April 28, 2011: Mastering martial arts skills foundation of fighting success

Morgan Campbell

Toronto Star

Wednesday is pro day at Elite Training Centre in Mississauga, and the action on the mats intensifies each time the buzzer sounds.

Five weeks from this February afternoon, Joel Powell will win the first sanctioned mixed martial arts bout in Ontario; right now, he’s at the far end of the room trading heavy punches with world Muay Thai champ Simon Marcus. In the ring, Josh Hill, the bantamweight champ of Aggression MMA, works with a sparring partner, his sweat-soaked T-shirt clinging to his torso.

And in the middle of the gym floor, Claude (The Prince) Patrick edges closer to the biggest fight of his career, a showdown at a sold-out Rogers Centre against Daniel (Ninja) Roberts, on the undercard of Saturday night’s UFC 129. A win there could transform Patrick from 30-year-old hopeful to a legitimate contender for the welterweight belt held by Montreal native and UFC icon Georges St-Pierre.

The bout is still nine weeks away, but Patrick’s rapid-fire combinations and fluid footwork already have kick-boxing coach Alin Halmagean shouting his approval.

“I like that, Claude, ” says Halmagean, who has worked with Patrick for seven years. “If you move like that, nobody’s going to touch you.”

*  *  *

Patrick’s pro mixed martial arts career started in Rimouski, Que., 1,100 kilometres and two long bus rides from his Mississauga home.

One night nine years ago, Patrick, smooth-faced and three months from turning 22, faced local tough guy Guillaume Desrosiers, a karate expert who trots to the ring to the cheers of his hometown fans.

As the referee issues instructions, Desrosiers bobs his head to the heavy metal music blaring through loudspeakers and glares at Patrick. Then he gets rag-dolled.

From the opening bell Patrick, an expert grappler, repeatedly dumps Desrosiers on his back, finally pinning him for good and pelting him with punches but landing few clean shots. Eventually, Patrick grabs Desrosiers’ neck, props up his chin and smashes his face with the overhand left that ends the fight barely two minutes into round one.

Desrosiers covers his face and rolls to his side, stunned. Patrick bounds to his feet and poses for photos, exhausted even though he dominated. Back in the locker-room, he nearly vomits.

“If that fight had gone 30 more seconds, ” he says, “I might have died.”

The Patrick-Desrosiers bout, an undercard fight on a low-level MMA show, was a microcosm of a sport at the midpoint of its evolution. In the sport’s formative years, MMA brought together experts in various fighting styles – from tae kwon do to sumo to street brawling – to determine which discipline would prevail in a fight with few rules. Desrosiers was a stud at karate but clueless as a grappler and was ruthlessly exposed against Patrick.

But today’s MMA fighters are like Olympic decathletes. They may or may not be world class in any one martial art, but they’re experts in several, deploying a variety of skills as shifting situations dictate. That’s Patrick, who can switch instantly from wrestling to jiu-jitsu to a straight-up beatdown.

But to most fans, only the beatdown stands out since knockouts and trash talk sell, and the UFC has masterfully marketed the fireworks that surround the sport.

Patrick regularly encounters plenty of “Tap Out shirt-wearing tough guys, ” who think MMA is all about beating people up. He has no problem with the UFC hype machine, because anything that drives interest in the sport also raises his profile and boosts membership at the gym he runs with business partner D.J. Dallaire. But when students enrol, they learn that each bout and sparring session is a meeting of martial arts minds, a physical debate in which two dedicated athletes test their hard-earned skill.

“We keep true to the essence of martial arts,” Dallaire says. “The UFC doesn’t promote that, so it’s up to the individual fighters. When people come to our gym with this UFC dream, they get a little reality check.”

Everything else – sellout crowds, championships, paycheques – is decoration.

*  *  *

These Wednesday sparring sessions, which gather some of the most accomplished fighters from across southern Ontario, provide the cross-pollination of skills every serious fighter needs.

Even stars like St-Pierre would struggle to pay coaches in every fighting style MMA comprises, but in these weekly meetings information is currency. Expert wrestlers sharpen their striking skills with champion kickboxers, who in turn glean ground-fighting techniques from grapplers.

An hour into the session, Patrick is back on the mat drilling a wrestling skill with Powell, a former member of Canada’s national team, when a cramp strikes.

It’s not surprising, given that Patrick hasn’t drunk water since sparring began.

But it still hurts.

“I’m cramping like crazy,” he says. “I gotta stop.”

Patrick has too much invested in his April 30 bout to let dehydration derail him for long.

Six years ago, he moved to Montreal to train with local pros like St-Pierre. Unable to find an apartment, he slept for two weeks in the ring of the gym where he trained.

He’s climbed from that canvas to the undercard of the biggest event in the UFC’s 18-year history, so when a cramp strikes Patrick strikes back so he can keep training.

He sips an electrolyte drink until the knots in his muscle loosen, takes care of some paperwork in the gym’s office then returns to the daily grind early Thursday.

To pass the test Roberts will present Saturday night, mastering these unsung skills is essential.

Everything else —the crowd, the cash, the big step closer to the UFC’s welterweight crown — is decoration.

Copyright 2011 Toronto Star

Article originally appeared HERE

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