A professional MMA training camp typically lasts 8-12 weeks.  However, with the current influx of injuries suffered by professional fighters, opponents can often change during the course of a training camp.  With gyms combining and expanding, the quality of training partners is always increasing.  Combining tougher training partners with the controversial use of testosterone replacement therapy, training camps are getting more dangerous for fighters.  More dangerous conditions lead to a higher likelihood of training-related injuries.  And any fighter would agree that while it is nice to have a long camp to train for a specific opponent, they always train to be the best fighters they can be at any given time.  With all of the recent injuries in training, at the pro level it’s important to be able to fight anyone at any time.

Adaptability is not only necessary in MMA, but in any pro sport.  One example is the Tim Tebow phenomenon of 2011.  Every team that had to play the Denver Broncos after Tebow was named starting quarterback had to face a different type of Broncos’ offense than they had been preparing for.  Did other teams say, “We’re not going to play this week, because we need time to prepare”?  And, although they made the decision going into a bye week, did the Broncos say, “We need at least a few weeks to get ready”?  Both answers are “No.”

Pro football players prepare before the season and practice every week during the season, so they are ready to adapt and overcome adversity, regardless of what changes happen with their opponents along the way.  This is an even bigger deal come playoff time.  So, how does MMA differ?

MMA is a year-round, full-time job.  MMA fighters do not have a true on- or off-season, because, unlike the NFL, NBA or MLB, the best competitors train constantly, every day, and are usually prepared to fight on short notice.  A fighter that is in training camp is even more ready to go on short notice than the fighters who are not in camp.

A handful of training camps are perennially on the list of the best in the world.  While they are not the only great camps, every fan can name a few world-class fighters from camps like The Pit, American Top Team, Black House, American Kickboxing Academy, Team Quest, Team Alpha Male and Team Jackson-Winkeljohn (TJW).

TJW is owned and run by Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn.  Together, Jackson and Winkeljohn have produced some of the world’s best champions, such as Rashad Evans, Nate Marquardt, Carlos Condit, Georges St-Pierre, and, of course, current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones.  Even though they are one of the most highly respected camps in MMA, TJW has been accused of excessive strategic gaming.

Strategy is something that is necessary in combat sports, but there is a point at which it can be too much, making the fights boring.  It can be likened to the dives that pro soccer players take, which plague that sport.

In one of the most highly-touted championship bouts in the history of TJW, Jon Jones was expected to face Dan Henderson at UFC 151 on Sept. 1. But on Aug. 22, Zuffa had to scramble to find a new opponent for Jones, due to a Henderson knee injury.  Although not the ideal match-up for a light heavyweight championship, Chael Sonnen stepped up to the plate and accepted the fight on eight days’ notice, only to have the fight refused by Jones.  Since the remainder of the card was not strong enough to stand up on its own, Zuffa was forced to cancel UFC 151, making it the first UFC event ever to have been cancelled.

Coach Jackson instructed Jones to not take the fight, stating that “three days’ notice” was not enough time to prepare for Sonnen and that it would be the biggest mistake of his career.  That was a little deceiving, considering he was near the completion of an extensive training camp.

Was this the right thing to do?  That has been a polarizing subject over the last five days.  However, looking at the state of injuries in UFC, the world-class Jones camp should have been, and probably was, planning for the possibility that a 41-year-old Henderson might have gotten hurt.  That being said, Jones was prepared to fight and should have taken the fight against Sonnen.  He was already training for a world-class wrestler and former MMA champion, and while Sonnen is also a great wrestler, he has slightly lesser boxing skills and relatively weak jiu-jitsu defense.  Jones would have essentially been fighting a slightly worse version of the same opponent.  As any pro fighter will tell you, the best in the world are, or at least should be, ready to fight anyone, any time, within a moment’s notice.

As a matter of fact, Jones won his current belt on short notice.

After his UFC 126 second-round submission victory over Ryan Bader on Feb. 5, 2011, Jon Jones was informed by Joe Rogan that he would be facing Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight championship in only six weeks at UFC 128.  Jones had just gone through an entire training camp, including the grueling weight cut, and had literally just finished the Bader fight, but that didn’t matter.  Jones gladly accepted the title shot on short notice, and subsequently defeated Shogun by third-round TKO to become the youngest champion in UFC history.

What would Jones’ and Jackson’s feelings have been had Shogun ducked the fight and told Jones he would have to wait in line for a shot?

Well, Shogun may have taken the Jones fight, but Jones refused to take the Sonnen fight on short notice, which angered a lot of fighters, including the other guys on the UFC 151 card that don’t have Nike deals to pay the rent.  In the blink of an eye, Sonnen went from perennial villain to instant hero, and he didn’t even get the fight.  However, this wasn’t the first time Sonnen took a fight on short notice.

Twenty-two days before UFC 98 in May 2009, Yushin Okami had to pull out of his scheduled bout against Dan Miller with a torn ligament.  Sonnen immediately stepped up to the plate and not only took the fight on three weeks’ notice, but had to make a 36-pound weight cut just to compete.  Sonnen made weight in 21 days and won the fight the next night by unanimous decision.  Of course, this was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a professional fighter has stepped up to the plate when the opportunity presented itself.

The next year, at UFC 128 in May 2010, after a multiple opponent shake-up in the roster, Dan Miller stepped up to the plate to face Nate Marquardt, another TJW fighter, on short notice, and, even though Miller put on a tough fight and took it the distance, Marquardt won by unanimous decision.

Less than two years later, at UFC on Fox 2: Evans vs. Davis, Sonnen was set to fight Mark Munoz, and Michael Bisping was set to fight Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu specialist Demian Maia.  With 11 days to go before the event, it was announced that Munoz suffered an injury and Bisping was moving up the card to face Sonnen instead.  So, with Sonnen training for a wrestler with powerful stand-up, and Bisping training for a BJJ phenom, neither balked at the chance to fight anyway, even if it was against an opponent that they were absolutely not training for.

Then, on May 30 of this year, Wanderlei Silva was set to face off against opposing coach Vitor Belfort at The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil finale, UFC 147.  Twenty-four days before the event, Belfort had to pull out with an injury and UFC veteran Rich Franklin, who hadn’t fought in a year and a half, stepped up in a catchweight bout with Silva, which he unanimously won in a five-round decision.

Professional fighters fight, no matter who the opponent is.  Jackson telling Jones to duck Sonnen on short notice was not a professional fighting decision, it was a strategic gaming decision.  If MMA is going to try to go mainstream and compete on the same level as the other major professional sports, the strategic gaming needs to go.  Regardless of what all of the critics on either side have to say, if Jones’ supposedly world-class camp had him ready to fight Henderson, Jones should also have been prepared for a fight with Sonnen.

There are several other examples of pro fighters taking fights on short notice, including those outlined here. But now there is only one example of a UFC event not taking place, and it’s because the headlining champion ducked a fight against a lesser opponent he supposedly wasn’t ready for.

Photo: Jon Jones (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator