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Your guide to victory in the Octagon, from a winning MMA fighter

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There is only one truth when it comes to mixed martial arts — you’ll never know what to expect. As soon as the opponents enter the “the cage” in the Octagon, you know you’re in for a matchup full of surprises, wildly varied styles of fighting, from kickboxing to wrestling to karate, and well, good ol’ fashioned takedowns. What’s not to love?

Mixed martial arts comes from a long lineage of combat fighting, dating back to the Olympics in 648 B.C. Competitors took part in pankration (from the Greek words pank and rotos, which together translates to “all powers”), a grappling and striking type-sport. The combat style of fighting traveled from Greece to India to China, and birthed separate forms of martial arts like muay Thai, judo, and karate. In the 19th and 20th centuries, practitioners of different techniques began to challenge each other to fights all over the world, like in Japan, Brazil, and England. The culminating fight that founded the version of MMA we know today was the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, which, for the first time ever, pitted competitors skilled in jiujitsu, sumo, kickboxing, shootfighting, and professional boxing against each other in a series of knockout rounds. The world was hooked.

Since MMA fighters come from all different backgrounds and training styles, a fight is always guaranteed to be jaw-dropping entertainment. Take Nick Diaz: He’s trained under the legendary coach Cesar Gracie to become a black belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, and has been competing since he was 18 years old. Now 33 with a long list of wins, Diaz shares the physical and mental challenges to overcome while competing in an MMA fight. Consider this your ultimate strategy to a win in the Octagon.

Start with a baseline foundation of athletic training

MMA isn’t just a physical sport, but you certainly can’t compete without an advanced level of athleticism and strength. MMA fighters train for years before they ever enter the cage, and must maintain a base weight in order to compete. Diaz, who competes in a 170-pound weight class, knows the ups and downs of weight cutting and weight gaining: “I’ve trained for three to five fights a year for the last 17 years,” he says.

In order to keep a consistent weight, Diaz does it all: triathlons, Iron Man competitions, mountain biking, running, and more, on top of his regular training for a fight.

Know your opponent’s weaknesses

Every MMA artist has his own skill set and strength, be it kickboxing, wrestling, muay Thai, jiujitsu, or other martial arts styles. While you have to know what your opponent’s strengths are, it’s perhaps even more important to know his weaknesses — because you know he’s sizing up yours. “If someone knows you’re the best kickboxer, the best boxer, or the best wrestler, they’re not going to fight you at what you’re good at,” Diaz says. “They don’t want you to be too happy in there.”

When you enter the cage, you’d best believe that your opponent is ready to play to your weaknesses. The key to avoiding a full-out knockout? Having a diverse skill set. “That’s where the fight starts to get interesting,” Diaz says.

Study up on strategy

There are lots of different theories of MMA strategy — some say you have to size up whether a fight will be a “ground” or “standing” fight. If it’s a standing fight — say, for example, you’re up against a boxer — then, Diaz says, you won’t be able to count on pinning him to the ground. “Instead I’ll get better sparring partners and better striking coaches, so I can prepare for what’s coming,” he says. Alternately, if you’re going up against a wrestler, you can expect a ground fight and adjust your training accordingly. It’s up to the fighter to size up how his or her opponent fights. “When I’m fighting someone who’s stylistically different than me, it’s my job to figure out how — and why — someone trains or fights in that style, and how I can compete with that,” Diaz says.

Know your worst case scenarios — but don’t rely too much on a game plan

The real secret to being a winning mixed martial artist? To plan for the worst, and be ready to change game plans at the drop of a hat. Everyone always wants to know what the game plan is when you enter a ring, Diaz says, but it’s not always so simple. A fighter has to be ready to account for whatever challenges may come up in that first round. “If your game plan isn’t working, then it’s up to you as the MMA artist to figure out why,” he says. “When you realize something isn’t working or going the way you want it to, you have to change course — and no one will be there to help you do that in the moment.”

It takes intellectual and physical strategies to keep up with an ever-changing, all-hands-in kind of fight — and that’s why millions of eager enthusiasts keep tuning in.

Are you a Master of Strategy? Prove it.

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