The Fighting Life: Mike Dolce (Part I)

Mike Dolce, left, watches client Vitor Belfort make weight at UFC 142 (Josh Hedges/UFC)

Famed nutritionist talks about his beginnings and rise to prominence

In the scientific world, a catalyst is a compound that is necessary for change to occur, but the compound itself remains unchanged. Without its presence, there is no reaction. After the reaction has taken place, it can be removed – and yet the change remains.

Enter Mike Dolce and “The Dolce Diet.”

The program’s namesake has become one of the most dynamic forces to be injected into the world of MMA training and preparation over the past decade. The fighter-turned-coach evolved his nutritional and training theories into what has become his personal mission to shake up not only the way things are done in pre-fight preparation, but to help provide a cutting-edge look at a world of possibilities in the realm of diet and nutrition.

The best-selling author is one of the most sought-after minds in the mixed martial arts community, and while his knowledge and presence has altered lives and changed career trajectories, his personal road began on the opposite side of the formula.

“I come from a blue-collar family on the East Coast,” Dolce explained. “When I was young, my father had a massive stroke and my family was torn apart as a result of it. I was 9 years old and my mother was working three jobs to literally keep the heat on in the house. I knew the only way I was going to get out of that was to get a scholarship. The high school I went to had a wrestling team that was terrible, and I knew the only way I was going to be able to compete with the best competition was to become stronger, faster and in better shape than everyone.

“As an 8- or 9-year-old kid, I was enamored with strength and weightlifting. I was buying all the magazines and staying up until 3 or 4 o’clock reading them, and even at an early age, I was in the library reading up on everything I could find about muscle, diet and fitness. Looking back, it is strange to think I was that young and interested in those things – but it is where my education began. It continued all the way through and hasn’t stopped.”

As Dolce fought to overcome the circumstances of family tragedy, he began to piece together the foundation that would eventually become his future. Unfortunately, before the avenues of success were discovered, his life took another detour into hardship. After an injury erased his ability to wrestle, Dolce found himself back at the drawing board. Down but not out, he began his search for the next step in his life.

“My career was cut short due to a shoulder injury, which resulted in my scholarship being taken away,” Dolce said. “I’ve been a weight-class competitive athlete my entire life, and late in 2002 I walked into one of Renzo Gracie’s gyms. Before my time at Renzo’s, I had already been involved in strength, conditioning and nutritional training, and when I started working with his jiu-jitsu guys it began to take shape. I started working with his guys and grew into this role organically. I had the wrestling base, still had the need to compete and began working with athletes as they prepared to compete for NAGA tournaments.

“This led to another opportunity, and I went up to help coach at Team Quest in Oregon. Randy Couture was still there and had just beaten Tito Ortiz for the title, and I wanted to learn some of the things they were doing. The Team Quest athletes were in the best shape out of all of the fighters in mixed martial arts, and I wanted to pick up that information and take it back to my guys on the East Coast. I hit it off really well with Team Quest, and they offered me a spot on their team as the head strength coach.

“Working at Team Quest added another element to the equation because I began fighting, and this started the evolution of ‘The Dolce Diet.’ I was able to intimately understand the demands and needs of a competitive mixed martial artist. It continued to grow and was a constant evolution.”

In addition to working a full schedule as Team Quest’s strength and conditioning coach, Dolce decided to strap on the 4-ounce gloves and take a look at competition from inside the cage. His wrestling background proved effective, but despite some success, Dolce never considered making fighting his career.

“I enjoyed fighting,” Dolce said. “I enjoyed training and competing, but my career goal has always been to be a coach. And throughout my time in mixed martial arts, I’ve always defined myself as a coach. I fought more or less for fun, and it just so happens I was able to do relatively well based upon my expectations. I hold the fastest knockout in the IFL and was able to get myself onto the seventh season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ As a fighter, I competed against a lot of tough guys who were definitely well above my personal skill set.

“If you take a look back at those fights, most of them are great fights that were very competitive. I was a part-time fighter at best who was competing against full-time professionals – and that is the way I always looked at it. I enjoyed the process and the money was nice. I made decent money as a fighter, and I wanted to fight in the UFC because who doesn’t? But it wasn’t a career goal as much as it was a personal aspiration.

“It is kind of weird now that I’m a little older and wiser because looking back, I’m able to see it for what it is. I’ve been a coach my entire life. When I was a freshman in high school, I was a captain of the varsity wrestling program. I’ve always been in a leadership or mentor role, and it suits me perfectly. It suits my personality.”

While fighting may have never been the desired end result for Dolce, it did create a career-turning opportunity. His time on the seventh season of “The Ultimate Fighter” helped bring his diet and nutrition theories to the attention of some of the sport’s top fighters. With a solid track record at Team Quest, Dolce was motivated to take “The Dolce Diet” and his athletes to the next level.

“In the last 25 years of my life, I’ve been competing in weight-class dominated sports,” Dolce explained. “In that environment, you have to eat a lot every day to keep your body fueled – and my mind has always been switched on to eating for performance. ‘The Dolce Diet’ has been a constant evolution throughout the entire process. I’ve been surrounded by the biggest names in mixed martial arts for years and the guys I’m able to work with now are there, as well. I’ve been working with guys like Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen and Thiago Alves, amongst many other athletes.

“(The Dolce Diet’) is still an evolution, and it’s certainly nothing that is perfected. Every single day, it is getting better and becoming more refined. The principles and applications are always improving, and it is visible in the athletes I work with. They look better every time out. They are stronger, faster and in better shape in addition to being happier and healthier – which I feel is the most important aspect.

“Vitor Belfort is fighting in the UFC. He’s a championship-level competitor. He’s fighting in main events in the sport’s biggest promotion, and while that is all great – I don’t care about any of that as much as I care about him living up to the full extent of his potential as a human being. The point I stress to my athletes is world titles and money are nice, but they don’t mean anything if you don’t have your health. When I focus on the long term, the short-term goals take care of themselves.

“Current science shows the average human can live to be 120 years old if they make very simple lifestyle choices which allow them to unlock that potential. I try to assist athletes in the choices they make throughout their day, and it becomes a lifestyle.”

Dolce was quietly making a name for himself in the world of mixed martial arts, but everything shifted when he agreed to take Thiago Alves on as a client. The former No. 1 contender to the UFC welterweight crown had publically struggled with weight loss for years, and after a highly publicized failure to make weight at UFC 117, Alves’ career, once thought to hold the utmost potential, seemed to be in dire straits. Dolce was aware pairing with Alves would put his methods front and center, but he knew he had the solution to the problem.

“I had met Thiago’s agent (Malki Kawa) when I was working with another athlete about a year prior to working with Thiago,” Dolce said. “Malki had suggested I work with Thiago, and I told him to hit me up if and when he wanted to make that happen. I was really busy and we stayed somewhat in touch throughout the year, but then the Jon Fitch fight happened. When I saw Thiago step on the scale for that fight, I could see in his eyes just how much pain he was in. I’ve been cutting weight my entire life. I’ve cut 40 pounds in less than a month’s time, 30 pounds in a week and have probably cut more weight than most of the guys in MMA. I’ve been there and I’ve suffered. I know what it feels like to suffer, and I could see how much Thiago was suffering.

“On top of it, he’s about to fight Jon Fitch, who in my mind is one of the best athletes in the world. He’s so tough and technical. He’s in great shape, strong both mentally and physically, and how the hell is a kid who is in Thiago’s condition going to step into the cage against Fitch the next night after looking like that? He misses weight by half a pound and gives up $12,000 of his salary to not squeeze out 8 ounces of fluid. Thiago makes that conscious choice, which shows you how hurt he was by the weight cut. As soon as I saw that, I picked up the phone to contact Malki. I told him he needed to put Alves in touch with me immediately.

“Thiago goes in and fights Jon Fitch to a decision, and this is amazing because the kid should have been in a hospital on Saturday instead of fighting Jon Fitch. He loses a decision, and Sunday morning Malki contacted me about working with Thiago. We set up a conference call for the next day, within 5 minutes we have a deal struck, and from that day forward we are a team. He and I have been inseparable from that time forward.”

The relationship between Dolce and Alves has “Pitbull” firing on all cylinders in the midst of a career rejuvenation. Alves has won two of his last three outings and is positioning himself for another run at the welterweight crown. Perhaps more importantly, Alves has rediscovered the joy he once had for the sport and he believes it wouldn’t have been possible without Dolce’s intervention.

“Before Mike, making weight was the hardest thing in my career,” Alves said. “There were times in the days leading up to fights where I would think about giving up and getting a different job. It was because I didn’t know what I was doing. When I couldn’t make weight for the Jon Fitch fight, it was the last straw. I started to realize what was going on with me and the mistakes I was making. It almost put my career in jeopardy.

“I wasn’t happy, and it shouldn’t have been that way because I truly love what I do. It shouldn’t be that big of a chore, that big of a punishment for me to get ready for a fight. I have always competed at the highest level. I’ve been a top contender for a while, and I’ve fought for the title and everyone else who is up there. Looking at it now, I realize I was competing with the best guys, but only working at 40 percent of my ability because I was so depleted before my fights. I would start passing out a few days before the fight. When I fought (Georges St-Pierre), I started passing out on the Wednesday before. It was a common thing for me to do, and I just accepted it as part of the process. I would pass out days before the fight and on weigh-in day.

“That’s the only thing I knew. I didn’t know anything better. I was so motivated and wanted it so bad that I would accept suffering like that. Part of it is that I was young, and when you are young your body can absorb that damage. But it scarred me a little bit and it really (screwed) me up mentally when I would get to the final two pounds. I would get extreme anxiety and it turned my world upside down.

“Today, those things are gone. You clean up your soul, clean up your body for the battle that is coming. I can put all of my focus on the fight now, and before it wasn’t anything close to that. I know cutting weight is something that isn’t easy because you are taking weight off of your body and have to perform well on fight night, but I never knew it could be this easy and you could actually enjoy the entire process.”

Upon meeting with Alves, Dolce immediately recognized where things had gone so far off course for the young Brazilian fighter. He developed a customized system for Thiago to follow, and the results have spoken for themselves. Alves looks better than ever and the smile he once paraded has again returned.

“The most rewarding difference is Thiago is happy now,” Dolce explained. “We’ve become very close, and he’s told me the stories about what he used to do to get ready for fights and the obstacles he would have to overcome just to get into the cage. He used to have extreme states of anxiety in the weeks leading up to the fight. It would increase as the fight got closer. He is a kid that was walking around at 210 pounds, 10 percent body fat. Thiago is a very muscular individual. He’s a monster. He would be so focused on the pain he had to go through to make the weight, it took the love of the sport away from him. The sport became pain, torture and sacrifice in his mind.

“Now that Thiago is with me and following ‘The Dolce Diet,’ he is waking up at 193 pounds, 7 percent body fat year-round. He eats great food and loves his life. He used to be late to the gym for training and dragging himself around. Now he’s bouncing off the wall. He’s trying to add extra training sessions to his week, where he used to do everything he could to get out of them. He’s in such a great place now and his love of the sport has returned. The guys at American Top Team are amazing. They have done so much for him, and that is his family. Now he’s able to embrace that and enjoy what they have to offer, and it’s made all the difference. Now the world gets to see Thiago Alves coming into his own and honing his craft.”

Alves couldn’t be happier with the results and further shared his feelings about Dolce’s methods.

“Mike is a genius,” Alves said. “I’ve been with him for a while and I’ve never met anyone who has the knowledge he has. Mike has been a fighter and competed many times, so he knows the mental aspect of the fight game. The great thing about Mike is that he applies his work to your lifestyle. He doesn’t just come in and try to change everything. When we first met he observed my lifestyle a bit and then decided where we needed to make changes.

“It was a fluid process, and he didn’t come in and try to change everything at once. He guides the ship towards the destination and helps you develop the things you need to learn. But what works for me might not work for the guy next to me, and that is what amazes me about Mike. He has the same goal in mind for everybody, but he adapts to make it unique for the individual he is working with. He designs it to fit into their lifestyle, and I think that is amazing.

“Every day is a blessing. I live the dream and couldn’t ask for anything more. I know I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m on the right track and have the right people behind me. The past two years have been a big shift for me. I changed a lot of the people who were around me and I’ve finally found the winning formula. I have great people behind me. I’m in a great state of mind. I know in this sport anything can happen at any time, but I’m ready for it. I’m ready for whatever comes my way. I’m excited and I’m out here to take everything I want to take.”