The Ultimate Fighter
Read on for the latest installment in UFC.com's weekly series of articles on proper nutrition from the biggest names in mixed martial arts...this week, nutrition coach Mike Dolce
Ever since being the architect of a 45-pound weight cut for Quinton “Rampage” Jackson two years ago, over a mere eight weeks, Mike Dolce’s star has skyrocketed among UFC fighters. Quite simply, the founder of The Dolce Diet has no equal in MMA when it comes to helping fighters shed significant poundage without feeling absolutely drained once they step into the Octagon.
The 36-year-old New Jersey native has directed the dietary and nutritional needs of some of the biggest names in the sport – clients such as Chael Sonnen, Vitor Belfort, Gray Maynard, Michael Bisping and Jake Ellenberger, to name a few – and you will be hard-pressed to find another man more passionate about nutrition in the fight game than Mr. Dolce. A former pro fighter himself, and standout wrestler and powerlifter in high school, most of Dolce’s life has revolved around the science of maximizing human performance. It is more than a job for the author of the book “Living Lean;” it is an obsession he has cultivated since the age of 8 or 9, which is why there is likely no better brain to pick on the subject than this undisputed master of the weight cut.
Curreri: What are some of the core ‘Superfoods’ for fighters?
Dolce: Everybody has their own list. I use the term “earth-grown nutrients.” Now, I’m not talking about cocaine or things like that, obviously. We’re talking about blueberries, avocados, chia seeds, and a tremendous amount of green vegetables. I also believe in moderation and rotation of Superfoods. So don’t always eat baby spinach when you can have kale. Don’t always eat asparagus when you can have broccoli on the side. I like to rotate them. So it’s really more Supergroups, not just Superfoods. But blueberries, kale, spinach, broccoli, avocado, apples and red peppers are high on the list.
Curreri: What about satisfying the protein needs of your athletes?
Dolce: As far as proteins go, I sway back and forth and embrace a lot of the Vegan principles. It’s just the application of it is especially different in MMA. From a cultural standpoint, and from the athlete’s perspective, a lot of times guys think that if they don’t eat meat they will be weaker. So then a placebo effect kicks in and they don’t perform as well. So we have to pay attention to that. It’s very important.
Curreri: Different fighters have different views on sugar. Most agree that added or refined sugars are bad, but there are varying views on the sugar derived from fruits. Where are you on that? Is there a problem if someone is consuming sugar from fruit?
Dolce: Most people stand on the side of, ‘Sugar is in fruit, sugar is bad, equals fruit is bad.’ So they won’t have fruit - they will have brown rice, chicken breast, some sort of steamed vegetables, that sort of thing. But when you pull the fruit out of your diet you’re also pulling out many antioxidants and many, many vital nutrients that cannot be replicated from any other product on the planet. So when you eliminate fruit then you eliminate a lot of your own vitality. This is why I identify myself as a longevity advocate, not a sports-performance advocate. So being a longevity advocate, I love and embrace fruit. And my athletes eat a tremendous amount of fruit and they also eat a much higher amount of carbohydrate than most other weight-class oriented athletes. And people say, ‘Well that will make them fat or they won’t perform as well.’ And I say, ‘Respectfully, you’re wrong. Because Vitor Belfort is 5 percent body fat and he just beat the s--- out of a high-level athlete last night. Chael Sonnen is 6 percent body fat and he cut 42 pounds and had a three round war with Michael Bisping …
Glycogen is the primary fuel source for the brain and the muscles, so we need sugar. When you pull out sugar, everything starts to shut off. So I make sure my athletes are fed all the way up to the time that they step on the scale. We don’t neglect nutrients or food groups just for the sake of making weight. My philosophy is to give the body everything it needs and the body will give it back to you.
Curreri: So your clients are eating relatively well leading up to weigh-in?
Dolce: Food is fuel … so I recommend that you eat every two to four hours that you’re awake, no matter what is going on, to keep your insulin stable and regulate your metabolism. And we cater that around your goal and provide the right amount of nutrients and have the metabolism adapt accordingly.
So my guys typically, week of the fight, they eat four times on the Thursday before weigh-in. They eat constantly, everyday. So some of the Brazilians, guys like Vitor Belfort and Thiago Alves, love to tweet pictures of their food like, ‘I can’t believe it’s fight week and I’m eating pancakes today!’
A guy might be 22 pounds over fight week but we’re still feeding them dinner, feeding the metabolism and making it faster. We make the fighter feel strong and feel fresh so they have the energy to get out there and cut weight. I have them cut weight by feeding them instead of starving and suffering.
The afternoon interview is pleasantly interrupted by a phone call. It’s coaches for Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, a giant of a man who will fight former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez this Saturday night. Dolce takes the call and travels to another room at the MGM Grand hotel with meals for his massive client. Dolce drops off a hot, homemade meal to Bigfoot consisting of lentils, beans, quinoa, onions, sweet potato and crushed tomatoes.
Curreri: What did Bigfoot start his camp at?
Dolce: Five weeks before this fight, when I went to Florida to work with him in his camp, he was 289 pounds. Within 10 days he was down to 271, and I probably doubled his calories.
Curreri: Give me an idea of what he was eating to accomplish that?
Dolce: He ate a lot of everything. He likes soups – that speaks to his culture, he’s Brazilian … he likes that feeling of warm, homemade food. So I made a lot of soups surrounding that using lentils, beans, seeds and fresh chopped vegetables and quinoa, things like that. A guy like Thiago Alves, on the other hand, is a steak and meat and potatoes eater.
Curreri: So you try to individualize and cater the diet to whatever a fighter’s body is used to, not wanting to totally shock their body with a sudden and dramatic overhaul?
Dolce: That’s exactly right. I make little suggestions initially and I slowly transition them to a higher level (of diet and nutrition). If you don’t do it gradually then you have problems with detoxification and them having a lack of faith in the system. They might think, ‘My God, I started eating clean and I feel like s---‘!’ It’s psychology also. These guys can become basket cases during fight week. You know, they’re two or three days away from getting punched in the face in front of millions of people and their career and their mortgages are on the line, and they’re cutting 20 and 30 pounds on top of that.
Curreri: Yours is no 9 to 5 job. You get phone calls and texts at all hours of the day and night from fighter-clients. What are some common questions and concerns that are on their minds when they reach out to you?
Dolce: They ask me, Can I have a cup of coffee? Can I get tea? Can I add milk or honey to that? Can I drink a soda? Can I get a piece of pizza? Can I get eggs at the airport?
Or, I’m standing in the supermarket, I don’t know what brown rice to get … it’s amazing. It might seem like an annoyance to other people, but for the fighter it’s the biggest decision of his life at that particular moment. So I encourage them to ask those questions and I want to coach them through that.
Curreri: Eating organic is more expensive. A lot of people assume that eating healthy means more expensive. Should a fighter that hires you expect to see his food and grocery bills increase significantly?
Dolce: No. The grocery bill drops! This is what blows people’s minds. People that have bought my books … I have like 2,000 and some tweets, direct testimonials from people and a good portion of those are people talking about their grocery bill going down. I try to recommend food groups and food pairings that are extremely nutrient dense and low-calorie. So you get more nutrients and less calories while sustaining a much higher level of vitality. So you don’t need to eat as much to have the same amount of energy and vital nutrients.
Another thing: When you go to the store and buy, say, an organic red pepper for between $1.50 and $3.00 … you’re going to slice that red pepper into quarters most likely so that’s spread out of over four meals. And you’re going to cut a chicken breast in half for two meals. Then you’ll have some vital greens, kale or spinach. You’ll have 20 cents worth of chia seeds thrown on there. You’re going to have another 40 cents for a fruit or vegetable, so the meals actually break down to be inexpensive. In my house (of three) we only spend about $150 a week on groceries and we mostly eat organic products. We only buy what we’re going to make and we only make what we’re going to eat.
Most people make too much and throw out way too much and that runs their bill up. That’s why my meal plans for my athletes are very structured. Now a pack of berries, instead of lasting a day or two, lasts a lot longer.
I have worked for Johny (Hendricks) his past two fights: The Koscheck fight and the Jon Fitch fight. Before me stepping on board, Johny was nicknamed, “The Baconator.” Evidently there is a sandwich out there at one of the fast food joints called The Baconator that Johny absolutely loved and would eat in copious amounts. But now we’ve been able to get Johny to reform a little bit and turn the corner.
Curreri: You grew up and played a lot of sports, right?
Dolce: My upbringing was all sports-related. My father owned and trained thoroughbred racehorses. My mother had been on a college scholarship for basketball and became a college basketball coach. So me and my siblings played recreational sports throughout our childhoods: baseball, basketball, soccer, wrestling. I started wrestling and playing lacrosse, but then I just focused primarily on powerlifting when I was 13 years old and started wrestling in high school.
Curreri: Tell me about your first experiences with weight-cutting. How old were you?
Dolce: Honestly, it was being around jockeys when I was younger; they were cutting weight. And the horses were cutting weight, too, and using diuretics! So I remember as a boy seeing jockeys go in and out of the sauna cutting weight just like MMA athletes do – which is crazy. I remember seeing the look on the jockeys’ faces, they were so gaunt. And they’re such little guys anyway. If they weigh 140 they’re fat.
As a freshman in high school I made the varsity team. I had never wrestled before so my coaches would bounce me around weight classes. I weighed about 125 pounds when I started the season but I was growing and training a lot. So I started bouncing from 125 to 145 pounds, so I had to lose weight a lot. I came back my sophomore year weighing 174 pounds and wrestled at 152. So that was a 22-pound weight cut.
Even as a freshman I was a team captain and I had a good grasp on weight-cutting. I was already strength training, already learning about nutrition, already constantly immersed in reading bodybuilding magazines … I knew I could be stronger than everybody else, be in better shape than everybody else and work harder than everybody else. My coaches would have us do situps and things like that and I would be correcting other people’s form … I was like this little know-it-all. But I actually did know more than they did at this stuff and I would interject and stuff.
I was studying Dorian Yates, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding”, that was like a bible to me. Every time I would walk a mile and a half to 7-Eleven I would get the muscle magazines: Flex, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Health. I would pick up all these kernels of information and apply them.
Curreri: Your forte is nutrition, diet and weight-cutting. You could have focused on strength and conditioning … where there is a lot more competition. You chose diet and I’m at a loss to name and identify whoever is Number 2 or 3 behind you. It’s a biiigggg gap. I can’t think of another name. You’ve got that niche on lock …
Dolce: I started out as a strength coach. I saw myself as a strength coach. I was hired by Team Quest in Portland, Oregon – working with Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Nate Quarry, Chael Sonnen and those A-class guys – as a strength coach. And it wasn’t until I started fighting (first as a MMA amateur and then professionally) and making 30-40-pound weight cuts in a couple of weeks as opposed to guys that complained about making 16-20 pound weight cuts in two months (that guys perked up and took notice). I was able to cut the weight, rehydrate afterwards and perform at a high level without ill effects from the weight cut. That blew everybody’s mind. And that is when the allure of The Dolce Diet began. Before that I was a strength coach and just assumed, ‘Well, everybody knows nutrition …it’s so simple, such common sense, what to eat.’ Well it turned out that nobody was really doing that.
Curreri: How did you happen upon this niche?
Dolce: I think the legend started when Rampage (Jackson) fought Rashad Evans (at UFC 114, in May 2010). Rampage started that training camp at 251 pounds, so seven weeks and six days before the fight he was 44 pounds over (the 206-pound limit for light heavyweights). And that was a huge story because he was so out of shape after taking a 14-month layoff and doing the A-Team movie. So Rampage stepped on the scale and looked amazing after losing 45 pounds, and went on record saying it was the easiest weight cut he had ever had … and then to go out there and perform against Rashad and win the third round, having more power and more mental acuity and being the better conditioned athlete in my mind … all of the sudden my phone started ringing a lot more. Because Rampage is notorious for not liking to train and eating garbage food and everybody saw that conversion, you know, ‘What the hell happened?’
Prior to that I had been working with a smaller group of Team Quest guys, it just wasn’t so public. Now people think I’m a nutritionist, or a dietician, but I’m not. What’s my label? I don’t have one. I’m just a coach who can help these guys (make weight and feel great). I’ve been involved in thousands of weight cuts and you’d better believe that I spend my mornings spending hours and lunch breaks reading scientific journals, reviews and any pertinent data I can get my hands on for education. I have multiple certifications … Then I run and test along with other high-level coaches and elite athletes from around the world that I’m blessed to work with on a daily basis. So rather than sitting in a classroom learning and cramming for exams, I’m actually living in hotels with UFC fighters and preparing them for the stage and competition.
Curreri: How much of the food that your fighter clients eat should be organic?
Dolce: As a goal, 100 percent of what they eat should be organic. 100 percent. I think everybody on the planet should be able to walk out of their backyard, and pull their meal out of their plot of land and bring it in their house and eat it. That way it’s live and fresh. The farther you get away from that, the nutrient quality is diminished. So we try to keep the food source as close to home as possible. So I don’t want my food to come from a town over if I can get it from my neighbor, and I don’t want to get it from my neighbor if I can get it from my own backyard. So organic gives you the highest nutrients.
Curreri: Who are the biggest weight cutters among your clientele?
Dolce: The biggest weight cutters come to me now. And that’s not a statement of pride – it’s just a fact. Rampage, who literally would walk between 250 and 260 up to eight weeks before a fight … now, I haven’t worked with him for his last two fights (one of which saw Rampage overweight for his bout against Ryan Bader, which Rampage attributed to a knee injury suffered in training camp). I worked with Chael Sonnen, who was 233 pounds, eight weeks before his fight with Michael Bisping. Chael fights at 185 pounds so that’s roughly 48 pounds; that’s huge man.
Thiago Alves and Johny Hendricks both brought me in and they are guys that both weigh upwards of 205 and 210 pounds, so that’s a 35- or 40-pound weight cut. I got Jake Ellenberger, who’s a 200-pound man. Mark Bocek, who gets up to 190 or so and fights at ’55. Keith Jardine, who made 185 for the first time since he was 17 years old with me, leading up to his Strikeforce middleweight title fight against Luke Rockhold. Now, Keith lost that fight, unfortunately, but he made the weight and felt great.
But out of all the guys that I work with, Duane Ludwig (who fights Saturday night against Dan Hardy at UFC 146) is the best weight cutter that I’ve ever worked with. Duane is a 195-pound man and gets up to 200 pounds and is decently lean at that weight. Around Christmas of 2009 Duane had been fighting in smaller shows and he got a call from Joe Silva and an offer to fight January second against Jim Miller, on 13 days’ notice. Duane calls me up, tells me the deal. I’m like, ‘Sweet, what do you weigh?’
He was 198 pounds and had to make 156. That’s a 43-pound weight loss in 13 days. We did it. Wow! Duane looked great, he just got caught in an armbar by Jim. Now five fights later Duane is back at welterweight. I’ve worked with Duane for quite a while now and he used to cut more weight than anybody else and he handles it like a professional, he doesn’t handle it emotionally. People don’t really see that because he looks skinny but he’s a big guy. He knows what he has to do and he gets it done very clinically. Other guys moan and complain and things like that, but it’s the choice that you make.
Curreri: When a fighter calls you, have you ever had to tell a guy, ‘I can’t help you make the weight?’
Dolce: No. I don’t guarantee weight loss. What I do is say, ‘I will make you as healthy as possible. You’re the boss.’ But whatever the athlete wants done, we come together as a team and try to get it done. It’s my job to keep them healthy and make sure they train with the right intensity, at the proper volumes, and we go through periodization. That’s something a lot of people don’t see with The Dolce Diet - it’s a periodized peaking plan. So I want to know what your morning heart rate was, the weight you woke up at … I literally talk to a fighter’s wife, I talk to his brother, I talk to his best friend. ‘Is he joking? Is he watching his normal TV shows? Is he falling asleep at night? What kind of radio is he listening to?’
I also stay and train with a lot of guys that bring me in … so if a guy was stuck in traffic for two hours, then that’s critical data for me that needs to be addressed and understood. And we act according to that. So what if he strains his knee in practice? What if he has an argument with his girl? Then everything absolutely changes. So I try to keep my guys in the moment and keep them dialed in. That’s the way my guys are able to make weight so easily and look amazing on the scales and backstage and rehydrate so they can have a career-defining performance on Saturday night.