When most people talk about Big Bear Lake they think of the resort community located 7,000 ft above sea level in the San Bernardino National Forest, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. It brings to mind a beautiful lake, hiking, skiing, log cabins, pine trees, and a great place to vacation whether it be summer or winter.
When you mention "Big Bear" to a fighter, their eyes light up and they know that you are referencing a fight camp for some of the world's top professional fighters. The high elevation offers a great atmosphere for endurance training, strength and conditioning. Many professional athletes have gone this route in preparing for upcoming fights.
Dan Henderson, Pride Middleweight and Welterweight Champion, and current UFC Fighter took his team up to Big Bear in early February to prepare himself for his upcoming fight against current UFC Middleweight Champion, Anderson Silva.
I made the three hour trek from Las Vegas, NV to catch the end of this training camp before they left to Columbus, OH for UFC 82. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, as each fight camp I have visited has been slightly different.
This particular fight camp was held at Tito Ortiz's house in Big Bear; the home he purchased from boxing's "Golden Boy", Oscar De La Hoya. On the property were two houses, as well as a training facility equipped with an eight sided cage, showers, sauna, and full weight set. In one of the houses, I found Dan Henderson and his camp. The other house was just recently vacated by former Light Weight Champion of the WEC, Rob Mccullough.
The last Welterweight and Middleweight Champion of Pride FC. Co-founder of Team Quest along with Matt Lindland and Randy Couture. He is now contracted by the UFC where he fought Rampage for the Light Heavyweight title before dropping down to middleweight to fight Anderson Silva on the upcoming UFC 82.
Head of Henderson's fight camp, peak performance coach and chiropractor, Ryan Parsons keeps the daily schedule of training in order. He oversees that skill, strength and conditioning are all a part of the day to day regimen of the fight camp.
A three time United States Greco-Roman National Champion, he served as an alternate on the 1988 Olympic team and captain of the 1986 U.S. World team. He was also the 2000 World Vale Tudo Championship, middle weight champion. His expertise is invaluable to the camp in training takedowns and working from the clinch.
A Royler Gracie Black Belt, Vinicius is a three time BJJ world champion and six time medalist. His resume includes wins in the Brazilian and US Nationals and is a Pan American Champion.
A world champion Muay Thai boxer as well as a PRIDE and Cage Rage veteran, Cyrille came to the camp to improve his takedown defense and wrestling skills in anticipation of his US MMA Debut. In return, he brings with him superior striking abilites to lend to the already stacked fight camp.
A former professional wrestler, Krzysztof is also a co founder of Ultimate Cage Wars in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. He is in training for his upcoming March 7th fight against Alex Andrade @ Ring of Combat in Atlantic City, NJ.
A former XFC Middleweight Belt holder, the French native is a Muay Thai specialist. He currently fights in Cage Rage in London.
A Muay Thai fighter out of France training with Cyrille Diabate's snake team, he is fighting on the upcoming Furious Fighting Championship. Although MMA was legalized in France earlier this month, this promotion is set in Spain near the French border.
A current UFC fighter, Alberto's last fight on January 23rd against Kurt Pellegrino was deemed Fight of the Night. He is a BJJ Blackbelt and his resume includes: Grapplers Quest Champion, Pan American Champion, 2 time Best of the West Champion, Abu Dhabi Veteran, King of the Cage lightweight world champion, and Ring of Fire lightweight champion. With no fights scheduled at this time, he has appeared at the camp in big bear a few times to assist in training.
A UFC fighter with over 15 years of BJJ training, Mark owns and operates a school in Toronto, Canada. A Joao Roque black belt, his resume includes wins in the Cundial championships, Grapplers Quest, Naga, the Pan Ams 3 times, the Hawaii State championships, the ADCC Canadian trials twice, and the Canadian Nationals 5 times. He is training for his upcoming fight at UFC 83 against TUF 6 winner, Mac Danzig.
An Australian Kick Boxer and former professional boxer, he has trademarked special moves known as the Somersault Kick, and Rolling Thunder. His record boasts an amazing 54 wins and only 10 losses as well as being undefeated as an amatuer. He is looking to make the crossover into MMA in the near future.
Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou:
A judo practitioner, Thierry is most known for Knocking out Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in :23 in his Pride Debut. He is currently a kickboxing and MMA instructor at Team Quest South.
Monday night, I contacted Ryan Parsons to talk about next week's fight and on a whim, I asked if I could come up to Big Bear to shoot the camp. He said, "Tomorrow would be great! Our morning training starts at 11:00. Text me when you get to Big Bear so I can give you directions." And there you have it, I was committed. I put myself to bed at 1am, and for some reason couldn't sleep so was up by 2:30 working, and on the road to Southern Cali by 7am.
I anticipated a three and a half hour drive, and found myself correct in that assumption as I pulled into Starbucks on Big Bear Blvd at 10:30. I had texted Ryan at about 10 to get directions, but still hadn't heard back. 10:45 approached and still no word, so I sent a text to Dan himself. He responded rather quickly, gave me directions to the house, and requested a caramel macchiato all in one text.
I was at the house at 11am on the dot. When I pulled into the snow covered driveway, I could see Dan standing on the front porch, waving to me. There were about 4 other cars parked there as well, and I tried my hardest to keep from falling as I carried my gear past them.
The house was slightly messy as you would expect from a place that 10 fighters were staying at, but there was a mutual respect there to keep things in order. The pile of shoes next to the front door indicated to me that I should remove mine as well. Dan was in the living room, already drinking his starbucks, seated next to Darrell Gholar. "Darrell is a poet" Dan said to me. "He used to work for Disney." At the time I didn't know who Darrell was, but I was pretty sure that his literacy skills weren't the reason he was invited to be there.
Dan woke up at a weight of 199 and was munching on a bowl of dry cereal and I promptly asked to taste it. It was Kashi Go Lean, Honey and Flax seed cereal. I am now a huge fan of this breakfast food and there is already a box of it in my cupboard. By 11:30 many of the fighters in the house were moving around and making themselves breakfast. Ryan Parsons made in appearance in one piece pajamas with feet. I had a nostalgic moment as I remembered wearing those cozy pj's as a child. Krzysztof was in the kitchen making himself a breakfast of egg whites, oatmeal, and maple syrup. I sampled his weird concoction and found it to be quite tasty. Some of the other guys were taking advantage of the juicer in the kitchen to make a fresh glass of mixed vegatable juice. Ryan brought Dan an Acai protein smoothie he had made. I love those and was excited to partake, only to find that it was not sweet like the ones I usually drink. At all. It was definitely not my favorite smoothie, I didn't try to steal it from him.
Come 12pm, the guys were changing and heading out to the training facility behind the house. I grabbed my equipment and walked back to start shooting. When I walked in, I found Darrell working with the guys on takedowns and working from the clinch. Dan showed up about 30 minutes later and gave some tips to them as they practiced their drills.
In talking to Ryan Parsons about easing up on Dan's training as the fight approaches, he said,"We've learned with Dan that less is more. This is the guy that had a 101 temperature and went 3 full rounds to win a decision."
When Dan did finally join the guys in the cage, he spent his time rolling with Vinicius. Under Parsons' direction, some of the other guys left to lift weights and run. I lost track of time as they finished their morning session. Dan took a moment to weigh himself, then it was back to the house to feed our faces.
Parsons prepared Dan a plate of fresh bell pepper and sliced chicken breast lunchmeat. Cyrille made a glass of juice, this time using fruits instead of vegatables. The rest of us took off to the store to get more food to stock the house. Each fighter pushed his own cart around the store and stocked up on food for the next few days. I have to admit that I love being around when the guys are dieting because it makes it easier for me to stay on track. I chose some firm tofu, bell peppers and mushrooms as my meal and checked out. Darrell called me over to play a game of checkers while we waited for the rest of the guys. I made a couple stupid moves at first (I haven't played this game in years!) but ended up coming around and winning the game. Darrell was ready to buy a checker board just so we could have a rematch at the house later, but I assured him that it was beginners luck, and I had no doubt in my head that he would win the next round.
Back at the house, we made our lunches and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and watching movies. Darrell and Ryan quickly prepared food for everyone for dinner after the second training. Many of the guys had their laptops there and we all sat down at the kitchen table and made contact with the outside world. I say that because our phones barely got any service up there. Dan went upstairs to take a nap. I went up and caught some photos of him in his high altitude tent on his bed; reminiscent of the movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Scientific studies have shown that altitude training can produce increases in speed, strength, endurance, and recovery. Does that mean that sleeping in a high altitude tent, in a high altitude environment increases this effect exponentially? I took the time to explore the house a little and found 5 beds in each downstairs room, a pool table, fire place, and guitars for guitar hero. That was actually one of the first things I noticed when I walked in and was quickly told that the game itself was missing. With my new found addiction for the game, I found myself suggesting we rent it from blockbuster, lol..
8pm rolled around and it was time for the second training of the day. It was Cyrille's turn to work on striking with the guys and he took the lighter ones into the cage first. They drilled for approximately 30 minutes before the heavier fighters came in for their session. I moved out of the cage to an overhead position as these guys sparred aggressively with each other. Then Dan came in and did a five minute session of sparring with cyrille, 5 minutes rolling with Vinicius, a five minute round hitting pads, another five rolling, and finished off with one last round of pads. His cardio seemed pretty strong during the 25 minute workout; he didn't seem to have too much difficulty breathing or finishing the rounds. He weighed in after training at 192.
Back into the house for the final meal of the day, and it was after 10pm. Darrell had cooked some beef up in the crock pot that we put over rice, and Ryan had made Dan a meal of chicken with butternut squash and onions, accompanied by a mixed greens salad with cherry tomatoes and cucumber. It was all extremely good, and I felt that I could live on a diet such as theirs. Around midnight I was saying my goodbyes as Thierry and his friend finally walked through the front door.
As I drove home, I reflected on my day in Big Bear and the serious dedication that these men have to their profession. The hard work, the sweat, the injuries, the camaraderie. The thrill of the win is only a part of what makes these guys go the distance. I knew that I was lucky that day in getting to witness the building blocks of their individual roads to victory; built together as a team.