This week, writer and fighter Elias Cepeda leaves his desk and home gym to visit some of the best UFC athletes, coaches and teams in the fighting hotbed of California. In Part 4, he witnesses, first-hand, the behind-the-scenes hard conditioning work that AKA team members like Luke Rockhold put in to be the champions they are.
Night - April 27, 2016
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"In this sport, it all comes out."
After Luke Rockhold's AKA team training session that included a marathon of sparring I ask him what he's got, next. First, he tells me, he's resting for a couple hours.
Then, it's back to the gym for a conditioning session on the AKA bikes. The American Kickboxing Academy team has always been known for their superb physical conditioning and it has paid off in their fights.
Guys like Rockhold, Cain Velasquez and many others often set a pace that their opponents can't keep up with, and then maintain it long enough to drown them. I've always heard that AKA has some circuit workouts involving air dyne bikes that are just brutal, and the basis of their cardiovascular and muscle endurance conditioning work.
Luke confirms. "Bikes at 6. It's what makes us who we are," he says.
After a sushi lunch and a little writing, I return to the gym. Now, I'm just there to watch and grab photos and video.
Rockhold and two young teammates of his are in a room on the second floor of the huge AKA facility. The matted room has the stationary bikes, and lots else.
I count nine different stations, but I could have missed one or two. There will be more than bike sprints in this circuit.
Before they start, AKA head coach Javier Mendez is there and we all chat a bit. Team captain Daniel Cormier is in New York City today, promoting his rematch with Jon Jones.
During a press conference earlier in the day, there were plenty of verbal fireworks. Mendez is happy with how Cormier did.
"He looked relaxed," he tells me.
"The last time he looked too tense. Now, he was having fun. It was good to see. He's ready and in a good place. Plus, he got some good ones in there! He actually got some people on his side (laughs)."
Mendez and Rockhold talk about professional kick boxers who Luke has trained with recently. Rockhold insists that he got the better of all of them.
Mendez, probably just trying to rile his fighter up, sounds his doubts. Talk turns to Jon Jones, again.
Rockhold is quite sure he could beat Jones as well. Light heavyweight is DC's division, though.
Through all this, Mendez looks like an amused mentor, both rolling his eyes and shaking his head at his fighter's arrogance, but also resigned to the fact that Luke always backs up his big talk.
"I won't say anything because every time I tell Luke he can't do something, he goes out and does it," he says, with a proud sigh.
"That's what champions do," Rockhold exclaims, while shadow boxing.
"I'm always going to be here, whooping ass."
Luke sets up his music for the workout he'll lead for him and his teammates. Mendez pops out to let them do their work.
There are stationary bikes, a ground ladder for footwork drills, a padded pillar to wrap legs around and do crunches on, heavy bags, a trampoline, a rope-pull machine. The three men will also make use of the mats and padded walls for a touch and sprawl drill, fighting off the wall drills, and clinch grappling rounds.
Rockhold's trap music-heavy playlist gets going and the trio get on their bikes to begin a laborious 45 minute session. Each round is timed and they move from the bikes to another station, each, then back to the bikes.
Everyone seems to be working hard, but Rockhold manages to perceive lulls in effort and prods his teammates to push it. "This is where you make your gains." he says, while pressing his bike.
"You push through. You don't hold back. It gets easier next time."
There is very little in the way of pausing, at all, for the next 30 minutes, as the three work and sweat from station to station. Afterwards Luke puts his arms high on his head to open up his chest and ease the flow of oxygen.
"I hate that," he tells me.
"Worst 30 minutes of your life."
Yet, they are not done.
Luke has his small crew sit on the ground and they begin what becomes nearly a 15-minute abs and lower back workout. While twisting with a medicine ball, Luke alternately sings along to Rick Ross and extolls the necessary virtues of this grinding.
"Cardio is king. Cardio and muscle endurance," he explains.
"You do this so you don't wear out."
Luke's teammates work hard to keep up with him. They have fights coming up, and Rockhold isn't satisfied with every second of their effort.
"If you want to stretch, you do it after," he tells one of them, during a core exercise.
After they finish, Rockhold drives home his point. "To be stronger, you finish everything you start, first," he says, as they listen in respectful silence, nodding.
"You can't cut corners. In this sport, it all comes out. You can't take a break."
Check back on Monday for Part 5: Visiting Diaz Brothers Country!