Almost unanimously, fighters who double as cornermen are far more nervous by the concept of vicariism—watching a friend or training partner fight—than they are of actually fighting. This phenomenon is not new. As Pete Sell says, it’s akin to a maniac driver whose knuckles turn white whenever he’s in the passenger seat. That’s because a fighter is a control freak, and he only truly has control when he’s the one wearing the five ounce gloves.
And yet, there are a few fighters who are excellent cornermen, including Matt Serra, Mike Pyle, Jorge Gurgel, and Jeremy Horn—four completely different voices in a fighter’s conscience. In most cases, an MMA cornerman has a maximum of two 60-second windows (in title fights, potentially four) to look his fighter right in the eye and impart everything he has dog-eared from the last five-minute frame. These guys speak in galvanizing concision. They slow the passage of time down, like sedatives. They remind their fighter of the entire context of things that have led him to “This Moment.” A good cornerman tells his fighter what he needs to hear, while feeding him just enough of what he wants to hear.
“As a fighter myself, you can get caught up in the fight,” says Matt Serra, considered one of the best cornermen in the biz. “You can get emotionally caught up if you’ve lost a round. I like them to clear their head and listen to what we’re saying. ‘Remember to breathe…you’ve got a minute to get your heart rate down…relax, clear your mind…listen to what we’re telling you…you’ve been here before.’ That sort of thing.”
Serra, who owns and operates two schools in Long Island, is a natural at making his fighter feel like he’s connected at the hip. He is the antidote to panic. Even when he had a vendetta with Shonie Carter, Serra was able to help him to a victory over Rich Clementi on the The Ultimate Fighter 4 by talking to him in the soothing tone of a schoolmarm reading a children’s story. His understanding of Carter’s frame of mind was crucial, and what was the warmth of his voice reminding Carter of the whole fight?
To just relax
“Once you feel there’s no way out or you have no answer for what’s going on, that’s when the stress sets in,” Serra says. “Even if you’re in phenomenal shape, it doesn’t matter—if your brain sees no way out, that there’s no hope, the stress level will tire you, and you will get taken out. It’s important for these guys to keep their wits under fire. It’s about communicating a wavelength.”
Pete Sell, one of Serra’s long-time charges, whom he’s been training with since 1999, has benefitted from that shared wavelength—against Phil Baroni and Josh Burkman, both fights which he came back to win late after getting clobbered early.
Where Serra balms his fighters and keeps their heads clear, Mike Pyle slows a fight down. As a cornerman, he can’t pull the trigger, but he can remind his fighter of a trigger’s function. While Pyle corners some of MMA’s biggest names in Forrest Griffin and Randy Couture—his training partners at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas—his job becomes making the alpha dog play fetch.
“Man, a gameplan is a gameplan, but once you get hit, once you get hurt, once you get rocked—shit changes,” Pyle says. “I’d say 80% of it is just instinct and survival skills and your experience of being in the ring.”
Sometimes those survival skills call for biting your lip and not leading on. That’s what he had to do in his most memorable cornering job, when Forrest Griffin fought Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 76, and Griffin came back between the second and third rounds with a crevasse running up the length of his forehead from a sharp Rua elbow.
“When Forrest got cut by Shogun, that gash was hella deep man,” Pyle recalls.“I’ve never been in a situation where a person has been cut so bad. But he really didn’t know how bad he was cut. And Stitch Duran, being the great cutman he is, didn’t tell him either. He just plugged it up. But I was just looking at that gash when I was talking to him, where I could see almost to his skull, and I made it so that he was just sitting there looking at me like it was nothing, like he could care less he was cut that bad.”
Pyle’s reputation as a cornerman is golden, but the dean of fighters who corner might well be Jorge Gurgel. What the BJJ black belt specializes in is framing a positive vibe in the brutal truth—he’s the very definition of uplift. People who’ve never even trained with him call to see about sticking Gurgel in their corner. The commitment he has to his fighters—which have included Rich Franklin and TJ Grant—is legendary. Who can forget Gurgel working Franklin’s corner at UFC 77 in his hometown of Cincinnati, his face empurpled and swollen from the beating he took against Alvin Robinson just 90 minutes before?
“People say, ‘Jorge, if you’d have had you in your own corner, you would have fought so much smarter in your last 10 to 20 fights because somebody would have told you the right things to do,’” he says. “I’m a better cornerman than fighter, myself. I pride myself on the way I corner my students.”
For Gurgel, a paradox like “do as I say, not as I do” is just one of a long line. When he heads into the cage to fight, he says, “I’m smiling—it’s like my day off, and I’m at the playground. I have a great time. But when it’s my guys fighting, it’s nerve racking.”
Yet, if Gurgel’s ring-chi is effective, it finds an intuitive counter-balance in Jeremy Horn’s cornering methodology. Horn’s approach is analytical, and he judges the best way to communicate with a fighter on a case-by-case basis. Maybeit’s the 100 plus professional MMA fights he has on the books (officially), but Horn’s strength and cage savvy reports best in the reading of a fighter’s personality, not necessarily their current headspace.
“Every fighter sees things a little differently, so it’s hard to put myself in their place,” Horn says. “Personally, I’ve always been able to stay pretty relaxed and calm, and I don’t get frustrated or scared or intimidated. So I look at everything really objectively and really analytically, you know—he’s punching me, what do I have to do to stop him. But not everybody looks at it that way. Some guys get a little more emotionally invested and the gameplan for them needs to be a little different.”
This is where Horn specializes in striking a balance. Some fighters run hot, others run cold—Horn plays with the thermostat.
“I’ve got two guys who area perfect example of opposite ends of the spectrum,” he says. “DeMarques Johnson—when he started fighting he was really emotional. He would go in there angry and get excited and go crazy, and he just didn’t fight very well. He made a lot of dumb mistakes that he shouldn’t. With him, we realized he needed to stay calm and look at it as just a fun day at the gym. That’s when he fights his best, when he’s not emotional.
“But I’ve got another guy who’s kind of like me—Nick Rossborough,” he says. “He’s so analytical and so calculating that he has a tendency to be too relaxed, and he lets people take him down and chip away, winning rounds while he looks for opportunities. With him, it’s
in his best interests to be emotional and angry and get a little fired up.”
All four of these guys share one thing in common—they care about the guy they’re cornering, to the point that it makes them ill at ease to lurk in the shadows of that bright spotlight. As Rich Franklin says, “When a fighter loses, the team loses. In the public eye, the only person that loses is the fighter. No. The whole team loses.”
Only, the cornermen agonize in relative quiet, and kick themselves for not finding the magical words to push their guy to victory. They sting long and hard because they were helpless in the end, helpless to jump in there and seize control. It’s the corner’s burden. And fighters who double as cornermen carry it painfully.