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AKA Head Javier Mendez Discusses Ways to Lessen Training Camp Injuries

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterNovember 24, 2014

Credit: Jeremy Botter

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Daniel Cormier had been training hard for 23 minutes when the accident happened.

It was a sparring day, and Cormier was planning on 25 hard minutes in preparation for his January title fight against light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. He'd gone three rounds, and then four. He was tired. But by the middle of his fifth and final sparring round, Cormier was still fired up.

Sensing a lack of effort on the part of his training partner, Cormier urged him to come forward, softly at first and then by screaming at him. And so his training partner, Dwight, came forward, throwing a right hook. At the same time, Cormier leaned his head in. Dwight's elbow struck Cormier on the nose. Blood began to leak all over the American Kickboxing Academy mats.

Sparring was complete, albeit a little earlier than Cormier would've liked. He sat in a chair in the AKA lobby, his head tiled back. His cornerman stopped the bleeding with Q-tips. The nose swelled but was not broken. IPhones emerged, and photos were snapped.

In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor thing, the elbow and the nose. There was a lot of blood, sure. But it paled in comparison to the recent injury suffered by heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in the same room. Velasquez had to pull out of a title defense; Cormier was fine the next day.

And according to American Kickboxing Academy head Javier Mendez, well, these things happen in mixed martial arts.

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Cain Velasquez (left) and Daniel Cormier during the press conference following UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

"There was nothing wrong with today's incident other than the fact DC was encouraging Dwight to go. And he brought his head in when he shouldn't have," Mendez said. "The right hand missed, and he came in. But the left was coming in right behind it, and the left elbow caught him. It wasn't so much of an intentional elbow as it was DC just ran into Dwight's elbow. The elbow wasn't meant to be thrown."

But Mendez is keenly aware of the injury problem plaguing mixed martial arts. Many injuries stem from the kind of intensive training you'll find at gyms like AKA, where a fervent belief in real-life preparation often leads to injuries.

It is something he thinks about often.

"It's been bothering me. There is a ranking that came out, and we are number two on the lowest amount of injuries for big organizations. So we aren't in the top for injuries," Mendez says. "But even being number two, I would rather not be on that list. But for a top team, we are safer than most. That still doesn't make me feel good about being on that list."

Mendez has long considered ways to lessen the amount of injuries suffered by fighters in his gym. He's thinking about reducing the amount of full MMA sparring done by his guys on the days they're scheduled to spar.

Instead of conducting a full-contact MMA sparring session, for example, Mendez would like to see his guys spar in boxing one day, in kickboxing the next and so on. Most of the injuries to AKA fighters happen during wrestling sparring; the least amount of sparring injuries occur during pure boxing.

"If we can minimize certain things, I'd like to try to do that. And that means less hard MMA sparring getting ready for a fight," Mendez says.

But you can't cut full sparring entirely.

"We have to do it because if you don't, you won't be prepared for a fight," he says. "But I think we can minimize it."

In order for AKA to transition from full sparring to art-specific sparring, there will have to be a vote. The team aspect, and the right of every member to vote on important issues, is one of the things that sets AKA apart. Mendez will have to talk to his team, and it'll vote. If everyone agrees, they'll make the transition.

But even if that happens, Mendez says, he'll have to stay attuned to the needs of specific fighters. What works for the team may not work for everyone.

"If a fighter says, 'No, I want my three days of hard sparring,' I have to give him that," Mendez says. "I've always allowed the fighter to make the decision on whether they want to spar three days, two days or one day. And I don't really want zero days of hard sparring because they need to know what it feels like to get in there."

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