Inside The Octagon: UFC’s Performance Institute

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‘Do you want to be a fighter?’ The notorious question by UFC President Dana White aired during the inaugural season of The Ultimate Fighter. It sparked a fire in reality television and introduced the sport of Mixed Martial Arts to the American masses.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the premier combat sports league worldwide. Beginning in 1993, the organization would be purchased in 2001 for $2 million by White and business partners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta.

Fast-forward to 2017 where the trio sold a majority of its enterprise to WME-IMG, a talent agency in Los Angeles, for a staggering $4 billion. Currently, this is the richest sale in the history of professional sports.

With momentum on its side, the UFC (based in Las Vegas) decided to double-down on its roots and construct a new global headquarters in Sin City.

Opening its doors in May of 2017, the corporate campus houses 250+ employees on 15 acres of land, costing $14 million to build. It’s also home to the Performance Institute, the world’s first Mixed Martial Arts multi-disciplinary research, innovation, and training center.

Front Office Sports was invited to the ‘Fight Capital of the World’ and given an exclusive tour of the property. We first met with James Kimball, VP of Operations and learned about the company’s vision.

“The UFC Performance Institute was conceptualized in 2014. With over 500 athletes under contract, each is considered independent contractors. It’s also a global sport so many of the fighters live outside of the United States. Nearly half of the roster has come to visit the new facility and any given week around 20 athletes will be in Las Vegas training for an upcoming competition,” Kimball noted.

Back in 2014, the company did an internal audit of what was working (and what wasn’t) for its athletes.

“The culmination was this 30,000 sq. foot high-performance training center built for the UFC athlete,” said Kimball.

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“The whole project took 2 ½ years; we’ve been open now for 7 months and most importantly you can have the best facility in the world, but if you don’t have the right operators in place to manage it then you won’t be able to accomplish what you really set out to do,” Kimball explained.

Walking around the complex you get a sense of how big the sport has grown, not only in the United States, but around the world.

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“Our recruitment for staff was a year long, Duncan French was our first hire. He oversees our entire performance team. Our staff is pretty lean, around 10 people. As VP of Performance, Duncan is in charge of our strength & conditioning, nutrition, physical therapy and support staff,” Kimball informed.

Having a world-class doctor seems imperative for a sports organization, but how about former athletes? Enter UFC Hall of Famer, Forrest Griffin.

Winner of the first season on The Ultimate Fighter, Griffin is widely regarded as one of the men who elevated the platform for MMA’s current success and popularity. Griffin went on to have a successful UFC career, capturing the light heavyweight championship before retiring in 2012. He is now the VP of Athletic Development.

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Kimball and Griffin traveled to 50+ facilities around the globe, consulting with NBA, NFL, MLB and English Premier League clubs to identify what currently are the best practices in the market, and to find out what is important to MMA athlete training. They used this research before breaking ground on the new HQ.

The tour began where athletes go after long days and nights of training.

“The recovery and regeneration area gets used after workouts. Recovery is a very personal approach and strategy. Some people like getting into the water, others don’t,” French demonstrated. “We have a full body cryotherapy chamber that goes up to 170 degrees, all the way down to -320 degrees. On average you stand inside for three to six minutes. It rests the brain, the Nero stimulus of pain and muscle damage, and helps rejuvenate blood cells,” French continued.

There was also a tanning bed device that I had never seen before. “This full body laser light therapy pod uses infrared light to promote circulation and removes inflammation,” French said.

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Next were the wet areas, offering a hot spa, cold pool, steam room and sauna. There’s also an underwater treadmill with four cameras synced to capture progress.

“Working out in water reduces body weight and ensures no heavy impact when rehabbing an injury,” French pointed out.

As we moved along, you could tell no stone was left unturned.

“Body management, body composition, and nutrition are crucial aspects of our athlete population. We’ve got some pretty cool tech in this space such as the full body scanner, it’s a big x-ray machine,” French displayed.

There is also a nutrition consultation room as needed for this weight classification sport.

While passing through the gym a handful of athletes were seen working out. Longtime veteran featherweight Gray Maynard was lifting weights, and up-and-coming bantamweight, Gina Mazany, was doing cardio.

“Most of the roster, 90–95% of them do not have a dedicated support staff year round. They all have MMA coaches and are encouraged to bring them here, where we then plug in to where the needs are,” Kimball emphasized. “Even a guy like Conor McGregor year-round doesn’t have a full performance team. He has an MMA combat team, but this is a support staff that most athletes have never seen or been exposed to.”

What does it cost, one may ask, to access the complex and specialists in-house?

“The P.I. is available at no cost to the athletes, 24/7/365, and no two days are alike. Some may stop by for a couple days, others hold their entire fight camp on the property. Francis Ngannou, who is fought for the Heavyweight championship, relocated to Las Vegas to train here,” according to Kimball.

The first floor of the P.I. is all performance services and the second floor is sports specific. There’s an indoor turf track and outdoor sprint track on the property that gets plenty of usage.

“When it came to the design of the facility, it wasn’t just about the services under one roof but the efficiency in which they’re delivered,” Kimball elaborated.

One area, in particular, caught my eye, with treadmills and gas masks attached.

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“A very unique room is our altitude chamber. We can take the whole room up to 22,000 feet, which is the equivalent of Mt. Everest’s base camp, so we can train in hypoxia,” Duncan would clarify. “Conor McGregor used it extensively, changing his physiology while training for the Mayweather fight. It’s a great tool for us when there are bouts in Denver or Mexico City, simulating workouts in altitude is very useful. To have this here in proximity to our gym is truly unique.”

Down the hall is a fueling station and nutrition bar manned by a dietician and offers shakes, vitamins, and snacks. Whatever an athlete needs for pre and post workouts. Adjacent to that is the physical therapy clinic, which has two therapists on staff, both recruited from Team USA in Colorado.

“I blew my left knee out and I had 2.1 lbs more muscle in my right knee after the injury. From that [information] our physical trainers can create a program to get you back on track,” Griffin told me.

Walking up the second floor, the walls are dedicated to the UFC Hall of Fame and I noticed the stairs had aspirational branding.

“The idea is that as you ascend to the next floor, you’re also in your career trying to ascend and be at the pinnacle which these [Hall of Famers] made,” Kimball reiterated.

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The sports specific floor offers different types of bags for various striking skills and there are matted reinforced walls, so you can practice grappling in the first section.

The most prominent feature in the entire building has to be the octagon. The 30-foot wide cage is identical to what fighters compete in on television. It’s also rigged with lighting and cameras to replicate the feel of an arena.

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“Film study, every sport does it. Our guys are starting to record their sparring sessions,” Griffin exclaims.

Griffin, also a UFC Hall of Fame member, takes me to a massive LCD screen outside the octagon and begins breaking down film. He demonstrates how one fighter’s hands were in a good position and how the other’s footwork needed proper spacing.

“Fighters can record themselves and take footage home on a flash drive. They also can access UFC Fight Pass (digital streaming network) and watch any fight in the company’s history. The big thing is to identify the good and bad things, finding what to improve on with their coaches,” Griffin emphasizes.

There’s also a full-sized boxing ring in the gym. President Dana White had it installed, even before McGregor’s famous bout last summer.

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While the Performance Institute was built and created for fighters, non-MMA athletes have visited and trained here as well. The list includes NBA players during Summer League action, plus NFL and MLB players who live in Las Vegas.

“That was part of the ambition, not just to position ourselves as the leader in combat sports performance, but in global sports performance,” Kimball said.

Overlooking the courtyard is the relaxation lounge or player’s lounge. “A true destination for UFC athletes. After an early training or late night sparring, they can come here and relax.

These vibrating sleep pods provide massages, ambient lighting, and music. It’s timed to get louder and brighter at the 26-minute mark to wake up based on a NASA study for optimal power naps,” Kimball demonstrated.

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The grand finale was the multimedia purpose center with stadium seating for 60. It’s used for formal press events, corporate partners, athlete meetings and big reveals. A 15-foot LED board retracts from the roof and behind the curtains is a front row view of the octagon inside the gym.

“We also do athlete summits which involve media training and financial planning. Typically we host them quarterly, sometimes twice a year,” Kimball informed.

The UFC is also celebrating its 25-year anniversary in 2018 with a special logo and will feature unique events throughout the calendar year.

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For a sport so young, there are no traditional high school or college courses being offered for mixed martial arts. It’s still a relatively new practice across the map. Athlete summits are designed to educate new fighters joining the organization.

“It’s helpful for fighters transitioning into the sport. Now you’re a professional athlete. I’ve personally had a lot of guys call me and reach out. I try to help and guide, introduce them to people for when their careers come to an end as well,” Griffin added.

Asked if fighters have resisted or prefer training on their own, Griffin was candid.

“We want to give them one or two things, maybe it’s nutrition. Sure, we don’t want to overhaul an athlete’s training. No matter how resistant there’s something that they’re having trouble with, something we can help them with. There’s literally something here for everyone.”