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Click Debate: What are the next steps in MMA’s rapid evolution?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — The evolution of mixed martial arts was on full display during International Fight Week here back in July.

No, not the historic UFC 200, which set the promotion's Las Vegas gate record, or the accompanying cards around it. The true mark of where the sport is going was seen two days before a fight took place, in a corner of T-Mobile Arena overlooking The Strip.

On the Tuesday night prior to International Fight Week began in earnest, the UFC held an educational summit for coaches. Many things were discussed, including injury reduction, the science of hydration, training statistics and the mental aspect of competition.

To think that just a little more than 20 years ago, the term MMA did not even exist and the in-cage action resembled something closer to a bar brawl than an actual sport. The way mixed martial arts has grown in the past two decades has been enormous and the next jump in evolution is upon us.

Next April, the UFC will open its brand new campus in Las Vegas and the crown jewel will be the Athlete Health & Performance Center. The UFC is promising the 30,000-square foot facility will have everything and anything an athlete will need to take his or her game to the next level.

According to a presentation last month at the coaches summit by UFC director of athlete development James Kimball and UFC Hall of Famer and executive Forrest Griffin, the Performance Center will have everything from full-time coaches to chiropractors and acupuncturists. The plan is to have at least 12 staff members, including a coaching staff. A fighter can do his or her entire training camp in the facility, free of charge.

The Performance Center will be run by a head of performance and advisory board, which will contain doctors. The facility will also have technology like a hypoxia lab, cryotherapy and bone-density scanning. The standard workout and MMA equipment will be available, of course, as will be things like a sauna.

Medical and nutrition personnel will be on hand. Fighters can rehab their injuries at the Performance Center, too.

The thing that excites UFC vice president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky the most, he said, is the information that will be available on weight management. Many people think of Novitzky as the UFC's anti-doping head, but he has been integral in instituting early weigh-ins with commissions and the UFC's weight management guidelines.

Novitzky told MMA Fighting that one of the plans is to have doctors and researchers at the Performance Center conduct studies on things like dehydration in MMA athletes. That kind of information can change the game, where for too long the philosophy of weight-cutting has been "bigger is better" despite obvious performance disadvantages.

"We've been consulting with experts, but sometimes the combat sports UFC athlete is different than other research subjects," Novitzky said last week at the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC) annual meeting. "So, the ability to do our own research on our subjects to be sure that they're being given the resources and information to do things in the safest manner possible. That really excites me.

"It's exciting, I think not only just for UFC athletes, but we're a leading promoter and we see ourselves in that leadership role having an obligation to help out all combat sports. If we can get some published research in some of these areas, we help out all combat sports athletes."

Novitzky, UFC medical consultant Dr. Jeff Davidson and Dr. Robert Kenefick, a military doctor who studies hydration in soldiers, did a presentation at the coaches summit regarding weight management. Dehydration and weight cutting are two of the hottest topics in MMA right now.

Kenefick said he has found that soldiers who are just 2 percent dehydrated have a significant drop off in performance. Davidson said that any fighter who thinks they can lose 20 pounds over a short period of time and then perform optimally are "kind of kidding themselves." He added that most injuries occur in the latter stages of training camp when dehydration and fatigue are an issue.

As most fans know, injuries are one of the most frustrating parts of MMA. Countless UFC fights have been lost over the years — some of the high-profile main events — due to injuries in training. Those will never cease to exist, but they can be reduced and that's one of the goals of these summits and the Performance Center.

"Injuries hurt us all," UFC senior vice president of public relations and athlete development Dave Sholler told MMA Fighting. "But in reality, it's not just injuries. It's about redefining what the sport looks like 20 years from now and laying the foundation now with all of the people who have made it successful today."

The coaches summit also featured a presentation from UFC performance partner EXOS, the company that worked with the German men's soccer team en route to its 2014 World Cup victory. EXOS breaks down different parts of body performance statistically after workouts to show athletes strong and weak areas. (More on EXOS here)

Mental conditioning coach Trevor Moawad, who consults for high-level college football teams like the University of Alabama, finished the night with a presentation about that side of athletics.

The UFC holds summits like this for athletes per year and a few for coaches as well. Firas Zahabi, Ray Longo, Edmond Tarverdyan and Rick Little were just a few who came last month. Julianna Pena, who was fighting Cat Zingano just four days later, took time out of her fight week schedule to attend in an effort to gain some further knowledge.

Last year, the UFC moved to smaller groups of fighters attending multiple summits throughout the year. Sholler said that has been a success, much in the same way that smaller class sizes are better in college.

"We just feel like we've connected with the athletes in a way that we never have before," Sholler said. "We learned probably just as much as they did. But what we realized is to truly bridge the gap and maximize performance and reduce training injuries and things like that, we had to get everybody in a room."

The entertainment aspects of MMA are readily available for consumption online daily. Maybe those are the most outward expression of the UFC. But there are people behind the scenes attempting to advance MMA as a sport. It benefits the fighters and that obviously ends up benefiting the promotion.

Advanced metrics, science and nutrition will be the foundation of MMA's next wave. Injuries have cost fighters millions of dollars. Cutting weight through severe dehydration can erode the body. With all the improvements the sport has made over the last two decades, more are needed.

Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta cashed out last month for $4 billion, selling the UFC to Hollywood talent agency WME-IMG. Dana White made somewhere north of $300 million in the deal. The fighters getting a more equal share of revenue is also part of MMA's next phase. Multiple groups attempting to put together a union for fighters have emerged over the last few weeks. Athletes getting paid more will only ultimately be better for the sport.

These education summits are integral as well. The impending Performance Center could be a game-changer.

The Fertittas and White have made a killing in this business. They have also put back in a great deal of money and time to make the UFC — and really the sport — what it is today. The evolution is continuing.

"It's 1,000 percent an investment in the future of this sport across all fronts and it's 1,000 percent investment in our athletes — current, past and future," Sholler said. "From a rehab perspective, from a recovery perspective, for just preparing your body for — for lack of a better term — combat, it's 1,000 percent an investment in the future."

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