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Why 49ers players and others around the league are doing MMA training

Why do NFL players take up mixed martial arts training? Plenty of reasons!

If this were a real punch, Aldon Smith would be waking up right about now.
If this were a real punch, Aldon Smith would be waking up right about now.
Thearon W. Henderson

We got news yesterday that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith was getting in some mixed martial arts (MMA) training during the offseason. This is something of a trend in the NFL lately, and let me be the first to tell you that I absolutely love it. I've been an MMA fan for years and watch every event I possibly can.

Of course, I don't love the asinine articles you'll find from idiots on the Internet like "10 NFL Players Who Would Make It In MMA," using arbitrary silliness like bulk, athleticism, heart or what have you, considering those are all out the window once another man is punching you as hard as he can in the face.

MMA is tough, and it's a different toll on your body than playing in the NFL and you definitely have a different mindset when you're fighting in a cage with another man.

Former NFL players have crashed and burned and likewise, we've heard some MMA fighters, like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight Champion Jon "Bones" Jones talk about how he thinks he wouldn't survive for two seconds in the NFL, despite the fact that his brothers, Arthur Jones and Chandler Jones, play for the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots, respectively.

But why do NFL players take up MMA training if they have no intention of actually stepping into the ring, octagon or other similar fighting arena? I couldn't see Patrick Willis cage fighting, nor really anybody on the 49ers (the lone exception, of course, being Andy Lee ... dude would wipe the floor with the UFC, Bellator, World Series of Fighting and even the Supa Fight Leeeeeeeeague [you won't get that reference]) at this point.

It's because, despite the fact that NFL players have one of the hardest workout regimens in pro sports, there is still plenty to learn from MMA. It's not all punching and kicking, and it's not all about trying to take someone else's limb home with you if you're into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).

There's level changes and leverage on the wrestling, judo and sambo side of things, there's the cardio tips you can get from guys who are conditioned to punch and get punched for up to 25 minutes in a row (championship fights in the UFC are five five-minute rounds).

Some practical gains from MMA training are, of course, on the cardio side. There are plenty of NFL players who don't need to take plays off, but that doesn't mean they're going full-on 100 percent at all times. MMA fighters may only go 25 minutes, but they're constantly at 100 percent, throwing punches that would have us regular people winded after two or three goes.

With Smith in particular, it looks like he's doing a lot of cardio. He's doing his MMA training this offseason at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, CA. That gym is home to some amazing fighters and athletes, including Olympic wrestler Daniel Cormier, who was the one training with Smith. It's also home to UFC title challenger Jon Fitch and UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez.

Cormier, who fights Frank Mir, a long-time MMA veteran, on April 20 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose on the UFC On Fox 7 card, said that he was impressed with Smith, who showed he's "ready to improve himself in different ways," according to Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News.

Cormier added "I'll get him in crazy shape. You see how he was huffing and puffing? I'll get him in shape so he can go 10 plays in a row without needing a break."

Personally, that's not even my favorite application of MMA training and how it translates to the NFL. Obviously, most of Smith's battles will be fought at the line of scrimmage, often referred to as "the trenches" (gently stepping around the asinine "war" analogy, please) by coaches and players alike. There are so many little things that can help a player fight and win these battles.

On the wrestling side, you have balance and leverage. MMA fighters drill takedowns and takedown defense day in and day out, and just observing those guys doing that can help improve your balanace. Wrestling is, in my opinion, the strongest base in MMA, and coupled with other aspects of grappling, it seriously emphasizes body control.

We've actually heard this talked about before by NFL players in regards to MMA training. The body control that is gained from just a few minutes spent with an MMA fighter in the gym is extremely helpful. Linemen and pass rushers learn how to control their body, momentum and even more, while players like defensive backs learn how to rotate their hips and get turned around better than they ever were able to.

You've seen "hip rotation" talked about over and over by scouts in the leadup to the NFL Draft, well that's something that NFL players can get a lot from in regards to MMA training. Then there's the hand-fighting in the trenches. There's lots of slapping going on, and it's actually kind of humorous to think of it that way.

Jay Glazer, a man who I think is a littler unbearable but do respect thanks to him really pushing the MMA training for NFL players, believes that one of the best things to do is improve the hand fighting at the line of scrimmage. He teaches defensive players to hammer at the hands of offensive linemen as opposed to slapping at them.

If you were wondering, yes, "hammer fist" is an actual MMA term and yes, it is very effective in the trenches.

Plenty of NFL players are doing this training and personally, I'm ecstatic to see that Aldon Smith is taking it up alongside other NFL players like Patrick Willis and Frank Gore. It's a brutal, tough sport that I'm not sure these guys want to pursue, but the things they will learn from the training can do nothing but help them on the field.

Plus it's fun - when you're not getting the crap beat out of you. A sign at Randy Couture's gym in Las Vegas is pretty poignant in that regard. It reads: "If you vomit or bleed, please clean up after yourself. The gloves and cleaner are under the sink."

Hopefully Smith, Willis, Gore and the rest of the guys don't do too much vomiting or bleeding, and hopefully they'll take a lot more from the experience of training than they leave on the mats in Couture's gym.