by Mick Hammond – MMAWeeklyTV
Newest Members of the Lion’s Den- Paul, Shawn, Carlos, and Joe

After six rotations are complete the young hopefuls are allowed to rest a few minutes and rehydrate under the watchful eye of the volunteer medical staff. Constant movement is encouraged to keep fighters loose and not allow fatigue to bog them down. But just as the hopefuls begin to possibly slip into comfort they are ordered back to the mats for more.

After another quick talk from Shamrock, the prospects begin a grueling three-tier routine. First they must do 200 pushups, then 500 squats, and finally 200 crouches, all again being closely watched and scrutinized by the Lion’s Den fighters.

Already dead tired, the marathon begins and it becomes clear one fighter’s previous injuries have taken a toll on him beyond what he can handle. After surviving the 200 pushups, his body gives out during squats, an Achilles injury and back spasms overcome him and he is forced to drop out. The second dream of achieving membership into one of MMA’s most storied teams comes to a close, two down, four to go.

It can be hard to imagine doing these exercises rested, but after already pushing your body to the limit numerous times, these simple movements become excruciating and unbearable. Often after doing 20 repetitions of each a fighter drops to the mat and is given a second’s reprieve before he’s instructed to continue by the relentless barking of White, Montoya, and Bowman.

While the verbiage may seem cruel, it is meant to test the character of each fighter, as MMA is not just a physical sport but a sport of mental focus and conditioning. If a fighter cannot suck up the pain and push through doing calisthenics then how can he survive the constant barrage of an opponent who is looking to take them out?

Finally the remaining four finish all three exercises. The comradeship that has come from working together against the challenges and torment from coaches is about to be tested. Now they must enter the ring and fight each other, without hesitation, without mercy, they must be attacked and attack in return or not survive. Friend becomes foe and with a spot on the team on the line and a dream begging to become true, they must engage in combat with a twist.

Before the grappling portion of fighting begins simple rules are set. No striking standing, no elbows or knees to the head, and once someone is caught in a submission they must endure it and attempt to escape. That’s right, no tapping out here, if you’re in a choke, you best fight your way out or suffer the effects and go to the brink of blacking out before the Master himself, Ken Shamrock, says you have had enough.

As each fighter goes in a round-robin style 5-minute round against the other remaining participants, it becomes clear just how for granted people take the ability to tap out. Caught in a triangle choke we hear screaming, gagging, the mortal cries of a grown man begging to be let out of a submission that is designed to incompasitate. There is nowhere to run or hide, you either escape or come close to passing out before Shamrock tells your opponent it is time to let go. And even then you must get back to your feet and continue to fight for your life.

Mercy and hesitation are not tolerated; these fellow hopefuls you may soon call teammates are now your opposition, if a fighter takes it easy they hear it from Shamrock and the Lion’s Den fighters. After each fighter has faced each other in five minutes of grueling ground work they must now work their stand up, again rules are simple, clinching, no elbows or knees. Only if you go down will it stop, until that moment you must continue to fight non-stop to earn your spot on the team.

Each fighter stands toe to toe, mixing boxing and kickboxing techniques in hopes of putting down their opponent. This is the final test of a man, after spending the past eight hours being pushed to the limit it comes down to three three-minute rounds. Kicks, punches, body blows are exchanged, men on the brink of shear collapse dig deep within themselves to hold on just one more minute, one more minute and it will be over. And in a blink of an eye it is.

Four have survived the trials put in front of them, they now stand in the ring with Shamrock himself, congratulating them on surviving the tryouts and saying the five words they have pushed themselves to the brink of nothingness to hear, “Welcome to the Lion’s Den.”

Pain and exhaustion immediately dissipate, replaced by joy and a sense of great accomplishment. Young men break down crying in happiness; they embrace and rejoice in their survival. Congratulations abound from Shamrock, onlookers, fellow participants, and from the Lion’s Den fighters who for many hours broke these youngsters down to the core and now embrace them as teammates.

They are now part of a team, part of something bigger, from now until they chose to leave they will be taken care of and given an opportunity to represent the Lion’s Den and achieve their dreams of becoming Mixed Martial Artists. Welcome to the Lion’s Den indeed young prospects, you’ve earned it, and to those who have not, there’s always next year, and more grueling tests of mental and physical limits that await in the Lion’s Den tryouts.