The world of an NFL athlete and mixed martial arts fighter share striking, sometimes violent, similarities. Many of the activities an NFL player engages in can be found in structured workouts of a fighter, such as wrestling and jiu-jitsu, which all require the flexibility and leverage that many positions in the NFL also demand.
One of the most influential people in bridging the gap between football player and MMA fighter is Jay Glazer. Glazer began his career in MMA in 2003, when he was working with CBS Sports. He first entered submission-fighting tournaments, and when he showed up to work with bruises, he drew the ire of his employer. He met UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture around 2005 and started training together. Shortly after, the pair had developed an idea.
“We had the idea to promote cross training in MMA to professional football players. Football for all intents and purposes is a combative sport,” says Couture. “Especially linebackers, linemen; all defensive players are using a form of hand to hand to execute plays and tackles.”
Couture and Glazer started a program called MMA Athletics and have since been helping NFL stars become efficient, stronger and quicker. The program’s coaches include legends, as well as past and present UFC fighters Chuck Liddell, Brian Stann and Tyron Woodley.
Glazer puts players through a variety of workouts based on position. Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell took part in a drill that involved throwing a multitude of knees against a heavy bag, with Glazer holding resistance bands around his waist. The workout is designed to simulate opponents tackling him. Glazer’s workouts are diverse and strenuous, incorporating wrestling, jiu-jitsu and striking.
“We help them build up the bottom of their feet and their calves. Then, we have them skip rope for 10 minutes,” says Glazer. “Then we’ll have them do a jiu-jitsu drill, like an armbar or a kimura, to loosen and get more explosion out of their hips.”
Following that, Glazer puts players through two or three rounds of pummeling, a term used for Greco-Roman wrestling, which helps with leveraging the body. He’s also created seven different hand-fighting drills that include hammer fists and arm drags. Later on, they enter the cage to do boxing or Muay-Thai, a style of striking involving elbows and knees.
“We’ll finish off where I push their breaking point for 5-10 minutes,” says Glazer.
The techniques found in MMA have more similarities in common than you'd think with the NFL, and players have noticed. That's why these days in the offseason, you'll find a lot more players hitting body bags than sleds. Anyone looking to apply leverage or shed a block can learn a lot from a wrestler, just how a tight end or safety can look to jiu-jitsu for foot work and opening their hips.
Marcedes Lewis, Pro Bowl tight end for the Jacksonville Jaguars has linked up with NFL reporter and MMA practitioner Glazer in order to improve his play on the field. Glazer, who recently opened the high-intensity training facility called Unbreakable, has trained his share of NFL players like Clay Matthews and Jared Allen in jiu-jitsu and striking exercises. Lewis has been a long-time fan of the sport and often frequents UFC events. His admiration of the sport started back when he was a senior in Long Beach high school.
“When you get older, you start to figure out your body. You can’t do football workouts all year round. The MMA workouts were something I’ve never done before and they definitely pushed me to another level,” says Lewis.
Lewis has been looking for new ways to improve his performance on the field, including swimming and hip-hop dance. He runs routes in the off-season at his alma mater UCLA but the Jaguars tight end has seen his work with Glazer take up much of his time, which is paying off.
”A lot of the workouts are concentrating on your fast twitch muscles. If I’m doing Muay-Thai kicks and knees; that’s helping me with my hip flexors being able to pick my leg up and put it down quick. When I’m running out of my route, that’s the same muscle,” says the 30-year-old Lewis. “When I’m doing wrestling or jiu-jitsu, learning how to transfer weight in the right way, I’m learning how to use my body in ways that I’ve never used it before. That translates into how I block and [me] being able to move bodies off of me.”
One of Lewis’ favorite moments with Glazer are what he calls, “30, 30, 30s“, which are a series of workouts that change every 30 seconds designed to push you towards your breaking point. One of the goals of these workouts is to increase the endurance of these athletes.
It's not only limited to one side of the football, both defensive and offensive players have taken up classes in MMA. Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Tamba Hali has been training in jiu-jitsu since 2007 when he joined The Gracie Academy in Torrence, California, at the advice of his, then, financial adviser. What started out as an introduction quickly became an addiction.
“When I first got there, I knew nothing about martial arts,“ says Hali. “It’s hard for people to understand how it relates to football because we don’t use any techniques that were going to use in. [Here] we get much more flexible in our hips and in places we’re naturally not as flexible in as athletes.”
Hali, after several years of training, was awarded his blue belt in 2013. He is learning from some of the best instructors in jiu-jitsu, Ryron and Rener Gracie. Gracie jiu-jitsu is renowned; UFC stars like the Diaz brothers and Gilbert Melendez employ their methods. Days spent with the Gracie’s are rigorous.
“When I came back [in 2010] we put together an entire system, what we do is run on the beach in the morning, sprints; same things you’d do on grass [like] half-gassers. Then, we go to the facility [for] about two hours and then in the evening we’ll roll again,” says the 30-year-old Hali.
While the sports of MMA and football share similarities, the amount of energy they expend at any given moment is different. Brett Bartholomew is a Performance Specialist at Exos, an elite-level gym that works with the best athletes in pro sports. Bartholomew is the Director of Offseason Conditioning for the NFL and has trained players such as Dontari Poe and Andrew Luck.
“The biggest difference comes in the conditioning,” says Bartholomew. “An average football play lasts anywhere from four to eight seconds. They may get 30-40 seconds of rest between plays. When you look at MMA, these guys are going for five, five-minute rounds so those energy systems are completely different.”
Bartholomew’s plan to develop his athletes involves growing the phosphocreatine, glycolytic and aerobic systems of both a fighter and football player. Where the difference comes into play is how close that athlete is to their fight or season.
“Where a fighter will stay in that more aerobic, anaerobic range; football is going to continue to do more of that short burst, high-intensity,” says Bartholomew.
The allure of punching someone in the face for a living has attracted former NFL players. There are a few, including Brendan Schaub and Matt Mitrione, who appeared on The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights in 2009. Both Schaub and Mitrione, who have worked with Glazer, had spent time in the NFL before productive UFC runs. Mitrione has worked with active NFL and NBA players like Marcus and Mike Pouncey, even Charlotte Hornets Guard Lance Stephenson.
“There are quite a few NBA and NFL guys that come into our camp and do work,” says Mitrione. “It’s interesting seeing them hit something as simple as pads because it's like a fish out of water. Like rolling their hips, digging out of the floor, using leg power in your punches; seem like a foreign concept to them at times.”
Schaub has worked with his share of NFL athletes as well.
“Tim Tebow [is one]. He’ll hit mits with me, box and do jiu-jitsu. I was just helping out Tamba Hali. I was just doing jiu-jitsu with him. He comes down to Torrence and trains at the Gracie Academy during the offseason,” says Schaub.
What started out as an unregulated and unruly mess now has become a sport that is watched in dozens of countries and brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Now, on its grandest stage in company history, the UFC has become recognized for employing some of the most fit and skilled athletes. Athletes are always looking for innovative ways to train, and based on the popularity, more NFL players will be on their way.