Brookins studies fights, life during time off

Ten months after winning the tenth season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series, Jonathan Brookins is set to return to the Octagon against Erik Koch on Saturday in New Orleans.

Brookins, 26, had been scheduled to fight lightweight Jeremy Stephens in June, but was forced off that card due to a broken orbital bone he sustained while training. Shortly after the injury, Brookins decided to book his next fight as a featherweight.

So, what exactly has the TUF alum been doing during the layoff? The answer is slightly more complex than “working on his ground game.” The best way to describe it, perhaps, is -- he’s studied life.

“Lots of soul searching, man -- that’s taken up the majority of my time,” Brookins told ESPN.com. “What’s been most beneficial to me during this is just life experience.”

To understand Brookins, you need to know a little more about him. This is a guy who regularly doesn’t carry a phone (and when he does, the battery is usually dead). He rides a bike more than he drives a car and kills hours at a time in the library.

For a personality like that, time away from the Octagon and the regimented structure of a training camp might not be the worst thing in the world.

“I got pretty good at rock climbing. I would definitely like you to tell everybody how good I’ve gotten at rock climbing, even though that has nothing to do with anything,” Brookins said. “I’m just usually so focused on fighting I can’t take outdoor trips. It was nice to be able to do that.”

In the last 10 months, Brookins went backpacking in Moab, Utah, where he saw the natural arches formed in sandstone and petroglyphs left by ancient cultures. He rode his bike through Manhattan and into Brooklyn, figuring out the pulse of the city’s movement.

“You really have to understand the flow of things there,” he said. “You have to ride right with the cards. You don’t ride on the sidewalks. That was probably one of the coolest things, to be in that rat race riding a bike.”

Rest assured, Brookins spent as much time studying mixed martial arts as he did life. The term “studying” is truly appropriate.

He spent time in Hilo, Hawaii where he, literally, “sat around just watching B.J. Penn.” A couple months later, Brookins flew to Orem, Utah, to work at Pit Elevated Academy alongside Court McGee.

In Hilo, he noted the way Penn would listen to his body on a daily basis to tell him what to train. Much different in Utah, where scheduled are formed weeks in advance. He went to Vancouver, Wash. to join George Sotiropoulos, who prefers working almost exclusively on his own apart from sparring sessions. After that, it was Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, where everything from practice to meals is done in a group.

“Different strokes for different folks,” Brookins said. “There really aren’t a lot of commonalities between them. It was good to see it all, because I had gotten kind of complacent in Orlando.”

How this will all affect Brookins as a fighter, we’ll see. In MMA, extended time away from the cage can be a blessing -- or a curse. Generally, a long layoff is looked at as a negative. Timing, stamina and confidence can all be concerns.

For Brookins, it’s not about putting back together the momentum he had after winning TUF. It’s about constantly growing as a fighter and human being. They’re 100 percent connected, if you ask him.

“I think mental growth is the foundation of progression as a fighter,” Brookins said. “I had to gain insight and see new things to get my body to do what I want it to do.

“I was who I was back then and now I’ve grown. It’s a long process.”