Cardio trumps strength in MMA
Photo by Cathy Fitzgerald
Steve McKinstry (far right) meets Garrett Moldoff, who fights out of New York, as referee Steve French gives last-minute instructions before a match last December.
By LINDA FREEMAN
It may be human nature to want to be the best – the fastest, the smartest, the strongest. Competition was born when humans began to compare themselves to each other. Judging competitive events is either subjective (the judge’s personal concept of style and performances enters into the result as in the arts or diving or gymnastics) or objective (when the winner runs faster, jumps higher or scores the most points).
When testing for the best, it is important to avoid “comparing apples with oranges.” Perhaps the burgeoning interest in Mixed Martial Arts is based on a desire to determine who is the best fighter. Since you cannot determine who is the best fighter in the world when one is the best boxer and another is the best wrestler or the best at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai or Karate, the solution is to mix them all into one competitive form, or MMA.
Steve McKinstry, 24, of Barre, graduated from Spaulding High School, attended Vermont Technical College, is a certified personal trainer (NSCA, National Strength and Conditioning Association) and is a MMA fighter. Though McKinstry fights competitively, it is perhaps the training, goals and camaraderie that he most values about the sport.
“It’s not just about killing techniques,” McKinstry said. “Originally MMA was set up for bare knuckles and then went to open-finger gloves. There was a need for safety.”
In the early 1990s the Ultimate Fighting Championship began to function as a promotion company hosting events worldwide. Television viewers may watch UFC events and reality shows from their homes, but the UFC does more to legitimize the sport than just showcase it. The first official event was held in 1993 and recently Vermont became the 46th state to pass legislation to regulate the MMA’s adoption of Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts. Fights officiated by sanctioned referees are on the rise.
“I’ve been in it for about four years,” McKinstry said. “We’ve had a dozen or so events.” (Just yesterday, Oct. 13th, a sanctioned event, “Rumble in Rutland,” was held with more on the New England calendar.)
What does a match look like? “There might be 13 or 14 fights,” McKinstry said. Fighters are divided by weight groups and fight one-to-one in a cage. “The cage,” McKinstry said, “is more tradition, but there are no corners. Once you’re in a corner, you’re stuck. You get support from the walls and learn to use the cage to your advantage.”
Gear is simple: shin guard, mouth guard and gloves. Amateurs fight for three, three-minute rounds with one-minute breaks to qualify. Rounds increase to five in the title for championship for amateurs and begin at five for professionals who finish with five, five-minute rounds.
“Each person you fight is different,” McKinstry said. “You need to study each opponent for what they are good or bad at.” If you’ve never fought someone before, you need to watch their style.
“Some amateurs will go under natural instincts and technique goes out the window looking like a backyard school fight or brawl. Fatigue sets in. You get an adrenalin dump. You get so nervous that all your nerves go up and you can’t lift your arms or think straight.”
Dedicated training and fighting experience pay off. “There is less effect from adrenalin and you follow more of a game plan,” McKinstry said. “You notice things about your opponent and capitalize on that. You use your opponents against themselves.”
The dozen or so MMA schools in Vermont are represented at events. McKinstry trains four nights a week at the UFA Institute in South Burlington. Training builds up to the date of a fight and is followed by a long recovery period. Each session consists of a warm-up, cardio, skills and combinations like take downs and ground work, adds some sparring and ends with more cardio. There are clearly defined rules to follow, techniques to learn and conditioning to do.
“You don’t want as much strength as cardio,” McKinstry said. “Muscle endurance is more important than muscle strength.”
Yes, there are injuries. “A lot of fighters say they never go into a fight 100 percent,” McKinstry said. “You’re fighting eight to 12 weeks to go into one fight.” The training takes a toll on muscles and joints while the fighting batters and bruises. Twisted elbows, popped shoulders, knee tears, bruised ribs, broken hands, noses and eye sockets are typical injuries. Why? one might ask.
“The thrill of victory keeps a lot of people in it. Everything goes away once you win,” McKinstry said. “You get your hand raised … the win drives everyone back.”
But, for McKinstry and others there is more. The pre-fight training is highly disciplined including long, lonely runs and a severely restricted diet to make weight. Family and relationships are stressed. Overarching all, however, is the camaraderie, the sportsmanship. “This is not human cock-fighting,” McKinstry said.
“When I first got into it, it was just a hobby. Then I wanted to step up my game and progress. There is a structured way to move up in the sport. Safety rules have made it more mainstream. You need to be fit and smart. Luck plays a part, too.”
McKinstry has no desire to turn pro. “Most of the pros start younger and leave all else behind,” he said.
McKinstry would like to coach. He finds that the training dovetails nicely with his personal training career. It has focused his life and taught him the value of discipline and goals. He can relate to the struggles of his clients when he compares them to his own struggles to prepare to fight.
“Give MMA a chance,” McKinstry said. “Look past the brutality and see the art. Two people in the best physical condition possible are testing their boundaries. It’s not so different from a foot race or one-on-one basketball. They are testing their physical possibilities. Two go in, one comes out.”