LAS VEGAS — A focused Thiago Santos walked through the doors of the UFC Performance Institute on Monday, just days away from his light heavyweight title fight at UFC 239 against Jon Jones. Flanked by his team of four coaches, Santos headed straight to the strength and conditioning area of this 30,000-square-foot venue.
Santos will spend the final two weeks training at the PI preparing for the biggest fight of his life. He’s utilized the facility in many ways since its opening in 2017, but making his change in weight class a success has been the biggest accomplishment of this effort — developed by both his personal and UFC-supported teams.
Many fighters, not just Santos, will be in Las Vegas for UFC 239 and spend a portion of their time at the PI. It’s a space dedicated to the testing, treatment, training and recovery of mixed martial artists who fight on the UFC roster. Originating as a concept from senior executive leadership at the UFC who identified a need for their athletes to have access to high quality sports performance services, the institute — which cost $14 million to build — offers free consultation and services to rostered fighters.
In just over two full years of operation, 80 percent of UFC rostered fighters have paid it a visit. But the statistic that most pleases James Kimball, VP of Operations for the UFC, is that roughly one-third of UFC-rostered fighters engage with the institute either directly on the premises or remotely via phone, text or e-mail on a monthly basis.
Santos is one of those fighters. As he readies for a main event matchup with Jones — who some consider the greatest mixed martial artist in history — I will spend a week at the facility shadowing Santos and his team as they make their final preparations for Saturday night.
Monday, July 1
8:00 a.m.: The entire performance team of 17 gathers in a conference room to share notes from the previous week’s events and to plan for the upcoming surge of visitors – fighters, coaches, managers – who will descend on the facility this week. The meeting is led by Kimball and Duncan French, Vice President, Performance with the various directors of each division – Physical Therapy, Strength and Conditioning, Sports Science and Nutrition – along with their support team all weighing in. Highlights of the team’s recent visit to Shanghai to open the UFC’s second Performance Institute and areas to maintain close follow-up are shared among the group. The topic then turns to recapping the services provided at UFC Fight Night in Minneapolis last Saturday (numbers of fighters who sought treatment services, nutritional consults) and any requisite follow-up management.
Thiago Santos getting a PT session in with Heather Linden, Director of Physical Therapy at the UFC Performance Institute. This week is all about targeting optimal performance on Saturday night. Low load training and plenty of recovery.
The talk shifts to the plans for this week.
“Each year more fighters come during Fight Week,” said French, noting that 98 came through the facility during this week last year and they project 115 this week. “Be ready for every eventuality.”
While they run down the list of notable fighters — including Santos, Michael Chiesa and others on the 239 card — there is also mention of several NBA teams who will be visiting the facility at some point during the Summer League from July 5-15, both for training purposes and learning opportunities with the staff. The Chicago Bulls, for example will be learning mixed martial arts, while other teams including the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings will be conducting training sessions. The meeting closes with a note on the importance of security at the facility to ensure the athletes’ privacy and another reminder to emphasize care and service throughout the week.
The mood throughout the meeting is light and upbeat but there is no denying the buzz of excitement and anticipation of the team’s busiest week of the year.
10 a.m.: Santos and his manager and coaches arrive at the PI. Santos routinely spends more than a week working with the staff at the PI in advance of his fights. He begins this day with a light workout under the supervision of Bo Sandoval, Director of Strength and Conditioning. Sandoval says today is a focus on mobility and light workload, enough to get some light conditioning in without overtaxing Santos as he tapers his activity towards fight night.
“We don’t really want to put the big guys through a lot of pounding as they get close to the fight,” says Sandoval, noting that Santos is still working on training sessions this week and cutting weight.
Mobility and flexibility exercises, along with light calisthenics and some agility/coordination maneuvers constitute the bulk of the session. They work outdoors where the Vegas heat — in the nineties mid-morning — makes it easy for Santos to break a sweat and get loose.
The music playing in the indoor/outdoor workout area is turned up, but Santos remains focused throughout, especially when going through some light shadow boxing. His composure serves as a reminder that there is indeed a serious goal for him at the end of the week.
12:30 p.m.: Santos makes his first visit to the PT area where he receives treatment from Heather Linden, Director of Physical Therapy at the PI. Santos is well known to Linden at this point as she has seen him not only at the PI on multiple occasions, but also while traveling to UFC events. The PT team provides services to athletes on the road, not only for those who are fighting on that event’s card but also to those who might live in town or who are there to do media or promotional events. Most recently, Linden treated Santos daily while in Rio for a UFC event in May.
Linden says the treatments for fighters in this week involves focusing on any areas that are particularly sore, emphasizing manual techniques to help “flush the tissue,” facilitating the removal of any lactic acid and improving recovery from training sessions. With fighters cutting weight, there is also the potential for aching and cramping so addressing the soft tissue is critical.
Even though Santos doesn’t speak much English, he and Linden have a good communication system worked out. She knows she’s touched on an area that needs work by the way he reacts; he has learned particular words that convey the difference between pain and soreness. After an hour of treatment, Santos gets a break until the evening.
7 p.m.: Santos and his team return to the PI for a training session in the octagon. This is the most intense version of Santos all day. Sessions with his sparring partners interspersed with instruction from his coaches give the feel of an impending fight. Other fighters who are training on nearby mats or in the adjacent boxing ring pause occasionally to watch Santos in action.
There are less than a handful of training sessions that remain before fight night, making every bit of feedback, every observation or tweak from a coach that much more important. At the end of the session there is a round of applause, some from the folks inside the cage and some from the outside observers. Santos is dripping sweat at the end of the session and appears pleased with the workout. He cools down by riding the Airdyne bike, keeping the body moving as his coaches circle around him sharing final thoughts.
8:30 p.m.: The final session of the day is more physical therapy. The treatment is very similar to the earlier session but the tone is different. Everyone is quieter, gearing down for the night. After an hour of releasing and unwinding his body and his mind, Santos and his team pack up to head home for the night.
When I ask him what’s left on the agenda for tonight, he smiles and says, “Dinner.”