Balancing fight camp during Thanksgiving week … and a pandemic

Bas Rutten was once invited to a Japanese dojo to eat with friends, all of whom were sumo wrestlers. One, in particular, was a huge fan (literally) of the combat sports legend, who fought in Japan for each of his first 30 mixed martial arts bouts from 1993-1998.

The Netherland-born MMA legend recalled one friend in particular, who was Japan’s number-three sumo wrestler at the time. Rutten watched as he ate for, what he called, ‘Five hours a day,’ after altering his diet to lessen the risk of suffering a heart attack. Rutten scanned the room and noticed the entire group of wrestlers devouring the food, but it was clean; mixed vegetables, different types of fish, lean chicken cuts, and some rice.

Rutten joined them, but even as a former UFC Heavyweight and three-time Openweight Pancrase Champion, he couldn’t keep up.

“I only ate one bowl,” Rutten told Deadspin last week, laughing about the experience. “I remember, it was a big bowl. But I ate one. And they ate 11 of those!”

Fighters love food, so opposing a disciplined eating regimen could result in their undoing. Your level of fitness compared to your opponent’s may serve as the central reason for victory or defeat, not always, but usually.

For some, this week is strenuous. For others, it’s routine. But for many, this entire year has been woeful; in some cases, deadly. When you add COVID-19 over a customarily festive holiday season — and the forthcoming 40 or so days to follow — now imagine the balancing act needed to perform through this week in preparation for combat.

UFC Heavyweight Bas Rutten attends the “Sports Spectacular” on Sunday, May 20, 2012, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Image: (AP)

In four instances, Rutten competed in December or very early in January, with Thanksgiving week and training camp clashing in some form. This includes his January 8, 1999, bout against Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, his UFC debut, which he won by TKO. Luckily for him, this week was never an issue — he’s admittedly a non-foodie who could eat just once a day — but for his peers, he’s seen otherwise.

“It’s a nightmare for fighters and especially if you’re one of those fighters who love to eat, and a lot of the guys do,” said Rutten, who finished his career 28-4-1 and was a 2015 UFC Hall of Fame inductee. “And on top of that, guys like to cut a lot of weight because they feel stronger (for their fight). I never got it. I don’t believe in it. I think you’re doing a lot of harm to your body … and if you’re close to a fight, it means you’re full of injuries. Pretty much every fighter has that.”

Today, Rutten’s an ambassador for Karate Combat, a full-contact karate league, where many competitors will undergo similar battles before upcoming fights. Back in New York, Jillian DeCoursey readies for one of her own.DeCoursey, who doubles as a mental health counselor and an MMA fighter, is uniquely equipped to cope with everything 2020 presents, but acknowledges the rigors this week — and year — still provides. A Queens, New York product whose record is 4-2, she’s training for an upcoming fight (the date still being finalized) at Invicta Fighting Championships, an all-women’s MMA promotion.

MMA fighter Jillian DeCoursey admits Thanksgiving can be tough on fighters with upcoming competitions.

MMA fighter Jillian DeCoursey admits Thanksgiving can be tough on fighters with upcoming competitions.
Screenshot: Side Hustle

“Normally, you have to be so on point with every little thing you’re gonna eat, so (this week) gets so stressful,” she admits to Deadspin, with a chuckle. “It’s Thanksgiving. What’s it about? It’s all about food. We try and pretend it’s about family and spending time together, but at the end of the day, it’s about the food (laughs).

“For me, I think of it as a bad juju,” she continues. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, if I eat this, I’m gonna lose the fight!’ If you’re not disciplined, or you’re not doing everything in your power, then you’re giving yourself the bad juju (laughs).”

A former college basketball player who has a master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling from Iona College, the atomweight currently has her own practice called Create Your Balance Mental Health Counseling, dealing with children, teenagers, and adults. Increasingly over the pandemic, she’s been leaned on to discuss heightened stress, COVID anxiety, other people’s disregard for the virus, and other concerns. She still tends to clients, operates her business, and balances daily workouts between Long Island MMA and Ringsport Muay Thai, training for the biggest bout of her career, one that appeared unattainable for several months.

“Training’s been very different,” she admits. “Even for this fight coming up, I’m still not even 100 percent positive who’s coming on fight day to be in my corner. That’s to be determined as we get closer because we’re not in normal times and everybody’s situation is very different. We’ve got to adapt and make it work within these new times that we’re living in.”

DeCoursey, like many others, took an unexpected break from fighting when the pandemic raged in America over eight months ago. The inability to train properly was a common struggle for many competitors across combat sports, some of whom began streaming their at-home workouts on Instagram, or training outdoors in isolated areas. At least in New York, she was among those who had regained their rhythm by summertime.

“Initially, a good majority of people were out of the gym,” she recalled of the early days of COVID. “But what came out of this was a lot of women in the metro area working together at each other’s gyms and at certain spots. There’s been a lot more collaboration with people from mixed teams coming together to make things work.”

Reminiscent of the holiday spirit we’re entering, if you will.But then for Richardson Hitchins, whose discipline is boxing, Thanksgiving week in the age of COVID is a time to remain focused against the odds. To not allow yourself to get overwhelmed by the year in totality, or the meals of Thursday, but to succeed in every pre-fight measure possible.

Richardson Hitchins celebrates after a boxing match against Mario Perez, of Mexico, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in New York. Hitchins stopped Perez in the second round.

Richardson Hitchins celebrates after a boxing match against Mario Perez, of Mexico, Saturday, March 4, 2017, in New York. Hitchins stopped Perez in the second round.
Image: (AP)

Hitchins (11-0, 5 KOs), a 23-year-old Brooklyn native and former Olympian representing Haiti, is one of boxing’s blue-chip prospects. He’s readying for a December 12 bout with former super featherweight World Champion Argenis Mendez (25-5-3, 12 KOs) at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, airing live on Showtime. The two are competing at super lightweight, where Hitchins aims to springboard off a victory into a rewarding 2021.

“It comes with the territory. You just gotta stay focused on the mission,” he said of being in training camp now of all times. “I still have access to a boxing gym on Thanksgiving so I don’t really think it’s gonna affect me much. I’ve been training really hard for this fight. My weight is good, I’ll probably still eat a meal, but my main focus is December 12.”

For Hitchins, the plan is to wake up extremely early and workout before enjoying the day with his family, like any standard gathering. As for the fight itself, it wasn’t a chore to obtain for Hitchins, as much as the preparation was simply dissimilar from a pre-pandemic time. When facilities are closed, that means workout buddies could be inaccessible, leading to a lack of sparring and resources for your training sessions.

“A lot of people weren’t in the gym because they didn’t have fights coming up, so it was tough to get partners,” Hitchins said. “Usually I’ll run late at night in the fitness gym around 12 or 1 a.m., and now I’ve gotta get up early to run in the gym because sometimes (back then) I could do three workouts in a day. I’ll go to strength and conditioning in the morning, go to the boxing gym in the afternoon and go to the fitness gym late at night to put in extra work. Now you can’t put in three-a-days like that because fitness gyms have curfews. They’re closing around 10.”

For Matt Korobov (28-3-1, 14 KOs), a multiple-time World Middleweight Title Challenger who is fighting on the same December 12 card, against Ronald Ellis (17-1-2, 11 KOs), it’s a similar mentality, but executed differently. Like many of us in the early days of the pandemic, he found himself watching the news at an abnormal rate, but he stopped two months ago, partly because of his wife.“If I put the news in the morning when I wake up, she’d just go away,” said the Russian-born boxer who’s currently fighting out of Royal Palm Beach, Florida, with a laugh. “I’ll be preparing breakfast and she’ll leave to go biking or running or with our kids. She just tries to escape.”

Russia’s Matt Korobov is checked during a stoppage in the second round of a WBA interim middleweight boxing match against Britain’s Chris Eubank Jr., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in New York

Russia’s Matt Korobov is checked during a stoppage in the second round of a WBA interim middleweight boxing match against Britain’s Chris Eubank Jr., Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in New York
Image: (AP)

In training, the bulk of challenges surfaced in the beginning, struggling to develop a routine as gyms were closed for a prolonged period. Korobov adapted to private locations where he could do everything from running through parks to shadowboxing in the woods, planning each session with his coach virtually when they couldn’t be together. Ahead of his bout with Ellis — with a victory he hopes will put him en route to a rematch with WBC middleweight champ Jermall Charlo — he’s living with his coach in the weeks leading up to the fight. But on Thanksgiving, he’s still a family man who will find the balance between getting the most from his camp, and his loved ones, between a meal, a nap, a pool, and a sauna.

“For some people, this is hard because they get distracted by that day; the holidays and fun times,” he said. “My oldest (kid) had a birthday last week, we made a family dinner, and Sunday for the kids, I was like a wild entertainer guy (laughs), so we had fun for them. [Thanksgiving is] another day that you spend actively, but I’m also really focused on being the most prepared I can for the fight.”

Like everyone else, fighters have had their livelihoods altered, their careers challenged, and their health jeopardized. In a wildly complex era, the occasional freedom from the relenting grip of constant tension could be found in simplicity. Or, as DeCoursey phrased it, finding the time to be grateful that you’re still here and able to do it, whether it’s fighting professionally, or just plain living.

“Normal life really is something that was taken away from us for a while. Now it’s like, wow, you know what, this is like a privilege. I feel good to be able to do this. I feel really grateful,” she said.

And sometimes — even while growing a worldwide karate brand, developing your mental health practice while training, preparing for a career-defining moment, or devoting your remaining energy to your wife and kids — it’s OK to do just that, especially now.

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