by Paul McIlroy, WDFPF World Champion, Boxer, Personal Trainer & Fitness Model
When is it time to give up on a dream? When is enough, enough? Is it when friends and family tell you that you are too old for one last roll of the dice, that it is unrealistic at “this stage of the game”? I do not know.
Those of you who have read my story in the Bio-Article I wrote here on LA Muscle a while a go, will know that I first started boxing in my early teens at the Immaculata A.B.C (located slap bang in the middle of West Belfast’s most infamous ghetto, Divis Flats).
I will try not to repeat myself too much here, but for those that do not know, my dream as a boy was to become a world champion and take my family away from the war zone, away from hardship. As the years rolled by I pretty much took what talent I had for granted. I’d win a few fights then take a long lay off, I’d repeat this over and over, and when I say long I mean LONG, anywhere between 6 months and 4 years!!
In time the conflict in the north subsided, I did achieve success in changing my family’s fortunes, but this came through education and coaching successes. I competed in a variety of different sports racking up a long list of accolades (marathon running, powerlifting, all round weightlifting, cross training, Muay Thai boxing, Fitness/ Physique modelling, track & field), even world titles (natural powerlifting).
The Itch Inside
But no matter what I achieved it always felt like I had an itch that I just couldn’t scratch. For a long time now, I have been a huge fan of mixed martial arts and something inside me has been telling me for years that it’s the sport best suited for me (even when I was younger and still boxing). I believed this to be the case due to my striking pedigree, my abnormal size to weight ratio (height, reach and build), my all round athleticism and my extreme strength-to-weight ratio.
But I did have a few things happen over the years, which also helped convince me. Curiosity took me to a Ju Jitsu class. In this class I was able to roll for 15 minutes and only be submitted once, even the instructor couldn’t get me! This was not due to technique, as I only had a less than rudimentary grasp of the art from watching a lot of UFC’s!
It was mostly due to a massive strength and conditioning advantage I held over everybody in the class. I can remember an instance, in which a fellow who was the same weight as me had caught me in a triangle choke, I grabbed his Gi (the suit worn in martial arts) at the lapel’s and basically performed a one arm power clean with him, ripping him about 6 ft in the air then slamming him into the mats as hard as I could. He let go of the choke, he let go altogether and could not move for about 3 minutes.
I also remember going to a Muay Thai gym and on the first night, the highly regarded instructor there asked me to fight professionally in 2 weeks time! One of the Thai Boxers at this gym is also strength & conditioning client of mine, Michael Allen, he has encyclopaedic knowledge of MMA from a fans perspective. We were speaking one night in the gym and our conversation drifted toward the fact that I was unhappy with the competitive side of my life. Without prompt or hesitation, Michael suggested MMA as the direction he thought I would be perfect for competitively. We had a long talk that night, and I went home and spoke to my fiancée about competing in MMA and she said: “I’ve seen this coming from a very long way off”. I laughed and said “WHAT”!! She recalled a time in the gym when I was sparring with a boxer who had beaten me in a boxing match before. Only this time we were sparring MMA rules just for fun. We both new very little but I was able to man handle the boxer to the ground with ease and ended up having to take it easy on him. This was a guy who had out pointed me years go and had continued to box at a high level after I’d retired.
Taking The Plunge (getting back in the saddle)
So the question wasn’t if I’d make the switch, but how and when? I recalled an article I’d read randomly in a copy of Ultimate Grappling (maybe my obsession with MMA magazines and DVD’s also tipped my fiancée off) concerning 9 time UFC Champion Matt Hughes. It stated that Matt was opening a gym called The H.I.T Squad (Hughes Intensive Training). I randomly checked to see the price to train there (expecting something ridiculously expensive) and to my surprise it was phenomenal value!!
From that day on my mind was set, and before I knew it, flights were booked. I had 2 months to pre-condition myself for the rigorous training regime, I had been forewarned to expect. I had not boxed in 4 years, I hadn’t sparred in 2 years. I was physically stronger than ever but had been neglecting cardiovascular work for some time. Therefore, I had my hands full.
I decided early on that I would forego the grappling aspect in my preparation as I was never going to learn enough in 8 weeks anyway. I concentrated on boxing, most specifically focus pad work, kettle bell training, tire hitting, running and weight training. I did not spar at all before going over, in hindsight this was a mistake. I only made it to 3 Muay Thai classes, this was also a mistake. But, I did manage to get myself into pretty good shape. Some of my last workouts included a 15 mile run in a 20kg weighted vest, hitting the pads for an hour with little rest, performing 2x body weight dips for 8 easy reps, performing a full range chin-up with almost 2.1x body weight and snatching a 20kg kettlebell for 250 reps in 10 minutes (easily the toughest of the above feats).
Arriving At The H.I.T Squad (The Gym)
The day we arrived I could not believe the heat and humidity, I remember thinking “how the hell am I going to train in this” (being of Celtic ethnicity I don’t do well with heat). When I first saw the gym I thought WOW!! It really is an amazing piece of work. It has an awesome free weight area, with lots of barbells, dumbbells, benches, power racks, kettle bells, platforms, you name it! Although I am not a big fan of machines in general, if you are going to have them then Hammer Strength is the premium choice, which featured heavily at the H.I.T Squad gym. The CV equipment was great and the gym also has a great boxing ring and punch bag area equipped with, double end bags, long bags (for kicking), standard heavy bags and my personal favourite, teardrop heavy bags.
Nevertheless, easily the most standout feature of the gym is the caged in mat space, a vast area of high quality custom matting (5,000 sq ft)! This area also had punch bags, grappling dummies, crash mats, medicine balls and several 20m ropes for climbing… Awesome!!
The H.I.T Squad Staff
Matt Hughes, figurehead or coach? In my experience, he is 100% coach! I honestly did not expect to see Matt during my stay because I knew he was injured in his last fight, he did not have any fights coming up and simply did not need to be there. Boy was I wrong! Matt’s at the gym at least 3 times per week (I suspect he’d be there even more often if he had a fight coming up) and when he’s there he’s not just “shooting the breeze”, he’s coaching! Matt takes both pro and amateur MMA classes, I have been in his class and learned a lot in a very short space of time. He has a really nice nature and presents nothing but “no frills” realism in the techniques he teaches. One of the first things that shocked me about Matt in training was his mastery of the art of Brazilian Ju Jitsu (BJJ). Even though his knee was braced up and he was out of serious training at the time, he was still able to control everyone with ease utilising the “scissor guard” very effectively.
Matt also takes the early morning strength & conditioning class on a Monday. It is always really tough but really fun. Also, a word of warning at this point, don’t miss this session! Matt will come and get you if you do LOL! If you don’t show or are late, Matt will get all the fighters to run laps of the dorms and send one guy up to get you, the rest of the guys will continue to run laps until you come down LOL!
One more thing I feel compelled to address is the public perception some people have of Matt- as a bully, with a chip on his shoulder. In my experience nothing could be further from the truth. Television shows can be edited to show you what they want to. Matt has been made out to be a sarcastic verbal bully in the past, when in actual fact he’s a light hearted joker with an almost childlike quality to his nature. Everyone at the H.I.T Squad can take a joke and give one back; nothing is ever meant, or taken in the wrong way.
In keeping with Matt’s almost unbelievable jovialness, is his affinity for what can best be described as playground games. He starts and/or finishes every session with a game of some sort, the favourite of which appears to be a variation on tippy tig called elbow tag. This game is so much fun, (fun to play and fun to watch)! The rules are too complicated to discuss here (LOL) so check it out for yourself at www.thehitsquad.com or matthughesonline on youtube. During the game everyone is in stitches laughing from start to finish, but one laugh can be heard above all others, that of none other than Matt Hughes himself! He absolutely loves this game and does little to hide the fact. You may be forgiven for asking, “What are professional MMA fighters doing playing children’s games with each other?”. Well first of all, why not? It is fun and we love it. But also, I see it as a clear attempt to defuse anxiety prior to engaging in one on one, unarmed combat. Plus it’s also an obvious attempt by Matt to neutralise his own celebrity, thus helping to humanise an MMA legend in the eyes of mere mortals. And it works! After a while you forget he’s a UFC hall of famer and just wanted to tag the guy doing all the laughing.
Marc Fiore is the main wrestling/grappling coach at The H.I.T Squad. Marc is a tough guy with a soft heart (don’t tell him I said that). He is also the chief matchmaker for the fighters and seems to genuinely care about the welfare of everyone. The fighters see Marc as a big brother figure and seeing as he organises nights out, on special occasions, and sometimes has all the guys over to his house for birthday parties, you can see how they’ve formed this opinion.
That is one side. On the other hand Marc is a brutally effective coach with a no BS attitude who pushes the guys safely to their limits and beyond! When coach Fiore takes the morning strength & conditioning workout you can tell!
Another standout quality that Marc has is his ability to motivate and pump the guys up. His pep talk timing is always impeccable; telling us like it is just when he knows we need it most. I swear, after one such talk the guys were lifted to a whole new level and so was I, thank you Marc!
Matt Pena is a man of few words, and that is an understatement. Nevertheless, his silent demeanour belies a quiet and deep-set confidence, which exudes from every pore. He is really good at what he does, he knows it and so does everyone else (plus I have seen him work the double end bag and the speed ball, he looks like he could still kick some serious butt)!
I came to the H.I.T Squad expecting to learn a lot about wrestling and the “ground game” and I did. But I didn’t expect to learn anything new about striking, especially boxing as this was my area of expertise. Every single time Coach Pena spoke, I learned something new about striking. Even though I only managed to get four rounds on the pads with him during my stay (due to an injury to my right shoulder), I can honestly say I came home a better boxer, I did not expect that at all!
I felt Matt and I clicked really well, this may have been due to the fact, that we are both strikers and the majority of fighters at the gym came from a grappling background. At the end of my first week of training after my first sparring session, Matt approached me and we had a long conversation. During our talk, Matt complimented my striking and spoke of my potential future in the sport. Coming from a man of this magnitude this meant the world to me. We also discussed the areas that I need to work on. Matt said I should prioritise takedown defence and submission defence (I am still on that quest). Matt Pena has a deep understanding of what it takes to be a fighter, now so do I having met him.
* Please click HERE to see Paul hitting the pads with Matt Pena *
Coach Watson- I struggle to type that and keep a straight face, not because Kyle isn’t a good coach, in fact his vast ability as a practitioner is surpassed only by the brilliance of his conveyance as a teacher. No, my problem with the term “coach Watson” is due to the fact that Kyle just isn’t viewed that way. He is one of the guys, in fact scratch that….he is THE guy! Kyle reminds me of The Ryan Reynolds movie character Van Wilder (in ‘Party liaison’). Quick submissions and an even quicker wit, Kyle’s sense of humour was very similar to mine, we also share an affinity for short, fat, pug nosed dogs. . . but enough about our taste in women (just kidding).
On the mat, he has a relaxed expertise, which is positively contagious. A True master teacher, Kyle’s attention to detail is exquisite and his passion for the majestically seductive art of Brazilian Ju Jitsu is obvious to all. Having said all that, my most lasting memory of Kyle was an eventful night singing karaoke (not to each other). He carried me through the last verse of “Its My Life” by Bon Jovi, (I will never forget you for that man)… Deep!
“Ruthless” Robbie Lawler
The ruthless one made his presence felt every day in the gym without even having to try. When Robbie walks into the room, you know without having to ask, that you are in the company of a fighter. I have to say at this time that although I am not really big on having heroes in life, I told Robbie he was a hero of mine and I meant it. I remember the first time I saw Robbie fight; it was in the UFC against a guy named Tiki. Tiki was a gallant warrior but Robbie was at his brutal best and totally destroyed him!! I think he was 20 years old at the time and doing that to a seasoned UFC fighter!! I recall turning to my friend and saying “could you imagine THAT coming at you in a dark alley?” Well, it was not a dark alley but little did I know, that one day I would get the chance to train up close and personal with THAT wrecking machine!
The first thing you notice about Robbie is how freakishly MASSIVE he is for only weighing 185lbs (84kg or 13st 3lbs). I mistakenly thought he must walk around at about 210 plus pounds, only to be informed that he doesn’t even bother with “cutting weight” (a process fighters go through to temporarily drop “water weight” in order to compete in a lower weight class, thus enabling them to regain this weight quickly after the weigh- in, and use this size advantage in the fight). In fact I’m told he walks around about 5 to 7lbs over and drops this through normal training without having to diet or dehydrate, so technically he could do with getting bigger. . . WOW!
I would go to the gym everyday to lift weights, as part of my training, most of the guys didn’t follow suite, as the morning strength & conditioning sessions were very resistance orientated and demanding. But, as I clearly have issues, I used to come back a few hours later to do some heavy lifting. However, I was not alone, as Robbie was also there every day. This was a rare treat for me as I’m a fan of strength and had always heard the rumours about how strong Lawler was in the gym. I must confess, I thought people might have been exaggerating his legend. I was dead wrong!! Let me set the record straight, the guy is a MONSTER!! He did not lift heavy every day, but when he did, it was something to see. I saw Robbie benching 120lb (55kg) dumbbells for at least 10 reps off of a 45 degree incline, now that’s great when you consider how light he is but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Consider that his form was picture perfect and it looked quite easy for him, the 120’s were the biggest dumbbells in the gym, but I’ll take a professional guess and say I think he could’ve repped 130’s or more. I have also seen him doing 10 reps on the Hammer Strength Pull down machine with four 45lb plates per side, again, this looked easy!! Just to give the reader some perspective, prior to my trip to the H.I.T Squad I achieved a single chin-up with my body weight (155lb) plus a 165lb dumbbell added to me, I did this from the “dead hang” position, when trying to repeat Robbie’s feat the weight stopped me at 8 reps and it wasn’t easy LOL!
My first observation in sparring, far from ruthless, Robbie was clearly holding back the power of his strikes when faced with lesser opposition (i.e everybody). Unless you were stupid enough to take liberties that is. . . . OUCH!!
Robbie has improved so much since those early days in the UFC (which he proved in winning the EliteXC Middleweight Championship of the World) and seems to have more poise and composure to add to his lethal cocktail of athleticism, power and peerless ferocity.
Although I treasure all the photos taken with the guys at the H.I.T Squad, this one of me and Mr Lawler was the first one in a frame, stay “Ruthless” Robbie.
Training At The H.I.T Squad
The training at the H.I.T Squad was second to none (and I’ve been around). Every morning you were up and out for early morning strength & conditioning/ cardiovascular training. This included a mix of tire flips, 45kg grappling dummy suplexing for time, 45kg rock throws, plyometric box jumps (various kinds), skipping, sprinting, distance running, Olympic lifts, rope climbing, wrestling, Thai pads, boxing drills, burpees, dumbbell punches, medicine ball throws, callisthenics, kettle bells and innumerable other pieces of apparatus and drills!!
I found these S&C workouts of tremendous benefit. This was very combat specific training and felt like the closest thing to fighting without getting punched in the face. I felt I was able to keep up well in these sessions and really enjoyed this level of work!
The technical classes were also very much a conditioning experience in and of themselves. As far as technique is concerned I thought all classes and all coaches did a sterling job on a daily basis. Even though there were many people in the classes, I always felt like it was a personal training session, which shows excellent professionalism.
An interesting side effect of my training was a pronounced and rapid reduction in body fat. I arrived at Granite City at an already very lean 4.5% body fat, but within 9 days this had dropped to 3.5%, (I was monitoring this during my stay). Although this may not be typical because I have always had a genetic advantage in this department, I was not alone in this regard. One of the fighters present during my stay (a powerfully built Australian named Damon Paine) came to camp weighing a solid 105kg and left weighing a quite ripped 90kg, in less than 1 month!!
In hindsight, I could not have had a better first week had I written a script to the effect. However, early into the second week disaster struck. During a sparring session, I lifted a guy up in the air to slam him for a takedown, but I landed awkwardly and badly hurt my shoulder. An X-ray and examination identified the injury as a level 2 tear of the AC ligament in my right shoulder! This is a very serious injury, usually taking several weeks to heal.
I was devastated when I heard the news. I felt that my opportunity to earn the respect of the team had vanished, that my trip had been in vain. Not only had I badly injured myself and faced the prospect of going home 3 weeks early, but I had also vastly under performed (in stark contrast to the previous week) in the sparring session in which I’d injured myself in, and would have no chance at redemption.
At this point, I must say that this injury was nobody’s fault, this is professional MMA, it happens, and that is that. Sometimes you can do everything right and something still goes wrong, that is the unpredictable world of full contact combat.
The H.I.T Squad staff paid for me to see a physio/ chiropractor at least 5 times after the injury. They were also very supportive, helping to find myself, and my fiancée transport in and out of St Louis, thus helping us occupy our time, as I wasn’t training.
It’s Not Over, Til It's Over
I was unsatisfied and frustrated about the fact that “the last memory” these coaches would have of me was one of capitulation, basically I decided I’m not going out like that. Even though I was reassured by Coach Fiore that nobody felt that way and that I had nothing to prove, it didn’t matter, because I felt that way about myself and I couldn’t live with myself had I gave up and packed my bags.
After one week the Physio/Chiropractor couldn’t believe how fast I was healing. He told me to start trying some exercise but to “let pain be my guide”, in other words if it did not hurt, do it. This was like a red flag to a bull. For the next 2 weeks, I started to show up to all the classes (except sparring) and doing them with one arm braced and strapped to my side. I threw so many left jabs, hooks and upper cuts that the middle knuckle on my left hand became badly cut and swollen. I hid this as best I could and carried on with things, as I was just so happy to be able to do anything.
I showed up for most of the morning strength & conditioning sessions and did them with one arm. One morning I’d be mixing up bag punching and squat thrusts the next day I’d be doing a circuit of plyometric box jumps, the next I’d be doing a strongman meddle of tire flips, rock throws, power cleans and sprints (all with one arm).
I’d have to modify things here and there, like using a dumbbell instead of a barbell for repetition power cleans as the bar was too long and would land on my shoulder as I caught it at the top of the clean. So instead of the 135lb barbell that everyone was using, I’d use a 90-110lb dumbbell (I never tried the 120’s, well, it was my left hand).
I felt like my show of defiance was slowly gaining me some respect from a tough audience. Then Brain (one of the fighters) came and told me on his last day that he admired my heart, saying and I quote “most guys would have F*%KED off to Chicago by now”, that meant the world to me, thanks Brian! Although I had been able to keep up most of the training with one arm I was (not so secretly) harbouring the desire to spar one more time before I went home, and in the last week, I was going to do it. Then fighter after fighter told me how much of a stupid idea they thought that was. I took this as a sign from God, and looking back, on a scale of 1-10 it did rate at least a 9.5 on the “Dumb-As-F*%K-Ometer”.
One of the last workouts (for me) turned out to be a 2.5 mile race! One of the guys said “are you going to do this with one arm?”, I said “no, I’m going to use my two legs for this one” (I always try to make a joke of adversity, I find that works for me). In all honesty the injury did not impede me here (it hurt a bit as my feet struck the ground, but it didn’t stop my heart, lungs and legs from working). The vast majority of the guys took part and with the help of God I was able to do well and cross the line first. I am not making out that this was a big deal, but I felt it put a lid on the moral victory that was my refusal to quit.
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