Ultimate fighters: the long road to be a champion

Nothing comes easy when you're a warrior in the UFC, where heart is the key to a successful career and cash is the primary motivation.

Terry Etim, who fights at Yas Island tonight, is airborne in spectacular UFC action against Brian Cobb at the O2 Arena in London.
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There is no single ingredient that determines a successful Ultimate Fighting Championship practitioner. The trick, say exponents of mixed martial arts (MMA), is building a well-rounded game. A fighter braving the UFC's Octagon needs options. While mastering a variety of disciplines is imperative, brains an attribute not generally bestowed on those who willingly earn their crust inside the bloody confines of a wire-walled cage must dovetail with brawn.

There is one inherent characteristic that drives fighters beyond their physical capabilities, one factor that often makes the difference between winning and losing. It is the base necessity that determines whether a fighter makes it to the top or withers under the strain. The key requirement, the building block in every successful fighter's DNA, is heart. "As a coach, heart is the one thing you can't teach a fighter. Technically you can bring people along but heart is a special thing that can't be taught," said Shawn Tompkins, a former UFC fighter turned head trainer for TapouT, the MMA clothing range who operate a chain of training centres in America.

A fighter's courage comes to the fore long before he encounters the UFC cage. Prior to reaching the pinnacle of the sport, replete with its eight-sided treasure trove of around-the-waist gold, sacrifices must be made. Sometimes the hard choices span decades. Always they aid the dream. Things, however, are changing. Financial incentives in the UFC, an arena that exudes glamour and gore in equal measures, are higher than ever before. Cash, according to Tompkins, remains king. "The beauty of MMA is that there are a lot of different roads to take to become elite. But there is a huge misconception when people watch the UFC that these fighters are millionaires, living the life and rolling around in a Mercedes Benz. It's really not like that, especially for the guys at the bottom level."

The vast percentage of the lower rung fighters who beef up UFC bills but more often than not remain unseen by the global TV audience struggle day-to-day. While the organisers of tonight's UFC 112: Invincible in Abu Dhabi boast that the event will be broadcast in 130 countries, covering some half a billion homes and reaching one-and-a-half billion bloodthirsty fans, it is the sacrifices of the show's fighters that provide genuine human interest.

Most come from distinctly working-class backgrounds. Financial rewards aside, the majority have had to work and hard for their chance. With ground-and-pound spoils blinding their reality-deprived eyes, fighters have, historically, supplemented their fight purses with regular day jobs. The fighters, generally, are muscle-ripped combatants plying unwanted trades to smooth fiscal burdens. "I did whatever I could to get by," says the English fighter Paul Taylor. "I even put off moving out of my parents' house until I was 22 just so I could keep doing what I loved.

"There are lots of odd-jobs I've done to make ends meet. I was a fibre-glass laminator, a labourer, builder, tiler, I'm just about a qualified carpenter. I did pretty much anything that involved manual labour, I was even a butcher." It is not just the up-and-coming fighters that have held down nine-to-fives. Even the UFC's undisputed middleweight champion Anderson Silva, a Brazilian mixed martial artist who many of the sport's observers claim is the world's best pound-for-pound fighter, was not exempt from shift work in his early days.

"We've all done it," he said. "I worked in McDonald's, had office jobs. You do what you have to." The idea of the planet's most lethal MMA fighter flipping burgers may seem surreal, but very few fighters find hurdleless paths to main event bouts. "Once you get to a certain level you have to make the sacrifices," says Terry Etim, who faces Brazil's Rafael dos Santos in a lightweight fight tonight.

"You have to decide what you want to be. Do you want to work and do it as a hobby, or do you want to take it seriously and compete with the best people in the world? It's tough at the top, you have to take it serious." Etim's fellow Liverpudlian, Paul Kelly, concurred. "Before I signed up for the UFC, times weren't the best and I had to do what I had to get by," he said. "At times, I was working seven hours a day, working on cars with my dad, but after I had my first fight and he raised my hand even if I was never intending to make the UFC I just enjoyed the sport and fighting. That was what got me through."

Kelly's story is common on the opposite side of the Atlantic. "I had to work jobs I didn't want to work just to suit my training times," says Kendall Grove, who won series three of Ultimate Fighter, the UFC's reality TV show. "At times I didn't have money to eat and lived at the gym, paying my dues by mopping the mats and cleaning up. But with great sacrifices come great success and if you're not willing to sacrifice the finer things in life, you're not going to make it."

Taylor's opponent at Yas Island tonight, the American John Gunderson, recalled similar experiences. "The sacrifices I have made have helped me get where I am today," the Oregon-born fighter said. "I was building bridges at the time when I decided to turn pro and was making good money, but there was a point when I either had to do something with it or retire." Despite spending up to 50 hours a week in the gym, Gunderson, like many regulars, is yet to commit permanently to being a full-time fighter. The main reason: money.

"I still have my day job, I work at a gym as a personal trainer," he said. "I have a family and we like to buy nice things. The majority of fighters probably don't have day jobs. Most of them are single guys living with room-mates, buddies or sleeping on someone's couch." Gunderson's spur, much like countless others, is his passion for MMA. "Every man wants to have his legacy, I want my fighting career to be mine," he said. "I want it to be something I can look back at and be proud of."

Not every path is so complicated. Sometimes, a fighter's journey to global appreciation is mapped. Take Frankie Edgar, who challenges lightweight champion BJ Penn on the UFC 112 card. "I graduated college and was fighting on a local circuit," he said. "I was a plumber and would get up at six in the morning to go to work. Usually I'd leave a little early, go coach high school wrestling and then train. I probably got home after nine at night, went to bed and got up to do it all over again.

"It was tough, I had a condominium I had to support and I was getting married. I got a UFC contract but it wasn't enough and I was still working as a plumber after my first three UFC fights." Good things, however, come to those who wait. Edgar believes the current crop of UFC hopefuls are no better off than his generation. "Finally, when I started making enough money, then I could do MMA full-time. A lot of guys are entering the UFC right out of college now and they don't typically have as many bills," he said.

"They're going straight into fighting and it supports them. The contracts are getting bigger and they can do that. It's not easier for the new guys, though. The sport has grown and the competition is better. Ups and downs go hand-in-hand." For every UFC fighter who has grafted his route into the mainstream franchise, there are others who have found the path more straightforward. "I never had to hold down a full-time job," said Matt Hughes, a two-time UFC welterweight champion who faces Brazil's Renzo Gracie tonight. "I lived with my manager for more than a year, surviving off my fight money, my purses I fought a lot in Japan and other places but never took a job.

"I would rather have cut out something else and stayed in the gym than take a job. My night-time was for sleep, I didn't want a bar job. I was dedicated to getting as good as I could and eventually I won the world title. After that I was making enough money to do whatever I wanted. "I would say that now that I'm past the financial burdens. My big sacrifices are my kids; I have four children and leaving them is horrible. It's tough being away from my family. In this game, the sacrifices are constant, they just change. But I'm not complaining, every profession has its sacrifices; leaving my family is mine."

As Penn, Hughes and Gracie know, other fight options exist. Etim is adamant that every fighter eyes the UFC. "There are a few other organisations that are paying good wages, but it's not just about the money. The UFC is where everyone wants to be," Etim said. "It is the main organisation, the biggest in the world and when you're starting off - even if you're a long way off - it's where you are going to want to fight. It's like the Premier League, or Champions League, in football - it's where people want to be."

Even being on the undercard has its rewards. "This is my day job," Taylor said. "Being on the undercard, plodding along, getting regular pay cheques, paying my mortgage every month and enjoying what I'm doing. That's all that concerns me." Money, as in most walks of life, dictates. "Before the UFC I was getting US$500 (Dh1,836) a fight and I had to give 150 of that to my manager," Kelly said. "I had three fights in 21 days at one point, but now I try to be as vicious as I can."

That viciousness does not, however, mean Kelly is aiming for the main card. "Once you're at the top it's all about staying there, which is harder than getting there," he said. "You get rappers and singers and whatever else but I wouldn't change my life for anything else, it's the best job in the world." All that said, the final word as to what drives a fighter's psyche goes to Tompkins. "People have to understand that what we do at the end of the day is fight, and if you're not prepared to do that and be good at it, you're in the wrong business," he said. "I'll all about throwing fists, punches, kicks and being as bad as you can be. It's a fight, don't forget that."