In the early days of the mixed martial arts — back when the sport was called “no-holds-barred fighting” — victory usually went to the competitor who’d mastered one fighting system. Recall how Brazilian jiu-jitsu stylist Royce Gracie beat everyone in the first few Ultimate Fighting Championship shows, often without breaking a sweat.
The level of MMA fighters gradually rose, and athletes discovered that cross-training was the key to winning: Master one art and supplement it with techniques from other arts that better deal with the ranges your main style may not address.
For the most part, that has remained the recipe for how to become an MMA fighter and succeed — with one important addition: Nowadays, you have to fine-tune your mix with guidance from a skilled coach.
Nate Marquardt is living proof of that concept. His 34-10-2 record has stemmed from his ability to master his base — Brazilian jiu-jitsu and boxing — and his recognition of the need to round out his skill set and hone it under the tutelage of renowned coach Greg Jackson.
Black Belt met up with Nate Marquardt at one of his favorite haunts, the Grudge Training Center in Denver. In this exclusive interview, he offered his advice for martial artists looking to learn MMA, whether for competition or personal development.
If a young person were to ask how to become an MMA fighter, would wrestling be the best base for getting into the sport?
Nate Marquardt: If you’re an American kid who’s interested in MMA, wrestling is the best place to start because it’s taught in most high schools. It gives you a great base and teaches balance and leverage.
Once you have the wrestling base on your checklist for how to become an MMA fighter, what do you recommend for hand skills — boxing techniques, kickboxing training, Thai boxing drills?
Nate Marquardt: There are advantages and disadvantages to all of them — and to karate-style striking, for that matter. The best way is to get good at one and then switch. Boxing is great. My first instructor was a boxer, but he also did kenpo and kyokushin. I learned how to use angles from boxing and kicks from karate. Thai boxing is good for the clinch.
When considering how to become an MMA fighter, is it better to train from the get-go at a gym that teaches a proven mixture of arts?
Nate Marquardt: If you have the opportunity, that’s great, but there are very few gyms that have that. A lot say they do but don’t. How good they are at each art is questionable. The more practical way is to find a school that’s very good at jiu-jitsu, for example, and go there for a while, then go to a striking gym for a couple of days a week. It doesn’t matter so much what style it is as long as the teacher is high level.
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How far will starting with BJJ techniques and striking take you in MMA?
Nate Marquardt: Eventually, if you want to be the best, you have to find a gym that has top fighters. But to start off at a gym like that — it’s not going to happen.
Are BJJ techniques essential for the grappling component of MMA?
Nate Marquardt: Some guys who come up from jiu-jitsu do well, and some guys who come up from wrestling do well. You definitely need to get to a high level in grappling — it can be wrestling, jiu-jitsu or judo. A world-class wrestler may not know any jiu-jitsu, but if he goes to an advanced grappling tournament, he’ll probably clean up even though he knows no submissions. Same thing with a judo guy. It’s important to be very good at one art rather than so-so at everything, but at the same time, you do want to be well-rounded.
Obviously, aerobic conditioning is crucial to ensure that you have the ability to access your grappling and striking skills. What type of training do you prefer?
Nate Marquardt: The best thing for endurance training is hard sparring. The only way to really build endurance for your sport is to train your sport. I supplement it with interval sprints and other things, but the best thing is to spar with guys who are as good as or better than you.
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What about conventional endurance activities like running, biking and swimming?
Nate Marquardt: I don’t do long-distance runs. I do interval sprints on a treadmill and on flat ground. I focus on short bursts for explosive energy. You actually work your cardio harder when you do interval training.
So a two-hour bike ride through the Colorado mountains isn’t applicable to MMA?
Nate Marquardt: Not at all. The only thing I might do is, if I’m sore or have an injury, I’ll swim for longer periods at a low intensity, but that’s not really for cardio.
How about strength development?
Nate Marquardt: I use weights for strength, power and speed three times a week if I’m not injured or beat up from a fight. I do a mixture of free weights and machines, but if I had to pick one, it’d be free weights. The most important exercises are the powerlifts — like the clean and jerk.
About the Fighter:
For more information about Nate Marquardt, see his fighter profile at UFC.com.
About the Author:
Robert W. Young is the executive editor of Black Belt.