Hitting the Mat

“So for this one, you guys are going to kick each other in the stomach.”

Everyone in the group flashed glances at each other. I’d flown down to Las Vegas with my Pistons teammates to train with MMA fighters as a bonding experience. The majority of them had made the trip out of solidarity, but right about now we weren’t so sure what we’d gotten ourselves into.

Forrest Griffin was one of the fighters instructing us, and anyone familiar with the sport knows the guy is a legend. He’s the guy you associate with bloody faces and haymaker punches. Not exactly the guy anybody with survival instincts is excited to take a kick from. He called up my teammate Adonis Thomas as a volunteer to demonstrate the exercise and told him to try to brace for the kicks so it wouldn’t hurt too much. We all were smiling because we knew this was going to be good. Adonis had mostly kept off to the side trying to avoid exactly this type of situation.

Forrest told Adonis to get ready, and then led off with a light kick to his stomach. At that point, Adonis immediately backed up and was like “Nah, I’m good.” We definitely gave him trouble for that.

This was all part of an exchange program of sorts. A few weeks earlier, some MMA fighters came to our practice facility to train with us, and now they were returning the favor.

I was all for it. I’d watched UFC fights before and it looked doable enough.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than first meets the eye. When I thought of MMA, I imagined those intense knockouts and submissions. It’s a lot more tactical than that. We spent a good chunk of time on the mats, learning different holds and how to get out of them. We’re all pretty big guys, but it didn’t take much time to learn that any of these fighters could flip us on our heads any time they felt like it. Just like basketball, MMA is all about taking what you’re given and exploiting it as much as possible. Strength and stamina are important, but a clear mind might be your biggest asset. Of course, keeping a clear mind while someone twists your arm behind your head isn’t all that easy.

We were standing in a circle, waiting to get instructions about our next drill.

During that week, we trained twice a day for a few hours, and trust me when I say it was a workout. Even the things that seemed pretty simple were exhausting – and we’re not in bad shape by any means. For example, during the second day of training they asked us to hit a punching bag for five minutes. Easy, right? Two minutes in, all of us were looking at the clock like, “Damn, we still going?”

Of all the guys on the team, Andre Drummond was probably the hardest puncher, but I’d take Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to win a belt if he was competing against the rest of us. Guy’s just quick as hell.

I came away from the experience with a completely newfound respect for mixed martial arts. This stuff is no joke.

But I’m proud to say that I held my own in there. Now if my teammates and I got any problems this year, we can just get the gloves on and grab a mat. It’ll get worked out in no time.