While most mixed martial arts (MMA) gyms around the world are different in their own unique ways, mostly influenced by the owner’s personal style, fighters’ preferences and the climate, there are some things that will be the same. A large open mat space to practice grappling and movement drills, heavy bags to practice striking, and other accoutrements of fitness. Tugged away in a corner likely lives a space for the gladiators. A ring or a cage where MMA fighters and trainees can simulate the experience of being in a real fight.
Within this area fighters spar and make training as close as possible to the real thing. Strikes are traded, takedowns are shot at full force and submissions are sought after with ferocity. It is used to help bridge the mental and physical gap between training for, and actually competing, in the real match. However, new evidence suggests that both major and minor head trauma inflicted in sparring may have deleterious effects on a fighter’s long-term health. Scientists and medical experts are not the only ones who think this, as both current and retired fighters echo the sentiment. The likes of UFC welterweight fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who is arguably one of the most dynamic and exciting fighters to watch, has publicly announced that he has chosen to forego all impact sparring in training. “Cowboy” instead prefers to drill techniques and when the need does come to get into the mindset of hitting an opponent then he does not go beyond touch sparring, where the hardest hit delivered is but a mere tap.
However, there are fighters, trainers and entire gyms that believe that there is no replacement for live and full contact sparring. One of these camps is the famed American Kickboxing Academy in California which at one time housed the UFC heavyweight, light heavyweight and middleweight champions, (Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier and Luke Rockhold, respectively). The gym and the fighters mentioned are notorious for having all-out gym wars, and they say that it is these non-competitive but all-out fights that has developed them into the high caliber fighters and champions. When said this way, one cannot argue with the results. After all, this style of hard and rough training has produced champions. But, take a small step back and you will also find a team that is notorious for having their athletes pull out of fights due to injury incurred in training.
As the renowned author Tim Ferriss noted on the Joe Rogan Podcast, “There is no such thing as a biological free lunch,” in which he was talking about the effects that nutraceuticals can have on the human body, but the idea still applies to sparring, and especially striking. Whether it is full force (as seen in combat) or with half the force (as is usually seen in sparring), a punch to the head is still a punch to the head. The fighter receiving the blow may not be concussed and blacked out, but the brain is still taking impact. It is still being rocked back and forth within the skull and at times colliding with the skull itself. Keep this in mind, whenever you decide to step into the ring or cage or octagon for a couple of “light and friendly rounds”.