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UFC, the world’s premier mixed martial arts organisation, launched the very first UFC Academy Combine earlier this summer. This was the industry’s first talent evaluation event, offering mixed martial artists a platform to showcase their skills and abilities with the hopes of making a career in MMA and go down in UFC history. We talked to UFC Vice President of Performance Duncan French and UFC Sport Science Manager Felix Falkenberg, to get an insight into the very first attempt at benchmarking performance within MMA, and how Wattbike smart trainers have been crucial in the process of creating a blueprint for tomorrow’s champions.
The UFC opened the very first UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas in 2017 as the world’s first mixed martial arts multidisciplinary research, innovation and training centre. More than 400 athletes from the UFC’s roster have used the facility since its inception, and in addition several dozen NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and Olympic athletes have visited the facility for support during their off-season training. The second UFC Performance Institute (PI) was opened in June this year in Shanghai and the city’s Jing’An district. Coinciding with the opening of this facility, the UFC PI hosted the inaugural UFC Academy Combine where 50 mixed martial artists were invited to attend a testing and assessment day at the 93,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility. Of course, Wattbike was there to support.
Duncan French, UFC Vice President of Performance, comments:
“At the UFC Performance Institute we want to make sure that we have the very best equipment and technology to support our efforts in training and evaluating the very best athletes in the world competing in the UFC. Wattbike is a fundamental piece of equipment for us, both at our world HQ in Las Vegas, and now at our brand new facility in Shanghai. At the opening of the PI in Shanghai, the world’s most advanced mixed martial arts training facility, Wattbike is a critical part of the first ever MMA Combine run by the UFC for evaluating talent and physical attributes in future champions. We are always excited to use the Wattbike for training and testing purposes and explore the data it gives us.”
Felix Falkenberg, Head of Sport Science at the Shanghai UFC PI, adds that the goal behind the UFC Performance Institutes is to create a blueprint for fighters so they can walk into the cage injury free, making weight and in the best position physically to out-score, out-strike, or out-grapple their opponent. The Shanghai PI, together with Las Vegas, aims to teach fighters how to train properly and how to structure fight camps. Staff at both institutes look through research, collect data, and hold fight camps to document as much as possible about the MMA fighting and training process.
The very first UFC Combine was held in June this year at the UFC PI in Shanghai. Similarly to the NHL Combine, prospects at the inaugural UFC Combine were put through numerous tests to benchmark technique, power, endurance and speed. A total of 72 individual metrics were collected from each participating athlete. The scoring system used at the Combine was designed so that clear comparisons can be made between individual fighters at the level of each test in each category, ultimately leading to an overall UFC Academy Combine ranking for each athlete.
Athletes invited to the Combine have the opportunity to be selected for a scholarship at the UFC Academy where they will receive support across all performance areas, as well as an opportunity for a professional fight at the end of the six month period. If fighters perform well, they have the chance to gain a spot on the UFC roster. At the first Combine, Hong Kong’s Ramona Pascual was one of 26 MMA prospects to receive a six month scholarship at the brand new Shanghai PI. The former ROAD FC bantamweight was among 50 athletes to be put through their paces at the Combine, which will hopefully see Pascual, and other talented fighters, earn a spot on the UFC roster very soon.
Testing and benchmarking performance within elite sport is becoming increasingly important, as it allows teams and coaches to identify strengths and weaknesses of each individual athlete. Felix Falkenberg, UFC Head of Sport Science, comments: “The more performance data and comprehensive performance benchmarking you do, the more specific the training can be tailored to each athlete. This means you can train smart.”. However, with MMA being a fairly new sport, it can be difficult to know where to start.
Falkenberg states: “Being a new sport, there is not that much research on MMA and physical performance so that’s where the UFC Performance Institutes come in to try and fill that gap. That’s one of the things that we are really trying to pin down - what are the metrics that reflect strength gains, explosive gains, etc. for an MMA athlete. That’s part of why we started the Combine as well, to try and quantify performance within MMA. Since we invited 50 and selected 26 athletes, we can now look at the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful Academy fighter. For these differences to be significant we need to have a couple more Combines to gather data, which is what we are aiming to do. We are looking to hold Combines every six months which will allow us to find more athletes and keep training them for as long as needed. That’s the model that we are looking to stick with for now.”
Because quantifying and benchmarking sport performance is becoming more and more important, in recent years, a lot of teams and professional sport organisations have started collecting a lot of data, but Felix Falkenberg argues they are missing a crucial element - data analysis and integration: “Collecting data is not the hardest bit, but it’s what you do with it. Here at the UFC, one of the things we really want to highlight is that we don’t just test athletes, but we actually use the data and every single test has a purpose. That’s where the Wattbikes come in. At the Combine, we get each athlete to take the 3 minute test and the VO2 max test on the Wattbikes. We then look at average power and watts/kg as they are a good indicator for MMA athletes to look at lower body power endurance, and then on the VO2 max test we are looking specifically at the Wattbike heart rate zones and max aerobic capacity. We then use these metrics and zones to prescribe aerobic sessions to suit each fighter’s fitness levels to make sure they are working on their individual weaknesses.”
Testing and training at the UFC Performance Institute is facilitated by the Wattbike Hub app. With so much focus being placed on data, it is the one-stop destination for many elite teams and athletes today. Felix states: “We use the Wattbike Hub app all the time, especially if we are doing VO2 max testing or the 3 minute test we are always on the iPad to make sure we don’t lose the data and then we can go back to the cloud to look at the data there. Also, when a fighter is looking to do their aerobic base session on the Wattbike I will give them an iPad with the Hub app, they go away and do their session, and then I can go online and look at their data later.”
Felix also highlights the importance of off-feet conditioning, which has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years within elite sport. “Some of our athletes are on their feet a lot, they get kicked on the knees, kicked to their legs, so we try to do most of their conditioning on non-weight-bearing cardio equipment and that’s where the Wattbike comes in perfectly. Any aerobic base development we do off-feet and the Wattbike is key to that.”
The decision to purchase Wattbikes for the UFC Performance Institutes was an easy one. With so much importance being placed on data, especially during performance testing at the Combine, the Wattbikes seem to be the perfect fit at the UFC.
“The best thing about the Wattbikes is the reliability; I never have to worry about if it’s going to turn on, is it going to link up. The heart rate syncs up perfectly, it’s simple, it’s easy to use, I really have nothing bad to say about it. The athletes like it, it’s a comfortable ride - which is important as a lot of athletes usually complain about their butts hurting when they are riding a bike. It’s super adjustable, any body type can fit on it, whether it’s long legs, long arms, long torso, whatever it is you can find the perfect position on the Wattbike. I really think the most important bit is - especially when it comes to sport science - that you get reliable data and the equipment is easy to use. Connectivity is never an issue which is huge. A lot of other equipment is a nightmare to use, but with the Wattbike it’s perfect reliability and it’s valid, which is why it’s the most commonly used indoor bike in the world.”
Check out the brand new UFC Shanghai Performance Institute.
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