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Your 12 lessons from the school of hard knocks starts here. What are you waiting for? Step into the cage.
Garreth “SoldierBoy” McLellan
Two-time and current EFC Africa Middleweight Champion
Weight class: Middleweight (77 to 84kg)
Fighting out of: Sunninghill, Johannesburg
Trainer: Richard Quan
Gym: Fight Fit Militia
Pro MMA record 11(W) – 2(L)
Don “The Magic Man” Madge
Previous EFC Africa Lightweight Champion
Weight class: Lightweight (66 to 70kg)
Fighting out of: Gardens, Cape Town
Trainer: Mike Mouneimne
Gym: Pride Fighting Academy (PFA)
Pro MMA record: 3(W) – 2(L) – 1(D)
1. THERE’S ONLY
If you slow down or coast in MMA, you’ll quickly end up eating canvas – which is just like life too, there’s no gain in half-measures. “I pride myself on being able to go at the same an all-out pace for all the rounds. I’ll huff and puff but I don’t slow down, and I think that’s my biggest advantage,” says Don Madge, former EFC Africa Lightweight Champion. “It’s the same for training, you should focus on quality, not quantity .” EFC Africa Middleweight Champion, Garreth McLellan, also puts everything he can into his training. “He’s relentless in whatever he puts his mind to, he puts his time in in the gym and grinds it out,” says Richard Quan, McLellan’s coach at Fight Fit Militia.
2. USE THE RIGHT
KIND OF FUEL
“I have checkmarks with my weight and I tailor what I eat to suit what weight I’m at,” says Madge. “I always eat to feel good, not for aesthetics. It’s about making sure my body has everything it needs.” Madge focuses on whole foods, but also uses supplements. “I’m big in to glutamine, and I prefer whole foods rather than shakes, but sometimes they’re more convenient.” If you want to overhaul your own diet, see a dietician to create a monthly meal plan.
3. TALENT IS JUST
A STARTING POINT
These two share a dedication to training that sets them apart from the young upstarts. “There’s nothing worthwhile that you can achieve without hard work,” says McLellan. Improvement is key. “If you understand that you have an edge over any opponent – every time you step back into the cage you have to improve from your last performance,” says Quan. “Garreth gets used to suffering so that it doesn’t become a defining element.” Madge’s hallmarks are both his conditioning and his willingness to work harder than anyone else. “I tend to overwork,” says Madge. “Hard work beats talent when talent refuses to work hard. If you have both, then you’re pretty much unstoppable.”
4. BE READY
The success of these two fighters relies on their mental tactics in the cage; their ability to outwit their opponents in a bloody game of chess-like strategy. “Garreth is a smart fighter, he isn’t stubborn in fights and adapts to the conditions that allow him to out-think his opponent,” says Quan. “He always finds the path with the higher percentage of winning, which is hard to do as every fighter steps in with a game plan, but once the fight starts it can go out the window.” Madge does research before a fight, but also likes to freestyle in the moment until he finds the chink in their armour. “There’s always a breaking point in a fight, and you’ll see it in the body language, you know when he’s broken. That’s when everything seems to flow naturally and click into place,” says Madge. It all comes down to physical and mental preparation. “If you just focus on one thing in MMA, you’ll get hammered: when guys are good at MMA, they’re almost six athletes in one,” says Madge.
5. USE ALL
Madge and McLellan use a variety of training tools but they still have their favourites. “I’m a sucker for punishment. I love doing sprints, plyometric and prowler work – it’s all so painful, but I love what it does for my training,” says Madge. Both do strongman sessions where they use chains and flip tyres. “We also use a 80kg water-filled medicine ball, but it moves, like a human. Charl is a genius,” says Madge.
6. NEVER TAP
“Everyone faces challenges that they don’t know how to prepare for or how to adapt to. MMA provides a mental edge, and the tools to deal with any kind of stress,” says McLellan. Both fighters agree that you can always go further than you think. “I’ve always been fit, but before I started MMA I’d hit this wall and think, Now I’m tired – but MMA makes me go further,” says Madge.
7. TRAIN TOUGH,
Both fighters train for the worst-case scenario. “I make sure the best guys in the gym put me in the worst positions,” says Madge. “Then I tell myself that I’ve been through the worst in training, so there’s nothing that can happen in a fight that I’m not expecting. “I don’t train in my comfort zone. If you focus on doing the things that you don’t enjoy, that’s where you’ll improve the most.”
8. BECOME STRONG IN MOVEMENT,
While you sit at a desk all day, MMA fighters are rolling, sparring and grappling their way to a flexible, total-body strength that never lets their muscles adapt. “You’re often put into places where your body isn’t strong, and it’s forced to build up strength in that range of motion,” says Madge. Both featured fighters have a number of fighting similarities, the most evident being a superhuman work ethic and impressive conditioning – and both agree about the MMA benefits. “The fittest athletes in the world are MMA fighters, guys like Anderson Silva and GSP (Georges St Pierre), and I don’t think you can get that perfect combination of training from anything else,” says McLellan. “I’ll go as far as to say that if you give me a fit MMA athlete, he’ll be able to do almost anything, and he’ll do it well, whether it’s cycling, running or swimming.” You can sign up at a MMA gym, but if you’d like to build functional strength, gymnastic work is the answer. Look for a pair of rings or stability straps (like a TRX) and do moves like dips, pull-ups and push-ups in the rings.
9. SETBACKS CAN BE
Both Madge and McLellan agree that failure is just as important as success. “You learn a lot more from your losses,” says Madge. For McLellan, failing to get a rugby contract led him to MMA. He has also learnt from his injuries, fight losses and setbacks. In his second pro fight against Wade Henderson, he suffered his first loss by TKO (technical knock-out). “Wade was a big step up from where I had been, but I wanted to go straight to the top. I was arrogant and got a little ahead of myself. But I learnt a few lessons and it made me a better fighter and person,” says McLellan. He has also fought against fighters that were much heavier and stronger, like Tumelo Maputha, who was a late replacement and couldn’t make the weight limit: he came in at a colossal 105kg (the middleweight limit is 84kg). “It changed me mentally – if I could handle this guy’s power, then I could take on anything,” says McLellan. He went on to win it, but Maputha is the only fighter that has pushed him the whole three rounds. McLellan also fought a title bout against Jacques Joubert. At the end of the first round he had an asthma attack. “I fought for three rounds through the attack – it was the hardest mental battle of my life,” says McLellan. As a result of that fight, I had micro tears in my lungs and I had to see a pulmologist. “It was a blessing in disguise too, as I ended up fixing my lungs so that my asthma was no longer an issue.” McLellan’s best friend of 22 years, Dylan Harris, was killed in a motorbike accident two weeks before the fight against Warren Allison in EFC3. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do. I had to bury my best friend and then fight.” McLellan battled through that, and then heavy knee surgery in his career, but came through it stronger, and tougher. Thanks to his willpower, faith, and help from his wife and the support of his team. “Failure unlocks so many secrets about yourself. I went through a really dark place early on, was heavily overweight at one stage (over 120kg), and it started with just getting back into rugby and ended with me becoming middleweight champion twice,” says McLellan. “Don’t fear the unknown and failures – work hard and you’ll overcome it all. Your boundaries are endless.”
10. RECOVERY CAN
Nothing can derail your gains as quickly as a lack of recovery. Both fighters agree on their favourite kind of recovery: the active type. “I spend my recovery time doing other sports that I enjoy: like going for a hike, or playing touch rugby or surfing,” says Madge. Quan monitors Garreth’s training, and focuses on ice baths, nutrition, sleep and sports massages. “Sometimes I change the environment that Garreth trains in, which helps psychologically to keep him on track, like hitting pads outside or playing touch rugby or indoor soccer instead of a heavy structured conditioning session,” says Quan. Madge uses fascia release work. “The fascia stuff hurts, but it works.” Madge and his coach, Mike Mouneimne, also consistently change his training to keep from plateauing and to keep him motivated. “If it gets boring, you shouldn’t be doing it,” says Madge. “By the time Monday comes around, you need to be excited to get back into the gym.” Tear your old programme up and add some swimming to your recovery plan: it’s the most effective way to flush out lactic acid according to the International Journal of Sports Medicine.
11. TRAIN WITH
Both these fighters have big teams of experts and advisors – some with their own specialities like BJJ (Brazilian JiuJitsu), wrestling or boxing. McLellan has also spent time at different MMA gyms around South Africa before ending up at Fight Fit Milita, Quan’s gym. Madge spent years training overseas doing Mauy Thai, and was able to learn from that kind of training too. “In Thailand, the training is old-school and it taught me that my body isn’t made of glass,” says Madge. McLellan also attended camps overseas for MMA training, and was able to work with some of the biggest names. “I’ve been to Canada and sparred with GSP and rolled with guys like Mark Bocek and Rory McDonald. I also helped Denis Kang prepare for one of his fights – he’s one of the best fighters in the world, a legend in the sport.” Even if you can’t train with these kind of guys, you should still find a training partner, ideally one that’s stronger to push you. But any will do: research in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that training with a partner can boost your power on lifts by 15%, even if they don’t touch the bar themselves.
12. FIND THE RIGHT KIND OF
GOAL TO MOTIVATE YOU
Both Madge and McLellan have a burning desire to succeed. “I hate knowing that I could be better,” says Madge. “This is my career, and I hate to think that there are men that are better than me. If another man says that he’s better than me, it fires me up. I don’t like hearing it.” And if you’re just starting out in MMA, don’t get despondent. Everyone starts as a punching bag and works their way up. “You’ll get pounded at first and it’s easy to think that you’ll never get better, but you do. The lessons are all taught in pain – screw up and you’ll get hurt. It’s the best teacher because you learn quickly,” says Madge. Find a goal to motivate you, and stick to it, whether it’s to win your first amateur fight, get rid of a flabby stomach or gain some self-respect. Sometimes the best reward for these fighters isn’t the belts or the prize money. “One of the best parts is signing autographs for kids, and seeing that you can be a positive influence,” says McLellan. “It definitely reinforces why I love doing what I do every day.”