“Do you wanna be a fighter?”
That was the question famously posed by a ticked-off Dana White on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Back then, of course, mixed martial arts could barely be classified as a fringe sport. People didn’t become fighters to achieve wealth or fame. No, in those days, it was all about the experience. And yet even in those nascent years of the sport, many people still asked themselves that question. “Do you wanna be a fighter?”
Today, when MMA has the potential to fill bank accounts and create massive international fame, more people are asking themselves that question than ever before. And for some of those people, the answer is decidedly “yes.”
So, if you’ve decided you want to pursue a career as a professional mixed martial artist, how do you proceed?
Here’s the step-by-step guide.
Make Sure This Is Actually What You Want To Do
This first step is the simplest of the bunch, and yet it’s probably also the most important.
A career in fighting will test you mentally, emotionally, and of course, physically. If you’re not willing to chase the dream with absolute diligence, there’s no sense in chasing it at all. So, before you start investing your time and money in the fight game, make sure it’s really for you. Don’t just imagine yourself in the moments after a big win. Picture yourself coming to under the bright lights as a referee peels you off the canvas and your opponent throws his hands skyward in elation. If the moments like this—the inevitable lows of a career in mixed martial arts—seem like more than you can handle, perhaps it’s best to reconsider.
If you’re still interested a career as a pro fighter, keep reading.
Do Some Research & Pick Your Gym
So, now it’s time to get serious, and that starts with finding a serious gym.
There’s a lot more to a good MMA gym than competitive prices and a convenient location. You want a gym with great coaches—instructors with plenty of competitive experience under their belt. When considering a gym, learn a bit about the coaches’ competitive history, and if possible, who they trained under.
You also want a gym that is producing successful students. Do a bit of research on the gym’s record at local grappling tournaments and Muay Thai fight nights. Have the gym’s students been competing? Have they been winning? If the walls of the gym are bare, this is not a good sign. If the walls are lined with trophies, medals, belts, and posters from past events, this suggests the gym produces active and successful competitors—a very good sign.
Yes, a good gym has good coaches. Good coaches mean good students. Good students mean good training partners for you, and iron sharpens iron.
Hit The Ground Running
Once you’ve found a good gym, sign yourself up and get to it—but don’t half-ass it. Check your ego at the door, and soak up everything you can from your coaches and peers. Even if you have previous experience in the martial arts, it’s wise to consider yourself a newbie. Learn, learn, learn. And don’t quit when you’re tired. Hustle till your lungs burn and you feel like puking. Remember, you’re trying to become a fighter. If you’re ready to give up half way through a tough training session, how will you possibly make it through a fight?
The old adage rings true “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.” So sweat, sweat, sweat.
Here’s the simple truth: you’re probably not a prodigy. Very few people actually are. Yes, just like every other fighter in the history of fighting, you’ll probably have plenty of off-days where you feel like giving up. You’ll have days where you get bored of the constant pad work and grappling drills and wish you could skip to sparring or rolling, but that’s not how you learn. You’ll have days when nothing seems to stick, and you’ll convince yourself that you were wrong, and that fighting isn’t for you. Ignore these shadowy feelings. Take a deep breath and be patient. The road to a successful MMA career is long and arduous—but you can make it.
Sharpen Your Individual Tools
Here’s where things will start getting really fun.
There will come a time when you’re ready to start testing the individual facets of your game. Generally, your coaches will let you know when this time has arrived.
At this point, you should start sharpening your tools in the world of competition. Enter into a BJJ tournament and see how you do. Test your chops with an amateur Muay Thai bout. Don’t be discouraged by a loss, and don’t get cocky with a win. Just see how it feels to compete in a combat sport. Take your beatings, and give some back. Then do it again, and again, and again.
Take An Amateur MMA Bout
You’re almost there.
Very few aspiring fighters jump right into the world of professional MMA. The pro circuit is almost always preceded by an amateur run. So, sign up for a few amateur fights, and practice putting all your tools together. Learn how an MMA bout feels—it will feel different than a grappling match or a striking-only fight. Then, whether you win or lose that amateur fight, take another. Then another. Then another. Then maybe a few more. If you win them all, great. If you lose one or two, don’t get discouraged. Many great professional fighters have lost amateur bouts. Surging UFC bantamweight Cody Garbrandt, who is undefeated as a pro, got KO’d in an amateur bout. So did UFC lightweight prospect Sage Northcutt. So did former UFC women’s bantamweight champ Holly Holm. Losses happen on the way up.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably ready to go pro. Talk to your coaches, and if they think you’re ready, take the plunge into the gory, but glorious world of professional fighting.
Find a local fight night that’s looking for competitors and tell them you’re interested. With any luck, they’ll find you an opponent of a similar size and experience level—though you shouldn’t count on either of these things. Sign on the dotted line, then, when the time comes, go fight your ass off. If you win, great, congratulations on the successful pro debut. If you lose, so be it. Renan Barão lost his first fight, then took off on a 30-fight win-streak. All is not lost, so keep grinding.
Keep At It
Keep working hard to improve your record—because MMA is a numbers game. Rack up wins, and avoid losses, and test yourself against steep competition whenever possible. Win yourself a belt on the regional circuit. Establish yourself as a fighter to watch.
Of course, it’s important to note that no matter how successful you are in the early years of your career, you’re unlikely to make any real money right off the bat. Even fighters debuting in big leagues like Bellator and the UFC tend to make less than 10,000 per fight, and so you may even need to work a full-time job outside of training hours. But if you’re able to keep fighting, and keep making statements with your victories, you may eventually get a call from one of the big leagues: One Championship, World Series of Fighting, Bellator, even the UFC. From there, the sky is the limit. Whether you win a belt and make your fortune will depend entirely on you and your team.