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A day at EXOS: The war on injuries and how the UFC is waging it

All photos via UFC

We are somewhere deep within the desert sprawl, and for Paul Felder, the fatigue is real. Max Holloway stands beside him, hands above his head, drenched in his own sweat, grinning. They are both loving this. I, on the other hand, am dead. Or at least mostly dead; the second coming of Westley from ‘The Princess Bride' slumped in Miracle Max's living room, waiting for the bellows to bring me back to life. We've reached the end of an afternoon's work, but for Felder and Holloway and the rest, this is just a halfway point. Day two of a four-day retreat that is beginning to feel less like vacation and more like a hyper-intellectualized version of boot camp. A spring getaway where the terms ‘mixed martial artist' and ‘professional athlete' feel pleasantly aligned.

Felder and Holloway are among the first group of 2016 to make the trek out west; the launch party for the UFC's one-year deal with EXOS, a world-renowned athlete performance center hidden in plain view within uptown Phoenix. Their foursome is rounded out by Kelvin Gastelum and Kamaru Usman, and it is exactly what you would expect: a mish-mash of young contenders and promising talents whose ages average out to their mid-twenties. The buzz words of the week are "injury prevention" and "performance maximization." Call it an investment into the future of UFC main cards.

That all of this is happening less than a week before not one, but two UFC events implode under the weight of injuries is just par for the course. Within days, the loss of light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier from UFC 197 and lightweight contender Tony Ferguson from UFC on FOX 19 pushes the number of main and co-main event casualties in 2016 to a whopping 11. Eleven times circumstances forced a Plan B in less than four months. In 2015, that number hit an implausibly high mark of 42. Forty-two changes over the course of 41 events. And that was considered a good year.

The trend is part of the reason why, after a historically unlucky 2014 campaign, the UFC sought EXOS out in the first place, hoping to curb a distressing pattern of injuries and archaic training methods that were sinking seemingly every major fight. "We're admittedly behind every other sport, every major sport -- basketball, soccer, football, hockey -- as far as our training," says retired former UFC champion Forrest Griffin, a sort of chaperone for the group, his T-shirt emblazoned with the day's mantra: Train Smarter, Fight Harder, Fight Healthy.

"Our athletes are individuals. They're left to their own devices. So we're just trying to be, almost, a good role model and expose them to what the point of strength and conditioning is, what the point of nutrition is, what you're trying to accomplish. Follow the lead of other sports where their livelihood, just like ours, is dependent on keeping athletes on the field or in the Octagon. Change the way guys do it, the canon that is MMA training. Let's revolutionize that."

If the goal is a revolution, EXOS certainly appears to be a good place to start. Founded in 1999 by Mark Verstegen, a 15-year Performance Director for the NFL Players Association, the expansive 31,000-square-foot Phoenix campus functions today as a haven of athletic enhancement. Aided by on-site specialists in nutrition, strength and conditioning, and physical therapy, its list of elite clientele has grown to be almost comically long; an acronym extravaganza that counts representatives from the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA, and U.S. Special Forces, to name a few. The UFC joined that list in 2015 on an exploratory basis, sending out three separate groups of fighters young and old to gauge whether there was magic in the madness, and attempt to understand exactly how widespread bad training habits were across the sport.

The result?

"I was surprised," admits Griffin. "Even a guy like Rashad (Evans), who's been around for years and had access to great strength coaches his whole career, a lot of things were new to him. I was just surprised at his level -- a champion, he's had so many big fights in his career -- he's still newer to strength and conditioning than I would have thought. I think it's just a difference of, you know, a lot of guys never asked why. Coaches told them to do something and they just did it."

That fundamental divide is how Felder and friends ended up in the middle of Arizona for a week of intensive physical education, and how I ended up huffing and puffing along with them to understand what it all meant. They are the first of many groups this year, UFC Director of Athlete Development James Kimball tells me. The UFC's partnership with EXOS allows for upwards of 50 athlete visits in 2016. Kimball expects to host trips at least once a month, each consisting of a week-long schedule of two-a-day training sessions with no more than six fighters, just to ensure the coach-to-athlete ratio stays at a healthy clip.

The UFC's package is all-inclusive, incorporating nutrition classes, massage, and therapy work between training sessions, and it is open to any UFC fighter who expresses an interest. "It's a resource available for anyone at anytime, essentially," says Kimball. "Weren't not going to mandate that guys come down here. This is available for everyone. If they reach out to us and they express an interest, we'll take care of you."

The one thing EXOS is not, however? A resort. This is no holiday.

***

Today, as with every day, the work begins bright and early.

Felder, Holloway, Gastelum, and Usman shuffle in at seven in the morning, scarf down a free breakfast, then head out to the facility's full-length football field to begin their morning session. Much of the EXOS training is circuit based, with a focus on balance and functionality. That does not make it easy though. Over a span of a few hours, the five of us are coached through a series of various strength and conditioning drills, all practical, each designed to target core muscle groups without overly punishing the body. A handful of NFL players and military personnel stretch across the leftover parts of the field, and Griffin watches from afar, occasionally jumping in when the mood strikes. When I ask his thoughts on everything going on, he recites what he calls his Cal Ripken story.

"Cal Ripken played, I don't know, a ton of games. I'm not a baseball fan," he says. "But he had a little gym out back in his house where he worked out everyday. Above the doorway, it said: You're a baseball player. So everyday he walked into the gym, he's not a weight lifter -- he's a baseball player. He's in the gym lifting weights to be better at his sport. That's the mindset you have to come up with.

"You've seen the circuits Wanderlei (Silva) used to do, right? They're f*cking badass. They're fun. They're awesome. I love them. I still do them today. But it's not good for you. It's stupid. You're going to take damage doing this sport. Why not keep the damage in the Octagon, as opposed to in the weight room? Guys getting hurt, torn up, beat up in the gym -- that's just dumb. You're in there to get better at your sport."

Our group jumps and twists and lifts, and as the morning wears on, the ethos Griffin is talking about begins to take shape.

Farther down the field, Holloway rips through a medicine ball drill like it is already second nature. I come to find out, it kind of is. Holloway is just 24 years old, a top featherweight contender, and has already fought 14 times in the UFC. Not once during that stretch has he pulled out of a bout. He, not coincidentally, is also the only one who asked the UFC to fly out his strength and conditioning coach, Darin Yap, to supervise the week. "We thought it was smart," Holloway says. "Because at the end of the day, I'm not a trainer. He's a trainer. I'm a fighter. I go in the ring and do one thing. His job is to train me. So it's great to just have another set of eyes here."

Yap was an early adopter of the EXOS methods, completing four separate mentorships with the facility before carrying its philosophy back to Hawaii and connecting with Holloway in 2009. He says the biggest thing he learned through his studies is that fighters, more so than most athletes, are prone to injury simply because of what the job already entails. When hurting is the game, the line between hard work and overdoing it becomes dangerously thin.

"They have jiu-jitsu, they have wrestling, they have striking. And then they have strength and conditioning on top of that," Yap says. "It's very rare in other sports to have that many skilled things to work on and get beat up doing. Every single one of those things is contact, right? So just trying to manage the volume is hard, and if you take a strength and conditioning program that just beats you up some more, at some point your body is going to break down."

In theory, it all sounds like common sense. Why grind yourself into dust in the gym when you should be saving your best for fight night? Getting hurt for free sounds less appealing than doing it for a paycheck.

Griffin is the old dog of the group, and he has all sorts of horror stories about the way things used to be. Tales of gym wars and marathons sessions that left everyone involved worse for wear. Back then, there were few strength and conditioning coaches with letters like MA or PHD attached to their names. Just tough guys aplenty. Many of those same methods are still around in one capacity or another, and it is easy to understand why. Coaches in this game can be stubborn, set in their ways after a decade of past results.

'A lot of guys never asked why. Coaches told them to do something and they just did it.'

The minds of those men won't be changed. Instead, the UFC's goal now is to prevent that dangerous line of thinking from passing on to the next generation.

"What happened is a sport existed one day where before it had not, so there was a vacuum for training," says Griffin. "The vacuum was filled by unqualified, uneducated people who had seen Rocky too many times, so they brought those old kind of boxing-type mentalities. ... You feel like you have to go hard. You feel like if you're not leaving it all in there, you're wasting your time.

"Max, though, is in a good spot. His coach hasn't really said a lot. He's been doing a lot of listening rather than talking. He's writing stuff down. He's making notes in his phone. He's taking pictures of the workout boards. He's on-point. So I'm really happy to see specifically that coach and how they're working together. That's kind of exciting. He'll truly be able to take it back."

Change ultimately starts at the top. Both Griffin and the UFC realize that, which is why the organization was so eager to foot the bill for Yap to accompany Holloway. A fighter can learn plenty on their own at EXOS, but the only way to preserve that knowledge and break through old stigmas is to assimilate the teachers themselves. "We were talking about it yesterday after day one," says Yap. "Obviously it's good they have the fighters come here, but when you go back home, if I didn't come with you, what are you going to tell me? Max won't remember sh*t. He's busting his ass out there. He's trying to do all of this, but the fighters aren't going to be able to relay that information back to [their coaches].

"It's good for them to experience this and to see the world-class facilities and the world-class services and how everything is integrated together, but it's a whole other thing for them to be able to bring that back to wherever they're from and regurgitate that to their team. Because at the end of the day, all the athletes just walk into the gym and do what they're told, right? So a coach has to be able to understand the methodology, come here and then implement it. That's how he helps his athlete. It's kind of hard to go the other way around."

Yap has a point, and the UFC hopes more coaches follow his and Holloway's leads. As for any coach who is too set in their ways? Griffin's answer to that fighter is simple.

"Get new coaches," he says flatly. "You'll go back and you'll have seen what it's supposed to look like. When your guy is telling you, ‘hit this, run this, carry that,' ask your strength coach: why? If they can't tell you how this is going to make you better, how this is going to make you stronger, more coordinated, more bulletproof to injury, whatever, then why are you doing it? So you'll know. You'll have a little B.S. detector. Once you've seen what it's supposed to look like, you'll be able to go back home and seek it out."

***

The phrase ‘state of the art' gets thrown around a lot, but within the cavernous EXOS facility, it truly feels like it fits.

Much of our group's first day was spent undergoing a battery of physical evaluations -- tests which dig up everything from dietary deficiencies to problem areas on the body which may be more prone to injury than the norm. "A lot of guys come here pretty banged up," says one member of the staff, who is unable to name names on the record, but mentions several fighters from last year's groups who were surprised to discover injuries they never knew they had; little nicks and tears which likely would have bloomed into something worse in time.

Those tests develop the foundation for the week. While some athletes may need targeted physical therapy work on their knees or shoulders, others may be lacking the desired nutrients in their post-workout lunch. With Felder and Co. having already run through that particular testing gamut, their morning session is ended with a protein shake and the second of three daily on-site meals. Each shake and meal is customized to fill the gaps in a fighter's own diet, the group learns as it sits down with Danielle LaFata, EXOS's Director of Performance Nutrition.

The world of nutrition in mixed martial arts is treacherously murky. That knowledge imbalance is understandable, considering that fighters are often left to their own devices to figure out what works and what does not. Some fighters in the upper ranks of the UFC have the resources to do so with professional help, however a large majority do not. And nowhere does that problem manifest itself worse than the bane of a fighter's existence: the weight-cutting process.

In our case, Gastelum can attest to that. It is not lost on the EXOS team that Gastelum has twice missed weight in the past, including a nasty incident at UFC 183 that required the young TUF winner to be hospitalized and rehydrated. Gastelum vows that he now has the problem under control with the help of nutritionist George Lockhart, but he won't be the last young fighter to bear the weight of such issues.

Fighters are often left to their own devices to figure out what works and what does not. Some have the resources to do so. A majority do not.

EXOS founder Verstegen is not ignorant enough to think that weight cutting can be erased from the sport, however he hopes to at least modernize it by minimizing the risks. "If you left all of this preparation to chance, that what you do in that last 24 to 36 hours could undermine what you've been doing for the last six months or 12 months, that's scary to me," says Verstegen.

"If we just said there's a world where our athletes can feel in top form, they're healthier, literally from joint pain all the way to biochemically, and they're always within, say, 10 to 12 pounds of their fighting weight, depending on weight classes, we'll probably have a superior product. (It would show) in the level of fights we're able to do and the health of our fighters, and them ultimately not having to do this drastic weight cut thing. If guys have good gameplans, it doesn't have to be so wild and crazy."

LaFata's job is to break those gameplans down for the layman. She passes out a laminated, double-sided sheet to every fighter in the group, each handout unique to the others depending on a fighter's day one test results. The information on it is broken down in astonishing detail, from daily meal plans and body composition analysis, to hydration requirements and targeted post-workout weights. If you want to find out the recommended serving size for a late-night snack, or which color vegetables you're lacking in your lunch, they're on there.

Soon the topic turns to supplements. The UFC's resident drug czar Jeff Novitzky, who has been silent up to this point, quickly cuts in.

Novitzky once led a federal investigation into performance-enhancing drugs that shook the wider sporting world, catching in its web Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong, among many others. Novitzky is now an executive at the UFC charged with overseeing its partnership with USADA. Less than a year since the program's inception, a myriad of fighters have already fallen victim to the increased testing scrutiny, including Yoel Romero and Tim Means, both of whom attributed their failures to tainted supplements.

Novitzky warns the group that the very same thing could happen to any of them if they are not careful. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has no involvement with approving supplements until after a complaint has been filed, he says, meaning a tainted supplement often sits on the shelf of a local GNC for months -- and sometimes years -- before it is investigated. "You and I could say, look, we're going to put a supplement company together. We can go collect dirt from a dirt pile, put it in some pills, and put it right on the shelves," Novitzky tells the group. "We don't need any government pre-market approval. It goes right to the shelf. It's only in the FDA's responsibility if something is wrong with it after consumers have been buying it and using it."

The realization shocks many the fighters in the room, several of whom begin furiously scribbling notes as Novitzky and LaFata walk through a best practices of where to find safe supplements and how to know what to look for if something appears sketchy. Within the week, news breaks that Romero ultimately traded a middleweight title shot for a six-month suspension because of his failed test. Means, meanwhile, forfeited his first UFC main event slot and remains in litigation limbo.

Safe to say, no one in this group wishes to join them.

***

The afternoon wraps up with the pièce de résistance -- a second, much more grueling training session. EXOS coaches guide us through a litany of advanced circuits, measuring each fighter's heart rate to ensure they are reaching the goals set for day. The final workout -- a course that begins with a sprint on a funky treadmill, moves to a medicine ball throw, then finishes with a resistance drill on a heavy bag -- is the dagger that finally does me in. I consider myself to be a man in relatively good shape, but I barely make it through five cycles before I bow out on the verge of death.

The rest of the group completes six more cycles in my absence. The struggle is real.

While Felder and Co. make their way to the cold tub, I ask Verstegen what he is most surprised by so far from these fighters. His answer is immediate: the hunger they have to learn. The fact that not once has anyone approached this barrage of new ideas with a scowl. "That's what I always love about the origin and the heritage of the sport. It is inherently around a growth mindset," he says. "Because it is, right? ‘I've got that mastered, I need to keep growing. I need to grow to the next level. I need to add this discipline to it. I need to keep growing.' It's an insatiable appetite with people who are relentlessly determined."

Next year, the UFC expects to open a new multimillion-dollar, 40,000-square-foot training facility in Las Vegas. The phrase ‘state of the art' reemerges often in its description. The massive complex is to be an amalgamation of everything the organization has learned thus far, containing fully stocked rehabilitation and strength and conditioning centers open to any UFC fighter at any hour of the day. The plan is to create a home-base of knowledge that fighters, cornermen, and coaches can all draw upon once they're in town. Just another step towards a healthier sport.

Several times during my visit to EXOS, Verstegen repeats his conviction that while many outsiders may believe there is an archaic nature to combative sports, the reality is that mixed martial artists are likely among the best athletes in the world, if only for the wizardry that goes on above their necks.

If you look at the NFL, a quarterback like Tom Brady carries a decision tree in his head that he grinds through on every single play -- if this happens, then I do this; if this happens, then I do that. With mixed martial arts, however, infinite decision trees are in play at any given moment. Every individual discipline -- whether it's boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, etc. -- provides its own endless chain of possibilities, all of which bleed into each other and smash together within the same nanosecond. "The complexity of their decision making and reactive ability, cognitively, the variable sets are probably some of the largest in any sport," Verstegen marvels. "And the speed at which it happens, if you don't get the answer right, you get what they would call expert feedback, meaning (a smack to the face).

"I think that's one of the greatest strengths I want the guys to realize they have. In order to do that, we need to think about how they're approaching all the rest of the day to best support that cognitive function -- meaning, I don't have to spar all day, every day. I need to make sure that, one, I'm of great focus and truly understanding of my measures and counter-measures, and two, that my body is able to go do the things that I need it to do.

"That's being a true professional."

There goes that word again. Professional.

The hurt business has long been full of tough guys. Coaches whose training philosophies never caught up with the science of the modern day. Maybe a few more professionals behind the scenes wouldn't be so bad? Who knows, maybe these new ideas will become infectious, spreading a new wave of best practices to all corners of the sport. "It's a competitive environment, right?" asks Verstegen. "Some guys will do it better than others, and that's going to be their competitive advantage. Word travels."

It is hard to say whether EXOS will ultimately make a dent on the war against injuries. At times, the problem feels like one with no answer, and this burden is a heavy one to ask. Still, if there is even the slightest chance that what is going on in Phoenix helps keep these mega-cards stacked together and mixed martial arts humming at its very best -- then by all means, let the word travel.

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