Inside look: how the UFC Performance Institute uses sports technology - SportTechie
Posted: 12 Aug 2019 09:12 PM PDT
Amanda Nunes knocks out Holly Holm during their UFC Women's Bantamweight Title bout on July 06. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
This is the first story in a three-part series about the UFC Performance Institute.
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Three years ago, Connor McGregor faced Nate Diaz in UFC 196 when their rivalry and animosity was at an all-time high. Their fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas turned out to be the most successful pay-per-view in league history at the time, and it ended four minutes into the second round when McGregor—the former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion known as "The Notorious One"—was submitted in a rear naked choke on the blood-speckled mat in front of a howling crowd.
Known for his trash-talking arrogance that can be so potent it sometimes leaves people wondering if he's just playing a character, McGregor softened his face and shook Diaz's hand when the official results were announced and Diaz's triumphant arm was thrown into the air. "Part of what people see with Connor is true," says James Kimball, a UFC executive. "But at the same time, he's a respectful guy behind the scenes."
To most, the UFC is known for its harsh brutality that inspired a recent USA Today headline to call out a fighter's "really ugly broken/crooked nose." But away from the bright lights of fight night, the MMA league fosters a familial atmosphere in which athletes with McGregor-Diaz-caliber rivalries train side-by-side at the UFC's Performance Institute—an eight-acre campus just a few miles from the Strip in Vegas where athletes are given unfettered access to state-of-the-art technologies and a high-caliber staff of nutritionists, trainers, sports scientists and physical therapists.
"We have guys who are competing against each other in three days' time on the treadmills right next to each other," says Kimball, the institute's VP of operations. "It's a weird sport. You would think they have beef outside of the octagon and there's a lot of animosity, but it's not that type of vibe."
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Located just off 215 West, one of the main arteries in Sin City, the UFC campus currently houses two buildings with three major purposes.
This past spring, the company opened its second building, UFC Apex, a 130,000-square-foot facility that features more than 50,000-square-feet of production space and another 70,000-square-feet of unused office space, with an eye toward future growth. It also includes an arena space in which the UFC can host smaller fights. Next year, a control room will be installed that will allow UFC to produce and broadcast live events remotely from any location in the world—an important functionality as the brand sets its sights on global expansion.
The original building across the parking lot houses UFC's corporate office, where about 80% of the UFC staff (some 300 people) work in divisions such as marketing, legal and partnerships. They carry the weight of UFC's logistical and operational development. Situated across a shared courtyard, the Performance Institute is also housed in this building. The hallways in all directions are plastered with UFC branding, photos of historic fight moments, inspirational quotes, and past UFC fight posters. "Before May of 2017, the UFC was six nondescript office buildings by the Stratosphere," says Duncan French, the institute's VP of performance. "You didn't have an athlete front-facing entity. And then the whole organization moved to this campus."
Pro athletes visiting the Performance Institute have a separate entrance to avoid schlepping through the corporate office, but everyone in the building shares a cafeteria. "This is by design," says Kimball. "You could be in our creative department building out a fight poster and then run into the person you're building it for at lunch. It's designed to create that culture. And it happens often because every fighter in the PI training will come here to eat."
Kimball has been with UFC since 2010 and has overseen the development of the Performance Institute since 2015. When building out the PI, he and his staff looked to hire professionals from other disciplines outside of mixed martial arts and the UFC franchise in order to bring fresh "eyes and perspectives" to inform the way MMA fighters train. French is one such example. Before joining the UFC team, he was the director of performance sciences and director of Olympic sport strength & conditioning at Notre Dame; he also has more than 20 years of experience coaching amateur, collegiate, professional and Olympic athletes.
Today, the PI serves as a sophisticated touchpoint between the athletes of the UFC and the organization. "Previously, UFC would only see its athletes a couple times a year when they fought and then they would go back home and we wouldn't hear from them for three or four months," says Kimball. "We had no clue what they were doing as they were preparing for competition or recovering from it. There was no visibility and we definitely had no influence. So that's the origin of why we built this; just to keep in touch with them."
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The arrangements are so athlete-focused that several fighters on the UFC roster, including JoJo Calderwood of Scotland, Jessica Eye of Cleveland, Ohio, and Yana Kunitskaya from Russia, have moved to Nevada to take advantage of the Performance Institute. "We have about 30 fighters that now live in Las Vegas. It was 13 when we opened," says French.
When athletes walk in they're greeted by staff at the front desk and then ushered through a door where they find a fueling station stocked with nutritious snacks, fruit smoothies, supplements and vitamins—all for free. Oftentimes, one of the three staff nutritionists will meet with them here to talk through what they should be eating to achieve their respective goals. In that sense, training begins before the athletes even step into the locker room.
"We're a weight-class sport, so there's a lot of investment and energy around dietetics," says French. "There's an informal, organic conversation that starts around, 'Well, what are your needs?' " There's even a nutrition consultation room where DexaFit's DEXA device is used for body composition assessment. French calls Dexa the "gold standard" in body assessment. It's sort of like an X-ray machine that can also read soft tissue, he says.
"We can understand how much fat you have and how much muscle tissue you have, to the nth degree," says French. "For our guys who are making weight descents and trying to make weight, this is a huge tool for us."
The room is also stocked with bioelectrical impedance analyzers, which send electricity through the body to determine body mass based on water conduction. French says they also help with hydration monitoring. There's a metabolic cart, which is used to determine resting metabolic rate. All of this equipment and these methods have led to a methodical approach to gaining and losing weight.
"That's a massive player in the conversation about how easy it is going to be for you to make weight," says French. "If you have a slow metabolism, we might have to start your weight descent further from the fight. If you have a fast metabolism, we can push it closer and that's going to have a knock-on effect to the way you train and your strategy for the fight. We gather lots of information so we can be super intentional around our programming for strengthening, conditioning and nutrition."
One of the most intentional parts of the Performance Institute is its layout. Everything feeds into the next thing and all the rooms open up to each other. The nutrition room is a stone's throw from the weight room, while the weight room is adjacent to a Hypoxico altitude room (the entire room becomes a high-altitude chamber), which then opens up to a pool room and an adjacent recovery room.
"We want everything to be really open-concept," says Kimball. "So if you're standing in the middle of our clinic, you can look directly into the weight room all the way through the courtyard to UFC headquarters and vice versa. Our staff, strength coaches and physical therapists can see what they're delivering to an athlete. But then the athletes also feel like they're in an environment where they're working with the entire team no matter what they're doing for the day."
The weight room features treadmills and lifting stations. Bilateral integrated force plates in the ground measure force as athletes do squats. A small vertical camera picks up the bar being lifted in 3-D motion to provide real-time video feedback. It also monitors the speed of the bar, which allows trainers to calculate power output. "We have power outputs for every single exercise, every single set," says French. "We can look at rep-to-rep changes, across time … If you're not assessing you're guessing is kind of our motto, so we have a lot of diagnostic capabilities that just become seamless."
During a recent tour of the facility, one fighter ran on the treadmill in the room-sized hypoxic lab where oxygen levels can be reduced to as low as 11%, which is equivalent to an altitude of 22,000 feet (Mount Everest's base camp sits at 21,000 feet; the oxygen levels at sea level are at 21%.) "We would never take someone that high unless they're a mountaineer, but it means that we've got the capacity to take oxygen out of the environment, and that obviously then helps with adaptation and physiology," says Kimball.
In the next room over there's a pool treadmill; the bottom of what looks like a lap pool is really just one giant aquatic treadmill. Athletes can walk or run with the resistance of forward motion, or use it as a recovery tool by leveraging the weightlessness of their submerged bodies. As one athlete works out in the pool, a trainer hovers nearby with a blinking and beeping metabolic machine.
"We have some very cool integrative capabilities which help us with an understanding of regression and progression," says French. "That's everything that it comes down to at a world-class level: are you getting better or are you getting worse? I'm going to make sure that everyone is moving in the right direction."
Once the training session has come to a close, athletes are encouraged to use the "recovery zone," which complements the work of the physical therapists. In here, tissue damage is repaired by either the red-light therapy or a cryotherapy chamber.
The upstairs is low-tech by comparison. Fighters have access to a regulation boxing ring and MMA cage. There's a padded room for wrestling and dozens of punching bags. A nearby auditorium-style media room has a retractable wall that opens up to the octagon for media days. "We always say this is our Jurassic Park moment," says Kimball, referring to the scene in the Steven Spielberg movie where they take a glass-protected tour of the lab.
There are four cameras around the octagon that feed directly into a large touchscreen located just outside the cage, providing fighters and coaches with immediate feedback.
"You can say, 'OK, well, your foot placement here is displaced, you're not getting the right angle.' You can throw in previous fights so when we have visiting athletes you can go frame-by-frame," says Kimball. "You could basically live-action break this down."
Since the Vegas-based performance institute is transient, meaning that athletes aren't given residence like those who train with soccer academies in Europe, there's also a hangout room with sleeping pods and an Xbox so the fighters can relax between training sessions without feeling pressured to return to their hotel.
"Now the athletes in the UFC can be very intimate in terms of coming to a location for expertise, knowledge, education, training, medical services, you name it," says French. "We're very much a destination."
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