Behind every great fighter is a great trainer. Behind every legend there is a mystique.
That mystique can be personified in the mere mortal form of Steve Friend, better known in the mixed martial arts community as “The Witch Doctor.”
Friend, an acupuncturist by training and a holistic therapist by practice, lays hands regularly on UFC welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre and UFC legend Randy Couture.
He’s worked on Rashad Evans, Rich Franklin, Clay Guida, Diego Sanchez and Tim Sylvia. Matt Hughes even cited Friend in his autobiography, Made in America, as coming to his rescue before his now legendary fight with Royce Gracie, after suffering back stiffness just days before his match.
After one session Hughes was as good as new and he would go on to TKO Gracie.
The Witch Doctor is more than a masseuse. He is a healer, and he works on the body’s energy system from the inside out.
Listening to Friend explain what he does is akin to hearing St-Pierre explain the scientific approach to his dismantling of BJ Penn at UFC 94.
“I work with the internal energy system,” says Friend. “Take the Western medical model in comparison to the Chinese medical model. The Western medical model deals with anatomy, physiology, endocrinology and neurology. I integrated that with the Chinese medical model of internal energy and figured out how all that stuff worked and how it all goes together.”
“Massage therapy, like all other methods of therapy, have a time and place and should be used in conjunction with other therapies to treat the patient as a whole,” says Diana Zotos, a physical therapist at the The Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Zotos says that energy healing has relaxation effects, stress management benefits, lessens pain and promotes inner healing, yet there is very little empirical evidence on exactly how it works.
After St-Pierre injured his abductor muscle at UFC 100 in his bout against Thiago Alves, Friend said he worked the opposite of Georges’ body, sending energy through the central nervous system by way of the spinal cord, which he says is “very effective for healing injuries.”
But just as UFC cutmen Leon Tabbs or Jacob “Stitch” Duran root for their corners during a bout, a fighter in the opposite corner one fight will inevitably be in the other corner the next.
It’s no different for Friend.
“I worked on Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre when Georges won the belt from Hughes,” says Friend. “And it was hard because they’re both my friends, but Georges was sweet about it. He invited me to the after-party but said he would understand if I didn’t want to go,” he said.
One of the telltale signs that a fighter is a Friend client is a pre-fight ritual where the fighter will press his chest and the back of his neck at the same time before a fight and between rounds, in an effort to connect the physical with the emotional.
“It’s like turning a circuit breaker on. Both Georges and Randy do this. They take their thumb or forefinger and press it just under the collar bone next to the sternum. There are hollows there. The other hand will be on the back of the neck pressing on the brain stem. This will reset the autonomic nervous system and the central nervous system so the entire body is working in coordination.”
Zotos doesn’t entirely disagree.
She says that “holistic and alternative medical practices are useful treatment rationales because overall health and healing involves the integration of the energy fields of the person and their environment. It also taps into the very important, and often oversighted, mind-body connection that has valuable effects in health and healing.” Working so intimately with the world’s best fighters doesn’t faze Friend much at all. In fact, he says simply that it’s what he does.
“I used to be in the ministry,” says Friend.
“But when thinking about the design of life, I really have come to appreciate the Designer a lot more and I can honestly tell you that the more I study the design of life the more confidence I have that there really is a Designer.”
“If we can understand the design of life, we can really take a lot of responsibility for ourselves and the quality of life that we live.”
“Before the fight, he takes away the stiffness in my body. After the fight, he can help the healing process in my injuries.” – GSP
“Dr. Steve has a unique style that combines Western medical knowledge with the Eastern medical model to create a holistic approach to treating athletes and fine-tuning the energy systems of the human body. It sometimes feels like Steve is looking into your soul and positively tweaking you, so you are free to go perform well!” – Randy Couture
“When you looked in his face, you could see that this man had lived many lives, that he had probably been a troublemaker, then a rebel, then a pupil and now, a guru.” – Matt Hughes