Luke Sanders Is Always Ready for a Fight

The Nashville local wowed the world with a fast submission in his UFC debut. But it was only because he's a lifelong athlete whose fitness is never far from match-ready.

Jan 25, 2016
Outside Magazine
luke sanders

Sanders, left, took the biggest fight of his life on short notice and still won. Credit his year-round fitness.    Photo: AP Images

Imagine this: out of the blue, you get an offer for the job you've always wanted. The only catch is that you start in two weeks and the job is way above your current experience level. That’s about where Luke Sanders, from Nashville, Tennessee, found himself in early January when he got the call up to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). While the 30-year-old mixed martial arts fighter was a veteran in the sport, when the call came he’d never fought in the UFC, instead dominating in the lesser Resurrection Fighting Alliance, the equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues. But Sanders kept his cool. On January 17, he stepped into the octagonal ring on short notice to face a fighter ten pounds heavier than Sanders's normal weight class.

And then Sanders choked out his opponent in just over a three and a half minutes.

“I’m an adult, and this is my business. So every day, when I wake up, I’m going to try to run it like it pays the bills for me,” Sanders told Outside. “I was ready for the opportunity.”

Sanders is more than just a fighter. He’s a father and an athlete, and he's spent years preparing not only for a shot at the UFC, but as a man who's passionate about both his and his clients' fitness goals. Currently a boxing instructor Title Boxing Club, he shares his secret to always hitting workouts, the importance of a trainer, and the one piece of fitness gear he can't do without. 

OUTSIDE: Sunday was your debut, an opportunity most fighters spend most of their lives waiting for. How long have you been waiting for it?
SANDERS: I had a couple other offers on the line, but the UFC’s always been my goal. With the UFC, you don’t get signed unless you have a million followers, no matter what your record is. They have a full roster, so they’re not signing guys, unless they need you for a fight to fill in. I was waiting for that opportunity. 

So this was a result of someone else dropping out?
Yeah, Dennis Bermudez got a staph infection, and he had to pull out of the fight. My manager called me, said, “There’s a possible matchup. We’ll know in a day or two.” Well, as soon as it hit 24 hours, I just started blowing him up. “Look, give me the fight. I want to bust this kid’s melon.” I guess that sparked interest, because most people aren’t begging to fight (Maximo) Blanco, because he’s a dangerous dude.

One of the most amazing parts of your debut is that you weren’t in some off-season fat mode. You were ready for the biggest fight of your career within a few weeks.
At this point, I’m an adult, and this is my business. So every day, when I wake up, I’m going to try to run it like it pays the bills for me. I get up and I go to work, and I make sure I put in a hard day’s work. I get what I need to get done, and I try to live each day that way. I was ready for the opportunity. I figured it would come. When it did come, it still freaked me out. But I knew I was doing what I needed to do; I know what it takes to compete at that level. I know I belong at that level. 

For someone not as familiar with an MMA fighter’s fitness, what does it take, day to day, to be at that level? 
A typical day, I’ll wake up and start with a 30-minute workout, a shakeout, to get my metabolism going.

What does that consist of?
I mix it up. It’s nothing real high intensity, but I get a good sweat going. One day I might run and do footwork drills, the next day it might be shadowboxing and jumping rope. Another day it might be high knees, low shuffles, karaoke, butt-kickers, lateral high knees—drills to be athletic. Then, a typical morning session is an hour-and-a-half. I alternate strength training and conditioning. So one day I’ll have strength training with some conditioning involved, and the next day I’ll do conditioning with strength.

How do the two differ?
Strength workouts are more for explosiveness, like medicine ball slams, kettlebell stuff, sandbag stuff, Olympic lifts, a lot of bands, hurdles, a lot of plyometrics, and body-weight stuff. It’s from A to Z, a little bit of everything. 

And what goes into the conditioning?
Those are interval sprint workouts. It will be to simulate a fight, working on keeping my heart rate in different zones and maintaining the same pace throughout those zones. 

Do you use a heart rate monitor for those workouts?
Leading up to a fight, I will be. But if I’m not in camp and don't officially have a fight, I don’t use one. I use one so I’m making sure I’m getting my heart rate back down—active rest—so I’ll be a hundred percent to start the next round. Usually that’s a 30- to 35-minute workout, with a five-minute warm-up, and it’s about four to five miles, depending on where I’m at in my camp.

A lot of people got to know you because of your fight on Sunday. But you’ve been a fitness professional for a long time. What are you teaching? And how did you get into that?
I’ve always played sports. When I started fighting, I was looking at other ways to keep doing what I love while helping other people with their fitness goals. I started boxing and kickboxing, since I had that background. And I was able to learn from a lot of world-class coaches, like people who train football players for NFL Combines, to people who training Olympic wrestlers, to people who train professional golfers.  I was able to learn a whole lot of really cool information because of my profession, and I was able to develop my own style from each different trainer so that I can teach others some of the things I’ve learned. 

It was reported that you earned a $50,000 "Performance of the Night" bonus after Sunday’s fight, and yet I've heard you’re still teaching. Why?
I’m teaching boxing at a gym called Title downtown in Nashville, and I’m teaching a strength class—TRX, plyo, and sandbag stuff—south of town. I teach each place a couple times a week. I like to stay busy. At this point I don’t think I would have to—I could pay the bills without (teaching), but I feel like the busier I am, the more motivated I am. If I’ve got a lot of time throughout the day, then I get stagnant and lazy. 

I’m sure you’ve got access to whatever equipment you want, but if you had to slim down your workout gear to one thing, what would it be?
Resistance bands. You can do anything with a band. It’s good for stability, and it just builds a different type of muscle: a lean, strong, sturdy muscle. I think bands are really cool, and they’re not used as much as other tools. 

What do you think the average person could learn from your fitness regimen?
I think having a trainer or a coach is a great start. I believe in mindless training. It’s hard to do it yourself, because you have to think about it, and that’s work. If you have a trainer, it takes the thinking out. And just show up. You feel better after you work out, and you know that. So just get it over with and your day will be that much better. Clients that come in, they might question themselves beforehand—everybody does. Hell, I do it every time I’m getting ready to go to the gym. But I know what my goals are. So you just have to remember that.

If you had a direct line to UFC president Dana White right now, what would you want him to know?
I’m here to stay. 

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