Court McGee is not the best athlete in the UFC middleweight division.
He’s not the best striker either. There are others in the 185-pound weight class who are better grapplers than he is as well. The same goes for wrestling. The 27-year-old Ultimate Fighter winner is brutally honest when assessing how he matches up with his fellow middleweight competitors, and the fact that he’s not at the top of the list in any of the aforementioned fundamentals is fine with him.
After all, those things are out of his control.
“I can’t control being the best striker or the best grappler,” said the man whose menacing stare and angry beard stand in stark contrast to the soft-spoken, intellectual man behind them. “I can improve on (those things) and just constantly get better at jiu-jitsu and wrestling and my striking.
“One thing I can control though is my conditioning — getting stronger, and faster, and better, and always changing it. I’ve got a good group of guys — I’ve got Jason Mertlich, I’ve got John Hackleman, I’ve got The Pit behind me — and I’m always able to push the limit on conditioning. It’s a comfortable feeling going into a fight knowing that I can really put it on somebody and recover in a minute, and I can do that for 15 minutes.”
McGee doesn’t tailor each training camp to prepare for the opponent he’s set to face. He hasn’t spent the last two months working on a game plan specific to Costa Philippou, the man he faces Friday night (technically Saturday morning) at the Allphones Arena in Sydney, Australia in the first fight of the UFC on FX 2 broadcast.
He’s studied his opponent enough to know what he brings to the table, but for McGee, the fight is about finding a way to win once the cage door closes, and training camp is about giving yourself the best opportunity to do that come fight night.
“He may be a better striker than me, but I’ll put together my tools, see what I have, and do the best that I can do to figure out how to beat him. I kind of know what he likes to do. He got a pretty good KO in his last fight, and I saw that, so I know he likes to strike, but you never know — he could come out and try to shoot. When the cage door closes and it’s just him and me in there, then it’s up to me to figure out how to beat him.”
Instead of preparing for the opponent he’s about to face, McGee spends his time in the gym training to compete against the toughest opponent he could envision; the person whose abilities and attributes would cause him the most trouble inside the cage. In the process of working to defeat his fictitious foe inside the gym, McGee is also pushing himself to become that man for each of his real life opponents.
“I think about what would be the hardest and toughest opponent for me to fight, and what comes to mind is he’s going to be difficult to submit, he’s difficult to knock out, and he’s got conditioning for days, and he pushes the pace. For me, that would be the hardest opponent, so that’s who I try to be — I try to be that person.”
So far, it seems to be working.
In each of his two post-TUF appearances to date, McGee turned the fights into a test of wills and a battle of attrition, and was the one who had his hand raised in the end. He submitted veteran Ryan Jensen in the third round of their UFC 121 encounter after looking lethargic in the first, and followed it up 11-months later with another performance that highlighted his unmatched ability to continue pushing forward against Dongi Yang.
For McGee, it comes down to two things: what you’ve done in the gym leading up to the fight, and why you’re stepping into the cage in the first place.
“I know what it takes to compete against that high level; now it’s just whether or not you’re willing to get in shape, and that to me is the hardest thing to do. Besides cutting weight, the conditioning is the hardest thing, man.
“It’s hard to show up and condition three, four, five times a week, and throw a 130-pound ball around, and run sprints on an incline on a treadmill, and do this, do that, and Tabata this, and throw weight around, and kettlebell this, and sprint this, and push a thousand-pound wheelbarrow up a hill. That’s the hard stuff.
“If it was up to me, going in and sparring five times a week? Shoot, man — that’d be awesome. I love the sparring. I love the fighting part of it. It’s the hard conditioning where you just borderline want to give up on life and you’ve still got another 20 or 30 second sprint to go — that’s the hard stuff.
“Were you willing to take the steps necessary to get the best results? Showing up every day through the little injuries, big injuries, or the time off, having a lot of fights or not having a lot of fights, or the press or the lack thereof, or the money or not much money.
“That’s another thing too as to why I think I’ve been successful,” continued the Ogden, Utah native. “The money is the payoff that I can better take care of my family with, and that’s important, but it’s not the most important. (First and foremost), I can carry the message to other people who struggle with drug addiction and things like that; to know that if I can make it out, they can make it out.”
McGee, like fellow UFC on FX 2 competitor Ian McCall, battled addictions earlier in his life, and was once clinically dead as a result of a heroin overdose. He’s been clean since April 2006.
“Secondly, if you get rid of all the crowd — you get rid of all the friends that are watching you— and it’s just me and Costa Philippou in there, I still have the same desire to win whether or not there is money on the line. If we’re fighting, do I have that desire to win? Do I still want to fight and will I go after it? And I do, and that’s what I love. Two, three minutes into that fight and we’re trading punches — we’re tired, you’ve been hit, and you’re hurt — that’s what I like: I like that spot. I like to be in there, and that’s a big difference.”
Having come through his battles with drug addiction and endured the early lean years as a professional to be where he is today has had a significant impact on McGee, as you would expect. It’s shaped his approach to both his life and his craft, giving him a clearer picture of what’s important, and it goes way beyond wins and losses.
“Growing up, I thought money was a big priority in life, and now that I’ve made a little bit, I’ve come to realize that it’s not all that important. Just as long as you can get by, pay the bills, be happy, and support (yourself and your family), you’ve got to find what you love to do.
“Money comes and goes, friends come and go, but the connection with a higher power is something that I have, and the ability to do something that I love — martial arts — for a living, and the pay out that I can take better care of my family has given me the ability to appreciate the little things in my life.
“I bought a home, so I’m a home owner now, and that’s really a cool thing, but I still drive the same car that I got my wife in high school — ’99 Saturn; just the base model Saturn. I’m a real simple guy. Being able to talk to other martial artists, and being able to carry a message to other people who are struggling through my martial arts, and through my fighting, I feel privileged. I really feel privileged.
“I just celebrated five years of doing MMA,” continued McGee. “October 26, 2007 I quit my job as a plumber to pursue a career as a professional MMA fighter, and I struggled for a long time. It’s still a struggle, but I do it because I love it; I love to be in the fight. God’s given me the ability to compete, and train, and fight, and I’m going to keep doing it until I lose that desire - that desire to win while I’m in there.”
Don’t expect that desire or McGee go away any time soon.
Court McGee - Unbreakable
"Two, three minutes into that fight and we’re trading punches - we’re tired, you’ve been hit, and you’re hurt - that’s what I like: I like that spot. I like to be in there, and that’s a big difference." - Court McGee