With the explosive growth of mixed martial arts over the last few years, more and more athletes are looking to make their mark in the sport. A common measuring stick for success in MMA is how high a fighter climbs the ladder, like fighting for the top organizations and earning titles in their weight class. With more athletes getting involved in the sport, I am frequently asked what it takes to get to the big show. I typically smile and respond with an abbreviated answer of hard work and dedication. However, we all know the answer is much more complicated than that. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or fast track to bypass the hard road it takes to get there.
Besides fighting in the UFC myself, I have had the privilege of cornering veterans of the UFC, Strikeforce, Bellator, Sengoku, Bodog Fight, King of the Cage and other high level organizations. This has given me unique insight into the common characteristics that have led many fighters to the highest stages of their profession.
I can say there is no exact recipe that will guarantee a fighter's rise to the top, but below I share several ideas that will definitely help guide him or her in the right direction. As I tell my students, there are many variables in an MMA fight that are out of your control, so we have to float the odds in our favor by focusing on the things we can control.
Making it to the top starts with the fighters themselves. They must have a strong work ethic, be willing to put in the hard work to continually improve and be willing to sacrifice many things. There will be many ups and downs, failures and successes in the life of a fighter. It is a difficult occupation, but it has many rewards for those who have the heart and determination.
Choosing a gym is one of the most important decisions a fighter can make for his career. Ultimately, hard work or not, the gym you choose will determine how much of your potential can be tapped. There are many things to consider when picking a gym such as what the facility has to offer, the talent currently training there, the coaching staff's credentials, what connections they have, if they've produced other talent/champions, etc. This is not a comprehensive list, but it demonstrates the importance of researching several places before making a decision. If a gym offers a free trial (most do), take advantage of it and see if it's a right fit for you.
Unfortunately, as a fighter progresses in his career, sometimes his needs might change and he might have to train at a few different camps to get the proper training.
When considering different gyms, take a look at the team environment that exists. Do they push each other and help one another improve? If they do not have a fight scheduled, will they still show up to help you prepare for yours? Is it more like a family and an atmosphere that you enjoy coming to? These are important things to look at for the longevity of your career. Even though fighting is an individual sport, you can't go very far without a solid team behind you.
Another consideration that coincides with choosing a gym is the coaching staff they have in place. The right coaches are crucial for proper development. I believe there are many factors that define a good coach. He is a mentor and role model. He earns the respect of his students through leading by example. Possessing knowledge and having the ability to teach others how to apply that knowledge are two very different things. Therefore, a good coach must not only possess a vast knowledge of the sport and how to play it. He also needs to have effective communication skills and the ability to pass on the information to a fighter in a way that he will be able to understand and apply it. A coach needs to be a great motivator, inspiring his team to push harder and reach new levels. He must have the versatility to build a team environment, and yet meet the varied developmental needs of each individual and help them tap their own unique talents. Sometimes all of these traits are hard to find in one person, and that is why many gyms have multiple coaches. Sometimes it might be hard to assess all of this from a few training sessions, so it is important to look at the coach's credentials, accomplishments, and the talent he has produced.
The decision to have a manager is an important one. I, like many other fighters, did not have a manger for a good portion of my career. And while I don't regret my journey, I did make several tough decisions on my own that I wish I would have had help with or had someone to negotiate on my behalf. I took some fights I shouldn't have and sometimes got paid less than I deserved.
Typically fighters don't have the same connections and negotiating ability that many managers do. That is what they are paid for so they should be good at it. However, the problem is finding a manager who has your best interests in mind. When money is involved it is easy for a fighter to be exploited. Some managers just see dollar signs and might not choose the best fight for the athlete's career. All of the high-level professional fighters have managers. When you decide the time is right to employ one, make sure he can take you far but still has your best interests in mind. Much like coaches, you can tell a lot about a manger by his credentials. If many other reputable fighters use him and he has elevated their careers, the odds are that he is legitimate.
Once you have chosen a manger, he will typically find sponsors for you and then take a percentage. However, in the beginning of your career if you are doing things on your own, you need to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and ask for sponsors. You probably know several small businesses who would like to help a local athlete and get a little recognition in the process.
First, create a long list of businesses (i.e. restaurants, insurance companies, dentists, etc.) that you could potentially approach, whether it's for money, food, gear, or services. Make it a long list and don't count anyone out. You might be surprised at who may be willing to help.
Next make a list of ways you could potentially help the business in exchange (i.e. logo on shorts/banner, hand out flyers, put their link on your website, etc.)
Lastly, start asking. If you are able to land a few sponsors, this could help pay for training, buy some gear, provide some free meals, etc. All of these things will make your life a little easier and help you towards your goals.
All martial arts teach us to be humble so sometimes it can be difficult to promote yourself. However, I learned a long time ago in this business that if you don't sell yourself, no one is going to do it for you.
Create a buzz and get people interested in supporting you. Make yourself a website and update a blog often with current news of your training and fights. Create T-shirts, and business cards. Also, network anytime you can. You never know when someone might be able to help or support you down the road. The more positive attention you can get directed towards your career, the more appealing you will be to promoters.
Set goals, create action steps to achieve them, and then follow through with conviction. Make clear definable goals, both short-term like how to improve gaps in your skill-set and long-term like how many wins you want to have as an amateur before turning pro. A good analogy is a malfunctioning navigation system. It is hard to reach your final destination if you don't know how to get there. Setting and achieving goals will give you the direction.
The fight game is an emotional and physical roller coaster, so it is important to have a stable support network. This involves surrounding yourself with positive people who will stand behind you and motivate you to get better. It is important to tell your friends and family your goals and what sacrifices you will have to make to achieve them. If they know what to expect and how important this is to you, they can act as your second team outside of the gym.
As I mentioned before, there is no perfect script to follow to get to the big show, but if you take control of the variables within your means and you stay determined, you will definitely be giving yourself a good shot.
I hope my experience can inspire others to dream big. I am from a small town, didn't start martial arts until I was twenty years old and was not genetically gifted. However, I had drive, a strong work ethic, and a little courage. In 2002, I fought on my first show, run by UFC Hall of Famer, Dan "The Beast" Severn. Over a decade later, I have been able to reach the highest level of MMA with hard work and the help of several great coaches and training partners. So if I had to answer that same question of how to make it to the big show, I would say take to heart the things I mentioned above, but first and foremost believe in yourself!
Thanks again for tuning in, train hard, and I hope to see you on the mats.
Kyle Watson is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt, UFC-vet, semi-finalist on the Ulimate Fighter, Pan-American Champion, Multiple time champion/medalist in International Masters Championships, No-Gi World Championships, No-Gi Pan Championships, Arnold Classic, Relson Gracie US Nationals, NAGA, and many more.
He has reached the pinnacle of MMA along with great success in competitive BJJ, but takes the most pride in achieving all of this while coaching full time and creating other champions.
For more information on Kyle's school on the campus of St. Louis University visit the website at watsonbjj.com