The old blue bus pulled over to the side of the road and the driver pointed down a quiet street in Phuket Thailand “Just a couple minutes that way and you’re there” the driver instructed. I began walking down the road eager and filled with excitement to train full time mixed martial arts. I had so many questions; I was filled with curiosity and wonder about the training, my capabilities, how much I could learn, and what it meant to be a real fighter.
The key to my standard gold lock and chain was all that protected my few belongings that were contained in my bamboo hut, which was to serve as my on site accommodation at Phuket Top Team. I hastily purchased all the gear necessary and was ready to start my classes, armed with an all in exclusive membership I could do as many classes as I could handle which included Muay Thai, wrestling, boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, MMA sparring, strength and conditioning and finally submission grappling. The camp was filled with professional coaches and fighters from around the world, which meant the caliber of fighters and sparring would be high and this excited me. The first week and a half was pure torture between the fact I was out of shape, classes being incredibly demanding and adjusting to the heat I could barely manage two classes per day, which was 3-4 hours of training. My body ached as it tried desperately to adapt to the torture I was putting it through but by the end of two weeks I had persevered and was ready to take my training to the next level. I committed most of my time to learning Muay Thai and BJJ at first and never missed an opportunity to learn from someone or have one-on-one training sessions with the pro fighters at camp when the opportunity arose. I was developing in all areas of my game at an alarming rate, I went from gassing out after 10 minutes to putting in two hours of hard training, from being submitted constantly to submitting others continuously and defending myself from top fighters much more effectively. I had a couple good battles with Robbie Lewis (3-1 MMA) who is a submission specialist and although I outweighed him by about 15-20 lbs his slick submission game consistently conquered my size and strength advantage. Mr. Lewis being the gentleman he is was kind enough to teach me a great deal so that our battles became less and less one sided and I was able to compete with him on some level. His striking game was nothing to laugh at either, as his quick hands would attempt to get in and out before you knew he was there. It was learning and competing with him and others like him that helped me get me game to such a high level so quickly.
It was clear after a short while of training how difficult it must be for a fighter to keep his motivation to push himself daily to learn and grow. After four weeks of training 3-5 hours daily I received a needed boost in motivation. “Ruthless” Robert Lisita who is the number one ranked featherweight in Australia came to camp looking to prepare himself for his 16th professional fight on Combat 8. I had no idea who he was when we had our first sparring session during a boxing class where he certainly got the better of me but we had a damn good time doing it. Somewhat to my surprise he complimented me after the sparring explaining that unlike almost everyone else I never backed off even after getting hit, he told me he had to chase most people around the damn ring the whole time but he liked the fact I wouldn’t back down. Rob had a fantastic attitude and I truly enjoyed fighting and working with him as well so naturally we became sparring partners and quick friends.
The sun perfectly split the stained, dull beige ring in two as the Ruthless one and I met for another sparring session. The gym was quiet except for the sounds of our gloves slamming into each other’s faces and bodies; most people probably think there is something wrong with us but we were having a blast since there are few feelings like the satisfaction of competitive fighting. After four three minute rounds of beating the piss out of each other we were both quite exhausted and dripping with sweat, as always we ended our session with a good discussion about boxing, fight technique and strategy. Every time Rob and I met for a sparring session it was filled with punches, laughter, and the sharing of knowledge.
I came into camp with on idea of what it takes to be a professional fighter but to experience it first hand like anything else in life gave rise to true knowledge and understanding. To answer the question as succinctly as possible it’s an unforeseen inner drive and dedication that few people possess. The everyday person can learn a great deal from true martial artists. I began to grow bored of the classes but would anticipate my sparring sessions a great deal. I was learning not only more about fighting but what it takes to be a professional athlete and furthermore a professional fighter. I would observe pros from around the world such as Anthony and Andrew Leone, JJ Ambrose, Robert Lisita and many others teachers and pro fighters in different disciplines, it was clear to see fighting is a brotherhood and there is mutual respect because all fighters know how hard it is to make fighting a profession. Here are five things I’ve learned from observing and learning from professional MMA fighters.
- Dedication is everything: If you want to succeed you have to work for it. Day in and day out you must always constantly be improving and pushing yourself. The day you give up inside the gym is the day you’re finished as a fighter. If you want anything in life you have to work for it and the best way to achieve your goals is to chip away at them day by day.
- Be Open to Learning: No matter how much you know you can learn more, everyone can teach you something, be humble.
- Believe in Yourself: Since fighting is one on one it’s up to you to win and believe in yourself. You must have total belief in yourself if you want to succeed and you increase that inner belief with hard work.
- Knowledge is Power: The same way that BJJ is designed for the smaller man to beat the bigger man we must never stop learning for knowledge is a major factor in success.
- You Can Push Further Than You Think: One key element a fighter will possess is the ability to push himself further than he thinks he can go and they do this daily. Pushing your body and mind to the limits develops true strength and most of the time the fighter and person who is able to push further will win the fight.
The career of a professional fighter is a difficult one filled with many ups and downs. To be given the opportunity to fight with Muay Thai, BJJ, and MMA world champions was a true pleasure and massive learning experience. It was obvious to see that excellence was not given but earned and they all knew if they wanted to be the best they would have to earn it themselves. There are no easy ways to the top, no shortcuts, just dedication and hard work.
Thanks to all of the incredible people I met at Phuket Top Team you will not soon be forgotten!
– Matt Belair