By looks alone, Phil Nurse isn’t the most intimidating chap in the world, with his calm demeanor and 5’7” frame giving off a more man-on-the-street than man-in-the-ring vibe. But for three decades, “Kru” has been a man of action, winning multiple championships in the world of Muay Thai and running a successful school in New York City while becoming one of the faces behind the striking prowess of three current UFC champions.
At 48 years old, Phil Nurse still has plenty left to do in the fight game and plenty of would-be-champions to work with. He has become one of the most sought-after striking coaches in MMA, in addition to having his own fight team that keeps his calendar full.
Anyone familiar with combat sports understands how vicious Muay Thai is—a Thailand-born sport of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees. Nurse found the sport when he was 17 years old, after he suffered a knee injury in soccer. Desiring an activity that would help “get his leg back on track,” the Bolton, England, native accompanied a friend to a Muay Thai school and his interest was piqued.
“It wasn’t just standing there and boxing,” says Nurse. “It wasn’t just kicking. Muay Thai was everything. At the same time, it was cool. I loved it so much that I never went back to soccer.”
There were plenty of opponents who wish that he did. Nurse retired with a 32-3 professional mark, winning several different United Kingdom-based titles and retiring with all of them intact. YouTube compilations show a hybrid of Jose Aldo, Roy Jones Jr., and Mirko Cro Cop wrapped up in a 145-pound package of entertaining destruction.
After hanging up the gloves, Nurse moved to NYC and began teaching his craft at several schools, eventually opening up his own. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that he met a talented Canadian fighter and set on a path that made him recognizable to a much larger audience.
Arguably, Nurse’s most famous student is UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre, who has a current nine-fight win streak, including six consecutive title defenses. Nurse didn’t begin working with St-Pierre until the train was already in motion and after he had claimed UFC gold once.
Two months before St-Pierre was set to fight Matt Hughes for the UFC Interim Welterweight Title in 2007, a member of GSP’s team was persistent in asking Nurse to evaluate St-Pierre. Nurse was unfamiliar with MMA and was completely booked. However, persistence paid off, and when a client canceled on Nurse, he relented and agreed to evaluate GSP. After a quick discussion and abbreviated 45-minute sparring session, Nurse came away with respect for St-Pierre for not putting on a display of
“He never tested me, and I never tested him,” says Nurse. “When we moved around, we were just two athletes who knew what we both could do. It created a good level of respect between us. This is a guy who could have come in and tried to test me and say, ‘I’m an ex-world champion.’ He never did, and, as a coach, that was a big ‘yes’ to me.”
St-Pierre canceled a flight to Montreal and stayed for four days to work with Nurse. The two fighters continued to train in both Montreal and NYC leading up to the Hughes fight, which ended with a second-round win for GSP via submission.
“I can say that out of 10 specific things in the gameplan that we worked on for the Hughes fight, George did eight out of 10,” Nurse says.
Since then, the two have continued to work together, helping fuel GSP’s ascent as one of the world’s greatest and most respected fighters. “Georges picks stuff up so quickly,” Nurse says. “Once he came down and was training with some of my guys and he dropped one of the experienced guys right on his butt. The guy said, ‘Where did you learn that?’ GSP pointed and said, ‘I learned it yesterday.’”
FINDING “THE ANSWER”
Assembling a great fight team is just as important as learning how to attack the leg or stuff a takedown. Your coaches are the ones who formulate a plan, drive you when you’re dragging, and tell you when you’re doing great. With fighters like St-Pierre and UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, Nurse has the luxury of working extensively with fellow coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. But when the call came from a young fighter preparing for his first shot at UFC gold, Nurse was sure to contact his head boxing coach before things could even begin. The fighter was Frankie Edgar, the coach was Mark Henry, and the fight was Edgar vs. UFC Lightweight Champion BJ Penn in 2010. At the end of
their first sparring session with both Henry and Nurse giving instruction, all three men got together and reviewed how things went. Nothing was lost in translation.
“Frankie said that Mark was in one ear and I was in the other, but we were both saying the same thing,” Nurse says. “That was a big thing for Frankie.”
Fellow striking expert and Muay Thai champion Mike Winkeljohn has worked alongside Nurse frequently for the past three years and is complimentary of the style that he brings to the gym.
“He’s as old as I am but still incredibly fast, and that plays out when showing guys moves,” Winkeljohn says. “He instills the confidence to try those moves and practice those moves. He’s got the ability to make guys believe, and that’s really important.”
MAKING YOUR “BONES”
When it comes to striking, there are few fighters in the sport who are more dynamic than Jon Jones, a whirling dervish of long limbs that have the power and speed behind them to inflict damage.
Nurse joined the Jones camp before his December 2009 fight with Matt Hamill (ironically Jones’ only loss because of illegal 12-to-6 elbows), soon bequeathing the same superlatives nearly everyone else did (“a sponge, very talented”) and discovering a shared love of creative ways to strike. Nurse, however, saw the opportunity to teach, something he does every day at The WAT, his Manhattan-based Muay Thai and fitness school.
“I saw all of the creativeness, but it was wasted in a way,” Nurse says. “It was done for the sake of doing it—not doing it for a specific time and not set up to get the full lot out of it.”
He began working with Jones on the mental aspect of striking and putting together sequences that would lead to later sequences. Nurse challenged Jones to think like Nurse thought, and with time, he saw the changes he was looking for. Since that loss to Hamill, Jones has won three of his five fights by TKO and now carries the 205-pound title.
“Phil is beneficial to Jon Jones, because Jon is long and can use lots of Phil Nursetype motions and movements,” says Winkeljohn, adding that Nurse’s influence can also be seen in GSP’s feared leaning jab.
However, Nurse is a bit pained when it comes to the subject of former teammates Jones and Rashad Evans, who have taken a once-scheduled title fight and turned it into something a lot deeper and a lot more emotional. As someone who has worked with both men, Nurse understands his role if the fight is eventually made, but he wishes it didn’t take this path to get there.
“It’s very, very tough. As a martial artist, there’s personally not enough money in the world for me to want these two to fight each other,” says Nurse. “As a martial artist, you bond more than two friends. You become a lot, lot closer. That’s out of my hands. I don’t necessarily love the idea, but it is what it is.”
What does fall in Nurse’s skilled hands is building a mutual trust, something he looks for in anyone that he works with. St-Pierre, Jones, and Edgar have all earned that trust and share a common bond: UFC championship gold. As long as students want to share that trust—regardless of whether they’re a UFC prospect or 96-year-old that wants to be fit—Nurse will be there to hold the pads and inspire their minds.