Rushed? How MMA Fighters Climb the Ranks

By Joe Hall Oct 15, 2007
Sean Salmon (Pictures) believed mixed martial arts was barbaric.

When a local promoter offered him money to fight, though, Salmon said he'd give the sport a shot. Four weeks later he found himself in a main event, staring across the cage at a 10-3 opponent.

Salmon had wrestled in the U.S. Olympic trials, but he knew little about submissions or striking. Still, he won. Then he went home and talked his wife into giving him one year to make it to the UFC.

"I was so naïve at the time," says Salmon, who jokes about it now, though he doesn't need to: Eleven months after he started, he signed to headline a UFC.

Money was one reason he rushed. He aimed for the UFC, figuring that was the place to make a living. After that first bout in November 2005, he tried out for "The Ultimate Fighter." He wrestled well, but when asked to hit the mitts and show his striking, he was clueless.

"Mitts? What the hell are mitts?" Salmon wondered. "This guy's got goofy things on his hands. I'm supposed to fight this guy? He's at a disadvantage."

Yet, relying on wrestling and progressing quickly, Salmon won his first six bouts. He began calling the UFC, asking for a fight. A few wins later, at 9-1, the UFC matched him against Rashad Evans (Pictures) in a SpikeTV-broadcast main event.

Salmon had been fighting for 14 months. A minute into the second round, Evans knocked him cold with a head kick that will replay for 14 years.

"That's been my most publicized fight, so it's hurt me," Salmon says. "Sometimes when I run in to people I don't know, they're still asking if I'm OK. I tell them I've fought seven or eight times since then. That part sucks. Nobody wants to be remembered as the guy that got kicked in the head."

Despite the loss, Salmon says he was ready. The first round was competitive, and in defeat he also gained recognition.

"You're talking to me right now," he says.

Now he's clawing back up the ladder, but not everyone would. A bad loss can damage young fighters beyond the blemish it leaves on their records, and in MMA a quick path like Salmon's to a big bout is not uncommon. The UFC, for instance, reigns as the biggest MMA promotion in the world, yet even its champions often have nowhere near the fight experience of top boxers.

Former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir (Pictures) fought twice before the UFC. He was 7-1 when he won the title. Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) was 7-0 the first time he fought for the welterweight championship, and current 170-pound champion Matt Serra (Pictures) is 9-4.

By comparison boxers often enter title fights with 30 to 40 bouts under their belts, in addition to hundreds of amateur matches. But then they're boxers. MMA is a young sport and a different one.

MMA's divergence from boxing

MMA fighters and trainers don't deny the importance of experience. They say the best way to climb the ranks is gradually. Start with opposition that plays to your strengths, that won't take you down when you can't grapple or won't make you box when you can't punch. Sit backstage and wait three hours for your fight, listen to the audience cheer when some guy you just wished good luck leaves for the cage and gets laid out in 13 seconds. When they tell you that you're on, feel the goose bumps swell on your arms, your legs. Hear your name announced. Hear that opening bell.

As you come to know those jitters, take on increasingly challenging opposition that lets you hone new skills. Win one fight with a guillotine, one with a head kick, one with an armbar from your back after getting worked over for 15 minutes. Get hurt early and rally back, run out of gas and hold on for the win -- do it all, so that you'll peak at the perfect time, in your biggest fights.

"Fighting," says Greg Jackson, the New Mexico-based trainer of Keith Jardine (Pictures) and Rashad Evans (Pictures), "is really about experience. You got your technique. You got your preparation. But at the end of the day, experience is kind of the cradle from which you strike. It's a super-important factor. That's why they bring boxers up the way they do."

Few MMA fighters, however, progress like boxers. MMA is relatively new and simply does not have an extensive amateur circuit. Amateur MMA is mostly the same as professional. The rules are the same, and often so are the fighters. In fact, labeling an event "amateur" is a tactic many promoters use only to avoid regulation and paying the fighters.

In Japan, Shooto has amateur levels and competitions that allow fighters to advance steadily, but the overwhelming majority of mixed martial artists don't bother with amateur MMA. Instead many compete in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling and submission grappling competitions, as well as amateur boxing and kickboxing.

"I don't let my guys fight unless they've done something like that," Jackson says. "I take them to grappling tournaments … amateur kickboxing and stuff. When they get good enough at that, then we start moving them into MMA and cages. I think it directly translates. It is not the sport, but it is the foundation you need for the sport."

Of course some MMA fighters have outworked boxers, at least as professionals. In 1999 Jeremy Horn (Pictures) went 20-1 with three UFC wins, including one over Chuck Liddell (Pictures). At 79-16-5, he has fought three times in one night and five times in one month.

Horn's approach allowed him to catch up with opponents who, unlike him, had lengthy wrestling or striking resumes. His schedule seasoned him beyond nearly everyone in the game, but he doubts today's fighters could duplicate his most rigorous years.

"When I was doing it, there were a lot of guys that didn't have a lot of skill," Horn says. "Everybody was new. Everybody was just figuring out what was going on. It was possible for me to do that, but now I don't think you can. Everybody's tougher; everybody knows a lot more about the sport. You run into a lot more injuries."

Injuries are never far from a mixed martial artist's mind. Boxing is brutal, but boxers don't dive at each other's knees everyday in training. They don't crank elbows and wrench shoulders and torque ankles. They don't worry about being cut with knees and elbows.

MMA fighters face endless risks, and the biggest of all may be planning a long career in a sport with so many means of early retirement.

A thousand people to take your spot

The same fighters and managers who say that gradual progression is best will tell you that if the UFC calls -- even if you don't have much fight experience, even if the UFC asks you to step in over your head -- you better listen to the offer.

MMA is a sport with limitless ways to win. If an opponent is more experienced and has better boxing and better grappling, you can still slip on a guillotine choke when he leaves his head on the inside of a single-leg takedown. And with four-ounce gloves, as they say, anything can happen.

"There really aren't such things as safe fights in MMA," says 23-year-old Joe Lauzon (Pictures), who in his UFC debut stopped former lightweight champion Jens Pulver (Pictures) in 48 seconds. "For example, I was supposed to be a safe fight when I fought Jens."

Lauzon didn't think he matched up well with Pulver. He took a couple of days to consider the UFC's offer to fight him, then said OK.

In Lauzon's view the youth of MMA as a sport limits the talent pool. There are more boxers, and they start younger, some as teenagers. "You're not going to find anyone who's been doing MMA since they were 14," says Lauzon, who entered MMA before most, when he was 18.

The UFC still needs fighters, though. With the sport's exploding popularity, the UFC hosts at least one show a month and sometimes three. At some point the promotion has to call on inexperienced fighters, sometimes even for major bouts.

"You have to take those opportunities when they come because there's a thousand people ready to take your spot," Jens Pulver (Pictures) says.

At the same time, Pulver doesn't advise taking any fight. Consider the opponent, he says, and consider the deal. Often the UFC promises late-replacements and first-time fighters multiple fights. If the UFC asks you to step in on short notice, you may also be guaranteed a follow-up bout against an evenly matched opponent on a date that allows a full training camp. You may lose the first match, but your foot's in the door for a second one. It's an offer worth considering.

There comes a point

Moreover, losses in MMA aren't losses in boxing -- or even what they were once in MMA.

"Show me a guy who's 35-0, and I'll show you a guy who hasn't been fighting anybody," says Monte Cox, who has managed seven UFC champions.

With so many ways for MMA fights to end, losses are more common and less detrimental to mixed martial artists' careers than to boxers'. Look at Randy Couture (Pictures). He's 16-8 and widely recognized as one of the greatest fighters in MMA history.

"Now I think the most important thing is what level you're fighting at," Cox says. "No where can you bounce back faster than in MMA. We're a sport of what have you done lately."

Cox's doesn't want his fighters to get to the UFC but to stay there.

"When I talk to guys about signing them, I ask them what their goals are," he says. "If their goal is just to get to the UFC, I'm not interested. It's a whole different world to become a mainstay, to become a regular guy who's going to fight 10, 11 times and make a career of it."

Every month, Cox says, he turns down an offer because his fighter isn't ready or doesn't match up well with an opponent. Accepting a bout is a matter of his guy having some kind of edge, even if he's an underdog, and the deal making long-term sense.

"I did not want Tim Sylvia (Pictures) in the UFC," he says. "He hadn't had enough fights, in my opinion. I didn't think that he was ready to go in there and be permanent and deal with the very best at that time."

The UFC needed him, though. In September 2002, the promotion's heavyweight division had no depth and no future. Cox didn't budge until Wesley "Cabbage" Correira was mentioned as an opponent. He was the type of foe that Sylvia would meet in a smaller show, for less money. Why not do it in the UFC?

"There comes a point, I think, for every fighter when you're either there or you're not," Cox says. "Everyone reaches a point where they need to start fighting competitive fights. Tougher fights. Once you reach that level, it doesn't really matter if you're going to do that in the UFC or King of the Cage or wherever. If you have to take a tough fight … why take it for $1,000 in a smaller show when you can take basically the same fight and get paid three or four times that?"

A win in the UFC also warrants a raise for your next fight. However, opposition can turn very tough, very quickly, and soon you might not have any say in whom you fight, if you had any say in the first place. A good manager sees past a fighter's next bout, at what's waiting down the line.

After Sylvia stopped Correira in his debut, the UFC offered him a title shot against heavyweight champion Ricco Rodriguez (Pictures). Cox liked how Sylvia matched up with Rodriguez, but the manager didn't want his still-developing fighter to face fellow contender Pedro Rizzo (Pictures) too soon.

"At the time, I hated the matchup of Pedro Rizzo (Pictures) against Tim Sylvia (Pictures)," Cox says. "So I had them write into the contract that if [Sylvia] beat Ricco to win the title, he did not have to defend immediately against Pedro Rizzo (Pictures). That was to ensure he didn't get thrown to the wolves. That wasn't him ducking anybody. That's what a manager's for -- I didn't like the style matchup."

The opponent doesn't matter to some managers and certainly not to some fighters. To them it's all about the event, especially when the event is the UFC.

In any case Sylvia never ran into Rizzo. He did dispose of Rodriguez in three minutes. "Next thing you know," Cox says, "I got a guy I didn't even want in the UFC, and he's their champ."

A blessing, a curse

Five years ago the UFC promoted a show every two months or so -- roughly 40 to 50 fights in a year. In 2007 the UFC will run nearly 20 shows and 160 fights.

That schedule demands the use of inexperienced fighters, but the frequent cards also give the UFC room to build fighters when it couldn't before. Roger Huerta (Pictures), for example, has fought five times in the Octagon against good but not great opposition. He's rising gradually within the UFC the way few fighters do outside it.

Huerta has also been criticized as a protected poster boy. In reality he's progressing exactly as fighters and trainers say you should.

Not everyone receives the same treatment, however. Some fighters are brought up more carefully in the UFC for reasons beyond their ability. Huerta has been showcased because he's good, exciting and Hispanic. Others step into the spotlight on "The Ultimate Fighter" and never leave it, though the reality show has launched many more fighters into the fire than it has led down a path of steady improvement.

Kenny Florian (Pictures) was 1-1 professionally with a couple of amateur fights when he was selected for the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter." A lightweight, he competed on the show as a middleweight -- 30 pounds above his class. He made it to the finals and found himself fighting live on Spike TV, with a gash on his nose and Diego Sanchez (Pictures) smashing away at it.

Florian lost the bout, but the notoriety he gained expedited his progression through the lightweight ranks. Still, his quick climb has been bumpy.

"It's been a blessing and a curse," Florian says. "There's definitely a part of me that wishes I'd had 15 or 20 fights. That would have been optimal, but it's not always like that. This sport is still new. For better or worse, I was one of the ones who took big challenges as soon as possible."

Florian's years of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission wrestling helped him, but he says neither substituted for in-ring experience.

"People don't realize the difference fighting in the big show, having all the interviews, the behind-the-scenes things, things that really screw with a fighter's mind," he says. "You start realizing how big the event is, and you think it's the end of the world if you don't get a win."

A weight he hadn't felt dropped down on Florian at "The Ultimate Fighter" finale. Everyone was asking about pressure beforehand, about nerves. Just another fight, he told them.

"You're kind of kidding yourself," says Florian, adding that everything changed when he walked in the cage. "It hit me right in the face -- literally."

The 31-year-old fighter won three in a row after the Sanchez loss and then dropped a unanimous decision in a UFC lightweight title fight against Sean Sherk (Pictures). Now he's won another three straight and isn't far from a second title shot.

Florian has learned on the fly, but not many could match his rapid improvement. Other fighters would have wilted. "It can definitely screw up your career," he says. "The risk is that if I didn't do well, my career could be over, and I would never find myself in the UFC again. You see that guys can rise and fall very quickly in this sport."

Fighting the best in the world too early can ruin fighters, but it can also catapult them. It can magnify their strengths and their weaknesses, showing them where they have to improve and pushing them to do it pronto. Then again, when Sean Sherk (Pictures) has locked up your legs, it's too late to work on your takedown defense.

What if Florian had taken the longer road, though?

Partly because MMA is a young sport, it's hard to know the long-term implications of fighters climbing too quickly. It's hard to see that far down the line when the line is not yet drawn. At this point, immediate success masks what could be. Young mixed martial artists can compete at a world-class level -- so they do.

Florian's very good right now, but would he have been better, in the long run, if he had risen gradually -- the way he says fighters should? What if he had told the UFC no, not yet?

"MMA fighters," Florian says, "we don't really say ‘no.'"

The present, the future?

As MMA matures, its fighters should too. They will likely start younger -- perhaps in a more legitimate amateur circuit -- and there will be more of them. With more fighters, there will be more fights, and the level of experience, especially at the top, should increase.

The curve is already moving, though whether the experience of mixed martial artists will approach that of boxers or settle somewhere short remains to be seen. Indeed, the future may not be much different than the present. As a sport with endless ways to win, MMA could dictate a playing field that's forever open to new fighters and quick success.

Many like it that way. Score the right win at the right time, and you leap into the limelight. Not everyone takes that path, but that fact that some fighters have certainly appeals to the young wrestler wiping out brawlers for $200 at the Wild Dawg on Whoop-Ass Wednesdays. If the UFC calls that young fighter, he's going, ready or not. Such a decision will have implications, seen and unseen, now and later.

As for Sean Salmon (Pictures), his loss to Rashad Evans (Pictures) hurt, but it hasn't ruined him. He fought three times in September, including a quality win in Finland over Mikko Rupponen (Pictures). At 13-4, Salmon is looking to fight every month while he waits on another shot in a major promotion. He's confident the call will come.

"I'm going to give everybody a new reason to remember me," Salmon says. "By the time my career is done, no one's going to remember the fight with Rashad."
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