Names in the Game from the Magazine

Names in the Game from the Magazine


As human beings, all of us have had the opportunity to feel the exhilarating effects of an adrenaline rush, or what is commonly called the “fi ght-or-fl ight” response. Although the fi ght-or-fl ight response is “good” in a sense of survival, it can be characterized most notably by its unpleasant symptoms of increased respiration, speeded heartbeat, shakiness, and a generally anxious feeling, among other things. Whenever the mind perceives something as a possible threat to the body and its survival or well-being, it is only natural that a variety of stress hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol, to name a few, are injected into the blood stream and mixed into a Molotov cocktail bent on fi nding any survivalistic edge that it can.

All this being said, for those out there who have participated in one-on-one sports competition, such as MMA, where the physical domination of one’s opponent is of main concern, they can probably attest to the fact that there is nothing quite so adrenaline-provoking as the time leading up to this perceivably dangerous event. Quite often, it is how an athlete handles this infl ux of sometimes-unwanted energy that can determine how well they perform. So whether it is fi ghting fear, pregame jitters, or whatever you want to call it, how do the athletes featured in the most exciting combat sport in the world handle the stress in the hours leading up to a fi ght?

Bypass and Control It

Sometimes it seems that the best way to deal with something is head on. For the mixed martial artists below, acknowledging and then bypassing and controlling the unpleasant effects of an adrenaline rush can be a simple matter of breathing, mind control, distraction, or even praying.

LUKE CUMMO: “I lie down wherever I am and focus on breathing.”

Why this works: C’mon! Are you really going to question Luke Cummo about what works to keep his bodily functioning at its best? Although the systems of the body work in unison with one another, oxygen is the life force for all. Since respiration is involuntarily increased during the fi ght-or-fl ight response, voluntarily acting to control it can help to diminish the negative feelings and performance-robbing effects of this response while altogether acting to calm the body down.

BAS RUTTEN: “I’m nervous a little right when I arrive at the arena where I’ll fi ght, but my advice to everyone would be to think about the moment the bell goes, which is the moment when all nervousness drops. [By doing that] I remain very calm before I fi ght, and anyone who’s aggressive, saying, ‘Kick his ass!’ I’ll kick out of my dressing room. I’ll play Tetris and listen to relaxing music, and then let my aggression out the moment I hit [someone]. You need controlled aggression.”

CHRIS LYTLE: “I try and think about anything other than fi ghting. That would raise my adrenaline and tire me out in the long run. I focus when I need to, and that’s it.”

Why this works: Simply put, if one engages their mind in things unrelated to the task at hand through visualization or distraction — even if just by chatting with a few friends — the mind can be effectively sidetracked and make the reality of the adrenaline rush not ever truly come to fruition.

GUY MEZGER: “I’ve had 145 pro fi ghts between kickboxing, boxing, full-contact karate, and MMA, and every time I stepped into the cage I though the same exact thing: Why didn’t I take the LSATs and be a freakin’ lawyer like mom wanted me to? But to keep calm, I always had a strong faith that God would take care of me, and I developed a strong self-resignation that I was there, I was trained, and I was gonna do it.”

MATT ARROYO: “[I take] lots of deep breaths and [use] positive visualization (always picturing the end result that you want), and the big thing for me is faith in God — that’s the biggest thing that keeps me calm. I think a lot of fi ghters have faith, and it keeps them calm.”

Why this works: For the same reasons as above, whether you personally believe in God or not, praying, meditation and things that are faith-related can both serve to keep the mind busy and also afford some fi ghters a secure confi dence in a supreme being.

Embrace It

On the other hand, there are always those types of fi ghters who will end up using the inevitability of the adrenaline rush to its full advantage by capturing, harnessing, and utilizing its power for success.

STEPHAN BONNAR: “I think the nerves that are there are kind of good and protective. It’s the same feeling I got when I was 10 years old going onto the wrestling mats, or the same feeling at 12 in a TKD match, or when I was doing Golden Gloves boxing. It’s always the same kind of competitive ‘mano y mano’ type of nervousness/fear/adrenaline. It’s a good thing, something that’s always going to be there. So just make sure you’re warmed up and not burning too much energy.”

Why this works: If an athlete doesn’t treat an adrenaline rush as something not to be desired — and instead recognizes it as part of the game — then the fl ight-or-fl ight response will not only be less bothersome, but it can actually be enjoyable, to some.

RAZOR ROB MCCULLOUGH: “Before a fi ght I try to remember growing up and being a mad kid, not able to do anything. Then I channel it into some sort of controlled rage. I’ll feel it start in my eyes as if I almost have tunnel vision, and then its ON!”

JENS PULVER: “Well, I get fi red up by really just thinking about where I came from and how far from there I want to be — I mean, all the abuse and shit growing up to now. [Thinking of that] gets me fi red up for sure.”

Why this works: Frustration, anger, and ill feelings can motivate some people to succeed just as positive thoughts can do for others. Also interesting to note is that physical activity has long been supported by doctors and psychologists as being an effective stressreliever. Given that, it is safe to say that if a fi ghter lives with stress or frustration over issues in his past — especially issues that deal with feelings of powerlessness — that fi ghting in particular may be the most effective way to relieve that stress, indeed

Neutralize Through Experience

While there are many ways to deal with, avoid, or even use an adrenaline rush to get good results, perhaps everyone secretly longs for the day that they will no longer be presented with a case of the pregame jitters and will instead handle everything in stride, as only a wise and well-seasoned veteran of the cage could.

NATE MARQUARDT: “I would say the main thing for me now is the experience factor. I’ve been here before, and I know it has always turned out well. Before that, I just had to have self-control to tell myself to stay relaxed.”

RENZO GRACIE: “To me, it is just a different day in the offi ce. I [deal with fi ghting] every day. I never get nervous or anxious, or get butterfl ies in my stomach. I do remember the last time I had that — I was a yellow belt; I was like, 13 or 14, so it’s been a while!”

Why this works: After spending years upon years in the nerve-racking environment of fi ghting, the body grows used to stress and it no longer affects such a seasoned fi ghter like Renzo. But then again, growing up a member of the fearless Gracie clan probably doesn’t hurt, either!

FRANK SHAMROCK: “The biggest part of my game is that I’ve been there, done that. I know everything that can happen. A fi ght is a fi ght is a fi ght. You k
now, the odds are, someone’s gonna win! If I win or lose, it’s just a game. I go in there and roll my best set of dice. If I win, great. If I don’t, then we go back to the life and work harder.”

SHONIE CARTER: “After so many fi ghts, I have learned to be cool under fi re. No particular tricks, I just do it.”

PAT MILETICH: “Train super-hard so you know you’re going to win.” And when it comes to beating that ever-unnerving adrenaline rush? The always straightforward Miletich says, simply, “Experience. I do say a prayer, though […] and I also always slap my body everywhere to numb my skin up and get my nerves ready for the feeling of getting hit so it doesn’t feel so foreign.”

Why this works: When one trains to his physical and mental peak, it affords them the power of total self-confi dence. By leaving nothing up to chance when reaching that razor’s edge, one may indeed fi nd that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, as FDR would say should the role of his leadership be likened to that of MMA teacher and fi ghter Pat Miletich.

MIGUEL TORRES: “I was blessed with the fact that I don’t ever get nervous before a fi ght, although I get anticipation because I want to handle my business. […] But I am as tough as they come, and I know this guy has not had the experiences I’ve had in my life. That mentally pushes me over and gives me an edge. […] I always pray that the event is successful and that no one gets seriously hurt. I never go out there with the mentality to hurt the other person. I try to break their will, but I don’t go out there like, ‘I’m gonna break his face or eat his children,’ or anything like that. I try to go out there with respect. I mean, this is a martial art and a sport, and I try to keep that respect in that realm.”

In the end, whether you are a mixed martial artist, purely a BJJ or Judo player, a Muay Thai practitioner, a boxer, a wrestler, or anything that relates to combat sports competition, use these tips and words of wisdom well to fi nd out how to best deal with the uncomfortable effects of that hand grenade in your gut — the fi ght-or-fl ight response.


Someone broke the fi rst rule of fi ght club, and Din Thomas wound up in jail. On October 31, 2007, in Port St. Lucie, Florida, police arrested Thomas, a 31-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran, for holding illegal cage fi ghts in his St. Lucie West training center.

Two weeks earlier, police received an anonymous tip about a so-called fi ght club being held on October 19 at Thomas’ American Top Team gym. Police attended the event, a smoker featuring eight of Thomas’ students, fi ghting in front of friends and family. The offi cers fi led a report stating that Thomas charged approximately 150 spectators $10 each for entry to the unsanctioned amateur event, and had no medical staff on hand.

Thomas’ arrest brought widespread attention to smokers – combat sports’ not-so-dirty, not-so-little, not-so-secret dirty little secret. Unfamiliar to many casual fans, smokers are a longstanding tradition in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, and mixed martial arts. These unsanctioned, often illegal fi ghts are organized in gyms or private clubs to give young fi ghters experience in front of a crowd. Most smokers are held without incident, and often feature police offi cers as spectators or participants.

Professional prize fi ghting was illegal in many municipalities in the early to mid 20th century. Loopholes allowed for sparring between members of private clubs for exercise and entertainment, so promoters skirted the law by holding bouts in Eagle and Elk lodges, Knights of Columbus halls, and American Legion posts. Fighters and spectators simply joined the club and bought a ticket; authorities mostly looked the other way. These fi ghts became known for the noxious cloud of tobacco smoke hanging over the crowd.

When Asian martial arts became popular in America after World War II, full-contact karate competitors continued the smoker tradition of their knuckle-bustin’ forebears. Over time, state lawmakers became comfortable with kickboxing, but the brutal elbows and knees of Muay Thai were considered beyond the pale. Until the sport was sanctioned, “guys did gym shows under the radar,” says famed kickboxer and trainer Jeff “Duke” Roufus.

States were hesitant to sanction no-holds-barred bouts in the early to mid-1990s, so cage fi ghters retreated to gyms, warehouses, pole barns, and discreet nightclubs to compete. Even now that the sport has established rigorous safety guidelines and unifi ed rules, states are slow to legitimize it.

According to UFC Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Marc Ratner, 32 states regulate professional MMA and more are coming on board. But the sport is still illegal in some states and unregulated in others. Amateur matches are illegal in many more states, including some that allow pro bouts like California and Florida. These states host as many or more pro fi ghts each year than Nevada does, but offer no structured opportunities to homegrown fi ghters looking for experience before taking on pro competition.

While Thomas says smokers are common in Florida, he never competed in them before turning pro, opting instead to compete in Japanese-style shoot fi ghts. He believes that experience is essential and wants his own fi ghters to be tested in serious competition before jumping on pro cards. Thomas feels that the booming popularity of the sport has resulted in Florida’s professional under cards being fi lled with amateur quality fi ghters. “Guys who have no business fi ghting are ruining themselves early,” says Thomas, “They think they are ready to fi ght and they ain’t.”

Christian Smith was trying to get his fi ghters ready before the California State Athletic Commission stopped him. Smith, the owner of Tribull Mixed Martial Arts in San Jose, was preparing his fi ghters for “Winter Brawl,” a smoker scheduled to take place at his gym on December 15 when he received a cease and desist order from the CSAC.

The trainer was taken off guard; smokers are such a pervasive and permitted component of ringsport culture that gyms promote events on Reigning UFC heavyweight champ Randy Couture’s namesake gym in Las Vegas, Xtreme Couture, offers smoker recaps and pictures on its blog. Smith and his students have attended half a dozen smokers in the Bay Area. In fact, both Smith and Thomas held smokers in their gyms without incident before authorities were notifi ed.

Because smokers are such an integral part of fi ght training and negative repercussions from them are so rare, participants see them as no big deal. But boxing and athletic commissions take issue with smokers and other unsanctioned fi ghts because they cannot guarantee that trainers and promoters are working in the best interests of fi ghters in terms of match making, safety precautions, and medical care. But even without offi cial oversight, Thomas and Smith stress that they took care to ensure that the fi ghts were more than simple backyard brawls.

Thomas’ training bouts consisted of three three-minute rounds, and fi ghters used soft training gloves. Elbows and knees to the head were disallowed. When questioned by police, Thomas said he had no paid medical professionals on site. While this is true, there were half a dozen fi refi ghters in the audience, a fi re truck and ambulance parked outside the building, and an EMT (a student of Thomas’) working the door.

This, along with the fact that all the money collected was for a raffl e and that all participants were students of the gym, is why the Florida state attorney’s offi ce announced that it would not fi le formal charges against Thomas.

Now that the CSAC is cracking down on the practice, Tribull’s trainer worries that smokers will just become more secretive and more dangerous. Before, Smith said it was common for smoker participants to receive pre-fi ght physicals, and medical personnel were always on hand. “Now, ringside doctors could lose their licenses to practice medicine by working an unsanctioned event,” Smith says.

Smith and Thomas are left with an uncomfortable dilemma: break the law for the benefi t of their students, or obey the law and risk putting inexperienced students at risk in professional fi ghts. “I would be the fi rst on the bandwagon to pay CSAC to hold a sanctioned event in California,” says Smith. “Unfortunately I can’t.”

Every major sport has a relationship with its amateur corollary, so one would assume that MMA promoters would have had the forethought to establish guidelines for nurturing new talent. But according to Inspector Frank Munoz, the stakeholders who worked with the CSAC to establish regulations for the professional game simply weren’t concerned with the amateur ranks. “Now we gotta go back to the drawing board,” Munoz says.

“What we’re hoping is that there will be a single national governing body,” says Marc Ratner. The UFC’s Vice President of Regulatory Affairs has no direct stake in the regulation of amateur fi ghting, but that’s not to say it doesn’t matter to him or his employer. Many still refer to the sport as “ultimate fi ghting,” and bad press about any fi ghter, promoter, or event refl ects negatively on the UFC.

Is it possible then that Ratner would use his prior experience as Executive Director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission and current clout with the UFC to help speed the process of widespread, consistent amateur sanctioning and regulation? “I will help, maybe not offi cially,” Ratner says. “I think it’s very important to have a structured amateur program.”

But whether this structured program would be administered by state boxing and athletic commissions or by a third party is yet to be decided. USA Boxing has a nationwide charter to sanction and regulate amateur boxing, but no such organization exists
to do the same for mixed martial arts. The International Sports Combat Federation, USA Mixed Martial Arts, World Fighting Organization, Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Association, World Mixed Martial Arts Association, and World Alliance of Mixed Martial Arts all offer some type of oversight and sanctioning with varying degrees of experience and expertise.

The International Sports Combat Federation, a sister organization to the International Kickboxing Federation, enjoys the broadest and deepest experience of all the MMA sanctioning bodies, and is one of the organizations responsible for sanctioning the sport in Wisconsin, where Duke Roufus trains, manages, and promotes fi ghters. The Milwaukee native sees amateur bouts as an integral part of a fi ghter’s development, as well as a way to give fans more bang for their buck. Roufus’ Gladiator promotion alternates between all-MMA and all-Muay Thai shows, and “we’ll do 10 or 11 amateur fi ghts and 10 or 11 pro fi ghts on the same card,” he says.

In addition to pro/am cards, Ratner says rule changes should be made to ensure that amateur fi ghts are “more of a learning experience.” The Ohio Athletic Commission, one of only a handful of state commissions to handle the regulation of both professional and amateur MMA itself, established safety guidelines that may be adopted by other states in the next few years.

The OAC specifi es that amateur competitors must use six or eight-ounce gloves (shin guards optional) and forbids elbows to the head or body as well as knees and kicks to the head. Amateur fi ghts consist of three three-minute rounds, with 90-second breaks. Fighters must have fi ve recorded bouts to be considered for a professional license. Ratner favors using headgear as well, but ultimately each state must decide what it feels is appropriate.

The International Sports Combat Federation approached the CSAC in summer of 2007 to discuss amateur sanctioning, but Munoz does not expect to see regulations in place until 2009. The Florida State Boxing Commission is working towards amateur sanctioning but spokesperson Sam Farkas says that change must come fi rst through state lawmakers. “I don’t know if it’s on the legislative agenda, but it’s something we’d like to see.” Farkas says.

MMA’s transition from spectacle to sport has been a rapid one, and state bureaucracies have had diffi culty keeping up with it. According to Munoz, California’s professional regulations have been used as a template by other states, and he hopes the same will be true when it fi nally regulates amateur fi ghting. But it’s still anyone’s guess what amateur MMA will look like in 2008, 2010, or beyond.

Until then, Smith and Thomas are left to make decisions about the preparation of their students. Even though no charges were fi led against him, the potential hassles of organizing smokers have turned Thomas away from illicit events. Instead, he hopes the FSBC follows through on its plan to sanction beginner’s bouts so that he is able to produce shows above board. “If they do legalize amateur MMA in Florida, I may be one of the guys who starts an amateur league,” Thomas says.

Smith, though, is undaunted. He doesn’t trust that the CSAC has the sport’s best interests in mind, and will continue to attend and organize smokers until amateur MMA is sanctioned in his home state. “We will be hush-hush about it and invite only a select few that we can trust,” Smith says. A select few who will obey the fi rst rule of fi ght club.


In the fight game, we use the words “tough” and “heart” interchangeably. But don’t make the mistake of thinking overwhelming physical skill equates toughness. Rings and cages are littered with athletic wonders that did not have the heart to make it big. Physical prowess alone does not make a fighter tough. True toughness and heart occur from the neck up. Tough fighters find a way to win. Toughness and heart are a mentality—the “never say die” attitude that makes a fighter a true warrior.

I can teach you stand-up, clinch, ground, and conditioning. I can’t give you heart. However, in my 10-plus years of coaching, I’ve learned there’s more to the story. I’ve learned that most people have a lot more heart than they realize. A coach’s job is to help a fighter uncover what they have inside them. Many times it is just a matter of cultivating confidence. Nature gives an athlete certain gifts, but we must nurture the qualities needed to succeed.


Tough isn’t how you act. Tough is how you train. Tough is the process of digging deep. Helping my fighters uncover the heart and toughness they may not know they have is a delicate process. It is all too easy for a coach to break an athlete mentally and physically. Pushing someone too far, too soon, can result in losing a promising athlete. Having said that, we have to have a way for the fighter to dig deep enough to realize they can overcome any obstacle, if they want it bad enough. I can push him to the edge, but what will he do when he gets there? Does he have the heart?

The following two drills are my favorites for pushing a fighter right up to the edge.


In this drill, we take a fighter with an upcoming fight and feed him to the sharks. Every minute—for the length of the fight the fighter is training for—he will face a fresh opponent. For a five minute round, the fighter will face five fresh opponents. As the fighter starts to fatigue, the pressure becomes overwhelming. The fighter will have to ignore the internal voices begging him to quit. I have seen world champions come close to breaking during a spirited shark bait drill. When running a shark bait drill, it is important for a coach to know how far to push his fighter. Training partners are asked to turn the intensity up or down as needed. Each person that takes part in the shark bait has a role to play. Words of encouragement are shared the whole time, and the entire drill is meant as a positive experience. Finishing a full shark bait fight lets the fighter know that surviving and succeeding for that time period against one opponent is possible. Shark bait helps build the confidence that leads to uncovering true mental toughness.


I use this drill to continuously place a fighter in the worst possible positions of a fight and have them battle back from the brink. The fighters are placed under the mount, under cross side, in bottom half guard, and their backs are taken. The fighter’s goal is to survive these positions and escape. After escaping they are immediately placed back into a poor position and the drill is continued. In a more advanced version of this drill, fighters also are placed in common submissions and not allowed to tap. They must battle out of the submissions and learn when they are really in danger. Believing in their technique to survive and escape is a great way to squash the panic that makes them want to quit.

Both of these drills test the resolve of even the toughest fighters. More importantly, the fighters are placed in controlled situations that are stressful enough to help them discover how they will react when their opponent has the same goal—winning. Coaches running these drills must never turn them into anything torturous. I always want the fighter to feel like, “Damn straight I can do that.” Then I know they have “it.” These drills should be building blocks to greater skills and self-discovery.


“Toughness can carry you a long way, especially in fighting.”—Forrest Griffin in Got Fight?

Hands down the toughest fighter I have ever coached is former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Forrest Griffin. I believe the phrase used so often by announcers, “This kid’s got heart,” was coined for Forrest. In six years with me, Forrest never missed a practice and never complained about the pain his body was in. Forrest had the drive, desire, heart, and toughness to be a champion from his first day in the gym.

When Forrest stepped into the cage, I never saw him quit in a fight for even a second. In two separate fights—on two different continents— Forrest showed true mental toughness. In his second professional fight in South Africa in 2001, Forrest broke his collarbone in the opening seconds of the fight. While most people would have quit, Forrest took his opponent’s back and choked him out. While fighting in Brazil in 2003, Forrest had his arm broken by a punch. Forrest just used his good arm to knock the guy out. Now, I can’t vouch for the mental stability of Forrest Griffin, but I can say for certainty, this kid’s got heart.


It took more than eight years for Robbie Lawler to lace up his gloves and return to the UFC Octagon. It took him less than four minutes to earn a knockout over Josh Koscheck and remind everyone why he’s dubbed “Ruthless.”

It was 2010, and I was nervous as hell. I was backstage staring at a tall, black curtain. On the other side was a scale, a commissioner, and a crowd. On my side sat six hungry men and members of their entourage. We represented half the fight card as we waited to weigh-in for Strikeforce: LA. It was my first Strikeforce fight. I was starving and dehydrated from the weight cut, but all I could feel was this empty pit in my stomach.

Behind the other curtain sat our opponents, who, I’m assuming, were just as hungry as we were, and, I hoped, just as nervous. This feeling, as excruciating as it was, is totally normal—at least that’s what everyone kept telling me. A six-week training camp was about to come to an end. All the hard work, all the sauna sessions, and all of the passed up slices of pizza led to the next 24 hours where all I had to do was weigh-in and fight. When the hard work ends, the nerves begin.

Then Robbie Lawler strolled in, ready to make weight for his fight against Renato “Babalu” Sobral.

I was equal parts envious and pissed. He was one-half of the main event on a card run by the second largest promotion in the world. On Showtime the following night, he was going to try and knock off a Brazilian’s head while trying to avoid the same fate. And yet, as he sat there joking with cornerman and friend Matt Hughes, it seemed like the furthest thing from his mind. Why was he all smiles?

My first thought? “What an asshole.” My second thought—and the one that lingered until our conversation for this article—was, “How the hell was he so calm?”


UFC 157 will forever go down in history as the card that delivered the first female fight to ever grace the UFC Octagon. Robbie Lawler’s return to the UFC on the same card makes for a nice sidebar. The 31-year-old addition was part of the exodus of fighters coming over from the defunct Strikeforce ranks. For the better part of the last decade, Lawler earned his keep in Pride, IFL, EliteXC, and Strikeforce, but most MMA fans were introduced to the powerful slugger during his first tenure in the UFC from 2002-2004. At UFC 157, he quickly reminded everyone who he was.

image desc“I watched some fights with [Koscheck], and I noticed when guys back him up, he doesn’t fight that well,” says Lawler. “I just kind of stayed right in his face.”

A couple of punches to the head later, and Lawler’s return went from a footnote to Knockout of the Night.

“When I was out of the UFC, it was a good experience, but right now, coming back and winning that fight with Koscheck, it was the right time to come back in my career. I’m excited to be in the UFC again.”

The journey back to the hallowed grounds of the UFC was a long and winding one. The San Diego-born Lawler practiced ass kicking at an early age. He studied martial arts as a kid and would put together mini-training sessions at his house.

“I always watched boxing,” says Lawler. “I didn’t just watch boxing. I would listen to the analysts, see what they were doing, go downstairs and hit the heavy bag, do some pushups, go back up, and watch some more rounds.”

At 10-years-old, Lawler moved from sunny California to Iowa to live with his father—a move that turned out to be perfect for the would-be fighter, since Iowa was a hotbed for wrestling and the home of Miletich Fighting Systems. Pat Miletich’s team boasted a roster that included future UFC champions Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Jens Pulver. As soon as the then 18-year-old Lawler was handed his high school diploma, he made training with Miletich his full-time job.

At just 19-years-old and four fights under his belt, he made his UFC debut, defeating Aaron Riley by decision. His fight with Steve Berger at UFC 37.5 marked the first fight to air on cable television. His flying-knee KO of Joey Villasenor was the first PrideFC fight ever held outside of Japan. Icon Sport Middleweight Championship? He earned that. EliteXC Middleweight Championship? Mark that off as well. King of the Cage, the IFL, and Superbrawl all experienced the powerful southpaw before he settled on a semi-permanent home in Strikeforce.

Currently training out of Florida’s American Top Team, Lawler throws strikes like he’s holding a grudge. It’s almost as if anger fuels his fists. But it’s Robbie Lawler. To him it’s just fighting.

“I throw ferocious punches,” says Lawler. “I think that is how you’re supposed to throw punches. When you get someone hurt, you’re not trying to score points or get the ref to stop it—you’re trying to stop HIM. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

The next guy he’s going to try and stop is fellow Strikeforce alum Tarec Saffiedine at UFC on Fox 8 on July 27. The final-and-forever Strikeforce Welterweight Champion is coming off a career-making performance, putting together a nearly flawless striking display against Nate Marquardt that earned him a place on the UFC roster.

Stylistically, this stand-up battle provides plenty of intrigue. Saffiedine battered Marquardt with leg kicks throughout their 25-minute fight. When the final bell rang, Marquardt looked like he needed a wheelchair. Opponents have effectively used leg kicks to slow down Lawler before. But again, typical Lawler, his response to the former champion’s skills is simply, “He’s really good. He beat Marquardt in a five round title fight and he’s…really good. He’s a really good striker. Really clean.”

That’s Lawler in a nutshell. He speaks matter-of-factly. If a question doesn’t suit him, he doesn’t answer it. If he’s never thought about it, he’ll let you know. He’s like an 80-year-old man that doesn’t have time for your hip-hop music and diet sodas. I’m comfortable writing this way since the last person in the world to read an article on Robbie Lawler is Robbie Lawler. If it doesn’t make him a better fighter, he probably won’t find time for it.

He doesn’t think about his legacy, because how would that help him become a fighter now? He’s only Tweeted 87 times since January 2011. It’s not like social media is going to increase his cardio or help his leg-kick defense. He uses the word “fun” to describe the time he bludgeoned Murillo “Ninja” Rua. He scrambles opponent’s brain cells with the same demeanor you and I order a pizza. It’s just how he’s wired.

image descThe Iowan isn’t solely about ferociousness. His usual monotone inflection kicks up a notch when his mind wonders over old memories. “Over the years, you can have all these wins, you can have all these good camps, but I think it’s the memories with all your buddies that matter,” says Lawler. “Having a good time—not necessarily in the cage, but outside the cage the week or the month before—and being with your buddies is what matters.”

In a way, he’s exactly like every other 31-year-old. Kicking it with friends and family, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Of course, there are the obvious ways that he’s anything but ordinary. The man is built to fight, plain and simple. He doesn’t know what he would be doing if not for fighting. Maybe a chiropractor. But it doesn’t really matter. He plans on fighting until training and the quest to become better gets old, and he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.

He’s staying at 170 pounds, and feels he’s entering his prime. That’s the strange thing about a fighter’s physical prime. You never know when you’re in it or when it’s over. But, just like Iowa weather, that’s not something he can control, so he doesn’t sweat it. He just keeps hitting the bag.

That’s the appeal Lawler finds in MMA. It’s not the destination, but the journey. “That’s why I love it. I didn’t get into this game to be cool. This is who I am. I’m a fighter, and I love it. I was in it before it was cool.”
That’s what he brings to the UFC cage he left so many years ago. Fighting culture is breeding all types of characters. Some dye their hair wild colors. Some are on the constant hunt for more Twitter followers. Some saw Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar throw down at the first TUF Finale and wanted to get on TV. But Lawler, now a 30-fight veteran, literally just wants to bang, bro.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” says Lawler. “When you enjoy what you’re doing, you want to be there and things don’t bother you. I know what I’m capable of. When I go out there and do the things I’m capable of, I’m gonna be able to beat people and beat them pretty handedly. When you have those abilities and you believe in yourself that much, you’re just not worried.”

That’s why he could stroll into a Strikeforce weigh-in in 2010 looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. Robbie Lawler? No worries.

Lawler Strikes Again

If you thought Robbie Lawler’s KO of Josh Koscheck at UFC 157 was brutal, you don’t know what Robbie Lawler is capable of.

5) Niko Vitale
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Lawler knocked out Vitale seven months prior for the Superbrawl Middleweight Championship, so he was happy to provide an encore. This time, Lawler hit Vitale so hard he sent his unconscious body flying into the oncoming referee.

4) Tiki Ghosn
UFC 40

One of the most hilarious post-fight speeches came from Ghosn when he declared the fight was stopped from a cut…just seconds before the replay showed Ghosn’s unconscious body lying on his back taking piston-like ground-and-pound from the 20-year-old Lawler.

3) Matt Lindland

Lawler knocked Lindland down with a counter uppercut-right-hook combo and knocked him out cold with a follow-up strike from top. He even had the courtesy to gently lay Lindland’s stiff legs down on the canvas.

2) Melvin Manhoef

Lawler was visibly limping from the pulverizing leg kicks of Manhoef over the course of the first round. One overhand right from Lawler and a follow-up shot on the ground had the Dutch fighter snoozing on the canvas.

1) Frank Trigg
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A Lawler left hook made Trigg go limp, and a follow-up right hand hit the wrestler square in the jaw. With Trigg sitting unconscious against the turnbuckle, Lawler managed to sneak in one last uppercut before the ref saved Trigg’s head from getting pelted into the fifth row.


From centerfold to center cage, Invicta FC Atomweight Champion Michelle Waterson is keeping the eyes on her.

image descIn September 2008, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell graced the cover of FIGHT! in preview of his upcoming bout against Rashad Evans at UFC 88. In that same issue, aspiring model and mixed martial artist Michelle “The Karate Hottie” Waterson was featured as the FIGHT! centerfold. The MMA landscape has changed considerably over the last 57 months for The Iceman and The Karate Hottie. Liddell hung up his four-ounce gloves to become a cog in the UFC corporate wheel, while Waterson is now the Invicta FC Atomweight Champion.

Over the next couple of years, Waterson went from natural beauty to natural fighter, amassing an 8-3 record by combining her background in American Freestyle Karate, Wushu, and Muay Thai. The Jackson MMA fighter’s career was on the upswing before she took a two-year hiatus that began midyear 2010. Since returning to fighting last year, Waterson has taken her career to an entirely new level. It’s not so much what she’s done in the gym—she always trained hard—but a major addition to her personal life that has made her want to strive for more in her career.

“After having my daughter in 2011, I’ve really kind of stepped up my game as far as being a fighter,” says Waterson. “Now, I have a lot more reasons to win and show my daughter that you can go after your dreams no matter what happens to you in life. I feel like I’m back and better than ever. I have more motivation, and she pushes me to be better every day.”

While Waterson had a convincing win in her first bout back against Donna Rael in January 2012, it was a Fight of the Night victory over Lacey Schuckman at Invicta FC 3 in October 2012 that really tested Waterson’s resolve as a competitor.

“Schuckman almost had me in the first round, so it was kind of a mental battle for me to pull myself out of that and acknowledge that I could win, even though I lost the first round,” she says. “I’ve always had heart, and when it comes to fighting, I think it’s important to understand that. There have been times where I’ve been tested and was able to focus and push through.”

At Invicta FC 5 on April 5 against Jessica Penne for the Invicta FC Atomweight Title, Waterson had to dig deep and push through like never before. The championship fight lived up to its namesake, as both fighters put on a technical display of MMA skills. Striking combos, leg kicks, takedowns, pulling guard, mounts, sweeps, submission attempts…the fight had it all, and that was only in the first two rounds.

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In round three, Penne came out aggressively and had Waterson in serious danger with a flurry of punches, but Waterson was able to work her way out of danger before giving up her back, which allowed Penne to transition to a deep armbar. Waterson refused to tap—even as it appeared her arm was about to snap—and she fought herself free to survive the round.

In round four, Waterson showed off her great takedown defense and flexibility by stuffing a single-leg and taking Penne’s back. From there, she transitioned into an armbar of her own. Penne tapped almost immediately as Waterson claimed Invicta FC gold and brought her record to 11-3.

“You just can’t quit, even when you feel like you can’t go on,” says Waterson. “She almost got me in the third, and I just told myself to keep going. She’s an awesome fighter. She has so much heart. Winning the title is a dream come true.”

The 27-year-old will go from the hunter to the hunted as she prepares to defend her new title later this year. For Waterson, that’s just the next step in a journey that started when she began studying karate as a 10-year-old, thanks to her older brother. Now, Waterson is happy with the balance she’s found in her life.

Balance good. Karate good. Everything good.


Erik Paulson is a rare breed—he was ahead of his time during MMA’s infancy, and now he is ahead of his time as a coach on the highest level. 

Ask most people to recall their earliest memories of mixed martial arts and the name Royce Gracie invariably comes up. However, five months before Royce triumphed in the first UFC, Paulson had already fought—and won—his first MMA fight in Japan.


As MMA’s dominance shifted from submissions to wrestling to striking in the1990s, Paulson used decades of experience in all three disciplines to capture and defend the Shooto Light Heavyweight Championship. Now, he’s an instructor of some of the best mixed martial artists in the world, including former UFC Heavyweight Champions Josh Barnett and Brock Lesnar—appearing as part of Lesnar’s coaching staff on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter. He’s come a long way from the fourth grader in Minnesota who was sick of sitting on the sidelines during baseball, football, and hockey games.


“The thing that would suck is that if your team didn’t win, you were still a loser—even if you didn’t play,” Paulson says. “I told my mom I wanted a sport where I could be accountable for what I was doing.” His mom listened, enrolling him in judo and karate classes. In junior high, his dad signed him up at a Golden Gloves boxing gym. At home, tussles with his wrestling brother showed him the value of a good double-leg takedown.


The next years were an odyssey into martial arts, both well-known and obscure: Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do, savate, kali, Jeet Kune Do, and catch wrestling. In 1986, Paulson moved to Southern California to try his hand at modeling, acting, and stunt work, as well as to train with Dan Inosanto—one of Bruce Lee’s top students—at his academy in Marina Del Rey.


In 1987, a full six years before the Gracies became the ambassadors for no-holds barred fighting, Paulson received his introduction to ground fighting from the Gracies. “I took private lessons with Rickson. The first day he asked me, ‘Do you know an armlock? Put me in an armlock.’ So, I extended his arm all the way, and he said he was going to count from zero to 10,” Paulson says. “By the time he said ‘one,’ he was arm-locking me instead.”


One day in 1989, Paulson spotted a flyer at Inosanto’s academy announcing an upcoming seminar from Yori Nakamura, a representative from the Japanese fighting organization Shooto. The flyer showed a fighter punching, kicking, suplexing, and submitting his opponent. “I thought that was interesting because he was putting everything together,” Paulson says. “That was what I was looking for—the complete martial artist.” After watching Nakamura demonstrate 30 submissions at the seminar, Paulson was hooked.


Shooto had been hosting MMA-style fights since 1985. When Paulson saw a few fights on video, he signed up for about against Kazuhiro Kusayanagi that was scheduled for June 24, 1993, in Tokyo. He trained for four months, traveling to different gyms to hone his craft. He won his fight with a third-round, reverse-triangle choke.


Paulson defeated Kenji Kawaguchi to capture the Shooto Light Heavyweight Title in 1994, a belt he would surrender only upon his retirement. He was the first American to win a belt in Shooto, but he says the higherups would have preferred it were one of his Japanese training partners. “They were like, ‘He could be very marketable. We could say he’s half-Japanese,’” he says. “Well, you can’t say I’m part Japanese: I had blond hair, blue eyes, a Fu Manchu, and a kick-ass attitude.”


Under contract to Shooto, Paulson continued to fight in Japan and in sanctioned events in the United States. Meanwhile, he grew his skills by rolling with Rigan Machado, sparring with Thai boxing champ Rob Kaman, and trading his submission skills for Rico Chiapparelli’s takedown prowess. In every fight, Paulson’s goals remained the same: strike, takedown, submission.


The pay for his overseas battles was predictably poor, and Paulson’s finances were in rough shape. On the eve of his 1998 bout against Masanori Suda, he asked for a pay raise: $5,000 to show with a $1,000 win bonus. He won, but his days fighting in Japan were over. With a 2000 win over Ron Jhun that brought his record to 10-4-2, Paulson—married, broke, and nursing a knee injury—put his competitive MMA career aside.


Instead, he organized his decades of martial arts experience into training methods he dubbed Combat Submission Wrestling and STX Kickboxing, and he created an international network of schools. He became a coach for fighters Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock, Renato Sobral, Cub Swanson, and many others.


Shortly after Paulson armlocked his way to victory in a 2007 comeback fight on the inaugural HDNet Fights card, Greg Nelson—a longtime friend and head of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy—invited Paulson to train Brock Lesnar, the NCAA standout and WWE star who was working his way into MMA. Paulson coached Lesnar during his ascent to the UFC Heavyweight Title, teaching him catch wrestling tricks like the neck crank he used to control Frank Mir while pounding his face. “Catch wrestling works perfectly for collegiate wrestlers, because it’s all the illegal moves that you’re told you can’t do,” he says.


These days, Paulson remains in Lesnar’s stable of coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 13. He has an audience of embryonic fighters who train like athletes, who train striking and grappling in equal measure, and who want the fame and fortune high-level mixed martial arts has to offer. It’s a far cry from the days when Paulson had to explain the promise of mixed martial arts to traditionalists who couldn’t wrap their heads around the sport. They said they just didn’t get it. “Don’t worry,” Paulson recalls saying back to them, “in 10 years, you will.”




Paulson’s blond, movie-star mane became a liability in World Combat Championship, a bare-knuckle tournament he entered in 1995. Promoters advised him to cut his hair, but Paulson had committed to acting in a movie scheduled to shoot soon after the event. “The reason I was hired was because I had longhair—I was playing a Viking warrior,” Paulson says. “Apparently, they hadn’t heard about wigging people.”


In his first match, Sean McCully heaved Paulson to the ground and yanked his hair while landing elbows and headbutts. The rules forbade submissions and required a stand-up after two minutes of groundwork. “When he didn’t finish me and they stood us up, I jumped up and said, ‘You’re dead.’” Paulson finished McCully with strikes, but he had no such success against James Warring, who again tugged his locks and beat on him, forcing a corner stoppage.


Renzo Gracie choked out Warring to win the event, and Paulson ended up losing the movie part. “But I did get a call from Baywatch,” he says. “I played a bad-guy hockey player. They painted my hair black, put a helmet on me, and I got to cross-check a guy off his feet.” He cut his hair months later.


UFC middleweight Mark Munoz was tricked into MMA by a “Kid”…was heel-hooked by a “Gangster” while wrestling in college…and found himself slamming “The Natural” in the most unnatural way.

In late July, just a couple of weeks after he came back from a year-long dark period to beat Tim Boetsch at UFC 162, Mark Munoz is in his element coaching wrestling. He has two camps occurring simultaneously at his base in Southern California—one a 10-day general camp, the other a five-day advanced technique course. It’s so busy that he has to keep a strict schedule on a dry-erase board to help marshal through his long days…days that begin at 6 a.m. and end 17 hours later at 11 p.m. It’s so busy he has to pencil in shower times.

The thing is, Munoz loves it like this because his ability to multitask is on par with his ability to annihilate people via ground-and-pound. The more punishing, the better.

In fact, in the midst of what sounds like utter chaos—in which he excuses himself twice, once to introduce his special guest wrestling coach, Joe Heskett, who now coaches at Army, and once to help somebody having an asthma attack—Munoz can tell a story about how he was dragged kicking and screaming into MMA by a pesky assistant coach he worked with at UC Davis back in the day.

Think it was some alpha-urge to conquer the fiercest combatants in the cage that lured Munoz into four-ounce gloves? Nope, it was none other than Urijah Faber. It was the Spicoli-like “California Kid” who created the barrel-crashing monstrosity that is known as “The Filipino Wrecking Machine.”

“Urijah came up to me and said, ‘You should learn how to fight, you’d be really good,’” Munoz says. “I said, ‘No man, I’m good—I’m not going to fight.’ But you know how he talks, he’s like, ‘Bro, come on, bro. Give it a try. Come on, bro.’”

At the time, Munoz was coaching wrestling and working on his master’s degree. He already had a wife and four children and was closing in on 30 years old. He was feeling a little long in the tooth to be contemplating a new career path. But as he was cornering Faber early years ago, he admitted there was a “void” left after coming up short of making the Olympic team. As a lifelong competitor and standout wrestler from his days at Oklahoma State, Munoz had a readily transferrable base to the mixed martial arts. The writing was on the wall. Faber, knowing this better than Munoz, started getting in his ear.

“Actually, you know what? Urijah tricked me into getting into it,” Munoz says. “He brought in Randy Couture, Brandon Vera, Rampage Jackson, Frank Trigg, and a bunch of other guys. And he asked if it would be cool if I came in and taught some wrestling? I said, ‘Yeah man, of course—I can do that with my eyes closed.’ So I came in, and noticed everybody was wrapping their hands. I was like, ‘Wait, why is everybody wrapping their hands?’”

That red flag wouldn’t be the last. After teaching some inside trips and throws to everyone per the agreement, he was paired off to spar with Couture, who was the UFC Heavyweight Champion at the time. When Munoz was asked to step in with “The Natural,” he did what any rational person would do in that situation—he protested.

“But then Urijah comes up to me and was like, ‘Dude, no worries—just double-jab, double-leg, and you’ll be fine, man, once you get him on the ground your instincts will take control.’ They peer pressured me, and here I always tell my kids never succumb to peer pressure. I double-jabbed and double-legged the first time, then the second time, then got in the third time—picked him up and slammed him on his back, and everyone was screaming, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I just took down Randy Couture!’ And then I’m just going Donkey Kong on him, just boom, boom, boom, 100 percent. And Randy was like, ‘Hey man, calm down. We’re not trying to kill each other—we’re sparring. I have to defend my belt, I can’t get injured.’ I was like, ‘Oh, sorry, I thought that was how we were supposed to do it.’ So after that, in classic Randy Couture style, he gets me against the cage and starts kneeing me and dirty boxing. I was like, ‘Hold on, I thought this is what we weren’t supposed to be doing?’”

In other words, Munoz was duped into a second career that he has all but flourished in, sporting a 13-3 professional MMA record. All it took to get here was Faber, a terrifying experience with Couture, and a Donkey Kong impression that he gets to try out on a whole crop of 185-pound guinea pigs. It looked like Munoz was right there in line for a title shot before he suffered a setback against the newly crowned UFC Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman in 2012.

Since then, it’s been a lot of ups and downs—he had to endure a year-long layoff where he recovered from a broken foot, ended up depressed, and, in his words, “fat”…only to lose all that weight, get right in his head, and rediscover his mojo. Out of the public eye for the most part, it’s been a fairly private restoration project. It seems he’s back, though. The Munoz that showed up against Boetsch at UFC 162 looks like the one that pummeled CB Dolloway and Chris Leben. Now, Munoz will travel to England to face Michael Bisping in October, in what will potentially serve as a catalyst for that title shot.

Not that he’s thinking too deeply about that stuff, as he trains the kids in his summer wrestling camp. As you may know by now, Munoz is a man of a million stories. In fact, while wrestling for the Cowboys on the collegiate mat, he came up against some unexpected pieces of jiu-jitsu in a match against an Oregon Duck.

“Man was I livid,” he says. “I can joke about it now, but at the time, I was really mad at Chael Sonnen. In the match, it was kind of close in the first period, we got into a scramble. So Chael—and he’d been fighting for quite some time and was actually studying jiu-jitsu and MMA when he was wrestling at Oregon—scrambled into a knee bar. I didn’t know what was happening, but I defended the knee bar, and then he went for a heel hook. And this is in a wrestling match! I ended up tapping, and the ref gave me one point for an illegal hold. But my ankle popped. All my trainers came out, and they were taping my foot. I was so mad that happened, so mad that I just turned into the Incredible Hulk. After that, I was just on him. I ended up scoring a lot of points on him and winning the match.”

The two were scheduled to fight each other in the cage in early 2012 before an elbow injury tabled Munoz, so the “rematch” never materialized. But these days, Sonnen and Munoz have become good friends and teammates together at Reign Training Center in Lake Forrest, where Munoz coaches.

“We can joke about the college match today, and he always goes, ‘Hey man, can you blame me? Can you blame me?’ I guess if the ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying’ motto is true with him, then I can’t blame him—but I blame him anyway.”

Munoz, the coach, has been making headway of late. He not only has Sonnen in his stable, but Jake Ellenberger and an ever-growing list of brand names in the sport. He says he thinks he’s a better coach than he is an athlete, which is saying something when you consider his résumé. Munoz’s first love is wrestling, and that’s why he spends part of the summer running camps and broadening the talent levels of his teammates. It might also be the fundamental reason that the Weidman loss from the summer of 2012 sticks so sorely in his craw.

In that fight, in which he says he was out of sorts as the result of an “adversity stricken camp,” he just didn’t look right. He didn’t look right because, among other things, the wrestler was nowhere in sight. Munoz got knocked out via a wicked counter elbow in the second round in a bout he failed to land even one significant strike.

That fight launched Weidman toward history, while it sent Munoz off into a process of rediscovery. These days he can appreciate that silver lining, and after beating Boetsch the way he did, the first hurdle is cleared—Munoz is no longer the forgotten man in the 185-pound division.
“I made it apparent that me fighting Weidman that night last year and the guy who fought Boetsch this year are two totally different people,” he says. “I made that very apparent. I made sure the world saw that in my performance. I feel strongly about my wrestling, and I wasn’t able to showcase that during my fight because of some of the injuries I had.
I’ve always had a wrestling mentality, and it took me a whole year to sit out and change my perspective about training, and about injuries. I’m a wrestler—if I have an injury, I’m just going to tape it up, tough it out, and train. That’s who I was, and I needed this year to change my perspective.”

And with that, he turns back his attention to 150 young wrestlers following in his stubborn footsteps. It’s only early afternoon, and at 35-years-old and with a new head of steam, Munoz has miles to go before he sleeps.


The latest and greatest fi nd for Strikeforce comes in the form of California born and bred Maysa Quy. We chatted with the Vietnamese hottie about the best movie ever made, her favorite band, and…gasp…her boyfriend!

So, tell us how you got involved with Strikeforce.

It actually started through MySpace. A friend of mine saw that Strikeforce was having a contest for their next ring girl, and told me about it. I entered the contest and won. Had my fi rst gig a couple of weeks later…it’s been great.

How long is the deal?

It’s a one year deal. I am also the spokesmodel for FightShop as part of the deal.

Have you always been an MMA fan?

Oh yeah, I used to do Muay Thai and stuff. My boyfriend is really into it too.

Uh oh…you have a man!!!

Yes, yes. We live together and have been together for over two years. He used to train Jiu-Jitsu. A friend of his owns AKA (American Kickboxing Academy).

So what’s next for Maysa?

Well, I’m just looking to fi nish school. I’m a junior at San Jose State, majoring in marketing. Once that is over, we’ll see from there.

What do you do for fun at San Jose State?

I love to dance! I’m a house music junkie, so if there some bumping around, I’ll be shaking it.

Ok, what’s the best movie ever made?

40 Year Old Virgin…with Knocked Up a close second.

Truly a woman after our own hearts. If you said Driving Miss Daisy, the interview was over! Got a favorite band?

I love Linkin Park and Metallica…[pauses for nearly thirty seconds] But my all-time favorite is Janet Jackson.

You were about to hold out on us, huh?

NOOO! Janet is where I got all my moves!

We got all our moves from the Chris Farley Chippendales skit on Saturday Night Live. It’s pretty sad. Thanks for your time Maysa. We look forward to seeing you dance around the ring very soon.


The unbeaten MMA careers of four American wrestlers from the 2008 Olympic Games is as unlikely as it is unprecedented.

Keeping a clean slate in professional sports like football and soccer takes leadership, teamwork, and focus. In combat sports, the line between dominance and irrelevance can come at any second of a competition, and none more so than in MMA, where the process for remaining flawless is a complicated stew of unique talent and good fortune.

Floyd Mayweather’s 44 straight wins in the ring. Cael Sanderson’s 159 consecutive collegiate wrestling wins. Each stands as their sport’s most impressive unbeaten streaks, but those single discipline sports have serious competition coming from a group of wrestlers finding a new home in the cage.
All fighters know that one punch or a poorly blocked shin to the face can end your night and fill the loss column with the stain of imperfection. The variety of possible streak-ending errors that can occur in a 15- or 25-minute fight are infinite. However, four unbeaten MMA athletes knotted together by unique circumstance have created one of combat sports more statistically improbable and entertaining streaks.

Four members of the 2008 United States men’s Olympic freestyle team—Henry Cejudo, Ben Askren, Daniel Cormier, and Steven Mocco—are a combined 31-0 in professional MMA. Although they fight for four difference organizations at three different weight classes, and started at various times after the end of their wrestling careers, not a single one of them has eaten a KO-fist to the face or had their arm bent sideways by the snap-happy techniques of a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt.

They’ve avoided the flash knockouts and quick submissions—and earned some of their own—on way to one of the most impressive unbeaten streaks in MMA.

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Daniel Cormier is shrinking.

One of the most sought after fight commentators the UFC has on its roster, Cormier appears on camera several times a month to update the world on grappling techniques, matchup scenarios, and personal prognostications. But each week he shows up on camera, the once paunchy heavyweight appears to be reduced in size.

Cormier is one of the top-ranked heavyweights in the world, but he is dieting down from 245 lbs. to 205 lbs. in the hopes of facing UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones. The drop, and Cormier’s devotion to doing it healthfully (follow on, stem from the kidney complications from cutting weight that kept him from competing at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

A successful drop would mean that Team USA’s unbeaten streak would face its most serious test.

“Man, I’m focusing on Roy Nelson right now,” says Cormier. “I just hope he ain’t that dude who ruins this streak for the rest of the guys.”

Although Cormier didn’t compete at the 2008 Olympics (he finished 4th in 2004), the former Oklahoma State All-American has become the most accomplished member of the team while inside the cage.

“Me an Mo Lawal used to sit at [USA Head Wrestling Coach] Kevin Jackson’s house and watch the fights,” says Cormier. “Jackson used to fight, and it was a cool thing to do. He loved it, and got us into it a little bit more.”

Mohammed “King Mo” Lawal was upset by 2008 Olympian Andy Hrovat in the 2008 World Team trials and failed to make the squad. Had he made the team, there would be no unbeaten MMA streak, on account of his three losses. In terms of the current streak, Lawal’s legacy is the successful recruiting of Cormier off his couch in Oklahoma and into the sun-drenched AKA headquarters of San Jose.

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Like Cormier, Ben Askren also made a quick transition from grappling on the mat for free to grappling in a cage for money. The best wrestler in MMA didn’t waste much time jumping into the multi-discipline world of MMA. Askren took his first fight six months after the end of the Olympics, earning a first-round TKO in February 2009. By August, one year after the Olympic Games, Askren was 3-0 and set to enter the Bellator tournament in April 2010. Nine victories and four Bellator Welterweight Title defenses later, Askren is being shopped to the UFC as a possible opponent for current UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre.

“I love wrestling first,” says Askren, who will be the headliner in the inaugural AGON wrestling event on October 22 at the Rio in Las Vegas. “I knew that if I went right into MMA and I didn’t like it in six months, I could go back to wrestling.”

Askren, of course, stayed, and the smothering wrestler accounts for 12 of the groups’ 31 wins.

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For Cejudo, the transition from the mat to the cage took longer and was complicated by his post-Olympic celebrity. One of the youngest Olympic Champions (21 years old) to emerge from the 2008 Games, Cejudo raked in book deals, endorsement offers, and sponsorships in the months and years following his gold medal performance. He stayed on the fringes of amateur wrestling, popping up on occasion to do press or discuss a new training location. Ultimately, with only a handful of matches in four years, he attempted to make the 2012 Olympic team, but fell short. From there, he entered the cage, where he’s 4-0, with all four wins coming by way of TKO. He recently signed with Legacy Fighting Championships and is being fast-tracked for the UFC’s bantamweight division.

“Henry’s had more experience than any of us coming into MMA,” says Cormier. “He was a boxer and messed around with plenty of other stuff throughout his life. He’s definitely the guy with the most preparation.”

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Cejudo’s preparation has allowed him to fight with some ease, while Steve Mocco, the hulking 260-pound former two-time NCAA Division I National Champion, is left to win matches like the first wrestlers in MMA—via a generous smothering of takedowns and ill-intended shots from the top position.

Cormier, who trained with Mocco in the lead-up to the Beijing Games, think that Mocco is the rawest of the bunch, “But he’s the hardest working guy I know,” says Cormier. “He’ll be incredible in MMA, because he’s incredible at everything he’s ever tried to do.”

At 3-0 with a win over MMA veteran and former wrestler Lew Polley at RFA 9, Mocco seems positioned for a move into the UFC after another signature win. The UFC heavyweight division is thinning out, and a fresh face in the most powerful division is always a crowd pleaser, especially when other wrestlers like Cain Velasquez have found so much success.

“We didn’t plan this,” says Askren. “I think it just has everything to do with us being the first post-Olympic guys who could enter a variety of fighting organizations and make a living.”

Askren’s right. Although other former Olympians have taken to the cage, the 2008 class was the first to be recruited from the mat to the cage by friends and promoters who saw their earning potential. For the undefeated clan, their altruism in pursuing an Olympic passion seemed to alleviate them of the cross-training stresses some of the world’s finest wrestlers with an interest in MMA currently face. And for Askren, Cormier, and Mocco, the pain of not completing their goals on the mat has left them with the motivation to be exceptional in the cage.

Motivation, money, or a career of combat sports training—whatever the thread that connects these fighters—their streak has become one of the impressive feats in MMA’s short history.



MMA Record: 12-0
OrganizatioN:w ufc
First Fight: September 25, 2009
Next Fight: October 19 vs.
Roy Nelson
2008 Olympic Performance: Did Not Compete
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: Two-Time NCAA All-American; National Finalist



MMA Record: 12-0
Organization: Free Agent (Bellator)
First Fight: February 7, 2009
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: 1-1
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: Two-time NCAA Champion; Hodge Award winner; 4x Finalist



MMA Record: 4-0
OrganizatioN: Legacy Fighting Championship
First Fight: October 11, 2013
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: Gold
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: None



MMA Record: 3-0
OrganizatioN: Resurrection Fighting Alliance
First Fight: November 2, 2012
Next Fight: tba
2008 Olympic Performance: 2-2, 9th place
NCAA Wrestling Credentials: 2x NCAA
Champion; 4x Finalist


Across the street from the quiet Alexandria airfield, there is an ochre-colored building with a small sign on the front door that reads “private facility, entrance by appointment only.” The structure is exactly the same in shape and color as the tractor-trailer-tire building to its left and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources outpost to the right. The difference is that those places are well marked and happy to be found— Brock Lesnar’s gym isn’t. If there was ever a metaphor for how Lesnar prefers his privacy, this is it: Appointments here are impossible. There’s no phone number.

Brock pulls up in his “get-around truck,” a 1989 Dodge Ram pick-up, which happens to be a hand-me-down from a friend’s father who passed away. Every day, Lesnar bumps along the 10-minute route from his 140 acres of Luddite living to this little training bunker with as much anonymity as a 290-pound freak of nature can manage. Clearly, he is snug as a bug out in here in the sticks. He’s dressed in camouflage, but everyone can see Lesnar coming. Just as his lawyer/agent, Brian Stegeman, says, “It’s hard to conceal him.”

Lesnar’s very pregnant wife, Rena, arrives with their pit bull puppy, Jonas, in his more fuel-efficient option: a tiny Chevy Aveo, which Lesnar has christened “The Red Rocket,” a car that must be like Dr. Who’s TARDIS on the inside to fit Lesnar’s six-foot-three frame. All the Lamborghinis and private planes from Lesnar’s pro wrestling days belong to a $40 million past, a personal scaffolding that he both embraces and cringes over. “I could care less what I drive,” the Brock of today says. “Cars are stupid. Now I am into saving money so I can retire and raise my kid to be the next UFC champion.”

It’s easy to brace for Lesnar’s voluminous size when you’ve seen him flexing and posturing on any of a thousand WWE cards, when he was the Next Big Thing, or more recently when he reduced Heath Herring into a homunculus at UFC 87. His sworded thorax is renowned, his 4X hand-size catastrophic. That neck of his is completely nihilistic, and it’s all the more ridiculous up close. His head belongs to Easter Island. But the thing that stands out immediately about Brock is not so much his size and strength. It’s that, after years of well-funded illusions, Brock Lesnar, at age 31, has become a serial realist.

There’s no sign of the UFC’s new heavyweight champion anywhere, no belts on display, no trophy case, nothing except $250,000 worth of state-of-theart equipment that exists exclusively to build a cold leviathan. His unmarked gym—like everything in Alexandria, from the Ben Franklin Crafts store on Main to the Runestone Museum—is altogether without pretension. Brainerd, to the northeast, has Paul Bunyan, and Alexandria has the flat-topped Lesnar, who couldn’t grow a hermit’s beard to save his life. The man who once kissed Kurt Angle on the lips in a crazy display of WWE histrionics now says, “Eh, Kurt’s hard to talk to because he’s got his head in too many pills.”

He also says that, save for an occasional conversation with Mark Calaway, known in the WWE as “The Undertaker,” he doesn’t really keep up with any of those guys from his Googleable past. There’s really no reason to. Brock’s new life as a mixed martial artist is more like his old life as a South Dakota farm boy: It revolves around what he calls a “need factor.”

That’s why he’s in Alexandria, a town situated between Minneapolis and Fargo that has a catchy slogan, “easy to find, but hard to leave.” He felt he needed to be closer to his daughter from a previous marriage, who resides in this town of just over 10,000 people. He prioritizes with the same intensity with which he fights.

Still, it would seem that Lesnar has receded into the woods like a modern day Thoreau to live—if not deliberately—at least contentedly in his state of immense focus. “This is my second chance to be a successful businessman,” he says. “I made a lot of money in pro wrestling, and I spent a lot of money.” And now he does without, like an ascetic, albeit with certain allowances. While people talk about limiting their distractions and becoming simpler, Lesnar lives it. He has given up on social appliances such as computers and the Internet (“that shit’s dumb”), cell phones (“though I had to get one temporarily while Rena’s pregnant”), and the bustle of city life (“I’m two minutes from my deer stand, I love it”).

In fact, his longtime wrestling coach and mentor, Marty Morgan, who’s known Brock for a decade and is closer to him than anything besides his wife and his secrets, often learns of the training schedule via fax from Lesnar. That’s how out of touch he is.

His profile, however, remains high. Half a year after manhandling the most celebrated underdog of all time, Randy Couture, he’s humming along to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as the promotion’s heavyweight champion. He’s very marketable as a villain— his Couture fi ght attracted over a million pay-per-view buyers, and almost all of them cursed his name when he tried on that belt. But if he’s a villain, he’s one characterized by weary indifference. When I ask him where he keeps the belt he claimed on that night in November of last year, he says, “To be honest, I don’t know where it is right now, probably in some closet.” Seriously? “I’m not very sentimental,” he deadpans. “If anything, I frame my paychecks.”

This is the kind of weird shit Lesnar says. The kind of stuff that makes some of MMA’s most hardcore fans hate his guts. Like when he goes “Shane who?” when the name of potential challenger Shane Carwin is brought up. Or it could simply be that he is that zeroed in on Frank Mir, whom he fi ghts at UFC 100 in Las Vegas on July 11, a day before his thirty-second birthday.

He’s also sincere. Though a relatively young man, Lesnar has the rare distinction of having lived multiple lives, which can be easily distilled down to two: He has lived as new money and he has lived as old money. Now, with the sagacity of the latter, it pleases him to distinguish between the two, but his detached cockiness is by turns traceable to both. And yet, other than a body that would seem imaginable only to Frank Frazetta, there’s really nothing inherently braggadocio about him. If anything, he is absurdly civil, a quality he would have you know goes back to a third life that gets too often overlooked: He has also lived the life of no money.

“People forget that I’ve earned everything I have,” he says. “I used to have to dig through my pockets to fi nd hamburger money in college. I’ve earned everything.” Yes, even the title shot that he received. And as far as he’s concerned, to all the MMA purists who disagree he wags his 4X middle fi nger. “I was offered a title shot and I took it,” he says. “Anybody would have done the same thing. The people who are whining about it, it’s probably just jealousy.”

To truly like Brock Lesnar as a human being, you can’t look at how many total fi ghts he’s had in MMA (four), or how many NCAA heavyweight championships he’s won as a Golden Gopher (one), or how many times he’s sacked Damon Huard as a member of the Minnesota Vikings (a single glorious time), or how many times he’s squeezed the life out of Hulk Hogan before smashing a chair on him for good measure and then smearing Hulk’s blood all over himself like a man without Christian scruples (one documented case). That’s because, durin
g his unique trajectory, those events have been distorted by others. Though some insist he has juiced, for instance, he has never tested positive for any banned substance. As far as certifiable facts go, Lesnar is corn-fed and abnormally obsessed with weights.

But . . . to like a dude like Brock Lesnar, you need to like the idea that business and passion have equal claims to a man’s glory. And even here things are not as they seem. Passion by itself is a bit too gooey a topic for Lesnar—money is more anchorable. Yet, something like passion is implied by his leaving so many millions of pro-wrestling dollars on the table so he could be a part of a sport at which he could have failed miserably. A sport, though, in which he could literally enforce his will. As Morgan says, “I think the biggest thing about Brock is his fearlessness, just the courage of even doing this, to say ‘I want to take on the best fighters,’ and his diligence to train for this.”

Morgan quit his coaching position at the University of Minnesota to train Brock full-time, and to serve as half of Lesnar’s Octagon conscience (Greg Nelson being the other half). Since September, when he was readying Lesnar for Couture, he has driven over a hundred miles each way from New Brighton, at the north end of Minneapolis.

“To me, Brock went through a whole peak and valley there,” he says of the contrast between the Prestone-blooded pro wrestler and pragmatic mixed martial artist. “He went all the way to the top and he was tough to deal with at that time. It was tough to be around him. This stuff has brought him back to what I believe is the way he was when he was with us at the University of Minnesota, and he’s all the more knowledgeable having gone through that.”

And it’s that wrestling background that remains Lesnar’s impetus, and what makes no distance a safe distance when squaring off with him. Morgan puts Brock’s potpourri of training partners—a small group of out-ofthe- woodwork types—through drills with a yogi’s knowing smile. There’s the deputy sheriff of Douglas County, Brett Grewe, and former local law enforcement offi cer Jason Childers, both of whom Lesnar grounds into the mats, for “fun,” and then mops up afterwards. There’s UFC newbie Chris Tuchscherer, and occasionally a thick slab like Brad Imes comes around, but otherwise this is the Anonymity Top Team—the guys who stand in and shape Lesnar’s atomic energy. To help train for Frank Mir and his submissions, BJJ black belt Ze Mario Esfi ha is in from Tennessee.

“Take away his Jiu-Jitsu, and Mir is closer to a regular man than Brock is,” Esfi ha says before some grappling drills. “Brock is not an average man.”

Definitely not, and Esfi ha finds out the hard way. Lesnar drives the large BJJ specialist’s frame into the mat, and after some feet-zipping and thunderous thuds, Esfi ha howls and, just like that, he’s broken. Sternum injury. They send him home the next day. Lesnar shows concern, but on this 70-degree spring day in the center of a no-man’sland that fourteenth-century Vikings mistook for an island, Brock is already somewhere else. He would like nothing better than to auger a hole in nearby Lake Ida, jig for some bluegill, and not have to deal with people gazetting his life. Besides, he says “the crappie are already coming up.”

He doesn’t really need to train this soon, with Frank Mir having postponed the fi ght by two months to unify the literal and conceptual heavyweight belts. Mir is “probably stalling,” as Lesnar puts it, “but his day is coming, and he knows it.” Nevertheless, Lesnar is going through a rigorous mini-camp before he starts up his rigorous actual training camp, because, as he sees it, why not.

Most people saw Mir’s victory over Lesnar as fluke of perfect timing. It was Lesnar’s second professional MMA fi ght, after all, but the heavy weather that he showed at the bell is what has stuck in people’s minds. Lesnar, in his way, doesn’t see things too differently. For once, he agrees with popular opinion.

“This is a business, and I am out to win and I’m out to improve every day as a fighter,” he says. “This is a competition, and this next fi ght for me is about revenge. I hate that I lost to Frank. I want revenge and to keep my title. But I’m not out to prove anything.”

Except maybe that a country boy can survive doing things the redneck way. Lesnar comes back to the gym the next day and says he caught eighteen bluegill in two hours. All that nature does him right; he’s in a good mood about it. He gives half to Morgan, with instructions on what to do with them.

“I know how to prepare them,” Morgan says. And he does. If there’s one thing Morgan’s very good at, it’s the art of preparation. As for Lesnar? He trains rigorously for an hour and a half with his ears pinned back so that he can get back out on Lake Ida, auger himself another hole, and see if those crappie are there.

“I am a blue-collar guy; that’s just who I am. I’m just a country boy that makes some money fighting.” In Lesnar’s mind, it’s as simple as that. And as complicated.