UFC Champion takes training camp to new heights
By Travis Guy
Flagstaff is no stranger to having world-class athletes come train prior to competing, especially with the advantage of sitting at 6,910 feet elevation and being relatively secluded.
Olympic athletes make regular trips to train at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Ten Lumberjacks have had the opportunity to become Olympians, the most recent being senior runner Diego Estrada. Every summer, the Arizona Cardinals spend their training camp at NAU, and who can forget the signs in all of the sporting venues reminding opposing teams what elevation they are at.
“Nine times out of 10, if you’re here training in Flagstaff [compared to] when you’re training anywhere else, you have an advantage cause we’re at 7,000 [feet],” said owner and head instructor of The Martial Way, George Bell. “If you go down to Denver [or] go to Colorado Springs, you’re going down. You’re not going up; there are few places you go up.”
Now Flagstaff can add one more type of athlete to the list: Ultimate Fighting Championship’s (UFC) Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson.
“This was the first time I actually went somewhere specifically for high-elevation, high-altitude [training],” the lightweight champion said.
Henderson, whose home is in Phoenix, decided to spend some time in Flagstaff towards the end of his most recent training camp before his first title defense against former Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar (155 lbs).
“We had thought about some other places, like Denver, but just logistically, travelling to Denver [and] having a camp, bringing guys out there, flying them back, flying them back out, flying them back, flying them back out [to help train would be difficult],” Henderson said. “Flagstaff, being a two hour drive, two-and-a-half hour drive for me because I drive like an old lady, was logistically a lot easier.”
The fight itself took place in Denver, so ending his training camp in Flagstaff helped Henderson get acclimated to the elevation before going to Denver.
Training at high-altitude increases an athlete’s stamina and the amount of oxygen contained in red blood cells. With Henderson being a mixed martial artist, stamina is a must, especially in the 155 lb division, arguably MMA’s deepest and most difficult division. Despite some of the negative effects of training at elevation for prolonged periods of time, the Phoenix resident did not experience any of this in his fight.
“[The camp] was good; it was good,” Henderson said. “It definitely helped. During the fight, [I was] not too tired [or] too worn out. I don’t think the elevation had any negative impact on me. I think it was more in my head than anything else. I think the training up here definitely helped me prepare for that fight, to be as 100 percent as possible.”
Henderson went on to win the rematch against Edgar in a close split-decision. While the outcome may be debated for some time, what cannot be disputed is the fact that the champ was able to fight effectively and consistently for 25 minutes.
Henderson made his way to Flagstaff by way of his former trainer and friend Santino DeFranco. DeFranco, a former mixed marital artist who was on the ninth season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” recently made his home in Flagstaff with his wife and child after he was accepted into NAU’s creative writing graduate program. Because Bell has ties with DeFranco’s former gym, he became an instructor at The Martial Way, teaching jiu-jitsu, MMA and kickboxing.
“I’ve know Benson since the first month he started training,” DeFranco said. “It was fun having him up here. Not just having him up here, but to see his progression because, when I first met him, he was a wrestler out of college that didn’t know anything and now, to see him as a world champion, it’s really — it’s impressive.”
The Lab Mixed Martial Arts Training Center, where Henderson trains in Glendale, is an up-and-coming gym. With its fighters beginning to get recognized by the top-tier MMA promotions, the need for more specialized training will rise.
“I think there definitely could be [more fighters coming to Flagstaff]. It has all the right things you need,” Henderson said. “It has a couple of great gyms out [here]. I stayed up for four weeks, no, three weeks, for the fight and stuff, getting ready . . . we have the right gym and people here for that, but it will open up with time and a little more notoriety for as far as training up here and stuff.”
At The Martial Way, Bell and DeFranco have noticed Flagstaff can become a destination for professional fighters to supplement their training and are taking steps to make that a reality.
“I believe I was talking to Santino about this, we’re looking at possibly doing something so we can do some high-altitude training [programs] for the MMA guys. It’s something that they need to do,” Bell said. “MMA is primetime, but one thing I have to give to the Olympic sports and so fourth [is] their very scientific approach with everything and MMA is going that route too. And that being said, altitude training is a must at certain points and times, and more guys are going to do it. And if they’re not in some other states, if they’re in this region of the U.S., Flagstaff should be one of the best places to be, bar none.”
Since DeFranco has many connections with gyms and fighters in the Valley, The Martial Way would take steps to use those ties to bring more athletes to Flagstaff to prepare for their upcoming bouts.
“People come here [from] all over the world to train in high altitude in Flag,” the jiu-jitsu instructor said. “I think it’s probably one of the highest training facilities and NAU has a great Olympic exchange program. I think if we can just get other fighters up here regularly, I think once they know about it they will probably start to trickle up here little by little, just like they do in Big Bear, Calif. We’re so close to the Valley, only two, two-and-a-half hours away depending on where you’re at, so it just makes sense to come up here and do stuff if you can.”
This would help put The Martial Way, and Flagstaff, on the map as one of the top locations to train for future fights, just like other gyms at elevation in different states. The one advantage Flagstaff has over places like Denver, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque is the higher elevation. This would benefit fighters because when they travel to a fight venue, even one at elevation; they will be at a lower altitude than Flag, meaning the athletes’ performance will be much stronger through the duration of the contest.