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Mixed Martial Arts Makes Inroads in Baseball Training
Published: April 12, 2011

Mixed martial arts may be illegal as a competitive sport in some states, but several baseball players are incorporating its fighting methods into their training routines.

Adam Dunn of the Chicago White Sox, Brad Penny of the Detroit Tigers and Russell Martin of the Yankees have used the sport’s punches and kicks to improve their throwing and swinging. In addition to improving overall fitness, Martin said, mixed martial arts can make an athlete mentally tougher.

“You tolerate the pain and get through it,” he said. “Mentally, I know I’m in a good place because I worked hard.”

Mixed martial arts is a combination of karate, judo, jujitsu, boxing, wrestling and tae kwon do. The sport is also popular in Brazil and Japan. Pay-per-view telecasts in the United States began in 1993, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship staging the most lucrative matches.

Unlike Martin, Dunn and Penny guard the secrets of their workouts as if they were team signs.

Penny acknowledged training with Dan Henderson, a star M.M.A. competitor, but he declined through a Tigers spokesman to discuss his training. Dunn declined through the White Sox media-relations office.

Henderson said that he had had Penny practice the kicks and punches used in M.M.A., but there was no sparring.

“We use focus mitts,” Henderson said, referring to the oversize padded gloves that he wears while athletes kick and punch them. “Physically, it works different muscles than players tend to use in their own sport. The training gives them something different to push themselves through.”

Henderson said the workouts could indirectly help Penny’s strategy on the mound.

“It might give Brad a little more confidence when he’s pitching inside,” Henderson said. “And he’s prepared in case anyone rushes the mound.”

Jay Glazer, a football analyst for Fox Sports who runs MMAthletics with Randy Couture, a mixed martial arts star, has trained N.F.L. players in the sport. Glazer said his clients included Ryan Grant, Jared Allen, Clay Matthews and the Atlanta Falcons team.

While the workouts for the football players emphasize wrestling and hand-fighting techniques, Glazer said the routine for baseball players concentrated on emulating the movements of their sport.

Ryan Rowland-Smith, a left-handed pitcher in the Houston Astros organization who battled arm and back injuries the last couple of years with the Seattle Mariners, worked with Glazer in the winter. “I’m in the best shape of my life, for sure,” said Rowland-Smith, a surfer while growing up in Australia.

Glazer said: “In the case of Ryan, we look at film and break it down frame by frame and come up with a combination that mirrors his pitching delivery. A knee, a punch, followed by a kick. We have him do a ton of that for his hips. Power comes from his core, his hips and his legs, even though he uses his arm to pitch.”

Mentally, Glazer said, the mantra is the same for baseball players as it is for N.F.L. players.

“Own your space,” Glazer said several times. “We get the players thinking like a cage fighter. When the door shuts, it’s time to break that man’s will across from you. For Ryan, as a pitcher, it’s that 60 feet 6 inches that you own.”

Rowland-Smith said the rigors of M.M.A. training made it easier to tolerate physical and mental challenges on the mound.

“If you have some small injuries or you’re not feeling 100 percent, nothing can compare with what you go through with the training, so you can fight through it,” he said.

Martin, a catcher, worked with Jonathan Chaimberg, who trains Georges St.-Pierre, the U.F.C.’s welterweight champion. Martin said he was searching for a way to regain his All-Star form after two injury-marred seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After a few months of six-days-a-week M.M.A.-style training sessions with Chaimberg in Montreal, where he lives, Martin increased his endurance and explosiveness and lost body fat. He said his upper-body routine was called the big rope.

“It’s a thick rope that you attach to a base of a wall and has a loop,” he said. “You create waves with the rope, and it’s like a 20-second sprint, a 10-second rest. You don’t do it for a long period of time. You do it for five minutes, get a good workout in and work on your conditioning.”

It seems to be helping. Martin is hitting .300 with three homers and eight runs batted in.

Bobby Valentine, an ESPN baseball analyst, has managed in the major leagues and in Japan, where one would think mixed martial arts training is popular among players. But that is not the case, he said.

“It’s more prominent in the States,” said Valentine, who said he believes the training is beneficial.

He added: “Most mixed martial arts instructors teach balance, quickness and awareness of your surroundings. There are a few cases in Japan, but most players just play baseball over there.”