Rooney gets the most out of MMA fighters

Just holding a black belt in jiu-jitsu will no longer cut it in mixed martial arts. A solid amateur wrestler background won't get the job done, either.

MMA has evolved into a more complex sport. Physical skills and technical know-how might get a fighter into the game, but it won't take him to the top.

That's where Martin Rooney comes in.

The Sayreville, N.J., native often goes unnoticed by fight fans. When members of Team Renzo Gracie head toward the ring for an International Fight League showdown, Rooney is among them.

"I know my role and it is definitely below Renzo and everybody else," the 36-year-old Rooney said. "When it is game time … my job is to make sure that the guy is better able to recover between rounds. Renzo and the other guys are there to give immediate technical and strategic changes."

He is usually the guy carrying a bucket of water with a towel draped over his shoulder. Between rounds he can be seen rubbing a shoulder or offering words of encouragement. But don't be fooled, Rooney is an indispensable part of the team.

Rooney is a physical therapist, but in MMA circles he is best known as a trainer/strength and conditioning guru. Any fighter -- from IFL light heavyweight contender Jamal Patterson to UFC middleweight Ricardo Almeida -- who has Rooney in his corner is fully prepared for battle.

As head of the Fairlawn, N.J.-based Parisi Speed School, which has 35 locations throughout the United States, Rooney doesn't allow his fighters any shortcuts. He wants every one of his athletes ready to give their very best.

"The training aspect of MMA is becoming more and more important," said Rooney, the author of "Training for Warriors: The Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts Workout." "You can't just be a technical guy anymore. You've got to be a physical specimen and a technical guy who has an incredible awareness of strategy and who you're fighting.

"Physical preparation, I believe, is as important if not more important than technical training. You can be the most technical guy in the world, but if you are dead tired, you're in big trouble."

But Rooney doesn't stop at physical conditioning. What separates him from other top-flight trainers is his strict emphasis on being mentally prepared.

"Even if you're the most technical guy, if you aren't mentally prepared for the fight, you're doomed," Rooney said. "These are the areas … that I use to help the fighters."

It is this approach that has Patterson extremely confident heading into his title fight April 4 against IFL light heavyweight champion Vladimir Matyushenko. There is no doubt in Patterson's mind that he will be victorious, and he gives a lot of credit to Rooney.

"Besides the strength, besides the conditioning, Martin does a very good job with the mind stuff," said Patterson, who has an IFL mark of 4-1. "He gets you mentally prepared for fights -- what to prepare for, what to look out for, what you should be focused on, and what kind of goals you should be working to get to.

"That is what his book is more about, not about overtraining, not about lifting 50 million pounds, but finding the right exercise -- physically and mentally -- that will make you better."

Rooney has been involved with MMA for more than 12 years, 10 with the Renzo Gracie Jiu-jitsu School in New York. But physical fitness has been an important part of his life much longer.

While at Furman University, where he was a track and field star, Rooney received a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology. Afterward, Rooney attended Medical University in Charleston, S.C., where he earned a master's degree in exercise physiology and a degree in physical therapy.

Shortly upon graduating, a couple of Rooney's friends invited him to participate in an open tryout held by the United States bobsled team. Skeptical at first, Rooney decided to go along. He made the team and was a member from 1995 through 1997.

Little did he know, one of his bobsled teammates would be Todd Hays, who appeared in the mixed martial arts documentary "Rickson Gracie: Choke." It was Hays who introduced Rooney to mixed martial arts.

"Hays taught me a lot," Rooney said. "He was the U.S. heavyweight Muay Thai champion."

When his days on the U.S. bobsled team ended, Rooney returned to New Jersey interested in the fledgling sport of mixed martial arts. Then he got the break of a lifetime: His close friend, John Derent, introduced him to Renzo Gracie.

"I went to Renzo Gracie's gym and met many of the guys. They were always remarking about how fit I am," Rooney said. "My fitness was saving me in certain situations where I was not as technical as the other guys. Because of the physical strength I had, they wanted to know more about it.

"Jiu-jitsu is designed for a weaker guy to beat a stronger guy, but man, when the guy is so much stronger, we have to look at things differently. That's when they started training with me. They became not just people I trained, but training partners."

What every Rooney-trained fighter learns immediately is the importance of a strong mind-set. If one of his fighters isn't mentally ready to do battle on fight night, Rooney feels he's failed.

"I believe that is the most important piece of the whole deal," Rooney said. "To have a guy technical and strong, but not mentally and emotionally ready or controlled … I've seen guys lose a fight from the locker room to the ring.

"Training doesn't stop until that first bell rings. That is really my goal every day: keeping guys relaxed and pumping the guys up who need to be pumped up, calming down the guys who need to be calmed down."

Rooney put his philosophy to the test Feb. 2 at UFC 81. He was assisting Gracie in the corner of Almeida, who was taking on Rob Yundt.

Almeida had not fought in four years, and cage rust was a concern due to the long layoff. But Gracie had an airtight fight plan. Rooney's responsibility was to make sure Almeida (9-2) was mentally ready to implement it. Almeida won by submission at 1:08 of the first round.

"I believe now, more than ever, that when you go to the higher level, the physical element has to be there, but oftentimes the physical element just gets you in the game," Almeida said. "But what separates the great athletes is their mind-set. This is what Martin is working on all the time."

Franklin McNeil covers boxing and mixed martial arts for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.