Big In Vegas

I. RANDY INC.- A FAMILY AFFAIR- ON ANOTHER LEVEL

I can always tell who is at Xtreme Couture by the cars parked outside. Randy used to have a big black Humvee, but now it’s a badass black Dodge Challenger. Mike Pyle’s got a big Honda Truck, Jay Heiron has a tricked-out White Charger they call “The Ghost,” and the parsimonious Forrest Griffin still drives the little green Scion he won on The Ultimate Fighter five years ago. Today the lot is full, but I don’t see any of the familiar vehicles as I’m parking my own little grey rental, which is still dusty from the long trek through the Mojave Desert from northern California.

The operation has expanded since I was last here, and Randy’s business interests are thriving. There’s a new storefront next door housing Xtreme Couture Pharmaceuticals, Randy’s new vitamin supplement company. And Xtreme Couture Inc. now boasts a growing chain of gym franchises and a clothing line. Randy’s just-published autobiography, Becoming the Natural, is a best-seller and, he’s appeared in several movies.

As I enter the gym on my first morning, Randy’s daughter, Aimee, greets me from behind the front desk. I get approved for the pro class , sign the waiver and buy a month pass for $300.

Randy’s oldest son, Ryan, also works at Xtreme Couture, splitting his time between helping to run the gym and training for his MMA debut. He’s unassuming and soft-spoken, like his old man, but with a quick wit and wry sense of humor. We’re about the same size, so we end up training together a lot.

Even Randy’s wife is a fighter. Kim Couture is a fixture at Xtreme Couture, either in the front offices or in the gym training for an upcoming fight. One of the walls displays a bloodstained top from her first venture into the ring, back in June. If you make your living in MMA, then you’ve heard about Kim Couture. Randy met her when his second marriage was coming apart and, for that reason, she’s had to take a lot of flack in some circles. There were rumors that Kim was a gold digger, and she was stigmatized as the MMA version of Yoko Ono, especially after Randy and his former partners in the famous Team Quest fight team parted ways. Randy dispels the ugly rumors about Kim in his book and she seems to me to be a sweet lady and, more than that, a real go-getter. An unapologetically assertive and energetic individual, she impresses me as the sort of woman who becomes more attractive to a man—and also more of an asset to him—the more accomplished he becomes. She and Randy are obviously a potent combination.

In addition to the many stars that call the gym home, Xtreme Couture draws up-and-coming fighters from all over the U.S. and the world. The gym houses a steady stream of unknown fighters hoping to learn from and test their skills against the best in the sport. They roll in almost daily, and the talent and athleticism of many of these “walk-ins” amazes me. It’s a good sign for the future of mixed martial arts, but training around them can be humbling. I see a monstrous young heavyweight warming up on the mats. He’s about 6 feet 4, and 250 pounds of solid muscle; as I watch, he suddenly floats weightlessly across the floor in series of five perfect cartwheels. “What am I doing here?” I wonder.

II. A FORTUNATE ACQUAINTANCE – SURVIVING ALEJARRA- THE TRIPARTITE ASSAULT

After all the individual attention I got when training with Irving Bounds in California, I’m feeling a little lost in the shuffl e of big names and constant activity at Xtreme Couture. It’s a busy afternoon, and I’m surprised when Wanderlei Silva walks through the door. He trains with the Couture pro classes while his own gym across town is in the fi nal stages of construction. At the moment, he’s getting ready for a third match with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, and his intensity in training sessions is legendary. I introduce myself and we fall into a friendly conversation. It turns out that he’s not only familiar with FIGHT!, but he also knows who I am and even that my offi ce is in Atlanta.

“I know Georgia,” he assures me in English, which is rough but understandable. “Ray Charles is from Georgia.” He had seen the movie Ray with his wife only the night before.

“ He is, indeed.” I say, impressed. Wanderlei is the kind of person you instinctively like: open, generous, plainspoken and charismatic. When he fi nds out that I’m in Vegas training for a fi ght, he insists on helping me with my cardio.

“You’ll train with us.” He grabs me by the shoulder and points to his ever-present trainer and sidekick, Professor Rafael Alejarra. “We’ll help you!”

“Sure, that’d be great,” I say, surprised by the generous offer. I feel as if we have been friends for years. He explains that he likes working with Alejarra because of the conditioning guru’s very structured program. “He tells you exactly what to do,” Wanderlei says, as he checks off an imaginary list in his hand.

He’s right. By the next morning, Alejarra has me on a specifi c conditioning routine designed to achieve maximum results in a short amount of time. We meet every other morning either at Xtreme Couture or at Wanderlei’s new gym, which is just about to open to the public. On the days we don’t meet, he gives me detailed training instructions to follow.

He puts me through an array of circuit exercises: calisthenics, plyometrics, weight training, agility drills, etc. And he always insists that I do every exercise at maximum effort. Whether I’m doing push-ups, or leaping up and down on boxes, or doing curls, or whatever, I do as much as I can as fast I can for a minute, then rest for thirty seconds, and then do it again. This type of hyper-exertion simulates the intense bursts of energy that take place during an MMA match, and it gets your body used to recovering quickly. While I’m training, professor Alejarra watches me closely and pushes me right to the edge. His English is strained, but he knows enough. “Faster, faster, more power!” And a strategic “don’t quit,” if he sees me starting to falter.

We fi nish every session with sprints on the treadmill that push me to my extreme point of effort and fatigue.

“You don’t win here,” he says sternly after my fi rst day, as I’m gasping for air. “You win by not quitting.” I recall my experiences sparring in The Pit, in Victorville. I realize that the real battle will be to get my mind right. And that’s a more daunting task than any physical exercise, even the diabolical ones Professor Alejarra comes up with.

First is blocking out the physical discomfort. My arms, legs, and lungs hurt and burn so much that I just want to make it stop. Aristotle compared the mind controlling the body (with its tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure) to a charioteer driving a team of wild, unruly horses: diffi cult, but not impossible.

Second is learning to quiet the stream of unproductive and disorganized thoughts that tend to fl ood my mind and overwhelm my ability to focus on the task at hand. Buddhists call this phenomenon “the chattering monkey.” I discover that repeating phrases over and over in my mind helps me to keep focused. After some experimentation, I settle on the mantra: “Destruction and Destroy! ALL MINE!” Because I remember being a kid and watching a tape of Marvelous Marvin Hagler chanting this phrase to himself as he did his roadwork.

Finally, and perhaps the most diffi cult, is the deleterious little voice in my head that coaxes me to ease up in my training just a little bit, tempting me with rationalizations of why it isn’t necessary to push this hard all the time. While I never vanquish it completely, I do manage to “meet the devil at the door” by immediately intensifying my efforts and going harder every time I hear it, until doing so becomes a moral refl ex.

III. – LESSONS FROM THE PRO CLASS- MIXED RESULTS- A TROUBLING OBSERVATION

“Don’t look at the floor!” The voice of Shawn Tompkins, Xtreme Couture’s head trainer, carries loudly in a room full of shadow fighters. We all exhale sharply with each punch, kick, and knee, and Shawn has to shout to be heard above the racket. The room is crowded, so I am stuck in a corner of the mat. Since I don’t know how to throw knees well, and my kicks are no good, I mostly stand in one place and throw as many fluid punch combos as I can. The multiple punch combinations are showy but of dubious merit. Everyone in the room knows that anything more than three punches will get you taken down in MMA.

“Fighters who look at the floor end up on it,” Shawn bellows. “Always keep your eyes on what’s in front of you.” The room is a Who’s Who of MMA royalty. Everywhere I look, I see someone famous: Forrest Griffin, Wanderlei, and even Randy himself, who’s across the mat from me grunting and sweating like all the other fighters. It’s very egalitarian. The superstars work just as hard as—or harder than—everybody else.

Suddenly, Shawn shouts, “SPRAWL! ” The whole class drops to the floor in unison, legs thrown out behind and hips pressed into the mat, then pop up and resume where we left off. We race to beat each other back to our feet, conditioning ourselves to get up quickly after a takedown attempt.

After about an hour and a half of conditioning and technical work, we begin sparring. Everyone picks the closest person to him that’s about his size, and we all go for five minutes a round. Every few rounds, Shawn shouts at us to change partners.

There are all levels of fighters here, from World Champions down to the midlevel guys and even fighters who are just breaking in. If you start the class, though, you better be able to finish it. I see Shawn lambasting some poor guy who decided to sit out a round of sparring against the cage that borders the large mat area. “This is the PRO CLASS,” he shouts. “YOU DON’T QUIT IN THE PRO CLASS! ” The message is meant for everybody. Chastised, the guy drags himself up and jumps back into the fray.

Thankfully, Alejarra has gottten my conditioning up to snuff so I never really gas out. The work I did in California with Joe Stevenson and trainer Irvin Bounds also pays dividends. I use the lateral movement they taught me to negate my opponents’ kicks and to frustrate takedown attempts. As long as I back up and constantly circle away from their strong sides, it keeps my opponents off balance, just like Irvin said it would. If I do stop moving and set my weight, I had better throw something quickly and with bad intentions, because if I don’t, a kick or a takedown attempt is coming. Once, I make the mistake of planting my lead leg too obviously, and Ryan catches me with a leg kick that hurts for a week. Another time, Jay Heiron fakes me out of position and then wakes me up with a head kick.

On the whole, however, I am satisfied with how my striking is coming along. I’m holding my own against a high caliber of athlete. I’m not the quickest guy in the room, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve to camouflage my lack of hand speed. One of them is to lure my opponent into throwing a punch or kick at me and then punching back in between his strikes, before he can get his defenses back in order. With the notable exception of my old friend Mike Pyle, who is about as easy to hit cleanly as a damned puff of smoke, I can consistently pull this off, and usually give as good as I get when I’m on my feet.

I’m not nearly as competent, however, when it comes to grappling. On the ground, I spend a lot of time in half guard covering up, eating punches, and trying to not get submitted. I’ve never wrestled, and I’m only a blue belt in BJJ, so my knowledge base is far beneath where it needs to be for me to have any shot at hanging with the caliber of mixed martial artists I’m training with, but I do my best to pick up as much as possible.

In one of my first practices, that day’s instructor, Mike Whitehead, chuckles when he sees me grunting and straining to power my training partner into a slam. Shaking his head, he crosses the room and shows me the trick. The power for the maneuver doesn’t come from the arms or even the back. It’s all in the hips. If I get my hips under my opponent’s, then I can pop him up and over pretty easily. By the same token, to make myself “heavier,” I get my own hips as low as I can.

I also pick up little tricks from watching Randy out of the corner of my eye. One of the things he does is always hit on the break; and I hear him tell someone that a trick to sweeps is to start them as soon as you feel your butt hit the floor, after your opponent’s taken you down. It’s interesting to see him in the class. He moves slowly and deliberately through most of the exercises, and sometimes even looks a little creaky, but then it comes to sparring, he starts throwing around all of the behemoths he trains with like rag dolls.

For my part, I’m doing my best to learn as much as I can, but it’s difficult to judge my progress against fighters who are so much more advanced. At one point, top middle-weight Martin Kampmann even suggests, tactfully, that maybe I should look into one of the amateur grappling classes.

It’s embarrassing that the disparities in my skill set are so obvious. After giving me a particularly brutal drubbing in Greco class one day, UFC fighter Dale Hart warns me about the dangers of being one-dimensional.

”MMA isn’t’ about what you’re good at,” he says. “It’s about what you’re not good at, because your opponent will know where you’re weakest, and he’ll always try to put you there.”

IV. THE TUF ILLUMINATI – FORREST AND JUNIE “CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR”

It’s well known how The Ultimate Fighter TV show helped resurrect the UFC and explode the popularity of MMA. Not only has the show become a driver for ratings and revenue for the UFC but it’s also a rich talent pool for the next generation of competitors. I need only look around the gym on any given day to see this is true. Randy was a coach on the fi rst season and it seems like half the people in the gym have been involved with the hit show; Forrest and Stephan Bonnar, Gray Maynard , Diamond Dave Kaplan and last seasons winner Amir Sadollah all come in to train. When I see the TUF guys huddle up and talk amongst themselves in the gym I imagine them being part of some covert society. Exchanging secret handshakes and plotting to rule the sport from behind the scenes; a UFC Skull and Bones.

Season 8 is currently on and, since the show is taped, some of its contestants are in the gym too. One of them, I’ve known for a couple of years since Team Quest first brought him up from Brazil; the Jiu Jitsu world champion Vinnie Maghalaes.

“ Guess who’s coming in to train, tomorrow?” He asks me one day as we are doing our warm-up laps before class. I shrug my shoulders and he says with a knowing grin “ Junie,” referring to Junie Browning the notorious breakout star of the current season. Junie owes his notoriety to his penchant for pithy one liners and psychotic temper tantrums. Between, throwing glasses at his house mates, slurring his way through drunken tirades and bouts of inconsolable weeping, he seems to me like kind of an Asshat on TV each week. “What’s he like? ” I ask Vinnie, skeptically.

“ Just like on the show.” Vinnie says “ He’s either the coolest guy in the world or the world’s biggest asshole.” I can tell he’s looking forward to Junie coming in.

When Junie shows up he’s noting like I expect. Always impeccably polite, with a slow southern drawl, he seems really cool. He has a lot of physical potential too, one day, we do takedown drills together and he can change levels faster than the eye can see. Tompkins obviously has taken a shine to him and gives Junie a lot of individual attention. Like the higher ups at Spike and Zuffa he can smell money on the kid.

I see Junie doing interviews in between workouts and notice he always looks directly into the camera and makes sure to carefully articulate his sound bites, like a politician. The whole country thinks he’s crazy and wonders what he will do next week. But I have my suspicions that he’s crazy like a fox, and that the furor and controversy are going according to his well-laid plans.

Junie is trying hard to become what Forrest Griffin is: the biggest star to come out of the show. I see Forrest everyday in training and sometimes twice a day. In the gym he can be surly and uncommunicative and we seldom speak to each other. He’s a lot bigger than you would think and he’s strong as an ox. One day I see him and Mike White Head practicing takedowns. Forrest, as a joke I think, just bum rushes Mike and shoves the big guy down with a crash. Everybody watching laughs at the maneuver, which like most of Forrest’s fighting style is artless but effective.

Forrest is often funny in spite of himself. Whether sipping away at a half full Cappuccino while running laps or uncharacteristically striking up a conversation about the presidential election, which had been the day before. “ Who did you vote for?” I ask impolitely since it’s none of my business

“ Well”, he says in his disarming way, “I know that I’ll probably get taxed more because of it but, I voted for Obama,” he then continues “ I’ve been broke and a liberal my whole life and I just couldn’t be, you know, that guy, who jumps ship to the Republicans when he starts to make money.” The way he punches “that guy” is perceptive and funny. I can’t help but laugh. Forrest Griffi n is exactly like you expect him to be. He is completely without pretense and comes across on TV precisely the way he does in person. This is the God given talent that made him a star and it’s one thing that he can hang his hat on long after he’s done with fi ghting.

As for Randy, I see him early in the mornings when we are both doing conditioning. He’s training for his upcoming title defense at UFC 92 so I make a point not to bother him. Still I enjoy the rare opportunity to see him up close pushing his body just shy of the point of breaking every day. It’s remarkable. Early in the morning in the gym there’s no crowd for him to feed of off, no pretty ring girls or thumping entrance music to psyche him up. Just an old man and his heart . He looks very human when he works himself into complete exhaustion and slumps against the side of the gym’s ring apron. My sessions with Alejarra make me realize what mental strength Randy must have to be able to punish his body after all of these years. It makes me admire the man, not his image or its trappings. Charismatic yet introverted, uncomfortable in the spotlight yet wants to be a movie star, unassuming yet a leader to whom people gravitate; Couture remains one of the most paradoxical and fascinating personalities the sport has yet produced. And when he rides off into the sunset, MMA will be the less for it.

What’s he really like? In three weeks of training at his gym we don’t say two words to each other but when I step through the ropes to make my MMA debut, he’s in the front row cheering me on. To Be Continued…

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