The Tempering of Nate Marquardt
In ancient times, the quality of a warrior’s weapon could mean the difference between life and death. Blacksmiths waged the first arms race, creating harder and stronger blades. “Tempering” steel was a black art and science, involving the heating and cooling of alloys for the right combination of strength, hardness, and flexibility.
Nate Marquardt is a pure mixed martial artist, a top 185-pound fighter. He’s a proven ten-year veteran at 28 years old. He is one of the most complete fighters in MMA, but few people know much about him, the son of a Lutheran preacher from the great Northwest. Few know about the tempering process that made him what he is: the crucible of Pancrase.
We met while we were both on the set of the movie Warrior, an MMA fight movie shooting in Pittsburgh. While I was there, Donovan Craig of FIGHT! asked me if I was interested in doing a story on Nate. I agreed because I had never really gotten a good understanding of this fi ghter. He’s a battle-tested veteran, yet still young and continuously improving, as his Street Fighter II finish of Wilson Gouveia has shown. And his quietness makes him even more of an enigma.
I started hanging out with Nate, and I quickly began to see why he was a mystery to the public. Nate “The Great” Marquardt is a tough interview. He’s immoderately modest, pleasant, and soft-spoken. He murmurs, carefully shakes everyone’s hand, and smiles. He’s definitely a fighter, not scarred but powerful, with narrow eyes, square jaw, and a broad nose thickened from breaking. There’s a ginger, Irish feel to his skin and curly hair. Although he’s a “small” 185-er, walking (in shape) at 195 (something a lot of Greg Jackson’s fighters do), Nate has massive shoulders and square hands.
Once I began talking to Nate I realized that the only topic he gets excited about is technique, either in striking or grappling. That’s what he loves. When the conversation goes that way, his eyes light up and he actually speaks more than a sentence or two.
I sat next to Yves Edwards, who was also involved with Warrior, and Nate at dinner, and listened while they chatted. They had a relaxed way of talking to each other. They had fought a million years ago, in the infancy of their careers. It was in the Bas Rutten Invitational 4, in 1999, and it’s hilarious to watch it on You- Tube. They both look about fifteen; Nate in particular was a string bean. He caught Yves in a heel hook, and it was that tourney that brought him to the attention of the Japanese promoters. After dinner, Nate and I discussed his origins, where the alloys to make the steel were mined.
“I was born in Lander, Wyoming,” Nate said. And to those of you who don’t know, that’s getting into beautiful “big-sky” country. Nate was part of a big family, with five kids. His father was a Lutheran pastor, so they moved around quite a bit.
When Nate was eight years old, his parents went through a tough divorce, which led to his father’s resigning his pastorship because he felt it would be hypocritical to get up and preach. That decision is an early example of the rock-solid ethical core of Nate’s life, the black-and-white simplicity. I can tell the divorce was hard on the eight-year-old; some anger burned in. Nate ended up in Colorado. I asked him if he was still religious, and he maintained that he was, although he only went to a nondenominational church every other week. He did have the Bible on his iPod, and he admitted that he prayed before every fight. “I pray for no one to get seriously hurt,” he said, “and that I will be blessed to do my best.”
Growing up, Nate was small, a “late-bloomer” but a good athlete. Like all of us, he was drawn to the fight movies, the action movies. “I always wanted to do combat sports,” he said, “and one year we got boxing gloves, and my brother and I used to box all the time.”
“I got picked on a little,” he said, “but I never got bullied, because I would stand up for myself. If someone crossed the line I didn’t care how big they were.” I get the feeling that Nate doesn’t live in a world with much self-doubt. If something’s wrong, it’s wrong. He played basketball and soccer, and to this day is still a little bit sore about not making the basketball team when he was a better player than other, taller guys who did make it.
Then Nate saw the first UFC and the sight of a small man beating a larger man inflamed his imagination; and when he was fifteen he started jiu-jitsu. He tried out a few schools in the area of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and ended up with Alistair McNiven. Nate started training in no-gi and kickboxing and, he said, “within three months I started catching guys. Of course I was very raw, but the movements made sense and I started to be able to land a triangle or an armbar. I stopped other sports to focus on martial arts.”
I asked Nate if he wanted to fight from the start, and he smiled that quick grin, “I was the kind of kid, if you asked him what he wanted to do when he was playing basketball, he’d say be in the NBA. So yeah…I wanted to fight, that was the goal.” Nate started competing after six months of training, and almost always fought against men because there were so few kids his age. He won his first fight just days before his twentieth birthday.
Ricardo Murgel is a legendary coach and BJJ instructor from Brazil. An eighth-level red belt, and a closequarters combat instructor, he speaks with the classic Brazilian lilt. Master Murgel was in Denver doing a seminar when he met Nate, in 1999. “At 155, he was very thin, just a little boy, and he had no gi pants, so he had to borrow some. But after the training he came up to me, very respectful. He was fascinated with the new techniques. He learned incredibly quickly.”
Greg Jackson would echo those comments, and more. I asked Greg, “What’s something most people don’t know about Nate Marquardt?” he said simply, “Most people don’t realize how good he is. Nate has more talent in his little finger than most fighters have in their whole body.”
Both Master Murgel and Greg seemed to feel that Nate’s time fighting in Japan—he was seven times Pancrase champion —had been the proving ground. Murgel said, “after Japan, I knew Nate was going to be one of the best fighters in the world.” And Greg said, “Japan made him really mentally tough. He went out there without the language and lived in the gym. He learned techniques, but most of all he learned that he could DO something scary like that. That environment is tough. And now nothing fazes that kid. Before a fight, he’s unflappable.”
KING OF PANCRASE
Pancrase hybrid wrestling started in 1993, the first year of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, when the fertile idea of vale tudo was floating in the ether. It was founded by two Japanese professional wrestlers, Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki, good catch wrestlers looking for a professional venue in which to try out their skills. In the beginning, closed fists were illegal, and Bas Rutten came to fame palm-striking guys unconscious. But, by 1998, Pancrase was pretty much following the lines of MMA everywhere, so all of Nate’s Pancrase fights were closed-fisted.
Nate’s journey to Japan actually started at the Bas Rutten Invitational 4. He won that MMA tourney, submitting Yves and two other fi ghters in one night. As the winner, Nate might have been invited to the UFC, but the UFC scout wasn’t there that night. Instead, there was a man who worked for Pancrase, and he liked what he saw.
So, at the tender age of twenty, Nate went by himself to Japan to fight. Although he lost his first fight, he impressed, and was invited to stay and train at the Pancrase dojo. “It was a huge deal,” Nate said. “No other American was able to stay and train there. Guys sometimes were invited, but they would get homesick or banged up and have to leave. Pancrase was only paying twelve or fifteen hundred bucks at the time.” Remember, this was 1999, and places to train full-time in MMA were rare and could be counted on one hand.
But it wasn’t as easy as that. Nate had just had a baby daughter, Emmalie; she was only three months old. “At first I was really scared, but I had a lot of family support,” he said, “and the moment she was born, the fi rst time I saw her, she became the most important thing in my life.” While he would eventually separate from her mother, Nate and Emmalie remained deeply connected. When I had dinner with Nate and his wife, Tessa, and Emmalie, I was struck by how close he was to his daughter. He spent half the dinner bent over her, their heads almost touching, in whispered conference. Like a big kid.
The decision to stay and train full-time in the cold, alien environs of Japan was a hard one for Nate—a stranger in a strange land. But he knew he had to do it, for his career and for his family. The tempering of Nate Marquardt had begun.
LAND OF THE RISING SUN
Nate lived and trained at the Pancrase dojo, a massive MMA school that was run much like a sumo camp, with an incredibly strict and oppressive hierarchy. “I was really fortunate,” Nate said. “Most guys who start off at the Pancrase dojo are called “young boys ” or “greenboys .” If you are a young boy, you are at the very bottom of the totem pole. You take care of the whole gym, cook, do laundry for everyone, you get your ass kicked literally.” He smiled, his grin easy.
“Takahashi was an old-school guy, and one time his cup and jock strap weren’t dry by the time it was time to train. First he yelled for his young boy, and the kid he was yelling for had the worst cauliflower ears ever, he had little slits for ears, no space. You might not be able to slide a penny in his ears, so he couldn’t hear very well. So, Takahashi had to yell a few times, and then the kid came running, and Takahashi slaps him really hard, and is just chewing him out, bashing him around. He had a Louisville Slugger and he waved it at the kid, saying he was going to beat him with the bat if it ever happened again.” Nate looks at me with his eyes wide, pantomiming the shock he felt watching this. “I was young, it blew my mind…I thought, holy shit, dude!”
He talked to a Japanese friend about the incidents he had witnessed, and was told: “It’s just discipline.” Nate accepted it, and began to understand it. “Later, when I got back to the States, I was still in that ‘discipline’ mentality, and when young men in the gym were disrespectful, I wanted to beat the crap out of them. It’s totally understandable, once you’re around it. Don’t disrespect people,” Nate mused.
“Everyone was really respectful, and I loved that. But at the same time, the politeness and respect made it hard to form relationships. People were closed off. They were heads down and straight forward…you could be lonely in a room with five hundred people.” Although he was homesick and isolated, Nate did have a few bright spots, a few friends. But not many.
Nate’s first Pancrase fight was against Genki Sudo. “At the thirteen-minute mark, the referee called two minutes. In these rules, if it went to a decision it was a draw, no matter what. I was thinking, I don’t want to draw. So I ended up getting too sloppy to try and create something, and got caught in an armbar.” Nate was in Japan without a trainer, without anyone he could discuss these issues with. “I overcorrected for my aggressiveness in that fight,” he said. “I fixed the technical things, but that was the easy part. The mental part would take a lot longer.”
One positive note was that Genki and Nate became friends, and Genki invited Nate to train at his gym, Grabaka. “Pancrase dojo was the wrestling background, where they fought like [Kazushi] Sakuraba, and they’d give their back and stuff, a lot of good wrestlers. Lots of guys in Japan have judo backgrounds, a good solid base.”
“Grabaka gym was headed by Sanae Kikuta, who won at Abu Dhabi against Saulo Ribeiro. He was in the same bracket as Renzo Gracie, Evan Tanner. He had a background in judo and jiu-jitsu. A lot of stuff he taught I still use; they’re ‘my’ moves.”
Nate was getting excellent training, but he had to muddle through the mental aspect of fighting on his own. “In the beginning of my career, I was overly aggressive,” he said. “It cost me a few of my fights. So I flipfl opped and did the opposite, and I was overly cautious. I think I fought overly cautiously for a while, but I got so good I was still able to win.” Just like tempered steel, Nate was sliding between extremes.
Maybe the hardest test for Nate came early, during his first tournament. It was an eight-man tourney, and the second and third fights were on the same night. And Nate was sicker than he had ever been. “I had some kind of virus. For a while afterwards, we thought it was mono. I was sick for three months after the fact. And I had been in Japan too long. I was homesick, too.”
Words failed him at first. Then he went on: “It was horrible. I can’t even tell you how horrible it was. My body wanted to quit, but something inside kept telling me to keep fi ghting, putting all that I had into it, not leaving anything.” Both fights went the distance, the first against Kiuma Kunioku, the second (which went to overtime) against Shonie Carter. Nate won by unanimous decisions each time. “It proved to me how tough I can be, how mentally tough. How much I wanted to win.” The tempering process would continue through his Pancrase career.
“At about twenty-five fights, I fought a guy who was a decent takedown guy, Izuru Takeuchi. He’s beat some decent guys, always the same way: He plods forward, ends up taking a few shots, but gets the takedown, and lays on guys.” “He was coming but never exerting max power; he just had good constant pace. I beat the crap out him for half the fight. But then he kept coming and I ended up losing the fight.”
“When you fight hard and think, ‘oh that made me tired, I should hold a little bit back’, that happens to a lot of fighters. They used to go balls out, and then one time they get tired, and the other guy takes over. They get scared of that happening again.” Nate looked thoughtful. “Looking back, I realized what really happened was he was outwrestling me. And if I would find my spots, and use my explosiveness, I could beat him. Which is what happened when I rematched him twice. I knocked him out the first time and choked him out the second.”
I asked Nate why he left Pancrase. After defending his title seven times, Nate finally felt that he had done everything he could do. “I’d fought the best guys, and besides, I always had a dream about fighting in the UFC. So I came home.” When Nate returned to the US, he had to figure out where to train. He looked around, and tried a few places, but the place that really felt right to him was a small, upand- coming gym in New Mexico, Greg Jackson’s place.
“It was just their personalities, and the things they valued, that attracted guys like me. And Rashad [Evans], and eventually Georges [St. Pierre], and the young talent we have now. We wanted good guys, guys we could trust, that didn’t have attitudes. The right ethics and training attitudes for our team. We’re not going to fight teammates. That was important. Especially when you’re the new guy coming in. When I first started, Diego [Sanchez ] was filming TUF. It was me and [Keith] Jardine and [Joey] Villasenor. Joey is a middleweight and a top-ten ranked guy. You come into that atmosphere, you’re going to be a little wary, but then you know, if you’re going to be on this team you don’t ever have to fight this guy, you can train with him every day.”
From the way Nate talked about it, you could see how important it was to him to feel he belonged to a team, after being alone so long. He recounted how he felt at the Pancrase dojo. “Guys who were gonna fight each other sometimes trained there. At Grabaka gym, guys wouldn’t fight each other, but at the Pancrase dojo they would. They’d train at the same times, but just not with each other. That was one of their downfalls, for sure, as a team. You can’t trust your teammates if you might end up fighting them.”
Nate paused and then said, “It’s such a relief, to have that bond, to stand up to the outside world.” I was reminded again that MMA, for all its individual aspects, is in fact a team sport. “What is it about Greg that draws you guys together?” I asked Nate. “Well, Greg’s a big part of it, obviously. He’s an excellent game planner. He’s not closed, he’s open to new things.” You can tell that, for a guy like Nate, who is coming to the table with so much experience, so much talent, this is a key sticking point.
He continued, “sometimes guys will be stuck in what they grew up in, BJJ or boxing, whatever it is, they’ll be straightforward about it. Guys can sometimes be afraid to learn something new. One cool thing about all of our coaches, they’re very open-minded about new techniques and styles. They don’t necessarily think that their way is the best way. They all have open minds for other styles to work; they let each fighter be an individual fi ghter and try to guide them forward. Trevor Wittman is a big part of our team as well, the boxing coach. He’s the same way.” When I spoke to Greg, I asked him for some general impressions of Nate.
“He’s amazingly coachable, he listens well. With Nate, I just try to get him to open up and use all his creativity, because he’s such a smart fighter. I want him to open up and expand, and think outside the box. When we add to his giant skill base, he always listens, he sits and never argues, never says anything, just tries to absorb everything.” “Tell me about his creativity,” I asked Greg.
“Well, Nate is incredibly strategic, but also creative— it’s congenital, he was born with it. And no matter what he would have done, he would have been very creative. But his last fight with Gouveia, the finishing sequence with high kicks and spinning kicks and back-fists was so creative. But before that fight, he would stay disciplined to the game plan, making sure angles were right, everything fit into place. He was disciplined, and then when the time came to finish, very creative. That fight reveals Nate’s whole personality.”
TIGHTENING THE GAME
Back in Pittsburgh, at a local gym, we got a chance to roll a little bit. Nate is, of course, perfectly polite about it, but equally insistent: The butterflies go in, and he stretches me out with verve. Pretty soon, I’m swept and he’s in side control. And then I start to feel the real Nate Marquardt—everything starts to tighten up. It’s like rolling with an anaconda. There’s no space. He waits patiently, and as you make tiny mistakes, he sucks tighter and tighter to you. There’s less and less space, until even in side control it feels as if you might just be squeezed into a choke. He’s patient and remorseless.
When I ask him about his game, he’s noncommittal. He takes what’s given. I’m not good enough to really get a feel for him. But UFC and WEC referee Josh “Rosie” Rosenthal is there. He’s trained with Wally Jay and Carley Gracie, and received a brown belt from Clovis Silva, a member of the old Carlson Gracie team. Josh and I laughed about rolling with Nate, “He’s just a thoroughbred,” Josh said. As Josh had the expertise to make some qualified commentary, I asked him to expand.
“He’s technically impeccable. He fights a game of inches. If he were a football team, he’d be advancing the ball steadily with short runs, instead of looking for a long ball. But that style, although it’s a little conservative, doesn’t give you any opportunities. Any mistake, once you start slipping down that hill, it’s really hard to come back against a guy like that. “He caught me in a head-and–arm choke, something no one should catch me in. As it started, I tried to adjust, but he continually resets, and it’s a little bit deeper, and a little bit deeper, and deeper…until I said to myself, fuck I can’t believe I got stuck here. And there was never a moment to get anything back.”
THE ANSWER TO THE RIDDLE OF STEEL
I asked Nate about his motivations for training and fighting, what drove him now. He thought about it, and answered, “my motivation is to fight anyone, especially Anderson. One of the main things is I don’t feel like I fought my best against him. I have a huge desire to rematch, just because of that, just to show myself and prove to myself. I know I can do it.”
After the loss to Anderson Silva, Nate said, “the main thing was that I had been fighting for a long time, holding back, I had been fighting not to lose. That realization has freed my mind up from those things, I can really express myself now.” It seems the final tempering process is done. Since that loss, Nate has submitted the submission master Jeremy Horn, knocked out the excellent kickboxer Martin Kampmann inside a round, and roughed up the tough guy Wilson Gouveia. He’s at the top of his game. Nate the Great has become a finished, bright blade, shining in the dark, looking to slice the Spider’s web.