Erik Paulson is a rare breed—he was ahead of his time during MMA’s infancy, and now he is ahead of his time as a coach on the highest level.
Ask most people to recall their earliest memories of mixed martial arts and the name Royce Gracie invariably comes up. However, five months before Royce triumphed in the first UFC, Paulson had already fought—and won—his first MMA fight in Japan.
As MMA’s dominance shifted from submissions to wrestling to striking in the1990s, Paulson used decades of experience in all three disciplines to capture and defend the Shooto Light Heavyweight Championship. Now, he’s an instructor of some of the best mixed martial artists in the world, including former UFC Heavyweight Champions Josh Barnett and Brock Lesnar—appearing as part of Lesnar’s coaching staff on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter. He’s come a long way from the fourth grader in Minnesota who was sick of sitting on the sidelines during baseball, football, and hockey games.
“The thing that would suck is that if your team didn’t win, you were still a loser—even if you didn’t play,” Paulson says. “I told my mom I wanted a sport where I could be accountable for what I was doing.” His mom listened, enrolling him in judo and karate classes. In junior high, his dad signed him up at a Golden Gloves boxing gym. At home, tussles with his wrestling brother showed him the value of a good double-leg takedown.
The next years were an odyssey into martial arts, both well-known and obscure: Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do, savate, kali, Jeet Kune Do, and catch wrestling. In 1986, Paulson moved to Southern California to try his hand at modeling, acting, and stunt work, as well as to train with Dan Inosanto—one of Bruce Lee’s top students—at his academy in Marina Del Rey.
In 1987, a full six years before the Gracies became the ambassadors for no-holds barred fighting, Paulson received his introduction to ground fighting from the Gracies. “I took private lessons with Rickson. The first day he asked me, ‘Do you know an armlock? Put me in an armlock.’ So, I extended his arm all the way, and he said he was going to count from zero to 10,” Paulson says. “By the time he said ‘one,’ he was arm-locking me instead.”
One day in 1989, Paulson spotted a flyer at Inosanto’s academy announcing an upcoming seminar from Yori Nakamura, a representative from the Japanese fighting organization Shooto. The flyer showed a fighter punching, kicking, suplexing, and submitting his opponent. “I thought that was interesting because he was putting everything together,” Paulson says. “That was what I was looking for—the complete martial artist.” After watching Nakamura demonstrate 30 submissions at the seminar, Paulson was hooked.
Shooto had been hosting MMA-style fights since 1985. When Paulson saw a few fights on video, he signed up for about against Kazuhiro Kusayanagi that was scheduled for June 24, 1993, in Tokyo. He trained for four months, traveling to different gyms to hone his craft. He won his fight with a third-round, reverse-triangle choke.
Paulson defeated Kenji Kawaguchi to capture the Shooto Light Heavyweight Title in 1994, a belt he would surrender only upon his retirement. He was the first American to win a belt in Shooto, but he says the higherups would have preferred it were one of his Japanese training partners. “They were like, ‘He could be very marketable. We could say he’s half-Japanese,’” he says. “Well, you can’t say I’m part Japanese: I had blond hair, blue eyes, a Fu Manchu, and a kick-ass attitude.”
Under contract to Shooto, Paulson continued to fight in Japan and in sanctioned events in the United States. Meanwhile, he grew his skills by rolling with Rigan Machado, sparring with Thai boxing champ Rob Kaman, and trading his submission skills for Rico Chiapparelli’s takedown prowess. In every fight, Paulson’s goals remained the same: strike, takedown, submission.
The pay for his overseas battles was predictably poor, and Paulson’s finances were in rough shape. On the eve of his 1998 bout against Masanori Suda, he asked for a pay raise: $5,000 to show with a $1,000 win bonus. He won, but his days fighting in Japan were over. With a 2000 win over Ron Jhun that brought his record to 10-4-2, Paulson—married, broke, and nursing a knee injury—put his competitive MMA career aside.
Instead, he organized his decades of martial arts experience into training methods he dubbed Combat Submission Wrestling and STX Kickboxing, and he created an international network of schools. He became a coach for fighters Josh Barnett, Ken Shamrock, Renato Sobral, Cub Swanson, and many others.
Shortly after Paulson armlocked his way to victory in a 2007 comeback fight on the inaugural HDNet Fights card, Greg Nelson—a longtime friend and head of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy—invited Paulson to train Brock Lesnar, the NCAA standout and WWE star who was working his way into MMA. Paulson coached Lesnar during his ascent to the UFC Heavyweight Title, teaching him catch wrestling tricks like the neck crank he used to control Frank Mir while pounding his face. “Catch wrestling works perfectly for collegiate wrestlers, because it’s all the illegal moves that you’re told you can’t do,” he says.
These days, Paulson remains in Lesnar’s stable of coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 13. He has an audience of embryonic fighters who train like athletes, who train striking and grappling in equal measure, and who want the fame and fortune high-level mixed martial arts has to offer. It’s a far cry from the days when Paulson had to explain the promise of mixed martial arts to traditionalists who couldn’t wrap their heads around the sport. They said they just didn’t get it. “Don’t worry,” Paulson recalls saying back to them, “in 10 years, you will.”
Paulson’s blond, movie-star mane became a liability in World Combat Championship, a bare-knuckle tournament he entered in 1995. Promoters advised him to cut his hair, but Paulson had committed to acting in a movie scheduled to shoot soon after the event. “The reason I was hired was because I had longhair—I was playing a Viking warrior,” Paulson says. “Apparently, they hadn’t heard about wigging people.”
In his first match, Sean McCully heaved Paulson to the ground and yanked his hair while landing elbows and headbutts. The rules forbade submissions and required a stand-up after two minutes of groundwork. “When he didn’t finish me and they stood us up, I jumped up and said, ‘You’re dead.’” Paulson finished McCully with strikes, but he had no such success against James Warring, who again tugged his locks and beat on him, forcing a corner stoppage.
Renzo Gracie choked out Warring to win the event, and Paulson ended up losing the movie part. “But I did get a call from Baywatch,” he says. “I played a bad-guy hockey player. They painted my hair black, put a helmet on me, and I got to cross-check a guy off his feet.” He cut his hair months later.