In a sense, football is a series of individual one-on-one fights designed to win a collective battle. Offensive and defensive linemen match brute strength, while cornerbacks and wide receivers decide who can jump higher and run faster.
That’s why even the most minor edge in training is vital, and it perhaps explains why in recent years NFL players have started to do something creative. Led primarily by Jay Glazer, elite players like Jared Allen have done MMA training as part of their offseason routine.
Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma–the defensive rookie of the year in 2004–hasn’t branched into MMA training yet, but he presumably has some insight about the growth of MMA training among his peers. That was a safe assumption for two reasons: he’s a huge fight fan (or so we heard), and he just signed on to endorse JACO Training Apparel, which has a line of MMA-specific clothing, and has former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans serving as a fellow ambassador.
But instead of just assuming that Vilma knows what he’s talking about, we had a novel idea. We should talk to him over the telephone, and document his answers after we asked questions.
In journalistic terms, we’re told this is an interview, and after we talked training, MMA, and some football, we learned that if he’s ever given the chance, Vilma would take the Lombardi Trophy out for a date.
What are your main training methods right now, and are your workouts similar to those done by MMA fighters?
I go down to the University of Miami in the offseason and do a combination of speed and endurance training. It’s not quite the same training that MMA guys go through, because I’m more about being explosive, and being able to maintain my explosion over a long period of time. I’m a big MMA fan, though, and I respect the way they train because I know it’s tough as hell.
What do you see in common between the ideal MMA body, and the ideal NFL body?
I’m looking at the top guys in the MMA right now, and longer limbs and longer extremities allow them to really keep their opponents at a distance with their length. At the same time, if they do get close you can see that they’re able to physically take over with a submission.
It’s about being longer and taller, and it’s almost like a 6’10″ receiver going against a 5’10″ cornerback. You throw the ball up, and naturally you expect the receiver to get it because of his ability, and because he’s a longer person.
Patrick Willis is among the NFL players who have done MMA training. Do you see any specific benefits for your position?
For my position I’d look at endurance. You’re talking about three five-minute bouts in the UFC, and on any given play I’m either running down the field, or I’m taking on 300-pound guys and tackling someone, so I need to be at that top-level endurance as well.
You mentioned that you’ve been a big MMA fan for a while. How did you get into the sport?
I’ve been following for about four or five years now. I just remember watching it and thinking ‘this is pretty cool,’ and then trying to learn the nuances of the fighters, and their styles and techniques.
As both a fan and an athlete, do you see a connection between MMA fighting and football?
There are direct parallels in the mental and physical battle. You see guys who mentally beat themselves before the fight even starts, and you see other guys who are just so tough mentally that they’re able to push themselves and win the fight. In the ebb and flow of a football game, you have to be tough enough for long enough to win the game.
Now let’s do something you’ve never done before in an interview: talk about football. Who’s the toughest running back to defend?
I can’t give it to one guy in particular, but those fast guys really scare me. Speed kills, so guys like Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and DeAngelo Williams are scary, because if you take one false step, they’re out of the gate for a touchdown.
With the bigger guys, if you take that false step you can still run them down five, ten, or 20 yards later. But those fast guys, they put points on the board quickly.
So Darren Sproles, a player who you’re now facing in practice daily, must be pretty intimidating too then.
Oh yeah. I love him on Sundays, but I hate him during the week.
Your position is clearly important in terms of stopping the run, but you also relay the play calls from the sidelines from defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Do you have full freedom to call audibles and adjust before the snap?
I’ll get the call from [Williams], and then I’m allowed the freedom to work. If I see something and we’re in a bad alignment or we should be in a better defense based on what the offense is running, I can easily check into and out of plays.
Lastly, your defensive play contributed to the Saints’ Super Bowl win two years ago. Hockey is kind of a big deal up here in Canada, and each year the NHL allows every player on the Stanley Cup-winning team to do whatever they want with the sport’s most coveted trophy for a day. If the NFL did the same thing with the Lomdardi Trophy, what would you do with it?
First thing’s first: I’d definitely sleep with it. Then I think I’d take it on a date.
A date? So you’d take it to dinner?
Yeah, we’d go to dinner, and we’d have a great time at dinner.
What restaurant would you go to?
I don’t know, but we’d definitely want to be seen. I’d have to take it to a few hot spots, and make sure everyone sees me and my date.