MMA is one of the most exciting but physically demanding sports in the world and the process of starting a career in the industry is long and grueling.
Though it is an oft-repeated cliche, combat sports are unique in that their athletes truly have to "want it" and not just enjoy the game as a leisure activity. While martial arts training can certainly be a fun hobby, there are no recreational MMA leagues, and competing in a sport that almost guarantees an injury takes a different type of mindset.
Beginning a journey into MMA will certainly be time-consuming and require immense dedication, but there have been championship fighters who did not begin training until their 20s. Alexander Volkanovski, Alex Pereira and Matt Brown are just some of the UFC's most successful competitors who did not even begin to train until after turning 20. It is never too late to start.
As a niche sport, all fighters get into MMA in their own ways. Regardless, certain treads remain consistent for the majority of successful martial artists.
Understand and accept the time commitment
Nobody becomes a successful athlete overnight, and MMA is particularly key in that aspect.
Unless you are a supremely gifted athlete, becoming a fighter will require a lot of time to develop the necessary skills through years of training. There is no rushing the process. While faulty preparation can get anyone hurt in any sport, it is key to remember that combat sports require extreme dedication in that the punishment for a lack of preparation will be a fist in your face or a shin to the jaw.
Training in MMA is a full-time job and will nearly shift your entire lifestyle. Even if training recreationally for fitness and enjoyment, the time in the gym will alter your day-to-day routine. It takes an increased level of toughness and perseverance to even train just for fun in any martial art.
Find a gym
As obvious as it may seem, the next step to beginning an MMA journey after agreeing to put in the time is to find a place to train. Hitting a punching bag in your garage is a nice start, but there is no substitute for quality fight training than having a reliable gym to hone each skill.
This step will require a bit of research and time in itself. Even more so than a commercial gym, it is important to find the right training facility and community that suits one's particular needs to establish a consistent routine. After all, the people you train with and the coaches who guide you will be the people who determine your success and the ones you will be closest to.
To become a successful fighter, you will want to find a place that challenges you and pushes your limits but most importantly makes you feel safe and want to keep going back. Even if it requires you to test out multiple gyms in the area over the course of several weeks, it is worth it to establish a home base.
Not all areas will have an MMA gym nearby, but there is almost always a martial arts training facility within comfortable driving distance. Whether it be a Muay Thai or Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym, all are suitable foundations for beginning an MMA journey. Find your own home; it does not have to be Xtreme Couture or American Top Team.
Find your niche
Following up on the last point, beginning MMA training is a long process that has several roots. If you are a UFC fan, you understand how almost every fighter has a unique origin story, and that will be no different for your own narrative.
The complexity of the sport is second to none. While the boxing exchanges in the UFC are not equivalent to those seen in Top Rank, an MMA fighter cannot find true prosperity without a basic understanding of boxing combinations, defensive mobility and fundamental mechanics. The same can be said for all conventional martial arts. Not every fighter has to be a Glory Kickboxer, but each has to understand the concept of throwing and defending kicks.
As 10-4-1 welterweight Dustin Parrish once told me at the beginning of my own journey, MMA is like soup. You do not just "have" soup, as it is not a standalone item. While people may purchase soup, it is still a dish full of separate ingredients put together to make a new meal. Similarly, MMA requires specific training in striking, grappling and wrestling to combine each skill set to create a flow.
Mixed martial arts is exactly what it states, a competitive sport combining key aspects of martial arts. As you begin your training, each developing fighter has to find their niche along the way. Whether you desire to focus on wrestling first or becoming a sharp Muay Thai striker, having a solid understanding of one martial art before jumping all in can be helpful.
While becoming a good fighter does not require complete mastery of every relevant fight style, most successful fighters have found it most successful to focus their training on individual disciplines before expanding their game. Jumping into every aspect of MMA from scratch may be too difficult to comprehend with no prior fight experience. The most common bases in MMA include wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and Muay Thai.
There have been fighters like Jake Matthews who entered MMA without a specific base due to the intention of fully becoming a mixed martial artist as the sport reaches a wider audience, but even then, there is still no fast-tracking the process of developing a solid foundation.
Dedication and consistency
As arguably the most important step in beginning MMA, there is no way to become a skilled fighter without putting in the time.
Consistency is key to anything in life, but true passion and dedication are especially important in MMA. Many fighters sacrifice other aspects of their life to succeed and while each individual has their own priorities, becoming an MMA fighter is a lengthy process. Find a gym to train at, establish a routine, and commit to a consistent schedule. Each day is an opportunity to improve and a building block over time.
Training in MMA goes beyond the gym as well. The demands a fighter puts on their body require adept nutrition, quality sleep and proper recovery. Overtraining is just as detrimental as under training.
As with any long-term goal, beginning MMA can get discouraging, especially during the dark days as a white belt in a sea of experienced fighters. Starting anything is intimidating, but every black belt had a day one, and each teammate you meet is only attempting to accomplish the same goal. Even Jon Jones stepped into the gym for the first time at some point.
There may be moments when you question your decisions as you enter the gym after a long day at work, but even some of the best fighters in the world still work a 9-5 job. UFC flyweight Miranda Maverick currently works a day job while running a small business selling fermented pickles and still has found success at the highest level. If there is a will, there is a way.
Just enjoy the process and soon enough, you'll be impressing yourself.