MMA coach Greg Nelson is finishing a story about a well-known fighter sprinting down the Las Vegas strip wearing nothing but fight shorts and gloves. The fighter had just lost a big fight and was not handling it well. The story segued into an hour of unbelievable conversation on everything from mentors to training advice to coaching philosophy. Guys like Nelson love to talk about coaching, and when you get a great one talking, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. Nelson is funny and intense— listening to him speak makes me want to train that instant.
The coach who Nelson admires most is legendary wrestler Dan Gable, but not for his long list of accolades. “Gable knew how to push the correct buttons on all his wrestlers to get them to perform at championship levels,” says Nelson. “Gable knew that some wrestlers needed to be coddled and some need to be screamed at. He was intense.”
Nelson could very well have just described himself. Greg Nelson is cut from the Dan Gable mold—a tireless worker, humble, and a dedicated student of the game. Plus, he can still kick some ass. Nelson started wrestling at 11 years old, eventually wrestling in college for the University of Minnesota. After graduating in 1989, he immersed himself in martial arts. Over the next 20 years, Nelson would try to master the arts that make up MMA, including Muay Thai, boxing, submission wrestling, and BJJ. Now, Nelson is the head coach and owner of The Academy in Brooklyn Center, MN. As a coach, he has produced three UFC World Champions—Dave Menne, Sean Sherk, and Brock Lesnar.
Nelson credits three arts with helping shape his coaching philosophy. From wrestling, he takes the intensity and attitude. “Wrestlers will not back down in practice, they will take each other to the breaking point so the individual and the team get better,” he says. Nelson credits his wrestling mentality with shaping the overall structure of his program. BJJ taught him the importance of technique, precision, efficiency, and how to “master the game.” From Jeet Kune Do, Nelson learned open mindedness and how to adapt and absorb. “JKD taught me how to think outside the box.”
The qualities that Nelson cultivates in his beginners happen to be the same qualities that he looks for in a future champion. Hard work is a theme that Nelson comes back to time and again. He believes that a successful fighter must live a “disciplined lifestyle.” Every coach preaches working hard, but Nelson is talking about something deeper— deliberate practice, which involves setting objectives and drilling until those objectives are met. For Nelson, the answer to most problems is more drilling. “Give me a guy that will persevere— plus an ounce of talent—and he can be great.” The highest compliment Nelson can give a fighter is to label him a “grinder.” Nelson’s ultimate example of the work ethic that he preaches is Sean Sherk.
However, the time of the athlete is coming. Nelson believes as the sport evolves it is becoming more of an athletic endeavor—a true sport. “Fighters are finding strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, and changing the way they live their lives.” The baseline for strength, speed, power, and endurance to be successful is constantly rising. “We are seeing these gifted athletes that are willing to do anything to be successful in MMA.”
I know this, wherever MMA is going, Nelson will be ready for it.