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How to win (or lose) a one-night MMA tournament

Wander Roberto, UFC

This Friday night, eight welterweights of various repute will converge on Tulsa, Okla. to collide in a throwback competition to mixed martial arts' days of yore. The one-night, single-elimination tournament, a concept once considered to be the meat and potatoes of the sport, may have fallen out of favor over the years, as techniques grow more sophisticated, athletes more deadly, and state commissions more rigid, but boy, there was a time when the bracket was the truth.

Now Battlegrounds MMA is leading the eight-man tourney into a mini-revival of sorts. UFC veterans Jesse Taylor, Cody McKenzie, Luigi Fioravanti, Brock Larson, and Roan Carneiro have all signed on to join former Strikeforce fighters Trey Houston and Joe Ray, plus late-comer Randall Wallace, in a wild romp through the dark ages, where one man will ultimately best three opponents within a span of a few hours to take home a $50,000 grand prize (and the knowledge that they just might have been able to withstand the backroom bar-jousts that populated the early days of the sport).

Chael Sonnen and WWE legend Jim Ross have agreed to MC the proceedings. And so given the curious spectacle that Battlegrounds O.N.E. is likely to provide, we've taken a look back into the era of the tough guy, collecting the thoughts and experiences of several fighters who braved the bracket and (occasionally) emerged victorious.



Chael Sonnen (DangerZone, IFC: Global Domination): The eight-man tournament is just cool. That's what got us all started, watching Royce Gracie go through it -- or at least all the guys from my generation, that's how we started. And it's hard. It's really hard. Skills play into the first round. Come the second round and the finals, skills are the number three or four thing. The first one is just, flat-out: how tough are you? How bad do you want it? Can you go when you're hurt? Can you go when you're tired? And then comes your skills.

So it's really an admirable thing. Anybody who even raises their hand and signs up for it, I really respect.

Mark Coleman (UFC 10, UFC 11, Pride Grand Prix 2000): That was kinda the beauty of fighting back at UFC 10. Honestly, we didn't have four coaches or five coaches like they have now preparing you. I had to go with my own gameplan. A lot of times in wrestling, the sport allows you to be defensive and cautious at times, and I did that quite a bit in my wrestling career. But when I walked into the cage at UFC 10, that was the beauty of it, that's what I think fans liked. I didn't have any other gameplan except: it's a fight.

Dennis Bermudez (Shine Fights 3): The thing is, I remember watching those guys and just being like: ‘Those guys, they're freakin' nuts, man. I'll never do that. These guys are crazy.'

But I was living with my mom and my grandma at the time, and somebody addressed me with this opportunity: ‘Hey, you can fight a tournament. Winner gets 50 grand.' I was like, cha-ching! Let's rock and roll. I'm in. Say no more. I even told my work, like, hey I have an opportunity to win 50 grand, so I'm not going to be here for the next three weeks.

Tim Kennedy (Extreme Challenge 50): [Last] Saturday night, I prepared for Yoel Romero. I prepared for his wrestling, his explosiveness, his ability to go from outside of range to very big, explosive power punches inside of range. That's me preparing for one specific dude. What I love about tournament fighting is, you're not preparing for a guy. You're just making yourself a better fighter. You're just being the best version of yourself, so when you go and perform against three or five different dudes, you're just being the best fighter that you can possibly be.

Kaitlin Young (BodogFight 2007 Women's Grand Prix): I didn't know who I would be fighting, so there was almost less anxiety about it. It was just, well, I guess I'm just going to get in really good shape and fight my heart out. And that's was it.

It was actually more simplistic, in a way.



Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Rings: King of Kings 1999, Rings: King of Kings 2000, Pride Final Conflict 2004): At the PRIDE heavyweight tournament in 2004, my team went early to Saitama Super Arena. I decided to stay a little longer at the hotel and catch the subway later, but there was a snowstorm in Japan and the subway couldn't move. The PRIDE guys were trying to find me.

So, Rogerio's there and has to pretend he is me during the pre-fight show. They even have face-offs with the fighters, and Rogerio is the one in there with Fedor.

Bermudez: I was kinda younger at the time. I don't know, I kinda felt invincible. I was working with Tim Boetsch a little bit, living in Pennsylvania, and he was just like, go in there, take the fight to the ground, let's work a lot of your submissions so you can go in there, finish the fight damage-free.

But in my head I was like, what are you talking about, dude? I'm going to go in there and I'm going to f--king beat some people up.

Coleman: Wrestlers, we always felt we were the toughest guys in the world. We just believed that. Well, now I've got a chance to prove it. So I'm walking out to the cage and the nerves started kicking in. You've got to keep that worm of doubt out of your mind. Well, I was starting to wonder, what if this Moti Horenstein, karate world champion, what if he does have some kind of flying 360 backspin kick and he lands it right on my freakin' forehead and I drop like a bug in 10 seconds? What am I going to do if that happens?

Jake Shields (Rumble on the Rock 9): I was sort of looking past Yushin Okami a little bit because he wasn't that known. I mean, he obviously turned out to be the great fighter that he is, but at the time I remember expecting an easy first fight. That's never an easy spot when you're expecting an easy one, and you get a tough one, and he was such a physically demanding fighter. Afterwards, I was just physically exhausted. I remember going back, and I just laid down in the room trying to get my head together for another fight.

Coleman: I can't speak for anybody else, but I remember after my first fight with Moti Horenstein, I remember coming back and it was one of the coolest things that I had ever done in my life. I just went in and I got an opportunity to beat somebody up without the police coming, and I got my arm raised, and people were applauding for something that normally would get me into a lot of trouble. For me, there was no emotional letdown. It was the complete opposite. I felt like a million bucks.

Miesha Tate (BodogFight 2007 Women's Grand Prix, Strikeforce Women's Welterweight Tournament): It's bizarre, because after you have a fight, you have somewhat of an adrenaline dump. And that's a very rewarding feeling. ‘Oh man, I can finally let my hair down. I've been in this grueling training camp for months now and had to diet like a mad person, I've had to make weight, I've had to go through all these things and it finally paid off. I can wipe the sweat off my brow and go grab a beer with my friends and just relax for a moment after all this high stress.'

Well, when you're in a one-night tournament you can't do that. You can feel that dump of, ‘yes, I won, finally.' And then immediately you're seized again by the throat by: ‘Oh, I have another fight.' And professionally it's a more difficult one, because that other person had to beat another fighter to get where they're at too, so process of elimination means that each fight should potentially get more difficult. It's an emotional roller coaster.

Kennedy: That's the energy maintenance, we'll call it. What you do with your adrenaline, what you do with your energy in each fight, in between each fight. Like, psyching yourself up, ‘oh I made it to the third fight.' For me, it's just going out every time and think: perform. I try to stay super steady. I love tournaments. Love ‘em.

Coleman: I've seen other fighters who were in eight-man tournaments, where I cornered them and they ran out of steam. One, a friend of mine came back -- well, he pretty much collapsed in the backroom because he had a 20-minute war, and now he's got to get up and go fight a second round. My buddy Eric Smith. He fought Pele for 20 minutes, then he came back in the locker room, he collapsed, and we knew we only had about 20 f--king minutes before he was back up. I saw his mind basically leave, and all he wished was that the night was over. But no, he had to pull it together, and actually he had to go fight Dan Henderson, so it wasn't really an easy second round.

So we had to get him on his feet, and we had to pull him together, but his adrenaline and his emotions were gone, shot... and yeah, he was dead.

Bermudez: The thing is, after I fought, it wasn't like, ‘you're fighting again at this time; it's this time right now.' It is like: ‘Go upstairs, be ready, we'll get you when you're on deck.' Like... what? What does ‘be ready' mean? Is that a half-hour? 45 minutes? Is that two hours? It wasn't like there were any TVs upstairs to see how far along the card was or anything like that. I had no idea, so I just started stretching. I'm in the same locker room as Drew Fickett, who I'm fighting in the next round. He just went out and tapped out ‘Crazy Horse' in the first round, so he's feeling pretty fresh.

And man, I just had this negative thought going into the next round. Like, I'm tired, and I kinda don't want to be here. It was something, but I had to go out and fight to get that check, you know?

Shields: Honestly I wanted more time between the fights. Carlos Condit went out there and finished Frank Trigg so fast, and I think there was one other fight in between, so it ended up not being that much time. I just remember laying down for a few minutes, then the next thing I know they call me back out and I'm thinking, ‘aw s--t, I'm not ready yet. I've got to go back out and fight already?' It was just one of those things, you just pull your head together, go out there and do it.

Kennedy: I like less time. You don't want to cool down. Once you do, it's painful. And especially when you're fighting, when things start cooling down and you start feeling things, that hurts. So I like keeping adrenaline going, keeping the sweat going, so you just get into the next fight, perform, keep a sweat going so you can get into the next fight, perform.

Sonnen: I'd probably always rather have a little more time. One of the things that happened to me in my first tournament, the Dangerzone, they had a really strange system back then, and I didn't understand it. I didn't understand it in the rules meeting. I didn't understand it until I was in the ring. It was: if there was a 15-minute fight, if you didn't figure it out on your own, you didn't finish the guy, you would go into a three-minute overtime period. Now, what I thought that meant was, you're going to fight for 15 minutes, and if it's a draw, you go into a three-minute overtime period. Otherwise you should just call it an 18-minute fight. There's no reason to do that. But they did, and I didn't understand it.

So you know, I'm exhausted out there. I'm out there fighting, and I had only had one or two matches in MMA at that point, so I wasn't totally ready. So we go the full 15 minutes, I'm exhausted and I think we're done. And then all of a sudden I find out, nope, back to you corners, three more minutes. So I go the full 18. Now I've got to come back to the finals. For my finals match, my guy had a chokeout in the first round in, I don't know, 54 seconds. It was less than a minute. So I'm exhausted, I'm banged up, and I'm taking on a guy who basically just got a really good warm-up in. And again, that's just the reality of a tournament. That's why you want to finish guys.

Kennedy: Even in baseball or soccer tournaments, however hard [an opponent] had to play in that first game, that's going to influence how you're going to play them in your next game. So let's say the team you're about to play, they went into overtime, you see the players trying to get the Gatorade in between games and they're hurting. You're like, okay, we're going to push the pace for this game. It's the same. Your strategy is going to change depending on how that last fight was. You're watching the fights in between your fights to see how they're performing, what they're wanting to do.

So it's not luck to me. The whole thing is about strategy. Like the ECC tournament that I fought, I got cut really bad in the first fight. And I'm hiding in the bathroom from the athletic commission so I could fight that second fight. Chuck Liddell is watching Jason Miller in his fight fight because the winner of that fight is who I'm going to fight next. He's like: ‘Okay, Jason submitted him but he was looking tired, so let's push the pace and hit big takedowns, try to wear him out.' And that's exactly what we did. It's all strategy.

Coleman: Headbutting people kinda helped me a lot, too, so I was fortunate enough that I was in the headbutt era. You've gotta be remembered for some things, and that was one of them.

Bermudez: It's tough, man. It definitely makes me feel super mentally tough about going into these single fights. Like, man, you fought more than once in one night. You can go out there and just give it your all for just one fight tonight.

Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (IFC: Global Domination, Pride Final Conflict 2005): At IFC, few people remember that I was supposed to fight in the first fight of the tournament against Paulo Filho, then I would have to fight two other fights that night. But days before the event [Filho] had some paperwork issues and couldn't fly, so I fought Erik Wanderley, a three-time jiu-jitsu world champion. I kicked him a lot and hurt my foot, and I remember that I had to just keep putting in on ice before my second fight against Babalu.

Sonnen: I like that feeling. I like being hurt or injured, limping out there and getting through it. It just feels normal, it's what I know. But it plays a toll on some guys. A lot of guys aren't used to it, and largely it's why tournaments went away. They were having tournaments and guys just weren't going out there for the semifinals or the championship match. You're putting an alternate into the championship match. There's nothing wrong with it, it's still great entertainment and it's the process, but there's problems with it. From a competitive architectural standpoint, that's not what it's meant to do.

Coleman: I remember one, we were over in Brazil, and basically everybody is in the same locker room. I'm over there with Nick Nutter. He loses his mouthpiece before the first round, so he goes up to Paul Varelans and borrows Varelans' extra mouthpiece. There wasn't any hot water around, but he figured out how to make it work. So he borrows Paul Varelans' mouthpiece, wins his first round, and then in the second round he had to fight Varelans. And there were no rules, pretty much. They didn't check the tape job. We had no gloves on, so we just used basically regular athletic tape. We taped his hands up, and we kinda got a little bit over the knuckles. Just a little bit. Close call, but there was nobody checking. Well, he went out there and he took Varelans down. Ground and pound is what Nutter did, and he threw a big right hand. I think the tape might've grabbed, and Varelans split wide open on pretty much the first punch of the night.

Nutter went on to win, so we get back to the locker room and Varelans is laying there getting stitched up. Me and Nutter are sitting there talking to him. Consoling him, or whatever you want to call it. As Varelans looks up, he says: ‘Wait, were your hands taped up like that during the fight?'

(Coleman chuckles.)

So we kinda just sneak away real quick. Luckily they were putting his stitches in at that time, so he kinda thought he lost track of his mind. I'm not super proud of it, but that's what happens.

Anyway, here's where the story gets weird. So Nutter loses his first mouthpiece. Now he's got Igor Vovchanchyn in the finals, and he's lost the mouthpiece that he borrowed from Paul Varelans. After he beat Varelans, we had to go up and ask him if, by any chance, he had another mouthpiece. Well, he only had the one that he was using... so, as disgusting as it sounds, Nutter used it. He used it.

Well, before he used it, he went and rinsed it out in this bucket. They had kind of a water/spit bucket in there. Nutter was pretty out of it getting ready for the finals, so he splashed his face with a little water, cleaned off the mouthpiece a little bit, then he actually took a scoopful and took a drink of it, because he wasn't thinking too clearly, right? If you can add that up, he just took a big drinkful of spit and Brazilian f--king sewer water, or whatever it was, and... well... he lost in the finals anyways -- but the question is, did he have any problems the next day? Try for the next two weeks. He was on the toilet. Just from the drink of water and the mouthpiece, he was on the toilet.


(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)



Kennedy: I was fighting in Northern Florida, St. Augustine. It was a barfight tournament, and it was, like, pillows with a canvas over it with a five rope ring that was in this bar. Eight-man tournament, so I fought three fights that night. There was no weight classes, and I ended up first round getting a knockout, second round getting a submission. Third round, I'm coming in and I just see this mammoth of a human. He's like 290 pounds, and I was like... oh man, this is going to be rough.

Threw a double-leg on him and he sprawls. His belly hits me in the back of the head. I go down on this canvas and I can't breathe because it's like pillows and canvas. There's pillows, not padding, pillows underneath the canvas floor ring. So it's not a real ring. It's like posts with five ropes and pillows with canvas over it, that was our ring. And I'm just sitting there like, I'm going to suffocate to death underneath this big huge Samoan guy.

I was finally able to sit out, get to the side, ended up choking him out. But my hands were so swollen, the back of my head was knotted up from his elbows, because he elbowed me in the head while I was underneath him trying to breathe for my life. That was on a Friday night. The next day, Saturday, we go to the lake. My buddies go and tie me up, sitting inside an inner tube. I have both my hands sitting in buckets of ice. There's a third inner tube with tequila in it. So they tie my two hand inner tubes and my booze inner tube to my own inner tube, tie that to the pier, and they just push me out. They just left me there for like six hours with my hands in this ice, drinking tequila, trying to not feel the pain.

Shields: It was just crazy. I think I was one of the least known guys in the tournament, so going out there and winning the tournament was a great day. Your body is banged up, you're tired, exerted. I think it was like $10,000 or $12,000 for second place, and an extra $30,000 on top of that for first. It was a big difference. That doesn't seem like much now, but at the time paydays weren't that good. That was the first time I made any money in this sport, so I was pretty excited. I was able to go out and buy a car and have money to train fulltime. But I just remember that night, my friends were trying to drive me out to party, and I was so tired. I just wanted to go home and sleep.

Sonnen: Four-man tournament. Nobody gets paid anything unless you win it. Winner gets $3,000. And at that time, that was all the money in the world. Nobody could make $3,000 to fight, no matter how many guys you had to fight. In fact my first UFC fight, which was years later, I got $2,000, just to put it in perspective for you. So I remember me and some buddies jumped into my truck and we drove all the way to California to do this thing. It was a good experience.

I think I gave most of that $3,000 back to the casino at the blackjack table before I left town... but it was still a thrill.

Nogueira: Winning a tournament gives you confidence. Knowing that you were able to beat two or three fighters in one night makes you really proud. I don't know exactly how much, but I made a lot of money. Big paychecks are always [another] good motivation.

Kennedy: Once I fought Ryan Narte, Cruz Chacon, and Jason ‘Mayhem' Miller in one night, and I won $2,000. That's not a lot of money to get hit in the head for three fights. But I was in college, and I was able to buy a school laptop. My trophy was so I could get through English class.

Bermudez: When I left the tournament I was like, ‘I'm done with fighting!' -- you know, because I lost. ‘I f--king hate this s--t! Blah, blah, blah.' I was a sore loser. It was bittersweet. That was the first loss of my career, so I was like, man, maybe if I didn't do the tournament, I would've never lost. But of course, there was a lot of things going on. I won (my first round fight), I beat a super solid guy, a super tough guy who had been in the UFC, so in my head I was like, man, I could be in the UFC one day. Looking back on it now, I think it's pretty cool because there's not too many guys who got into MMA when I did, or around the time, that can say they fought in a one-night tournament.

Coleman: I remember one tournament, (Igor) Vovchanchyn fought 70 minutes in the first two rounds, then he fought another 20 against (Nick) Nutter, so that's 90 minutes in one night. And he took a beating. After it was over, this guy was so beat to a pulp, you could not recognize him. But he had a big smile on his face still. Vovchanchyn was still sitting there smiling. You couldn't see who he was, but he was smiling. He just wanted some food.

Rua: I can't express in words how I felt the night (I won the Pride Grand Prix). It was amazing. I only realized what I had done days later.

Sonnen: It's incredible. It's absolutely incredible. When your body is sore, you feel like you just got hit by a train and you feel like you can hardly move, you can hardly get out of bed in the morning -- those are really good feelings. You worked really hard to get those feelings. And it is satisfying. I love it.

I had a fortune cookie one time. I remember it because it was really true. It said: ‘Rest is only enjoyed when it's deserved.' And when you come to one of those tournaments and you're so sore you can hardly move, you got cuts here, stitches over there -- you really enjoy that week off. You don't feel guilty about staying home or hitting the drive-through late at night, or whatever you may do to blow off your steam. So man, I loved it. I've been jealous a couple of times in my career, and it's largely from guys who were able to compete in eight-man tournaments, able to go in and win ‘em. I was just jealous because I know the way I look at those guys. I really respect them and I wanted to do it. I only got in one eight-man tournament and I didn't win it, and then they kind of did away with them.


(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)



Coleman: Preparing for an eight-man tournament, it would seem impossible these days.

Kennedy: It's dangerous. It's hard. The level of the sport got to such a degree where, the winner and the loser of the fight, only in rare circumstances, are coming out unscathed. Everybody's so good, especially at the higher levels. If you take Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Jacare, and myself in a little four-man tournament, those are going to be all five-round fights, because all four of us would take each other five rounds. It would be hard for me to finish any of those three. So you've got 25 minutes apiece, that's a rough night of work.

Rua: I've never experienced fighting three times in one night, but I think it would be even more difficult for the physical aspect of the challenge. Two fights in one night were already hard, especially in the level that MMA is today, so fighting three times would be complicated.

The biggest challenge is to be ready mentally, technically and physically to beat two complete different opponents, with different strategies, in one night, and eventually deal with some injuries.

Coleman: Of course, you have to try to protect your hands because you have to be able to continue on. That would be the biggest problem today. Nobody would be able to advance to the second round because of all these broken hands. So you've got to make sure you take care of the first and second opponent as fast as possible and protect your body, because the only fight that really matters is the finals. It's right place, right time.

Honestly, I should've been worried about my hands more. After my first fight with Moti Horenstein, I realized right there, it's no street fight were you hit a guy a couple times and the fight's over, ‘cause I hit Moti Horenstein about five, seven, eight times on the ground, and it didn't seem like it was doing much damage even though they were solid blows. When I got back to my locker room, I told my manager, cornerman, whoever was in there, I told him I was taking the gloves off because they were getting in my way. That would've been a very stupid idea and thankfully they talked me out of it, because my next fight was with ‘Big Daddy' Goodridge, and if I didn't have gloves on with him, I'm pretty sure my hands would've been pretty wrecked after that fight.

Shields: It's tough, man. The one thing you gotta do is be mentally tough, just go out there and stay tough. Try to wrestle. Go lay down and cool off between fights, and go out there and fight your hardest.

Bermudez: There's definitely gotta be some strategy. I mean, I just went out there and fought like it was any other fight. Heads up for guys going in, look to almost make it like a grappling match if you can help it. Or, have your one-hitter quitter ready. You want them to be as short and easy as possible so your body doesn't start to bruise up and you don't get that lactic acid build-up.

Young: Only think about what's in front of you, and don't overthink it. Not what's happening earlier, not what's going to happen in the next round. Just right now. Had I tried to save something in my fights, I don't think I would've knocked anybody out. I think anytime you try to save, it creates a more lackluster performance.

Tate: I think you want to try to finish it, personally. You have enough time to really recover. You usually have half-an-hour or an hour, and damage is the most game-changing factor. If you take brutal leg kicks in your first fight and your legs are swollen and you can barely walk, you think you're going to do very well in your second fight? Chances are, probably not. So not sustaining damage is the biggest thing. Trying to get in and get out is, it's really, really important.

Nogueira: The sport has evolved a lot, so it would be more complicated to fight a tournament today. The most challenging part is keeping yourself at the highest level for every fight. It doesn't matter if you had a great fight, if you can't keep up in the next one.

Young: It's sort of an exercise in mental control. I think most people would probably say that. It's a real exercise in emotional control, whether it's not getting excited about your win or just not trying to stress, not trying to watch (everyone else). Like, I didn't even watch any of the other fights. My coach did. I just didn't want to see them. He watched them and told me what to do. So I would say it was really just an exercise in emotional control. That was probably the most difficult part.

Rua: Believe in yourself. Get ready and don't think about the other fights. Live the tournament each fight at a time and do your best to beat the opponent in front of you. The rest is consequence. Once the fight starts, anything can happen.

Sonnen: I remember [wrestling Dean Morrison once], and the score was 9-1 (in his favor). And if he got a technical fall or a pin, our team would have lost. It was very early in that match when I realized: my goal has changed. My goal has changed from winning this match, to just not getting pinned. I knew I had to hang on there, and I barely did.

If I was to give one piece of advice, I think I would give encouragement more than anything, which is: you're going to forget. As the night goes on, your goals are going to change. Much like mine did when I was wrestling Dean Morrison, your goals are going to change, and pretty soon you're going to be complacent. You're going to be happy to be there. Everybody is, including the guy who goes on to win it. But remember what you've agreed to do. You've agreed to go do everything within your physical ability to win a tournament. That includes showing up for the second round, that includes showing up for third round. It's all going to be over in one night, and you will regret it if you win and advance and don't continue on.

This may be our last opportunity in a while to see an eight-man tournament, and I think it means something. It's remarkable, and I think it's like going back in time. It'll be a surreal moment watching it. Don't forget that as the night escalates.


Interviews with Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira were conducted by's Guilherme Cruz.

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