers bent backwards. Any time they feel vaguely threatened, they’ll go mental and do their best to drop you on your head. They’re not usually terribly effective – at least, not against anyone good (although they’ll be the first to tell you about who they’ve tapped in training) because they never put their ego to one side long enough to actually learn anything. But even when you win, you come away with bruises and niggly injuries, feeling like you’ve just wasted 5 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Dealing with people in general seems much the same; attitudes towards personal and professional relationships seem to fall into the same two categories. Life is much better when you pick your sparring partners carefully.
The last year has seen a lot of changes for me. Since I retired from MMA in 2014, I’ve been busy figuring out what I want the rest of my life to look like, getting my osteopathy business running smoothly, and making a start on some new projects.
One of those projects is to do a lot more writing. With that in mind, I’ve been doing a bit of clearing out and renovating on this old blog – a lick of paint here, some tiles there, maybe a rug or two. I’ll go through and re-blog a few of my old articles (suggestions welcome); but mostly the plan is to focus on some new ideas and directions.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to do things better – playing sports, recovering from injury, getting stronger, learning new skills, critical thinking, relationships, parenting, politics, life in general. That’s reflected in much of what I write. If I bumped into a version of my eighteen year old self in an alternate universe, it’s the sort of thing I might chat to her about over a coffee or four.
Bear with me while I get things up and running – more to come soon! In the meantime, my professional website for my osteopathy work is here.
With the recent growth in Mixed Martial Arts and combat sports, there’s been an explosion of products marketed towards the up and coming combat athlete. Nutritional supplements, training gear, equipment, books, DVDs and seminars all promise to take your game to the next level and give you that crucial edge over your opponent.
But how can you tell the difference between a training program, supplement or piece of equipment that will help you get the results you’re after, and something that’s a total waste of money – or even harmful? It can be a minefield. Continue reading “Become a better bullshit detector”
Here’s a post that I wrote back in 2013 when there was a lot of discussion going on about it within the women’s MMA world. I recently had a message from someone asking me to put the article back up, so here it is (very slightly edited). I haven’t looked closely to see whether there has been any more relevant research since the article was written – if any readers know of any, I’d be keen to hear about it.
There’s been lots of talk recently about female transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and whether she should be able to compete in the women’s division. I’ve had a few discussions about it, and there seem to be a lot of misconceptions going around, so here are my thoughts on the subject.
1) Many of the comments about this subject have been offensive and unnecessary. I think this is a necessary debate, but it needs to be handled respectfully.
2) None of us have a right to compete in professional MMA. People are routinely denied a licence to compete if their medical status means that there could be an increased risk either to themselves or their opponent.
3) MMA is a relatively safe sport, providing that participants are evenly matched by size, strength and ability. We have gender and weight classes not only to ensure fairness, but also to reduce the risks.
4) Contrary to some of the assertions by Fox’s supporters in the media, there appears to be no good scientific evidence that proves Fox does not have a performance advantage over a cis female. Expert opinion is still just opinion – and it seems divided on the subject. Experts may also have their own biases and areas of expertise. Specialists in gender reassignment may not be equally knowledgeable about exercise physiology.
5) The experts supporting Fox have been quite cautious in their assessment. “She probably does not have a significant advantage” and “her musculature is comparable to that of a woman” are a long way from saying “we know for a fact that she does not have a performance advantage over a cis female”.
6) The differences between men and women in sport depend on a great deal more than current hormone levels and muscle mass. For example, men have a higher ratio of type II to type I muscle fibres, which is associated with improved speed and explosive power, and a heart that is larger relative to body size. It’s not clear to what extent either of these would change after sex-reassignment surgery, or what implications that would have for performance in this case. Because of the bone structure that is developed while still growing, men also have a greater lung capacity and a narrower pelvis, giving a biomechanical advantage – factors which are highly unlikely to be reversed by hormone treatment. There are likely to be other factors that differ between men and women in terms of athletic performance that we aren’t even aware of.
7) Fox’s supporters point to the fact that male to female transgender athletes are allowed to compete as female in the olympics to support their argument that she should be able to compete in the women’s division in MMA. The IOC appears to base it’s policy on the principle that without firm evidence that an unfair advantage exists, transgender fighters should be allowed to compete in the interests of inclusivity. I agree that equality of participation is a nice ideal, and it’s a reasonable argument if we’re talking about sports like tennis or kayaking. But in a sport where one participant is trying to do physical damage to another, the burden of proof should be reversed. We need good scientific evidence to support the assertion that Fox has no advantage as a result of having been born male. Lack of evidence of an advantage isn’t sufficient – especially when so little evidence exists.
8) We should also consider the possibility that the IOC decision may not be based entirely on scientific evidence (of which there appears to be very little), but also take into account factors such as social pressure and (rightly, in my opinion) the desire to be inclusive.
9) Good research on this subject that takes into account all the relevant factors is hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Several people have suggested that performance testing could establish whether Fox’s attributes (strength, power, VO2 max, etc) lie within “normal range” for a female athlete. Leaving aside the statistical issues, a significant problem with this idea is the question of how to measure performance variables in an athlete who – by the nature of the situation – would not have an incentive to produce her best possible performance.
10) I sympathise with Fox’s position, and I don’t agree with those who say that she should not be allowed to fight. On the other hand, I believe it was wrong that Fox’s opponents were not informed of the situation so they could make their own assessment of the risks and give consent. This will obviously not be an issue in future in Fox’s case; but I’m concerned about the athletic commissions’ position that the opponent has no right to know. My opinion is that if someone is going to be legally punching me in the face, then it’s absolutely my business if she went through adolescence as a male. While I understand the concerns about privacy, I don’t think that in this case the right to privacy trumps the opponent’s right to make an informed decision about the risks she is taking.
Finally – if anyone has access to any scientific research that I seem to have missed, please send it to me! I am happy to revise my opinion as and when new information becomes available. I’m hopeful that in the future there will be more good evidence available.
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