Survival Of The Fittest
When people comment on how much I have improved my fi ght game I always joke that since my skills were at zero when I was on The Ultimate Fighter, I could only get better.
Prior to fi ghting for the UFC, I had a record of 3-0 in my then short MMA career. The formula consisted of throwing strikes as a distraction, clinch, takedown, and submit. I had won all my fi ghts the same way. It was classic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Wash, rinse, and repeat. I chose to fi ght in heavier weight classes, and my opponents were well rounded. However, my BJJ positioning and submissions were getting me my wins. There’s no need to change what isn’t broken, right? Hell no. Soon, I found myself fi ghting a monster of a challenge, Drew Fickett. Dana White happened to be in the crowd scouting him out.
It was after this fourth fi ght against Drew Fickett that I changed from trying to be the best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu artist I could be, to the beginning of my obsession with being the best mixed martial artist I could be.
I had to change my whole game if I wanted to be successful at MMA. I lost by a narrow split decision in which most of the spectators, including Dana White, thought I should have won. However, I knew I could have done better. My striking and wrestling skills needed to improve, and I was fi ghting emotionally. Dana was impressed with my performance and had offered me a spot on the fi rst season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). The only problem was that it was a middleweight (185 pounds) contest in which fi ghters cut down from 205 pounds or higher. Despite being a true 155-pounder, I took this unique opportunity to test myself. I fi gured that whether I became successful or not, this experience would become a great lesson for me.
I started working on my Muay Thai skills with Mark DellaGrotte, and a few weeks later I was in Vegas taping TUF1. It was there where I actually learned about MMA training. All the guys on the show had impressive records and backgrounds and were seasoned fi ghters. Due to my lack of experience, I knew I had to learn fast in order to compete. Not only did I have great training partners on the show, I had both Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell as coaches. I had the privilege to see different approaches to training and had an opportunity to improve as a MMA fi ghter. It was here that I saw the great value and beauty in the other combat arts like boxing and wrestling. I felt confi dent in my ground game, but I knew I had to signifi cantly improve my striking skills. I tried to spend as much time as possible with Peter Welch (TUF boxing coach) and Ganyao Fairtex (TUF Muay Thai coach). My striking skills grew week by week, along with my confi dence. Eventually, I found myself in the fi nals of the event.
At the TUF fi nale in April 2005 I was in good shape, but after hitting the pads for 30 seconds backstage I was completely gassed. I learned that there was another huge aspect to MMA fi ghting: It is called the mental game. I got caught up with the enormity of the event. I was thinking about the cameras, the big contract, the crowd, and everything else except what I needed to do to win. Simply stated, I was a nervous wreck. After some awkward moments of circling around the cage, Diego shot in, took me down, passed my guard, and mounted me. He hit me with a barrage of strikes, and the referee was forced to stop the fi ght. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Diego did to me what I did to others in my fi rst three fi ghts. It never should have ended like that.
After this terrible freeze-up, I began to prepare myself mentally for a fi ght. I started to meditate, practice visualization, and became closer to God. Meditation helps me focus and clear out any distractions prior to fi ghting. Visualization helps me to be more positive and confi dent before I go into battle since I can “see” my win. I believe that praying and being spiritual helps keep me calm, strong, and grounded.
In terms of improving my fi ght game, I knew I needed to train with people who could really push me to a higher level. I needed to get beaten up during my training and workouts, but my training partners were “too nice.” Letting me beat them up was not going to help me win fi ghts. I needed to bring new guys in or tell them to give it their all and really pressure me in my training sessions for it to be any help to me.
I was not transitioning from BJJ to the striking game as seamlessly as I should have. I realized this after my win over Alex Karalexis. I won what became a bloody fi ght, but I was not as effi cient and fl uid as I should have been. This was due to the way I was training. Like most fi ghters at the time, I would break up training into two sessions; one was strictly BJJ, and the other was Muay Thai. Changes needed to be implemented. My solution was to combine it all together, including boxing and wrestling.
I told Mark DellaGrotte to combine wrestling, ground and pound, and everything else into the pad work. Because Mark has an open mind, he was able to accommodate the request and it helped my training tremendously. I told my brother, Keith, that we too needed to make changes. He was my fi rst coach and training partner, and we had always done things a certain way- -a primitive way. If we were to succeed, I knew that we had to evolve. We were both BJJ black belts, and we needed to think outside the BJJ box. A major change in training was using gloves and implementing striking in our sessions to make the techniques we were using realistic.
I felt marked improvement in my next couple of fi ghts in my wins over Kit Cope and Sam Stout. For those last two fi ghts as well as future fi ghts, I had travelled extensively for the sole purpose of expanding my game. I found new BJJ training partners in California, Virginia, New York, and Hawaii; trained boxing with the best in Mexico; and fl ew to Thailand to enhance my Muay Thai. Each trip improved my technique. I was evolving.
With three wins in a row, the UFC offered me a fi ght against Sean Sherk for the UFC lightweight championship. After seven total MMA fi ghts and less than two years of real MMA training, I found myself facing a world-class welterweight with a long and impressive resume who was dropping down to lightweight. This was going to be a tough fi ght but one I had been craving since I began my new training. Unfortunately, what made things diffi cult for me was not being able to work on my guard game due to a painful back injury. I greatly regret this since I was aware there was a strong possibility I would be fi ghting from my back in this fi ght.
I eventually found some good wrestlers to challenge me, but I did not dedicate enough time for muscle memory to be effective. As the saying goes, it was too little too late. Sherk took me down round after round and controlled me throughout the fi ght. He was explosive, fast, and technical. While I felt I could have easily gone another three rounds and had won the striking part of the fi ght, my wrestling and guard game was not enough to stop his win after fi ve bloody rounds of action. Once again, I needed to step things up, keep evolving.
I was training hard, but I wasn’t training like a professional athlete. I started rehab for my back and hired a full-time strength and conditioning coach, Kevin Kearns (see p. 60). He had a detailed plan for making me healthier, stronger, and faster. He told me he would rebuild me from the inside out and that there would no longer be an off-season. He and my physiotherapist were surprised at how I was able to compete these last couple of years with the injuries and limited movement that I had. After six months of very hard and painful work rehabilitating, it was time to test out the new engine against another tough and experienced grappler, Dokonojonsuke Mishima. I felt like a new person and actually looked like a new man. Having been a soccer and tennis player I always had strong, muscular legs, but after this training I actually had muscles in my upper body.
I dominated the fi ght from the beginning with leg kicks and ground and pound. However, in the third round, I was almost too confi dent, and as I stood above Mishima, he got a hold of my leg and I lackadaisically pulled it out, not respecting his leg-lock attempt. He locked out my leg, and I remember hearing my knee pop. A switch turned on in my head that shifted me into sixth gear. About 30 seconds later, I submitted Mishima with a rear naked choke. This fi ght taught me a few extremely important lessons – one being to always be on guard and not let up even for a second. I also learned to get nasty and stay nasty. It is kill or be killed. This is serious business. Before the Sherk fi ght, I considered what I did as competition. I now realized these really are FIGHTS! I must hurt my opponent before he hurts me.
I don’t want my opponents to take this personally, but I don’t just want to win anymore. I want to destroy them. From learning to keep my chin tucked in during the Alvin Robinson fi ght, to learning how to tighten up my punches in the Joe Stevenson fi ght, each fi ght has been an important step in my development as a fi ghter. I am very critical in my assessment of my performance – even when I fi nish a fi ght. I know that if I don’t improve, my opponents can fi nd a weakness and expose it. I can always do better. I will always attempt to evolve.
Through constant adjustments and fi ne-tuning by my current coaching staff, my game has continued to improve. My brother, Keith, never lets me get comfortable and is always coming up with goals that he wants me to reach for each fi ght. He has been responsible for new techniques and picture-perfect game plans. Mark DellaGrotte has kept my Muay Thai sharp. Kevin Kearns is always coming up with ways to get me stronger, faster, and in even better shape. The additions of other coaches to Team Florian have been extremely imperative to my growth as a fi ghter as well. Peter Welch with boxing. Jesse Kropelnicki through his amazing nutrition plans and cardio routines. Scott Rehm has given me an internal strength and unshakable spirit. Muzzaffar (Moose) Abdurakmanov has given me wrestling muscle memory and made both my offense and defense solid.
Iron sharpens iron, and everyone who has ever trained with me, I consider my teachers. All this training and hard work is about trying to reach perfection in something that can be both brutal and beautiful. Beyond the belts, the fame, and the money is the search for the perfect punch, submission, or takedown. I still have so much more to learn to be a better fi ghter. It is MMA Darwinism, after all. If you don’t evolve and move past everyone else, you are at a standstill, dead in this game. My true opponent is not the guy standing across from me in the cage. My real opponent is time!