Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals are big MMA fans
It was a stroke of luck that one fan's job took him to Seattle the weekend the UFC was in town for it's fifth Fox-televised event on Dec. 8. Fortuitously housed at the same hotel as the fighters, this fan got to chat with UFC champions Benson Henderson and Jon Jones in the lobby, which made his weekend.
That fan's name is Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. The Cardinal's wide receiver talks about his longtime passion for the UFC and mixed martial arts.
What first attracted you to mixed martial arts?
I love to see guys compete and what better test than getting into a fist fight? I've been a fan of it a very long time going back. The UFC is the best; watching those fights up close and personal and getting to know some of those athletes over the years, I have a really great respect for the way these guys train, the way they work, the way they compete.
Had you had any personal experience with martial arts before you began following MMA?
No, no experience before that, but I've had a chance to do some mixed martial arts' training at [UFC majority owner] Lorenzo Fertitta's gym in Las Vegas (at Fertitta's Station Casino headquarters) with my buddy Giffy [boxing trainer Jim Gifford]. I've seen [former UFC heavyweight champion] Frank Mir over at training; I've seen a lot of terrific fighters over there and the dedication and commitment they have to their craft. Seeing them train firsthand, the diets and how they're cutting the weight and trying to get ready for a fight -- it's just unbelievable. It's much, much different then what we do as professional football players. These guys are the best in the world. I'm a big supporter.
How did you meet Fertitta?
I met Lorenzo at a show and we kind of just hit it off and stayed in contact. He has two sons; his older son is actually on a full-ride scholarship and his younger is still playing high school [football.] They train in the gym as well, and I've gotten to meet the family and it's been great.
How often do you get to watch MMA events?
Coach Whisenhunt is pretty cool about it. He orders the [pay-per-views] for us on Saturdays, as long as it's not after we have to be in our rooms for curfew. He watches them with us. There's usually about a good 20-25 of us watching in our dining hall. No beers are cracked, but every guy has his favorites and cheers them on. Every summer, there seems to be a UFC pay-per-view on during our first weekend of camp, so we rent out a restaurant and about 40 of us go over, enjoy some non-alcoholic beverages and food, and watch the fights there.
Been to any live events?
I've been to seven or eight UFC events. I always go to the Arnold Classic (annual fitness expo in Columbus, Ohio). That's where I got the chance to watch Ronda Rousey fight last year. I always get to Las Vegas a couple times a year to catch fights; I'll catch one somewhere around the country or somewhere around the world if it lines up properly.
You're a world traveler, having visited over 80 countries. Where's the most exotic place you been to watch a fight show?
I've been to a couple of Pride fights in Japan (once the world-leading fight organization that promoted until 2007). I've seen some Thai fights in Thailand. I can't remember who headlined at the Pride shows. I wasn't so much into it for the names, but I just like to see the art.
Quite a few NFL players have begun to implement MMA training in their off-time. What benefits have you gotten from your training?
It's awesome cross-training for me, a great high-intensity workout. I can implement it into some of my offseason training to change it up. I do some of the hand work, foot quickness, ladder drills, some of the in-ring work to make me quicker and more explosive with my feet and in the hand battles I have to get into on the line of scrimmage. The cardiovascular conditioning and core work is just fantastic. I don't do much of the sparring with guys hitting me, but I do shadowboxing and legwork like that, so I'm always left hurting when I leave the ring.
Have you ever had the urge to take it the next level?
No. It's one of those things I admire from a distance. I've watched Frank Mir break down grown men with leg kicks and thought that's probably not where I should be. I'll stick to my side of the cage.
What's been the most memorable fight for you?
Two years ago, when Anderson Silva defended his title and got beat up for the first four and a half rounds, then submitted Chael Sonnen right at the end of the fight [UFC 117 in August 2010]. That's probably my favorite fight -- not for the way Anderson fought, because I love to see him stand and do what he does best, but the heart, determination and resolve he showed. He knew he was in a fight. The guy was dirty [Sonnen was later flagged for unapproved testosterone use] and he was still able to come out victorious. Most guys would quit, but there wasn't a time when [Silva] didn't think he couldn't win that fight, and when he got his opportunity to close him out, he did. That was a masterful performance.
As an athlete, what did you take away from that performance?
There's a saying: "Sometimes your best is not good enough. You have to do what is required." Anderson knew he wasn't his best that night, but he did what was required. That's why he's the greatest champion that mixed martial arts has ever seen.
You mentioned one fight you were particularly interested in seeing in the UFC heavyweight division: Cain Velasquez vs. Shane Carwin. Instead, we have the Velasquez-Dos Santos rematching at UFC 155 on Dec. 29.
Oh yeah. I watched the first fight [on Fox in November 2011]. I really like [UFC heavyweight champion] Dos Santos' style, but Velasquez is just an animal in terms of his attack and relentlessness. He's ferocious. That's why I wanted to see him against Carwin, who's got those heavy hands. You just never know with him. He catches you on the chin just once and it's good night.
Football and MMA are both recognized as highly physical sports that can inflict a lot of damage on its athletes. In terms of toughness, is there are general consensus among football players about MMA fighters?
Fighters are the toughest, hands down. Their livelihood depends on how they can take a punch and throw one. There's no other job like that, besides boxing. They're as mentally tough as they come. Our game is different: you don't have to worry about getting punched and kicked. It is very physical, but not even close to MMA. From a physical standpoint, I think that's the consensus [among football players.]
Do you see a different mentality between athletes in team-driven and individualized sports?
For me, I've grown up in a team setting my entire life. I've grown up playing team sports, where other guys depend on me and I depend on them, so it kind of let's you put your guard down a little bit and see things for what they are: you're only as good as the guy next to you and the work ethic of the group. As a fighter, from the day you start, you're in it by yourself. There are trainers and cutmen, but at the end of the day, those guys aren't going in there with you. There's nobody else out there taking punches or throwing punches. You have to get it done by yourself, so mentality-wise, you have to be wired a little differently.
Watching the way football players get hit during games, some think that it's a rougher sport than MMA. Why do you think MMA isn't as accepted as football is today?
Football's been around for so many years and it's just a part of our culture. We've grown up on football. I would think that some people would say that fighting is a new phenomenon, which I wouldn't agree with, but I think that's why it's struggled a little bit to get mainstream in terms of everybody accepting it. I don't think it's too far away, though.
Earlier, you mentioned Ronda Rousey, who was recently crowned the first-ever women's UFC champion. On Feb. 23, Rousey will be the first female (along with challenger Liz Carmouche) to ever fight in the Octagon as the UFC 157 pay-per-view headliner. In terms of mainstream perception, how do you think women's MMA will fair in 2013?
I'm a big admirer of Rousey and women's MMA, but I think for most it will take substantially longer for people to adjust to seeing women fighting.
From the beginning, a big facet of MMA's struggle into the mainstream has been perception. Even with the UFC's move to Fox Sports, there are indications that some can't look past the sport's perceived image of brutality and it's edgy presentation with regular cursing and the like. Do you think this is something the UFC and MMA would need to tone down in the future?
For me, I love it the way it is. I like brash, in-your-face [presentation.] I mean, it's a fight. We're not talking about going to the ballet. These are two men fighting. I don't know how much more tame you could make it. I think [UFC President] Dana [White] and the Fertittas and everyone associated with putting the fights together do a terrific job of creating suspense and putting together the fights that everyone wants to see and looks forwards to. I love the product and I'm going to continue to support it. I enjoy the show.
You're regularly cited as a model professional sportsman. What advice could you give fighters and other figures in the MMA, as the sport strives to gain greater mainstream acceptance?
I would never tell another athlete how to carry and conduct themselves. You have to do what you think is best based on what you know. I know it's different because I'm in a team sport and it's never just about me, it's never always on me. There are guys around me, helping me. From a fighter's standpoint, they don't have that and they're the only ones that can mold themselves. The louder they are, the more they talk, whatever sells tickets for them is what makes them more notable and gets them bigger purses. You have to do different things in fighting to promote yourself and get yourself out there.
You know there's a listing for a Larry Fitzgerald on a fight team in Georgia.
Is he any good?
He doesn't appear to have any fights yet. That's not you sneaking into a second sport, is it?
(Laughs) That's my secret life down there in Georgia. You caught me.