Entering the crucible of UFC’s six-foot-tall Octagon, athletes must rely on their physical preparedness as much as their ability and training if they are to leave victorious. As the director of nutrition at the UFC Performance Institute, Clint Wattenberg, MS ’07, fosters the well-being of athletes going into the Octagon by supporting them during their time outside of it.
UFC is the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization, where two athletes schooled in combat sports like boxing, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing and wrestling face off in a brutal test of physical and psychological toughness.
As in all weight class sports, for a UFC athlete to perform at a world-class level, physical and nutritional preparedness are of the utmost importance. Even with elite athletes, however, making weight, which often means losing weight in a very short period of time, can be a challenge to do in a healthy way. Wattenberg takes a holistic approach to supporting athletes, whether it be with counseling, training or nutrition planning.
Weight class and combat sports can be stigmatized because when an athlete’s primary goal is making weight, their general health and well-being can be ignored, increasing the likelihood of injury. Wattenberg’s goal at the UFC Performance Institute is to not only help athletes train in a healthy way, but to influence the culture of weight class sports altogether.
“The most compelling thing to me about this job is to take on the policy side; to take on the issues that are systemic around weight management, around some of the practices that set athletes up for poor health outcomes,” Wattenberg said.
Wattenberg is no stranger to weight class sports, having had a distinguished wrestling career as a two-time All-American Division I wrestler at Cornell University and as part of the U.S. National Men’s Wrestling Team from 2006 to 2008, where he competed across the globe against some of the best wrestlers in the world.
“My background in wrestling is what drew me to have a passion for nutrition,” said Wattenberg. “I often share with my athletes that a lot of the nutritional tactics and strategies that I’ve developed are from learning the wrong way and practicing the wrong way on myself.”
In 2003, right after graduating from college, Wattenberg began coaching, which seemed like an obvious path and one that he initially found gratifying as he helped individual wrestlers achieve their goals. However, he wanted to support athletes in a more general way and ultimately effect systemic change.
To that end, Wattenberg pursued his master’s in exercise physiology from Ithaca College while acting as assistant coach to the Cornell Men’s Wrestling Team. He eventually went on to work as Cornell’s first coordinator of sports nutrition.
“I think that often times we think we need to generalize our skill set when really specializing it…in an area you’re passionate about can really set you apart and make you an expert,” he said of his journey.
Wattenberg says some athletes can be skeptical about nutritionists, but his own experience lends itself to establishing trust with UFC athletes.
“Being a registered dietician with extensive experience in sports, in particular weight class sports, and the fact that I was on the US National Team for years, takes away any of the skepticism and allows athletes to buy in quite a bit,” he said. “That’s been really huge in developing relationships and being able to communicate with athletes in the language they use.”
Even though he takes a broad view of supporting athletes, at the end of the day, Wattenberg recognizes that changing the system starts with changing individuals.
“The ability to support athletes in chasing their dreams and achieving world-class results is a pretty cool thing,” said Wattenberg. “The thing that motivates me most of all is to support and help develop a system that better enables these athletes to do what they love for longer, safer and more effectively.”