Writer Elias Cepeda is in California this week, visiting and training with some of the best fighters and teams in the world. We'll have longer features to come from this trip, but Elias is also keeping FOX Sports readers plugged in to his travels as they happen with a daily travel journal this week. The third entry is below. Stay tuned each day for updates!
American Kickboxing Academy
Day 4 - April 27, 2016
Great, I left my mouthguard at home.
That isn't a realization that you want to have minutes before heading into sparring at one of the toughest gyms in the world. Still, I've already traveled all the way here, to San Jose from Chicago, met up with UFC middleweight champion Luke Rockhold and asked if I could train with him at today's American Kickboxing Academy mid-day team practice.
Rockhold and AKA head coach Javier Mendez were kind enough to let me into the room with their pros, so I just throw my head gear on and ask my sparring partners to go a little lighter than usual with me. They oblige.
We have good back and forth exchanges of punches, kicks and take-down attempts. They land plenty of good shots on me, but nothing is thrown with horrible intent, luckily for me.
I only go for two, non-consecutive five-minute rounds before taking off my head gear, tired. It takes Luke -- who is leading the practice while himself also sparring -- maybe two seconds to notice this and call me out on it.
We had 15 minutes of shadow-boxing preceding the sparring rounds, but still, sitting out early isn't a good look at all. I'd like to say that I sat down to rest my injured ankle, but mostly it is that I need to get in better shape.
Being in the training room with Rockhold, Cain Velasquez and other top professional fighters helps you realize that. I watch as the rest of the group go for round after additional round.
In all, there had to have been about 10 rounds of sparring. Coach Mendez starts things out and then returns at the end of practice to close things for his team.
Cain spars with another heavyweight. Then he takes him to the side and spends a half hour teaching him and drilling some finer parts of ground-fighting -- specifically get-ups.
Get-ups are something we work on a lot back home at our TDC MMA gym, but Cain adds a couple levels of depth to what I've been trying and teaching. I make mental notes and plan to drill them.
After sparring, Luke calls for three more rounds of either bag work or drilling with a partner, your choice. I grab a heavy bag next to him and do my best to make up with punch volume for my lack of rounds in sparring, earlier.
During sparring rounds, Luke moved around, hitting angles, hands oftentimes low to bait his partner, and not just occasionally talking good-natured smack to his partner, Andre.
On the bag next to him, however, I get a glimpse of the decidedly un-flashy repetition work behind Rockhold's ability to land precise strikes out of nowhere during sparring and fights. For 15 minutes, straight, Luke drills two kicks, one after the other.
Those kicks happen to be ones he lands -- a lot -- in fights. This must be why -- he throws them hundreds of times, each day.
After the bag work, we all pair up for grappling with light strikes. I get three more rounds in with pros generous with their time.
The exchange of submission attempts and positions is spirited, but fluid. These guys have great MMA sensibilities while they train on the ground.
They look to establish positions from which they can do work with strikes. They work fast to get out of spots from which I can rain down strikes.
We "show" each other strikes, letting the other know where they are open -- without hurting each other. It's the way it needs to be done. If we ignore the possibilities of strikes in grappling training, then we'll be unready for a real fight. On the other hand, if we outright smash each other with all that we've got, no one would ever make it to a fight because of cuts, broken noses and concussions.
My last roll is with Isaiah Gonzalez, a bantamweight looking to make a big pro impact the way he did as an amateur. His wife -- also a fighter -- is in practice as well.
Afterward, the power couple recommend a nearby sushi spot and the three of us hit it for some post-workout recover calories. After finishing two huge sushi rolls and a bowl of miso soup, I'm thankful that I won't actually be participating in the next thing I'm meeting Luke up for -- an intense conditioning session back at AKA headquarters that is just a couple hours away.
Part 4 of A Week on the Road will be live, Friday morning