Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ultimate Fighting star uses peers as punching bags

WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. (AP) -- They took turns getting bruised and beaten.

Anything to make a friend a champion.

Nate "The Great" Marquardt, a rising star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, recently called a spur-of-the-moment practice, and no fewer than 10 of his mixed martial arts buddies showed up.

One by one they stepped into the Octagon at a Denver suburb gym, absorbing Marquardt's well-placed kicks to the midsection and rapid punches to the head. They exited wearing the welts as a badge of honor.

"When you get in there, you're getting an education from the best," Cody Donovan said, dripping sweat after the workout. "He's the best."

Soon he'll have a chance to prove it. Marquardt is tentatively scheduled to face UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva in a July 7 title fight in Las Vegas.

Marquardt, who's 28-6-1 in his career, is a second-degree black belt in Japanese jiu-jitsu and first-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's also well-versed in boxing and wrestling. That versatility is essential in the sport of mixed martial arts, which combines judo, boxing, karate, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling.

"I can't even describe how excited I am," said the 27-year-old Marquardt of his title fight. "This is great."

His wife, Tessa, who helps run his martial arts school, agreed.

"I couldn't see him working in an office," she said. "I've accepted he's going to come home with an occasional black eye. He's happy with what he's doing."

Marquardt fell in love with MMA as a scrawny, 100-pound 15-year old when he saw UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie fight on television. The 176-pound Gracie's ability to beat a bigger opponent using his talent and intelligence, not just his brawn, captivated him.

Marquardt studied martial arts, fought in Japan for a few years -- he was a seven-time King of Pancrase winner, awarded to the top fighter by a respected Japanese organization -- and then joined the UFC in 2005.

He's proving there's room for the fighter who'd just as soon compliment an opponent as berate him.

"The first time I met him I was like, 'This guy's no fighter. He's too kindhearted and humble,"' said Trevor Wittman, Marquardt's boxing coach. "He's definitely a world-class fighter. He just doesn't need to brag about it."

Donovan squatted down to watch someone else get pummeled by Marquardt. A framed picture of Marquardt performing push-ups hung over Donovan's left shoulder. The caption below read, "To fight like a champion, you must train like one."

"The poster fits him perfectly," Wittman said. "He trains like that fighter who doesn't have the abilities to get there. He obviously does, but he trains like he doesn't."

For example, a few times a month Marquardt makes the 450-mile drive from Denver to Albuquerque to work out with Greg Jackson, who runs one of the nation's largest MMA schools, and his band of fighters.

"The guys I'm fighting against don't compare to the guys I train against," Marquardt said.

Despite the years of training and bouts, he doesn't have many battle scars. He has broken his nose a few times, and his knuckle, and once strained his back, but that's it.

For now, Marquardt's the one dishing out the pain as he prepares for the middleweight fight against Silva.

"I really think he's going to win," Jackson said. "Nate's great."

Jackson laughed.

"I guess it's an accurate nickname for him," he said.


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