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John DeShazier: Saints running back Mark Ingram loves a good fight

MMA fan part of strong group of running backs for Saints

Photos of the Offense at Saints Training Camp presented by Verizon at Ochsner Sports Performance Center on July 30, 2017.

Legitimately, you can question whether New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram would be a great, or even good, mixed martial arts fighter. Just because he's a standout in an NFL backfield doesn't necessarily mean the talent would transfer.

But you can't question his love of knowledge of the sport.

So Saturday night's championship fights, a marquee series of bouts which culminated in Jon "Bones" Jones' third-round knockout of Lafayette, La., native Daniel Cormier for the UFC light heavyweight title, constituted must-see TV for Ingram.

It was a riveting distraction for him from the rigors of his seventh NFL training camp, and only added to the affection he has held for a sport that he began to follow about a decade ago.

"Probably back in college (is when he began following the sport)," Ingram said. "I was watching Anderson Silva and George St. Pierre and all those guys, and I started liking it.

"Started to watch it, started to know more fighters and when I started training in Florida, I started knowing some of the guys personally. So I started watching it more and more and now I'm like an avid fan of UFC and MMA in general. It's a crazy sport, man. It takes a warrior. I think it's like modern-day gladiator, so I have nothing but respect for all the guys that compete in that sport."

That includes Jones and Cormier, who have formed an intense rivalry, with Jones managing to sidestep his checkered recent past – arrest on felony hit-and-run charges in 2015, positive test for banned substances in 2016, each of which led to a suspension and to him being stripped of his title – to win both contested fights, including Saturday's bout in which he reclaimed the light heavyweight title.

"D.C. held the belt down for a long time and I respect him," Ingram said. "He's a great champion, he's a great man, a great fighter, a great husband, a great ambassador for the sport.

"But Jon Bones, you're talking about a guy who has never lost in the ring. He had one loss but it was more like a DQ (disqualification), which kind of was, like, questionable. He's never really been beaten in the octagon.

"He had a lot to prove, he had been through a lot and he had a lot to prove and he came out and he had a great fight. That was just two great competitors, the best and the second-best in light heavyweight in the sport going at it. I think it was worth every penny if you bought it."

Not quite as animated, but just as hotly contested, is the Saints' running back position.

Ingram is the returning starter, coming off a career year – 1,043 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 205 carries, and 309 receiving yards and four touchdowns on 46 catches. He's joined in the running back room by Adrian Peterson, who ran for 11,747 yards in 10 seasons with Minnesota, and rookie third-round pick Alvin Kamara, among others.

"We're all going out here and we're pushing each other," Ingram said Sunday. "We're having competitive periods offensively and defensively. There's always going to be a winner and a loser in these periods. You just have to find a way to respond and find a way to fight back, whether the offense won or the defense won.

"Our running back room is a special room. We have a good makeup in our room, we all work good together, we mesh together and we're out here competing trying to be the best, and that makes each other better. We've got to have that same attitude throughout the entire team, and we're looking forward to a great season. But that starts right now."

Ingram prepared for it by fine-tuning every aspect of his game during the offseason.

"I just tried to improve," he said. "I tried to elevate everything, every single thing – from catching the ball out of the backfield, running routes, to picking up pass protection, learning more exactly what the offensive line is doing and not just reacting, but actually knowing when I see an under front or if I see an over front or if I see a jam front, what adjustment the line is making.

"I'm trying to add that to my game, be more of a student of the game. And elevate my game any way I can."

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