Thursday, March 5, 2015

JJ Ambrose….and the Two-Minute Drill

I have wanted to interview JJ Ambrose, the MMA fighter, for a few years. It took a while for us to set this up, but I guess it’s all about timing. He is in between fights at the moment, waiting for his petition to join the UFC to be accepted. Or, as JJ likes to say, he is waiting to join the major leagues.

The first time I saw JJ was at my gym, Bodies by Amorim. My personal trainer, Kevin Nathan, was telling me how JJ, aka Superman, was getting ready for an upcoming fight. It’s incredible to see what he goes through in the gym. I have witnessed all kinds of athletes train, but none can do what JJ does.

JJ Ambrose after winning a fight
For those of you who don’t know much about MMA, it is a combination of martial arts, boxing, and wrestling.

JJ, who turned professional in 2005, has an overall record of 21-5. He has been fighting in the Lightweight division for Bellator since 2012.

We sat down recently to talk and here’s what JJ shared with me.

PJ: How did you get started in this sport?

JJ: I started in 2005, my senior year in high school. A promoter from a neighboring city asked a group of us [at school] if we wanted to fight. Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV was just starting and it was popular with guys my age. It seemed natural. I went on the show and won. It felt good at the end to have my arm lifted above my head.

I didn’t have a lot of direction at that point. Thought I’d wrestle in school, but I wasn’t sure of what would have been next. When I ended up winning the fight I met people who helped me connect the dots. I spoke to people who pointed me in the right direction of where to go next.

I trained in SoCal full-time and opted out of Cerritos College for wrestling. It sounds silly not to go to school. But, I had no passion for any other career but this one. It was fulfilling a dream. In a sense I feel like the kids from Peter Pan—the Lost Boys. I don’t want to grow up.

PJ: How did you know MMA was it?

JJ: Part of me felt this was destiny or fate. I saw myself making it here. In the beginning I was na├»ve. When I first started out fighting I was sure of myself. Then I got older and realized, hey, I’m good at this.

PJ: What is it about MMA that makes you want to continue to do it?

JJ: It clicked from that first fight. All the martial arts pieces come together. It’s addicting in a way. Although, there are some scary things behind the scenes. The 24 hours before a fight I feel like I’m line for a roller coaster and I can’t get out of line. Every fight it’s the same mentality—the fear of the unknown. The waiting. It’s not like a street fight, there is no escalation. It is eight weeks of training, knowing who you are going to fight and having no animosity towards them. You just know that in eight weeks you get into the cage and fight.

It’s still an addiction. At my first fight camp, the night before weigh in I felt like I was going crazy. Part of me wanted to quit. One of the coaches said that it’s crazy to get in a cage and not feel it. This is going against the grain…starving yourself [for the weigh in]. The body and mind want shelter, enough food to eat, etc. Here you are willing to put yourself in harm’s way. It’s your moment of sanity thinking I want to quit.

But you can’t. The night before the fight all the nerves and pressure are there. After the fight you know exactly why you do this. It seems perfectly natural, not crazy. Then, a month goes by and you forget again and ask why am I doing this?

PJ: What are you top moments in MMA?

JJ: It’s hard to narrow down everything. Although, I have to say the travel around the world and the people I’ve met resonate. I’ve met the who’s who in MMA.

I remember as a kid watching [Jean Claude] Van Damme’s movie Kickboxer and thinking Wow, it would be awesome to train in Thailand. Then at 23 my bags were packed and I was going to Thailand. If I had gone to college I wouldn’t have traveled to all those places in the short life I’ve had.

PJ: What was it like in Thailand?

JJ: It was an eye-opener. The sport is more embedded in the culture. In American it is baseball, there it is Muy Thai. I’m not sure what percentage of the population fights there, but you are either a tuk tuk driver, a government official or a fighter. When they see a Westerner, they ask Muy Thai?
Thailand is a beautiful place, but people assume if you are a Westerner, you are there training Muy Thai.

PJ: How about the training?

JJ: Before Thailand training was different. It’s hard to break down. Before I fought with a controlled rage. I’d pump myself up over nothing and fight. There, both fighters are trying to get ahead. They accept losses and carry on.

In America, people are bitter and angry if your team gets knocked out of the playoffs. They are bitter and root against others.

In Thailand, it’s I lost, I’ll go back to the gym tomorrow. It’s business as usual…an acceptance. It’s not a change in training, it’s more of a change mentally. There is a lesson learned, now go back to the gym…now I know how to train.

PJ: How has your training changed since you’ve been working with Kevin Nathan and Travis Amorim of Bodies by Amorim?

JJ: As a fighter, my mentality was either to spar or do martial arts training to get in shape. I had read about strength training and heard others talk about it. It has made me more efficient. Now I am stronger and faster and my level of coordination has improved. This is the key to the puzzle…what makes me a complete fighter.

Year round I maintain a level of cardio. I am never out of shape. I can’t get stronger and faster at the same time. Sometimes I work on strength and other times speed. Right now, I am working on my skills sets—to get better. Recently, I trained for a fight that was cancelled, so I am ready to go.

In UFC fights get cancelled a lot. It is the equivalent to a pitcher on the sidelines waiting to go in. Now, I am just waiting for an opponent.

Fortunately, I am still young enough to make an impact in UFC. I have another 5-10 years in me. Luckily, I haven’t been injured and I am still coherent—no brain injuries, so it’s a matter of time.

PJ: How do you keep motivated?

JJ: I enjoy training. I enjoy the camaraderie with the other fighters. It is the sense of fitting in—like we are all crowded around the campfire telling stories. As fighter, it’s comforting knowing others are going through the same strife as you. You are not the only one.

It’s like two people tired and both look up at the same time and see each other suffering. I know what you are going through.

PJ: What is your favorite sport to train?

JJ: I get a different satisfaction out of all of them. I enjoy jiu jitsu, boxing, wrestling—all of it. It’s about landing a punch. I am not happy hurting someone, but I get a satisfaction out of landing a perfect punch. I want to make people quit—not die—that is the goal.

PJ: What are your goals?

JJ: I don’t really have goals, just the next step. I like the next 20 foot theory. If I had a flashlight and shined it, I can’t see 200 miles down the road, but I can see 20 feet. Now, it’s all about getting into the UFC. Once I get there I’ll see what’s next. I focus on being in better shape than I am today….If I had been too far-reaching, like a goal of UFC champion right now, I wouldn’t achieve it. I never think like that.

I think sometimes there is a problem with kids starting out…all they see is the glitz and glam. Yet, it takes years to get where I am now. You have to go through stumbles…that’s what makes great athletes—being able to pick yourself up over and over again when you fail.

PJ: You are spending your time now as a personal trainer. How is that?

JJ: I am pretty selective on my clients. I enjoy training my wife and friends—people I care about. I get satisfaction when I can see people I care about succeed in their goals. When I can help someone else and have some type of impact, I like it. I enjoy showing what I’ve learned.

PJ: How do you keep inspired?

JJ: I write a note for myself before my fights. The note is like an identity statement. [It helps] with the nerves in the 24 hours before a fight…there are a lot of what ifs…a lot of thinking. I have nightmares where I am afraid of the dark, like I am a 10 year old. I wake up and I forget I am an adult…a fighter. At this point there are so many nerves and wasted energy.

I have quotes from different authors and things from me. I trained really hard for this fight. I killed it in training. It’s like an affirmation to myself. Otherwise, I will revert to a child.

It’s hard not to think. I am reminded of the movie, The Last Samurai…there is a line “Too many mind…the sword…the enemy….” In MMA, this clicks. You think about what’s ahead of you. It’s the larger focus when fighting. It’s like anything in life. I ask my daughter…how many things do you do at once? She is drawing and looking at the TV at the same time. This lesson to her applies back to me.

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Follow JJ on Twitter @SuperJJAmbrose