Elite Trainer, George Toohey, explains his love of martial arts, the rise of the sport, and who you can expect to meet on the mat
I had been participating in MMA for a few months making a name for myself in the gym. I always arrived 20 minutes before each class and was very willing to spar. The gym I started off in had two rooms, one with a wrestling mat and one with a cage and a boxing ring. Outside in the yard was “the gym” – an old shipping container with a treadmill, some dumbbells and a bench press. I called this home for several years.
During a successful training session, I was pulled out of sparring by the head coach. I’d just performed a guillotine choke on my last three sparring partners. He was a very large and imposing gentleman. He walked me barefoot out to “the gym” and asked why I travelled two hours each way four times per week to train.
“I want to fight,” I said.
“OK – you have to pass our fitness test,” he replied.
Without further word he walked me over, still barefoot, to the treadmill, he then increased the incline to 10 and turned the speed up to 16km/h. “Get on – you have 2 miles,” he said, deadpan.
This wasn’t the time or the place to ask to put my trainers on, so I did as instructed. I ran two miles on a treadmill older than myself until my feet bled. I did it because I wanted to fight, because the coach told me to, and I wasn’t quite sure how, but I knew it would make me stronger. It may sound mad, but this is the mindset that martial arts requires.
MMA is believed to date back to the Ancient Greeks where Pankration, a brutal hand-to-hand combat skill performed by the Greek armies was used on the battlefield as well as the ancient Olympic games. Fast forward 2000 years to 1993 the UFC, or modern MMA, was born on TV.
However in those early years it was still very different to what we know today. The best practitioners in stand alone martial arts would go against each other, without weight categories to see whose art would prevail – Ju-Jitsu vs Karate, Muay Thai vs Tai Kwon Do, the list goes on.
After 24 years of evolution we now have a new breed of marital artist; the MMA athlete, someone who trains in several different disciplines from different martial arts to create the ultimate fighting system.
The rounds in MMA are five minutes long and can, several times per round, go from ground, to standing, wrestling to striking. And because of this, MMA sports men and women are among the best conditioned all-round athletes on the planet.
MMA and the UFC are enjoying an incredible surge of popularity in the UK, and much of this can be attributed to the Irishman Conor McGregor. His story is one of a working class man who has worked his way through amateur shows and up the ranks to International stardom. For many this gives them hope of becoming famous and shows it is within everyones reach to become a professional athlete.
Due to this increased interest in MMA, gyms are increasing their membership bases, gyms are also creating classes based on combat skills to increase further adherence. If you’re interested make sure you sign up to one of Third Space’s new signature Combat Skills classes.
I have spent most of my life on Judo mats, in Boxing rings, MMA and Kickboxing gyms over the globe and have seen many MMA personalities. And so, to give you the inside line on your first MMA class, here I’ve outlined the types of people you can expect to go toe-to-toe with.
The Caged Animal
Walking around with gritted teeth and a look that wouldn’t be out of place in the Gorilla enclosure of London zoo, the Caged Animal doesn’t hide the fact that he or she wants to fight, spar or attack whoever may be their partner on training day. Once the formalities of the class’s technical aspect have been taken care of – with a permanent expression of “this is beneath me I know what I’m doing just let me fight” plastered across their face, obviously – its time for them to be let off their leash.
Head guards and gum shields equipped, the instructor gives everyone the nod to start sparring and with one large intake of air the Caged Animal, arms and legs flailing, pounces on their opponent until (most likely) they roll over having completely run out of gas. Expect to see them hanging by the exit post-session humble bragging about the arm bar they nearly locked in.
After their local fight gym of choice the first thing to do is to buy would be the gym’s T-shirt, so everyone knows they are part of that club and, by proxy, a hardened killing machine. Maybe they buy two – one of them a size smaller so they can wear it fresh on the weekend, walking with chest puffed out, a protective arm around their partner.
Posers generally adhere to all of the training, technical work and diet, however, on sparring nights it always seems, through no fault of their own that they have a business meeting, conference call or their great aunt has arranged for a family reunion. Conversations with their friends about their next fight will always be plagued by stories of twisted ankles or bloody noses – after all it’s a dangerous business, the fight game.
It is not the fight that interests them, but the art. “If one cannot perform an arm bar from every position with their eyes closed they have no place in the cage,” will be a favourite catchphrase – albeit not a catchy one. After studying VHS tapes of the Gracie family and obtaining your black belt in ju-jitsu it’s time to travel to Thailand to study Muay thai in the mountains from monks and then off to the Philippines to learn Eskrima, because you never know when fighting with sticks will help you out. After spending all their time and money on the technical art of MMA, they can then take up their place in the gym as the go to guy for the question: “what’s the name of that technique called?”