x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mild-mannered 57kg reporter takes on UFC

As Abu Dhabi prepares for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, our plucky little journalist decides to train like the big guys.

Phil Perrin, right, a mixed martial arts instructor, gives The National's Matt Kwong, centre, tips on cushioning kicks from the likes of Mike Fairburn, left.
Phil Perrin, right, a mixed martial arts instructor, gives The National's Matt Kwong, centre, tips on cushioning kicks from the likes of Mike Fairburn, left.

ABU DHABI // Probably few would turn down an invitation to wallop a mouthy reporter - especially during a fitness programme inspired by cage-fighting.

So when my 190cm sparring partner planted a right hook into the pad shielding my face and cried, "Die!", the surprising crunch of vinyl against my glasses must have felt pretty sweet on his end. From my side, bleary-eyed behind the foam cushion, the impact produced a wave of nausea. But this was fitness the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) way, and I was a noodle-armed warrior wearing oversized inner gloves and a ridiculous grin.

I may weigh only 57kg and stand 5'9", but I had gumption. I had bloodlust. I had caffeine pumping through my veins. My objective, as described by the Original Fitness Co's Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fitness programme, was to take my shawarma-stick physique and pump it up into something "explosive". There was more whimper than bang towards the end of the 60-minute session at Zalamat Garden, however. And although takedowns were plentiful, the only goon to bring me to the turf was me and my ineptitude at plank press-ups.

Our Australian instructor cheered us on through it all. "Fast punches, let's go!" barked Corey Oliver, 32 and the managing director of Original Fitness. "Ground-and-pound, people! Come on!" Another trainer, Phil Perrin, 45 and a former British soldier, chided us for our drooping hips and cheating press-ups. I was a lump hugging the grass as he walked by. "There's not a lot of movement going on around here," he said.

Based on the conditioning principles that mixed-martial-arts fighters use to build "explosiveness" in the fenced Octagon, the MMA fitness sessions blend ju-jitsu, muay thai, boxing and wrestling with aerobics and strength drills. "Everything we're doing is very specific to every movement you would do in UFC," Mr Oliver said. Over eight five-minute rounds, caroming from pylon to pylon, we leapt from deep squats, bear-crawled, pressed up and crunched our cores - and planted our knees into boxing mats and pummelled the cushions from the ground with our elbows.

"Ground-and-pound is when you're actually on top of someone and unloading on their face," Mr Oliver said. Mr Perrin added: "Think about the person you want to batter most and just get down and dirty." For the dozens of Flash Entertainment employees gathered in the park last week for a team-building exercise, the workout was a precursor to UFC 112: Invincible, the open-air event that Flash is bringing to the capital on April 10.

It was also an opportunity for the promoters to better appreciate the athletic prowess needed to compete in the brutal sport. "This is not going to the gym," Mr Oliver said. "You're going to be getting your body into different positions that you haven't been in before." My arms sagged with fatigue just from hoisting the protective pad. Bouncing on the grass, my sparring partner, Mike Fairburn, penetrated my peek-a-boo defence with some stinging combinations one of which left an imprint of my wet cheek against the pad and my glasses swinging off one ear.

"Looks easier on TV, doesn't it?" he said, panting furiously. When we switched, I battered the kick pad with my mightiest of childlike strikes. "You're a killer!" hissed Mr Fairburn, 32, goading me on. "Roundhouse!" he shouted, when it was on to side kicks. Though he trained as a competitive alpine skier in Canada, it had been years since John Lickrish, the managing director of Flash, had undergone such a gruelling workout.

"We used to do a lot of circuit training, aerobic, anaerobic fitness combined with tae kwon do," said Mr Lickrish, 41. "That was 18 years ago. This was tough. You're using your whole body." Mixing the popularity of UFC and mixed martial arts with a four-week exercise course has been a winning formula, Mr Oliver said, even though the training is more focused on fitness than knockouts. "Everyone's into this combat sport, so we thought we'd design a fun programme that's based on the movements of UFC, which is a very powerful sport where you need to be explosive with your movements," he said.

As for tips on how to fight extreme fatigue and queasiness, Mr Oliver advised the group to lay off caffeine and make sure to hydrate properly. For more information on classes, visit www.originalfitnessco.com. mkwong@thenational.ae