Good to Great in MMA: What separates a good fighter from a great fighter

I recently began reading a book by author Jim Collins for work reasons titled Good to Great. The book was a New York Times best-seller and is a seminal book in the business world having been read by many top CEOs and executives.

Jason Floyd - The MMA Report
Jason Floyd – The MMA Report

Collins created a team that set out to analyze various business models and determine why some good companies were able to become great companies while many others never broke through the glass ceiling.

The book was written from the perspective of a journalist, with Collins and his team dissecting mountains of financial data and statistics while also embarking on thousands of hours of interviews with CEOs from leading companies.

Good to Great took years to write thanks in large part to the amount of research required to compile an authoritative piece on how some of the most successful companies in the world were able to achieve a level of greatness that few have been able to match.

In reading the book, I routinely saw my mind revert to my MMA roots and I began to think how it applied to the sport. Obviously, as someone who has worked in talent relations for quite some time, it got me thinking about how I had worked with a lot of good fighters over the years and how I had witnessed only a handful of them truly become great.

I began to wonder: could a template be written for MMA purposes that outlined some of the key reasons why good fighters become great? And the answer was a resounding “yes.” And unlike Collins, who had to undertake a massive research project, I realized that having worked in the MMA industry as a professional for over 10 years, my field research has already been completed. As such, I went ahead and wrote an outline of the top reasons why some of the world’s best fighters achieved a level of greatness that so many fighters only dream of achieving.

Here’s my dissertation.

1. Fight Camp/Coaching
Without question the quality of training a fighter receives is the number one thing that separates great fighters from good fighters. If you want to be a shark in any walk of life, I have always found that the fastest way to become one is by choosing to swim with them. Yes, you’ll take your lumps during the initial going but you will be forced to raise your level of production in an attempt to survive. And after spending a great deal of time and energy doing everything you can just to survive, eventually you begin to thrive. If you want to be a top fighter, you need to train with other top fighters. When you spar and drill with the best, your skill level begins to truly evolve. And you not only improve in life by having others impart knowledge onto you but we also are able to learn through observation and osmosis. You still get better by hanging around sharks even once practice is over because you hear and see what they do outside of the cage and you begin to emulate all of their successful habits. What do they eat/drink for recovery? What supplements are they taking? What time of the day do they train and how much sleep do they get? What kind of coaches outside of practice are they working with? How do they treat injuries? How are they cutting weight? What are they doing for strength and conditioning? The list goes on and on.

If you are training at an average to sub-par fight gym and you’re the one who is at the top of the food chain, everyone is learning and improving by working with you but you aren’t improving because there’s no one is forcing you to raise your game. So what stops a fighter from training at an elite-level fight camp? I see two major reasons commonly arise.

The first reason is loyalty. Quite often a fighter who is unable to achieve his/her goals possesses a desire to attain a higher level of MMA knowledge but limits themselves from going outside their camp out of loyalty for their current trainers and training partners. On one hand, in a sport where loyalty is few and far between, I admire these fighters for possessing the loyalty gene. On the other hand I can’t help but wonder if they are being loyal to a fault and creating a glass ceiling that will never be broken by refusing to upgrade their level of training.

The other primary reason I see with regard to why fighters don’t seek out better training has to due to financial and family constraints. Most people can’t just drop everything and move out to San Diego to train at Alliance MMA; or leave all of their troubles behind and head out to South Florida to train at American Top Team; or uproot their life and head out to Albuquerque, New Mexico to begin working out at Jackson/Winkeljohn. And as hard as it may be to adopt such a lifestyle change due to the fact that we simply don’t have the finances or because we have family obligations that dictate we remain in a confined geographical location, few people in life ever achieve true greatness without making some form of major sacrifice.

It takes time to build something truly great in life and MMA is no different. Firas Zahabi and Tri-Star Gym didn’t become one of the top gyms overnight. The Lab in Arizona didn’t just rise up out of nowhere. The top MMA programs in the world were once an unknown fight gym that gradually turned into a powerhouse through hard work and dedication. So just because you may not be at a brand name gym, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to be the next American Kickboxing Academy. But can you afford to wait until your gym has grown into a place that can accommodate your needs?

The last thing I want is for this article to be seen as a mitigating factor for fighters screwing over their trainers and abandoning their team. But I do want it to inspire fighters to think outside the box and begin to think of ways they can push themselves to elevate their game. In my mind, there’s a happy medium: you can stay loyal to your trainer and gym and still carry the affiliation while taking the occasional field trip to Southern California or South Florida to raise your fight IQ.

For some, the above scenario is easier said than done. That’s because some trainers are very territorial and do not want any cross-pollination amongst their fighters. They create policies that preclude their fighters from getting outside training leading up to a fight. I find that these ego-centric trainers engage in such practices due to insecurity. They have dreams of being the next American Top Team but fear that if they lose you to another gym and or can’t take 100% credit for your success (so that they can promote their own brand off your back), they’ll never become a major name in the industry. Trainers with such a small-minded mentality rarely achieve any sort of enduring success in MMA because they are placing their needs above those of their fighters. I have found that one common trait that exists within all the top trainers in the sport is an innate ability to put the needs of their fighters ahead of their own.

If a trainer truly has your best interest in mind, they aren’t going to feel disrespected if you want to take a few weeks to go away and get some top sparring. There’s no legitimate reason why your trainer shouldn’t give you their blessing and encourage you to get other looks. For a time, Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn had a policy of reciprocity where their fighters were allowed to go to Grudge in Denver or Tri-Star in Montreal and train with Trevor Wittman and Firas. If Jackson and Winkeljohn can be humble enough to allow their students to get coached up elsewhere for a few weeks, then a trainer who is still trying to make their name in the sport should be able to put their ego aside as well.

If you’re a trainer with aspirations of growing your gym that’s reading this, I recommend you take a proactive approach and be the one to encourage your fighter to train outside your gym. If you have a top 145 pound prospect and all your top small fighters are “on the couch” because they just recently fought and you are unable to compel them to be a good teammate and come in and train, then you need to get in front of the issue and arrange for your top 145 pound prospect to do a camp somewhere else. By organizing a fighter’s training, you become more than a trainer – you become a coach. And any fighter worth their salt will recognize that you are a master when it comes to getting your fighters ready and they will defer to your expertise. Trainers who can’t properly prepare their fighters and end up holding them back are quite often abandoned for the big brand gyms while witnessing their own worst nightmare of being abandoned by their top prospect.

As a fighter, the key things you have to ask yourself are: am I being loyal to a coach and a team that is being loyal to me? And by “loyal to you,” I mean, are they doing everything they can to allow you to transition from being a good fighter to a great fighter? And you also have to ask yourself: am I getting as much out of training with my team as my teammates are by training with me?

I can’t tell you how many fighters I’ve signed to compete for organizations I represented that I had high expectations for that never really came close to reaching their potential due to the fact that they were not getting the best training available to them. If you want to be popular and have a lot of friends in MMA, kudos to you. But sometimes in life you have to make a few enemies in order to get to the top.

2. Pedigree
When MMA was first launched in the U.S. in 1993, virtually all the competitors had some sort of combat sports background. After all, MMA didn’t really exist so you had to be a specialist in some martial art since you couldn’t “train MMA.” Then, in the late 90’s and early-2000’s we saw a major proliferation to the sport of aspiring fighters who had absolutely no combat sports background that suddenly jumped in, learned MMA as one all-encompassing martial art and be able to move up the ladder. But everything old becomes new again and we are experiencing a return to the days when you had to be a master in one martial art in order to be able to gain a foothold into the sport. The new generation is arriving and that generation grew up watching UFC and has trained in a martial art since a young age. Those who have wrestled since they were eight or began taking BJJ classes after school when they turned 12 are always going to have a leg up over the guy or gal who at the age of 22 starts taking MMA classes to get into better shape but then gets the fire to compete. In boxing, if you start after the age of 18, the odds are stacked against you of ever becoming a high-level pro. I am not saying MMA is like boxing and that it’s impossible for a 20-22-year old with no previous background to achieve success in the sport, but fighters with that kind of backstory are becoming fewer and far between. If being a pro fighter is your dream, it helps to make that decision at 12 as opposed to making it at 22.

3. Athleticism
There was a period in the early days of this sport when not very many human beings dared step foot in a cage. Thus, simply being tough and being a hard worker guaranteed you a place in this sport. But oh my have times changed! The true blue collar fighter archetype in MMA is a dying breed. There are plenty of fighters out there toiling away in gyms who are tougher than a two dollar steak that work their ass off in the gym but still don’t have much upside as a fighter. Why is that, you ask? Because the age of the athlete in MMA is already upon us and just because you may be tough and willing to punish yourself in the gym, it’s no longer a prerequisite for success in the sport if you lack quickness, strength, agility, stamina, speed, flexibility, etc. You don’t need to run a 4.4 in the 40 or be able to dunk a basketball to become a champion in MMA but you do need to bring some God-given ability to the table.

4. Supplementary Coaching Staff
Another common trait I see between great fighters and good fighters is a willingness by the great fighters to invest in themselves. Great fighters take their winnings and put it right back into their training. Good fighters blow their earnings on material things outside of the cage that do nothing to advance their career.

The funny thing in MMA is that more often than not I see cases of the rich getting richer and the middle class seemingly stuck in the middle. Fighters that can afford supplementary coaches such as strength and conditioning specialists, nutritionists, dehydration/re-hydration specialists (i.e. weight cutting coaches), private instructors, as well as medical trainers (so that they can properly rehabilitate injuries) possess a massive advantage over fighters that can’t afford these luxuries.

It’s a twisted cycle because the only fighters that can really afford all the outside coaching are the ones who are really good and are making enough money to afford these things. Once a fighter grinds their way up the rankings and to a higher paygrade, they double-down as they reinvest their winnings into better training and their level of growth is compounded.

Unless you come from money or find yourself in an enviable position where you have multiple monthly sponsors, you are simply going to have to scratch and claw your way up the ladder until you get to a level where you are making acceptable money. It takes time to get to that point but once you’re there you will likely find it much quicker and easier to move even further up the ladder now that you have more resources available to you.

5. Intangibles
During my time working in talent relations, I signed some amazing athletes that looked like future world champs in the gym that proved to be total unadulterated busts. In my search for answers as to where I went wrong in my evaluation, one common thread always reigned supreme: a lack of intangibles. Being a great athlete with the best coaching and a combat sports pedigree that dates back to the age of 8 is meaningless if a fighter doesn’t want to train and doesn’t want to fight.

You might be able to fake it in the NBA, MLB or NFL and become a millionaire even if you truly don’t have a passion for the sport that you play but MMA is a completely different animal. You have to have heart and true grit in order to become an elite level fighter. I don’t begrudge someone who sees MMA as a barbaric way to make a living and decides it’s not for them. But I do have an issue with someone who insists on being a fighter that is constantly looking for ways out of a fight the minute they sign on a dotted line. It is okay to suffer from nerves and have some butterflies leading up to a fight – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be human. But if you are suffering severe anxiety and spend the vast majority of your day living in fear of being inside of the cage, it doesn’t matter how much technique and skill you possess, you aren’t a true fighter. And that doesn’t make you any less of a person because you don’t have that fire burning inside of you. It just means you are wasting valuable years of your life by being a square peg that is continually trying to contort to fit into a round hole.

Another reason why good fighters never become great that falls in line on the intangible scale has to do with distractions outside of the cage. I have signed several stud athletes over the years that I had pegged for superstardom that I had to cut two years later due to the fact that they had too much drama going on outside of the gym. The battles they were fighting away from the cage prevented from focusing on becoming a great fighter.

Whether it was a partying lifestyle that got out of control; undiagnosed/untreated mental illness; or a string of bad romantic relationships that forced fighting to take a back seat, personal issues that aren’t handled properly will always hold a fighter back. Now, someone reading this is going to say “Well Sam, Jon Jones seems to be doing okay despite some of his issues.” First, Jon Jones has athletic ability that’s on loan from God. He’s an aberration. Second, if Jon Jones continues to keep making poor decisions out of the cage, eventually demons will catch up to him. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Feb. 10, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan.

On that date, Buster Douglas entered the ring with Mike Tyson as a 42-to-1 undergo before KO’ing Tyson in route to handing Tyson his first-career loss and walking away with multiple heavyweight belts. No disrespect to Douglas, but he wasn’t any better than many of the bodies that were laid to waste by Tyson in the midst of his epic reign of dominance. But if you’ve read Fire and Fear: The Inside Story of Mike Tyson by Jose Torres, you know that Tyson’s poor choices outside of the ring had more to do with his defeat at the hands of Douglas than anything that Douglas had done.

If you are a fighter reading this, my advice to you is: if your lifelong dream is making it to the UFC or becoming a world champion for a major MMA organization, you need to constantly analyze the people in your life and evaluate whether they are helping support you reach your goals or are doing nothing but holding you back. You keep the people in your life who are supportive of you and you disassociate yourself from the ones who want to see you fail.

Now that you read my long-winded dissertation, all that’s left for you to do is ask yourself what’s preventing you from becoming great? Once you’d identified the problem, you can begin to address it and move forward.

Sam Caplan is the co-host of The MMA Insiders Podcast with Jason Floyd. The MMA Insiders Podcast can be heard weekly through or by subscribing (free of charge) through iTunes or Stitcher. Caplan is also the CEO of Combat Sports Media (, one of the leading consulting firms in the MMA industry.