by Brandon Guarneri | Photos by William Hauser
Created by a UFC legend and an NFL reporter, MMAthletics training gym in Las Vegas makes top athletes stronger, better, and tougher. MF got an exclusive look at how NFL players Matt Leinart and Patrick Willis got in fighting shape last summer.
Matt Leinart, Patrick Willis, Jay Glazer, and Randy Couture at MMAthletics
Check out our exclusive photo gallery
There are plenty of pro football players who would relish the opportunity to step into the Octagon and throw some punches at a reporter. But on this scorching 100-degree day in Las Vegas in late July, trapped in an MMA gym with no air-conditioning, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart isn’t one of those guys. He leans against a wall with his hands on his knees, panting furiously as FOX Sports’ NFL Insider Jay Glazer barks at him. “Go get your gloves,” he shouts.
Leinart complies, instead of punching Glazer’s lights out, because the TV guy isn’t the TV guy today. He’s the co-founder, along with UFC legend Randy Couture, of MMAthletics, the first mixed martial arts training program for pro athletes, which operates out of Couture’s Xtreme Couture facility just off the Vegas Strip. The pugnacious Glazer, who regularly breaks the biggest NFL stories, has always been a fan of mixed martial arts. On this day, he bounds around the matted floor on the balls of his bare feet, then intermittently strikes a row of heavy bags with thunderous leg kicks. Before breaking into journalism, Glazer was even an MMA fighter, notching a 1-1 pro record in 2003. “Football is my career,” he says, “but MMA is my love.”
Knowing the benefits of MMA training, Glazer believed pro athletes could enhance their physical gifts with the endurance, flexibility, and strength training that UFC fighters like Couture routinely undergo when prepping for fights. In 2007, Glazer persuaded NFL defensive end Jared Allen to join him for off-season training at Arizona Combat Sports, an MMA gym near their homes in Scottsdale. Allen lifted in the mornings, then trained in jiu-jitsu, which greatly improved his hip flexibility. Later in the day he practiced either kickboxing or wrestling to help build explosiveness. By the time he arrived at training camp, Allen had dropped 25 pounds of “bad weight.” He says his improved mobility helped him get a better jump on the line of scrimmage.
“My core strength and cardio went through the roof,” says Allen, who led the NFL in sacks for the Kansas City Chiefs (15.5) in 2007 and made his first All-Pro team before signing the largest defensive free agent contract in league history with the Minnesota Vikings the next off-season. Allen still trains in MMA as often as he can, bringing his Thai pads with him on the road. “I’ve never been in as great shape,” he says. “I don’t even run anymore. All I do is fight training.”
Through his profession, Glazer has built solid relationships with players in every NFL locker room in football. He began getting requests from guys around the league, asking if he could help them make off- season strides like Allen. “It’s the first time, I think, in sports that athletes have come to a reporter and said, ‘OK, make me great,'” Glazer says. “And I’m interested to see how it goes.” Recognizing potential, Glazer reached out to Couture about turning his informal idea into a business. “I presented it to him for five minutes, and he said, ‘Jay, I’m in. I see it, and I love it,'” says Glazer.
“It actually made a lot of sense to me,” says Couture, 46, who remains one of the UFC’s top heavyweights. “Anytime you open your mind and get new perspectives and take them back on the field, it’s a positive thing.” MMAthletics charges athletes a weekly or monthly fee for access to the trainers, equipment, and workouts that pro fighters like Forrest Griffin and Couture themselves use. For another fee, they’re permitted to come and go as they please during their off-season. There’s no live sparring, but there’s plenty of pad work and circuit training with med balls, body-weight exercises, and rounds of grappling. “We will find what you think is your breaking point and get you to blow past that to a new breaking point,” adds Glazer. “And we’ll get you past that.”
Leinart and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis are living (barely) testimonials. A two-time national champion at USC, Leinart has been a disappointment in his first three NFL seasons. The 2004 Heisman Trophy winner came to Las Vegas hoping to absorb the kind of toughness Couture and his MMA peers ooze from their pores. By contrast, Willis, a third-year player out of Ole Miss, is already a bona fide star, leading the NFC in tackles and making the Pro Bowl in both of his first two seasons. Texting with Glazer in early July, Willis asked if he knew about any new workouts that would help him sharpen his killer instinct. “I wanted to get him around a world-class fight team,” says Glazer, “so their attitude gets in his head.”
Each athlete’s workout regimen is customized for his respective sport and position. Leinart and Willis both start with jump rope, Leinart on one foot at a time to improve his balance. They both do pad work next; Leinart, whose long and lanky build is best suited for Muay Thai, works combinations in the boxing ring, while Willis throws punches against a trainer’s mitts in the Octagon. Striking helps them improve hand-eye coordination, reflexes, and core strength. Sometimes, when Leinart is throwing knees at the heavy bag, Glazer will shove him around to imitate the chaos in the pocket.
A few feet away from Willis, Couture pushes through his own strength and conditioning session. He’s six weeks out from a late August fight with Antonio Nogueira at UFC 102 (he lost on points, but afterward signed a new six-fight contract with the UFC) and is alternating timed-interval sprints on an aerodyne bike with sledgehammer swings, med ball throws, and overhead squats. Everything is built to make athletes, whether they’re football players or fighters, as fit as possible.
“We’ve got seven or eight guys all getting ready for fights in the next two months,” says Couture. “It’s not about proving anything to anybody, it’s about pushing each other and making each other better.” They get there not only through grueling workouts but also by learning from one of the best about how to dial into the mental aspect of training. “You can’t buy Randy Couture sitting down to talk to you about what it takes to be an elite athlete,” says Glazer. “Randy talks; you listen.”
After finishing their striking session, Leinart and Willis take turns throwing combinations at the heavy bags, punctuating each set with a burpee. Their hips sag from fatigue. Once a bell signals the end of a minute-long interval, each grabs a 150-pound dummy on one shoulder, carries it 20 feet away, throws it on the ground and pounds it, transitioning from side mount to full mount before repeating. Glazer and Couture then hold a taut string a foot off the ground, and the players take turns jumping over it, then sliding underneath. “Patrick says this is easy,” Glazer tells a sweaty Leinhart. “Good for him,” the QB deadpans. The guys crack up.
Both men have made great strides from their first few sessions in the program. “I was trying to kick, and was just like, ‘Fuck this, it’s not for me,'” says Willis. “But the more we worked on agility, it really helped. Now I do stretches that before aggravated me a little bit.” During one early session, Glazer made Leinart puke from going at full speed for a 10-minute round, with exercises changing every 30 seconds. But he didn’t quit. “Afterward, I said to him, ‘Do you know what we just worked on?'” says Glazer. “And he goes, ‘Everything.’ I said, ‘No, man. We worked on your heart.'” After that, Glazer noticed a change in his attitude. “The Matt Leinart I knew was some prissy pretty boy who I would love to have fought in two seconds,” he says. “But he’s not the same Matt Leinart.”
After finishing his session in the Octagon, Willis unwraps his gloves and heads over to find Couture. The striking helps him hand-fight with offensive linemen and shed blocks. He has learned not to overlean when trying to push an opponent off of him, using leverage rather than brute strength. Through three weeks in Vegas, Willis shed body fat without sacrificing pounds on the scale. “He didn’t lose any weight,” says Glazer, “but he added a shitload of muscle.” Willis headed to camp in August lighter than his prior playing weight of 240 pounds and found himself more aggressive than in the past. “Patrick is the nicest guy in the league,” says Glazer, “but he’s become nasty.”
At least five other NFL players and the staff of major league baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays have contacted Glazer about training with him before the start of the next season. He even got an inquiry from retired NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. It might be hard for elite athletes to trust their conditioning to a reporter, yet Glazer is confident that the results will overcome any misgivings. “If you can check your ego at the door and you’ve come to work, I will get your career better than it ever has been,” Glazer says. “I will change your life.”
|Check out our exclusive photo gallery featuring Matt Leinart and Patrick Willis training with Jay Glazer, and Randy Couture at MMAthletics in Las Vegas.|
For more about the workout that made Matt Leinart puke, pick up our Dec/Jan issue on sale November 23, 2009.