I talk to Greg Nelson, who was the coach for UFC champions Brock Lesnar, Sean Sherk and Rose Namajunas. He is a 4th Degree BJJ Blackbelt, Division 1 Folkstyle Wrestler, All American Gymnast and Muay Thai kickboxer along with multiple other martial arts. We discuss how he creates a positive culture in his gym while utilising visualisation, affirmation and building relationships.
How this also contributed to his incredible battle against cancer where after beating it once he overcame a different form of rare nerve cancer which has intrigued medical scientists. And we also discuss technical aspects of coaching and cornering fighters in the cage.
Listen To The Interview With Greg Nelson Here:
GRER NELSON INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
Sonny: Greg, how are you today, man? It’s an honor to be on the line with you.
Greg: I’m doing pretty well, can’t complain. Save the normal complaints of what’s going on, but other than that, just pushing on, keeping things busy, doing what we can with what we got.
Sonny: That’s awesome. I’ve reached out to you because you’ve been a big inspiration to me in a bunch of different areas really, obviously, with mixed martial arts. Your own history and background in mixed martial arts is rather extensive. I know you’re All American wrestler, also All American gymnast. You were Thai boxing back in the ’80s. You’ve done work with Shuto Filipino martial arts. I’m sure I’m missing out a few, but I feel like if we go through your entire history, that will probably be a show on its own, right?
Greg: It’s been an epic journey, that’s for sure. It’s been fun. I love doing the martial arts. It doesn’t matter what kind it is really. It’s been a pretty diversified trip. I really enjoy it. For me, as well it’s about the journey, about enjoying the time and having fun doing what you like and staying healthy along the way.
Sonny: That’s some of the things I’ve heard you say about the journey is some of the favorite things I’ve heard you talk about. What I am wondering is then with that background and all those different martial arts, is then how those then informed your coaching practice and how you eventually shifted into the coaching side of things and of course, going on to coach champions, like Sean Sherk, Rose Namajunas, Dave Menne, Brock Lesnar and of course, just coaching a lot of people in general. How did you take that wide experience? Then what was the impetus to transition over into coaching?
Greg: I think coming from an athletic background, growing up doing just all sorts of sports, but then really narrowing it down when I got into high school into gymnastics and wrestling. Obviously, with gymnastics, you got a multitude of events that you’re doing. That went right into the wrestling season. I was doing martial arts at the same time. Right between my high school and going into college, that’s when I met Sifu Rick Faye and we started training then and it was just in his garage with six people. It was pretty cool because I was just like, “Oh, you doing all the stick work and doing all this stuff that I only read about on Dan Inosanto. Man, this is great.” Right from then on, it was like, everything was interconnected. I was just writing about this. To me, I never really saw a difference between training gymnastics, wrestling, martial arts, it was all intertwined into one thing. It was all about getting better and more athletic, and understanding movement, and just seeing how it all tied together. Drifting into these other martial arts, first, it was Filipino martial arts and Jun Fan martial arts, then Muay Thai, and then Savate and Wing Chun. I just kept on growing with the whole over the years. That has allowed me a huge variety of training methods to pick and choose from depending on who I’m working with. Also just I think it really helped build the creative mindset and being able to just make up stuff when we needed to make up stuff. There’s a perfect example of it. We’re just making up stuff a lot of it right now. We’re just pulling from it. I’ve been able to pull from so many different martial arts that when I had an athlete that was competing, let’s say came in a lot of them had a very strong wrestling background. They’re going to need striking, they’re going to need to build up their grappling. I would look at where they were, what type of body they have, were they fast? Are they just big or whatever? I could pull from different sources of training methods. That’s always been a huge help. There’s never been really an empty, where it’s like, “Jeez, I don’t know what to do here,” because you just have so many drills and training methods and tools and techniques over the years. Then all the testing that we’ve done with all the fighting bit, just my own wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu and grappling, Judo. Just continuing on, obviously Muay Thai and all that other fighters that are in the school, were always picking at each other’s brains. How did you develop that? How did that fight feel? What do you think we need to work on? This has just been a constant evolution of building off of each other over the years. If I have a question about something I said, “What do you think, XYZ?” From one of the fighters, from one of the coaches. We have a very interactive team, that we’re always dialogueing back and forth with.
Sonny: I like that. The wide variety of experience that you built on your own now when you’ve translated into coaching, it’s more arrows in the quiver, more tools in the toolbox that you can then pick and choose from and suit each individual athlete based on, you mentioned the feedback that they’re giving you and their own thoughts on what they think, right?
Greg: Exactly, because you can’t put all fighters in a cookie-cutter. They’re all different. They all have different body types, different strengths, different backgrounds, mindsets, psychology, everything is different with each fighter. You might have one fighter over here, though the base techniques that they need are pretty similar, once they develop that, now it’s really the whole Bruce Lee philosophy, absorb what is useful, reject what is useless and average specifically your own and mix it up and find what works best for each fighter and go from there.
Sonny: I like that. One thing with that Bruce Lee philosophy, do you think that it sometimes could be for some fighters that when they’re training, they could say, “This works for me so, I don’t want to change,” when in fact, they might be getting false positives or bad feedback on something. I’ve had some experience where I see that people take that philosophy and maybe through a misunderstanding of it, use it to– it makes them go down a path that maybe isn’t the best for them. Have you ever seen anything like that?
Greg: I think especially with fighters, you’re going to get feedback pretty fast if [chuckles] your philosophy’s working or not. We’ve had game plans that we put together that within the first round, we’re like, “It ain’t working.” That person ain’t planned against us, whatever, but because we have this really strong foundation with each one of the fighters, they have a good wrestling background, a good Jiu-jitsu background, with striking background, we can make shifts. They are also going to be able to do that on the fight because when you think about a fight camp for a particular fight might be 8, 10 weeks. All the other times throughout the year, say if there’re other fight camps or training and as you said earlier, give me another arrow in the quiver. When they come into the octagon or the ring, wherever they’re fighting, they’re going to be able to make adjustments on the fly because they’re constantly live grappling, they’re sparring, they’re testing, we have different types of people. That’s being a truly mixed martial artist, being able to do that right away. That’s something that’s really important to see.
Sonny: That adaptability obviously is huge to be able to do that on the micro-level within a fight and then on the macro-level of just big life changes for a fighter to be able to adapt especially like things we’re going through right now. Do you think that adaptability and openness to change and being a coachable athlete, do you think that can be taught in itself or is that something that inherent to just the athlete when they walk through the door?
Greg: I think you can teach it. You got an athlete who’s really hard-headed when he comes in, pretty soon things are going to start happening, where he realizes, “Maybe I got to change”. This is the nature of training, especially when you’re walking into a place that maybe has a good variety of really tough well-rounded fighters that will find their holes pretty fast, and they’ll fall into suit. Usually, that’s what happens, and then as they start to realize and then they’ll go to the other fighters and they’ll say, “Hey, how did you catch me there as well?” Because you’re staying right on his tracks pretty easy to hit you. You got to start getting footwork, you got to start breaking it up whatever it might be. I think that definitely it can be taught and I think just the nature of how we run our program that you’re coming into a school that has a really wide variety of martial arts. You’re not just getting this really even in the context of just mixed martial arts, no we’re going beyond that. We got Filipino Martial Arts, and the Wing Chun and Jun Fan and Savate, and all these different arts that people are seeing, and they’re going, “What is that?” “Oh, that’s this,” and then they see a little element, “Hey I might be able to use that”. It becomes part of who they are, they want to– They obviously drift into our academy because of maybe they feel that fits there because that’s important too. They got to feel they have a fit with who you’re training with and the coaches and the philosophy.
Sonny: That makes sense. It sounds like the feedback that people are getting from the training partners and the feedback people are giving the coaches, you place a strong emphasis on and probably rightly so. One of the things that I remember you saying somewhere is just being appreciative and valuable to the time that any of your training partners are actually giving you, and cherishing that time you get to spend to train with that person and that really stuck with me when you’re talking about where it might be that one person who you’re seeing there every week for a good couple of months or maybe years. You’re getting good rounds in with them and just being appreciative of the time because eventually, who knows? People get jobs, people move on, whatever, that’s not always going to be there and especially now in this moment we can think of people that we wish we were training with. How do you create that culture? How do you make sure that people are willing to give that feedback in the gym to their different training partners? What I’m asking is, how do you be a good training partner for people?
Greg: Well, I think the biggest thing is we always talk about even with our fighters, we’re here to build each other up. If everybody’s building each other up, well, everyone’s going to get better because if you’re not getting better, and everyone else is getting better, well, you’re just going to fall behind. We’re always there to work with one other, they’re always calling each other to make sure that, “Hey can you come in and train at this time? Are you going to be there?” If they don’t show up and there I am right away so we’re always keeping everybody accountable. A big part of it is also– and this maybe comes from just the fact that how we started the entire academy when we’re training, when we’re fighting back in the day, you showed up because you are obligated to not only for yourself but to your training partners. They’re going to be there for you, you got to be there for them and those are the people that are going to build you up when you don’t feel like being there. Then they’re going to chide you, they’re going to do whatever they got to do to get you back into the mood. Usually, you get the guys that you find really care for you and you want to be there for them. You want them to– Hey, I’m not going to say we haven’t had people that we’ve had some issues with. If I got somebody that is not a good fit, they got to go. It’s very important to have a good vibe between all the fighters, all the teammates. No fights in there, no personality clashes. Every once in a while without a doubt, it happened in the wrestling room, it happened whatever. You can get so tired sometimes both the guys are so tired, and you got your wits’ end and it’s just like they’re about to throw blows down and I say, “Okay guys. Chill out. Relax, we don’t have time for that,” and they’re, “All right, sorry about that.” Things are gonna happen, but for the most part, they get over that pretty quick, and then they’re back to training. The people that have a problem or their ego is too big for that, we just say, “You know what? It’s probably not the best place for you”. You got to get the problem out of there, or else it might fester to the rest of the guys. We have a pretty very friendly team, everybody’s friends with each other, they really want to be there to help each other out and that’s a big, big part of the development of everybody.
Sonny: That makes sense. You’re very selective in the people that you allow to stay on the team if they’re starting to become possibly a negative influence or don’t have the right attitude. Let’s say this is something that I think is probably pretty common with a lot of gyms around the world that someone gets ready for an MMA fight, they have their fight, win, lose and then you don’t see him again for another month until they’re ready to come back in and start training. Everyone was there helping him get ready and then they have their time in the spotlight and then we might not see him until they’re ready to come back in on their own time. If that was to happen in your gym, you don’t see him for a month, they come back in, how do you handle a situation like that?
Greg: Well, obviously it depends on the fight. Usually, they get done fighting, I want them to take a week off, I want them to just rest and recover. It’s a lot of things have to recover after you get down with a really hard fight. What usually happens, I generally never have to call anybody because the other guys on the team will be the ones calling. They’ll be like, “Hey where you been? What’s going on?” Either through our little messenger page that we have for our team, or they’ll call each other up. They really police one another really well so I don’t have to do that and I tell them straight up. “Hey, if I have to be there every single day to remind you to get in the gym, maybe this is the wrong sport for you. This is not one to take lightly”. All right. We have a pretty good group of guys and they keep each other accountable so–
Sonny: That’s good I like that. I should clarify injuries permitting. I’m not saying that everyone should come back in before they got the stitches out or something like that.
Greg: [unintelligible 00:17:04] say, “What are you doing here? Look at your face, get out of here”. [laughter]
Sonny: It seems like you have such a positive attitude and that positive environment even to develop that within your athletes to be taking the initiative. I know a big thing with you does seem to be the power of positive thinking and you’re big on affirmations, you put them up on Instagram and I think, “Damn, I should be writing down something like this. How does he do it? How did he come up with this stuff every day?” Tell me a little bit about that because I do think it’s valuable and I do think it’s something that’s important and I just want to know, like your mindset how you came to that and how you think it affects you.
Greg: Well, I think that mindset and that positive mindset, obviously being an athlete, the mindset has to be there. I was fortunate in the fact that I had some really proactive coaches that were probably even ahead of their time. I remember my gymnastics coach in high school which was in the 80s, 1980, he was really big on visualization and having you visualize your routines and to think about what’s going to happen if you fall? How are you going to recover? What are you going to think about? Where’s our breathing going to be? He was already putting that and planting those seeds in and I started to see that, “Men, this stuff works”. I tell you there’s a great story about visualization and about the mentality that I went through, I was learning a release move on a high bar. You’re flying out the bar and you’re coming back and re-grabbing the bar and I was just crashing, just wiping out. I wasn’t getting the bar, and the bar’s like what? Nine feet in the air so when you’d fall down he’s like, “Argh, get back up, do it again.” Crash! Finally, he’s like, “Get off the bar. It’s not doing anything for you right now.” He goes, “What I want you to do, I want you to go home and visualize yourself doing this move over and over,” and I remember him saying this, “However long your adolescent mind will allow you to visualize this, I want you to focus on it.” I was so determined to get this move. I’m going, “I don’t know, whatever. If this is going to work I’m going to try it”. The whole weekend I really spent time before I went to bed, when I woke up, random times throughout the day I’d focus. I remember him saying, “Hey, because you’ve never done it, you’re not possibly going to be able to see yourself doing this move so put your face on someone else doing the move first, and then start to work your way through”. I did that I really got to the point where I was visualizing myself doing the move. I remember that Monday, when I came back into the gym, I got up in a bar after our regular warm-ups and went to do the move and I cast it over, boom! Grabbed the bar and I was like, “Ah,” and I let go. He goes, “Why did you let go?” I go, “Because I never had it before, I couldn’t believe it.” I got up and I hit it and I never missed that move again and I did not physically do that move the entire weekend. Right then I was going, “Holy fuck, this works. This visualization, this mental game works.” I really started to delve into it a lot more with not only the physical plane of moves over my head in gymnastics, but I brought it into wrestling and then what’s going to happen if I get taken down, how am I going to come back? I’d started to visualize matches, I’d started to visualize all these different things and that really started to build the importance of using the mental capabilities, the psychology of winning and performing. Then I remember I got a book and it was by Dan Millman called The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.
Sonny: I was just about to ask you that because with the gymnastics– please continue.
Greg: I read that, of course, he’s bringing the martial arts element into it. He’s a gymnast and I’m looking at this stuff going, “This is exactly true, this is everything’s right in this book. This is awesome.” Then from there, on that book I got the warrior athlete from him, so I just kept on building, That was the impetus to really start reading books on this stuff was Dan Millman’s books, It was so awesome that there’s now these things, and there was books back then, you couldn’t Google anything. I still have– in fact, this will crack you up. I just found this because I’m digging around stuff and there it is.
Sonny: I got that one behind me as well. I got it right behind me.
Greg: I’m going over it and I’ve rewriten all the notes I had, and sometimes you’re looking at the notes and I remember my gymnastics coach also wrote for me these, a piece of paper and I have that too. I wish I had it up here, but he wrote down his questions. How do you mentally prepare for gymnastics? How do you mentally prepare for wrestling? What’s different? What’s the same? He had all these questions that he wanted me to define. I found that in gymnastics, I had to be really relaxed and calm and get my breathing down because everything is so precise and if you too amped up, you’re going to wipe out and crash. In wrestling, it was almost the opposite. I was getting super amped up to get out there. It was really getting me to focus on how to prepare myself for these different things and that just naturally went over into the martial arts and how I did the training for martial arts. I think another thing as far as learning and thinking about that is when I got to college, you go and you meet sports psychologists that are working for the university and they started talking about visualization. They start talking about positive feedback in your mind and positive affirmations. When things go wrong, how are you going to deal with it? When a class doesn’t go so great, how are you going to stop from bringing that into the practice room? If a week doesn’t go so great in the practice room, does that mean it’s not going to go well for your fight? It could be the opposite, we don’t know. All these things are starting to be developed at this time and that was right away in my late teens and early 20s and that just kept on building from there.
Sonny: That’s fascinating and I think they made a movie too out of the Dan Millman, one of the books, which is interesting. If people aren’t into reading they can start with the movie. In fact, I’ve got some notes on the mindful athlete up on my website that I’ve put up there. It’s a great book, no doubt. When you’re dealing with that with your athletes, will you recommend that, “Hey, you set aside a time to visualize.” Will you take them aside and tell them how to do it? What type of involvement do you then take on to giving your athletes the structure on how to visualize and how to think positively.
Greg: I’ll do a number of things. Usually, after every practice, I’ll sit down and I’ll be having a thought or whatever, and I’ll write it down on a whiteboard and I’ll talk about it. Sometimes it’ll be about the mental game, sometimes it’ll be about pushing themselves and when they get really fatigued, how to push past that. I’ll talk to the fighters as a group and then I’ll also talk to them as individuals, watching their training, what they need, what I think they should focus on. Some resources that they could use, things to watch. Ultimately, I’m a big believer in this, that I could sit there and tell them all day long until I can’t talk anymore, but they got to take initiative. I’ll tell them, I’ll point them the way and then I’ll ask them, “Hey, did you ever–” “Oh, you didn’t. Well, what’s the deal?” I’m not just going to sit there and harp on them. I’m going to say, “Hey, this is for you, not for me. I hope you figure that one out, so keep on going.” I got another person I got to deal with and then I got an entire school of students who’ve got hundreds of students in there. I got to sit there and focus just on you. Especially as a professional fighter or as an athlete, this is something that you should want to do. You should want to prepare your mind, your body, everything for the event to be the best fighter, the best competitor you can be.
Sonny: Definitely, I think it’s that old, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink kind of a mindset especially with some fighters, all you can do is offer up the advice if they want to take it, if they don’t you can’t spend all day with them, unfortunately. Now that makes sense. Do you put that visualization into part of your morning routine? Do you do that every morning? I know you get up and do– with the anesthetics, it seems like, and do you make it part of your daily ritual, daily schedule?
Greg: Well, definitely for every single day, at some point in time I’m visualizing something. Just because I have so much feedback over the years, so I could be shadowbox and I could be doing the Carenza and I could be visualizing weapons coming at me or people coming at me, so I could do it in that manner. I also do when I need to calm myself down and how to try to just get to the zone where you’re just relaxing. For me, that’s not easy because I’m wired, I’m like a random [unintelligible 00:27:09] . I have to find a way to do that and so that’s part of the thing too and I do this thing. It’s pretty simple where I just sit down and relax. I learned this from Brendon Burchard, he’s a high-performance coach and it’s called the release meditation. All you do is you sit there and you relax and you just say release, release, and you try to release all the tension and all thoughts and if a thought comes in, you just let it release out. You don’t try to fight it and it calms you down. I’ll try to do that, and to me, that was a very simple thing because I try to think about a candle burning and whatever, in my mind, the candle is burning and a wind is blowing it and then someone’s throwing firecrackers in there, that keep it really simple. That’s better for me just release, just release all the thoughts that are coming in and relax. I’ll do that and that’ll be part of my visualization too and I’m really big in that positive affirmations to keep myself on a positive framework, be optimistic about what’s going to happen, and enthusiastic about what I’m going to do and excited about what I’m doing right now. Again, you have to train your brain to do that just like you train your body to be stronger or faster. That’s not automatic. We always say you have the ants, the automatic negative thoughts, and they’re all over. They will overwhelm you. You don’t just have positive thoughts that come in and everything’s great. It’s automatic negative thoughts come in, you got to crush those and then stamp on those ants and then get the positive ones in there. You have to start to train your brain for that as well and that’s just something that I’ve done for a long, long time ever since I was younger. Seeing as an athlete doing it and then getting different directions by different martial artists and how they were visualizing, how they would see things mentally, and I tried to use that same philosophy. It was useful, that really works well for me and then someone would explain something to me, try to teach me. Just whatever doesn’t work that well and I’d be like, “Ah, okay, I get it. Maybe I’ll point somebody else that way, but that just doesn’t work for me.” Then there’s been things I just added my own twist to.
Sonny: I really liked that, the way of thinking that it is a skill that you have to train because it’s very easy for people to go on just to look on the bright side of life, cheer up buttercup, but sometimes it’s hard. You’ve got to start small, lift those weights and it’s hard. I actually had a good conversation yesterday with the Bishop runs Hip-Hop Chess Federation, is very interesting and he was talking about three positive actions for every one negative thought. I thought that was really good.
Greg: Those negative thoughts are so– they’ll bombard you. They could bombard you. They do, and a lot of people let them and it overwhelms them.
Sonny: Yes, I’ve been there. I think everyone has that. [crosstalk] With your affirmations do you write those every day and where do they come from? I look at them, you put them online for other people to read and thank you for that and they’re quite detailed. They’re not just “cheer up” or “you’re going to have a great day”. You’ve got some substance behind them that you seem to be putting out every day. How do you come up with those, and where’s that coming from, and how important do you think that is, actually writing it down?
Greg: I have a couple of different ones. There’s ones that I say and I do it every day in the shower. I’m in the shower and the first thing I say is, “This is going to be the greatest day of my life”. Right away I’m already preparing my mind this is going to be a great day no matter what happens. I’m going to be full of energy and positivity throughout the entire day. I could be excited so I say that “My abilities and skills are expanding all day long”. I’ll say that. Then I’ll say, “I have the power of my mind”, and then I go through the alphabet. I choose to be and I’ll say, “Have a good attitude, be action-oriented, be bold and creative, courageous, disciplined, decisive, energetic, excited-
Sonny: Let’s go.
Greg: … and just keep on going through that. To have an attitude in grace and health and happiness and integrity and joy and tonnes of love and motivation and never give up, and optimistic, and persevere and just go through the entire alphabet. Man, that’s all I think about it and I do that every single day to start off in the shower.
Greg: That kind of, there it is and then that part’s done. I’ve already directed my brain right away to look at the positive things. Then the other ones I have the sheet of paper, I think you saw me– One of them is the purpose of my life now is and that was originally again, Sean and I learned it at Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Academy, where he said, “There’s a purpose of my life now it’s like, be, do some of that”. It’s like be full of energy and truly excited and enthusiastic and totally engaged. To be bold and courageous, kind of the things I talked about, and to do what I love in a way that I love it. To serve with happiness and gratitude, to seek challenges, blah, blah, blah. Then so that you’re at the end of my life, kneeling before my Lord, He’ll say, “Well done my good and faithful servant, you’ve used your time, your talent your treasure to your ability. That’s something that I wrote out. Then the other one it’s about what I choose to protect. I choose to protect my integrity, my faith, my choice, my life, my health, my happiness, my energy. That’s a very proactive thing that I choose to protect it so that when I get up I’m going to drink water, I’m going to sleep the amount of sleep I’m supposed to get, I’m going to exercise regularly, I’m going to eat clean and green as much as I can. I’m going to plan my day and attack that plan. I’m always going to keep learning and reading and listening and studying. I’m going to value my time and be generous and kind and real and try to be as authentic as possible with people. I’m not going to fear failure, and I’ll embrace it. I’ll fail all the time, I don’t care less. Also, I’ll do that. That’s something my daughter talks about. She’s a gymnastic too and she’d always say, “Fail, fail, fail until you don’t”. That’s what gymnastics is. You crash and then you get up, you crash, you crash, and then you get it and then you start to perfect it as much as you can and then they say, “Okay, you got that now you got to get something else. Cash, crash, fail, fail”. That’s just the process. You’re always challenging yourself to do new things, or try new things. You know what I always say, “No challenge, no change”. It’s always you’re trying to find ways to challenge yourself. For me, I try not to complain over trivial nonsense. There’s enough things that are really there to complain about. Right now we got a big one.
Sonny: That’s true.
Greg: Now you start looking back and go, “God, I couldn’t believe that sometimes I get so irritated because there’s some guy taking too long to pump his gas”. Now I’m like, “Wow, that’s crazy”. All right. Now look at what we’re dealing with and so the other thing is that my thing is to try to use that to protect my ability to be positive and optimistic and inspiring. I take that on as a challenge to do that no matter what I’m facing. This really served me well, especially obviously when I had cancer because now I was like, “So what?” That was like a battle for a solid year and then afterwards, building back up was another process.
Sonny: Now that story is, from what I know of it just rather amazing could be because my understanding was that the cancer you had was an incredibly rare form of cancer, that they really didn’t know about your chances for survival. Obviously, we know how the end of the story went, it all turned out okay in the end, but it looked like it would have been incredibly daunting. I can’t even imagine what it would have been like. One of the important things I remember reading about it when you’re mentioning that story is that once you found out about it, you didn’t want to know the odds of the survival rates, and, oh, all that positive thinking stuff, you put it to the ultimate test. How did that all happen?
Greg: That I had two cancers back to back and the first one was I had stage four liver cancer, and I had tumors on my spleen and tumors on my liver, and there’s kidney involvement. It was like they’re like, “Well–” I remember at the time, I was married and my wife was like a bulldog and she was just the one that really got the doctors to start to– because I was 37 so they’re going, “It’s probably not cancer”. I didn’t get any scans or anything and finally, I got the scan and they said, “Come to the hospital”. I went to the hospital and I remember I was so fatigued, I could hardly do anything. I’d sure move and I had to sit down, I’d just be like, “Men this is not normal”. I remember getting off the elevator, and the first thing I saw was oncology, so I’m like, “Oh, all right, God, I have cancer”. In my mind right then, I was like, “Okay, now I have something to fight. Now, I know what it is to fight”. Then when they did the biopsy and they said, “Yes, all right. You got cancer in your liver,” I said, “Okay, what do we got to do?” I told them right away and I said, “Hey, I don’t want to hear statistics, I don’t want to hear numbers. I don’t want to hear anything because that takes into people that it was too late, they quit, they didn’t want to fight, too old, misdiagnosed, addictive. That’s not what I want to hear, I just want to hear what do we got to do?” If all of a sudden, and just afterwards, I got to find out all the numbers but that first cancer, that was about a 5% survival rate at that point. I ended up going through chemo and dealing with all that and obviously, they don’t know how much I train, what my mind is made up, how much physical abuse and pain and discomfort I’m used to taking. They don’t have any clue. I remember my wife brought in a picture book and a video, “This is what we’re dealing with, so it showed competition, fights and training”. They’re like, “Oh, okay”. Well, that cancer went into remission. All good. The tumor’s gone away, it went away and then all of a sudden the second one came. I always tell people, my stage four liver cancer was my easy cancer. Then the second one, I ended up going down to Rochester Mayo Hospital, a very famous hospital in the States here, and a lot of people come from internationally there. For months, I went into the door and I didn’t leave for months and they had no clue what was going on because there was nothing showing up in my blood, there’s nothing showing up on scans and all they know is that my ability to walk was taken away and I had tons of pain, just nonstop pain, pain, pain. Once again, I was like, “I don’t want to hear numbers. I don’t want to hear stats, when they don’t even know what to do, and anyways what’s up with this? Keep on figuring out this”. A long story short, they finally did a high powered MRI imaging, they found that my left cyanic nerve was bigger and brighter than my right. They went in, I did a biopsy on one nerve in my ankle then they did a biopsy in my sciatic nerve, and they found that the cancer went into my nervous system. They told my wife at that point. “All right, here’s the deal. We know what it is. There’s been zero survivors to date. They’ve all died of pain.” I didn’t know that, so I was like, “What are we going to do?” My son was two and my daughter was five, a lot of motivation to keep going. I’ll tell people when you talk about the negative thoughts and how they come in bombarding you, man, when you’re alone in those rooms and you’re dealing with this pain, it’s just like phew if you didn’t have a way to attack that, that alone would just cause a lot more despair than you need. I remembered having that and I’d get one word in mind, whatever it was and I’d just say it over and over until it’d either subside or I’d fall asleep or something would happen where that negative thought would leave. That was the battle, it was just continual. Knowing that, “I know how to do this really good. I know how to fight really well,” and I even had mantras there. One of them was, I may have cancer, but cancer will not have me. That was one of them. The other one was, I will fight until I live or die, but either way, I won’t stop fighting. I already knew that. I’m not some fantasy person. I know there’s a chance. Either way, whatever’s going to happen is not just going to be me giving up. It’s just going to happen because that’s just the nature of this. That was the mindset. I always tell people all those years of preparation and sports and martial arts and the pushing and the driving and developing that mindset and the way to visualize and imagery and all this other stuff was like preparation for this big battle. Then once that battle subsided and I came back, then it was like the second chapter of my life where you start looking at things a lot differently. Like I talked about the trivial nonsense. Things get pretty trivial after that. I remember some of the guys would get so irritated because they would say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this happened,” and I’d go, “Dude, at least it’s not cancer. Don’t worry about it.” They be like, “All right. We get it.” That’s how I think about it now, I go, well– this whole quarantine thing when it had happened, when it started I’d go, well, I was quarantined inside a hospital room on a bed for months and couldn’t get up because I couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything. My kids would come in and half the time I’d be zoomed in and out of morphine. Being able to do all this stuff I can do now in this quarantine, I can still go outside. I can still walk around. I can still train. I can still talk to my friends. I can go and do zoom classes. I can do podcasts. I can do whatever. It’s a different world and it’s nothing like being– what about those people that are in the hospital right now that are really going through this battle or going through any other battle that they’re dealing with? Far worse than being stuck in a house for a little while. I look at life in a much different light than I did beforehand.
Sonny: That is such an incredible story. There’s so much to take in from that, it’s amazing to hear it from you. For people listening if they don’t completely understand the rareness of that cancer and what you did being so incredible is like that was written about in scientific journals and articles and studied as an exceptional case. I’ve been thinking, “You’re on the cover of the Mayo Clinic magazine, which many martial artists might want to be on different covers.”
Greg: You definitely do.
Sonny: That just is a testament to just how incredible and exceptional that was, right?
Greg: Yes, it was. Obviously we didn’t know at that point until they found out what it was, but at that point, these other people had gone through it and they didn’t know, they found the majority of them post-mortem what they had, and then one person lived and then died. That was what they had basically. I talked to the doctors and that was like 18 years ago. 2002, 2003, that whole span of time. 17 years actually, coming up it was Memorial Day weekend which was coming up in the United States. That’s when I was diagnosed with my first cancer back in 2002. It’s surreal right now. I look at it kind of surreal. I go down and I talk to the doctors and they say, “Anytime you’re in town just come in and let’s run surgery. We will drop anything.” They want to talk and see how things are going and if I have any residual effects, which yes, definitely I had my sciatic nerve obliterated. I got some issues with my left foot and compared to what it was, they were just like, “This is amazing.” The doctors would talk about it and the one doctor who was the head of the neurology department of Mayo, he changed an entire conference that he did because of my case and how they look at a nerve cancer and how they look at abnormalities in the nervous system. It changed a lot of things. I didn’t do anything, I just fought. That’s all I did.
Sonny: It’s amazing. It is truly an incredible story. It’s that testament then to all the mindset that you’re talking about, that visualization, affirmations, positive thinking that you’re helping develop with the martial arts, that is just testament to it. They seem to be working in unison with that visualization. Going into this quarantine I could tell who had never gone through a big injury before because they’re worried like, “My skills going to drop off in six months.” For me I’m thinking, actually when I’ve come back from injuries, sometimes surprisingly the first couple of weeks I’m feeling a bit better. Don’t get me wrong, not that I’m comparing a bad knee to what you overcame. My question is, the combination then between that mindset that you used to overcome your cancer and then the actual techniques that we’re training in the gym. From the mental aspect and the mental side of martial arts to then the physical, technical hitting mitts, hitting pads, rolling round, cranking arms, how do those two inform each other? How do we help one side develop the other?
Greg: I think that any kind of hard training where you’re pushing yourself and you’re putting yourself in very uncomfortable positions a lot and you have to deal with it, is developing your ability to problem solve on the spot and be able to deal with– You’re underneath some big dude is crushing you and you figure out how to breathe and how to not panic. Then pretty soon that becomes almost normal. You think about the person that you were when you started jujitsu or started training and then all of a sudden throw them in with the people that you’re training with now, that person will be crushed like an ant. They’d be like,”What’s happening?” That process of just you’re not only getting physically tougher, but you’re mentally getting tougher. You’re being able to deal with more and more pressure. Your little aches and pains that you right now just think, “It’s pretty normal.” Maybe to somebody who doesn’t do anything, they’d be like, “God, this is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.” It’s like, this is actually pretty good. I feel pretty good because I’m used to– obviously, you’ve had knee injuries or whatever. I think that right there as you start to train and you start to push yourself physically, you have to constantly battle that mind that wants to say, “You’re good enough, that’s probably good enough,” when you know you could do more. There’s one little battle right there, especially when you’re doing any kind of conditioning or pushing or you set a high rep on a technique that you’re going to do and you look at it and you go, “Man, I’ve been doing this for 22 minutes now and still got X amount of reps.” You start playing these mind games, “I can do maybe a little less.” That’s where you got to fight that. That’s where the battle comes in and that’s where you start getting a little bit tougher, mentally tougher as you start getting physically tougher. I think that you cannot become really physically tougher and in great shape without first being mentally tough because you’ll quit. As soon as you start getting really tired, you start feeling your lungs burning, your muscles burning, a lot of people who don’t have that, who don’t realize that’s what you’re yearning for, that’s where they’re like, “I got to go, I got to quit.” Whereas you’re like, “I can do one more, I can do one more rep. I can do one more rep. I can do one more sprint. I can do one more go.” That becomes something that you take into the rest of your life as well on and off the map because now you realize, “I’ve been through some pretty tough positions and really uncomfortable positions, I’ve been in a bunch of really burning lungs, my legs have been crushed all over somebody, I can deal with this problem.” I look at a lot of the problems that we have in our everyday life is the same thing, we had to figure out how to deal with this problem. What’s the difference? It’s just a different problem. Maybe I have to mentally deal with the pressure now of trying to figure something out as opposed to physically dealing, but it’s kind of the same process? That’s how I look at things. The more I’ve been around high-performing people like– there was that place I went to is– I talked about this, this is Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Academy where you’re around a lot of people that some of them could be really, really high-performing business CEOs, some of them are high-performing athletes, entrepreneurs, and then, of course, you’ve got people who have no idea why the heck they’re even at this conference, [chuckles] and they signed up for. You deal with all these people, but you start seeing the people that are really successful, they have no fear about falling on their face and getting back up. They don’t have any fear about the pressure because they know it’s going to be normal. They know that the person who perseveres past those pressure, past the part where it’s uncomfortable, past the point where you feel stupid, whatever it is, because they realize everybody has to go through this, and the people that persevere past that are the ones that are looked at as, “Wow, look at that person, he’s successful.” They’re still going through the same stuff it’s just at a different level now. I think that is a huge part of jujitsu, it’s a constant problem-solving, constantly dealing with pressure, constantly asking questions, “What would be the better way to do this? How do I get through this situation?” I always say this, whenever I’m grappling I find myself in a craptacular position-
Greg: I’m always like, “All right, well, this is a unique training opportunity.” That’s how I look at it. I don’t be like, “Oh, damn, I’ts a test. My God! I’m just like, “Okay, here we go. This is different, let’s figure this out now.”
Sonny: I love that. That’s a very good way to look at things. Would you say that it’s like you talk about the fear of looking stupid doing something? That’s more of an imagined fear that people could have versus when we try martial arts we get a pretty tangible fear, so it gives us a good way to bridge that gap between the imagined fears in our head and the actual physical reality.
Greg: Yes. Especially if you go into a competition or something and you’re getting ready to go out, and there’s a chance you can get tweaked, you can get your arm busted or who knows what happens out there. Definitely that’s a little bit more of a real apprehension that gets out there it’s like, “Okay, this might happen,” but then you have to be able to control that say like, “Well, when is the last time I’ve seen that happen. Well, not really. Did I prepared for this? Yes. Did I worked super hard for this? Yes. Good, now I can go out there and I can get through that.” Now, most other fears that are out there are contrived, we make them up, they’re imaginary. If you think about originally what was fear based on, against giant tigers or some coming after us or another warring tribe coming to kill us. Stuff like that. Then, all that stuff was taken away and it’s like your brain starts to figure out things to take its place. [laughs] It’s like, “Well, that’s not really that scary. To fear making a mistake.” Really? That not really a fear. That’s like, “Yes, I don’t want to look stupid. I don’t want my friends to think or people think I’m an idiot.” That’s not really a fear. That’s just a loss. I don’t even know what that is sometimes. It’s something that we make up. If you just look at half my videos I’m just making crap up, I’m just doing and trying stuff. It’s like, “Whatever, we’ll see what happens.” Sometimes some of the goofiest stuff I do I’m like, “Yes, we’ll see what happens,” those are the ones that people are like, “Oh, my God, that was great. I can’t believe that.” I’m like, “Really? Wow, that was just me jumping in a chair.” [laughs]
Sonny: I love it. You’ve mentioned then that the best way or one way to help overcome those fears in a tangible reality is to have a plan for what you’re going to go around doing. Shout out to mate Pete. Shout to Pedro who once told me to plan your work, work your plan [crosstalk] it’s a good one. I wonder then and especially with competition going in with game plans for fighters Sean Sherk, Rose Namajunas, Brock Lesnar, how do you as a coach take all that stuff we’ve talked about, planning to mitigate fears and then implement a game plan into your fighters over the weeks of a training camp, and then when it comes final?
Greg: I think the biggest thing as far as mitigating the fear is you’re straining and you’re training hard, and you’re physically pushing yourself and just preparing. You’re doing everything you know you can to be the best you can on the night that you’re going to go out there. You can’t do anything else, what are you going to do? We’re ready. We have a saying here because it’s Midwest, “The hay is in the barn, all the work is done.” Now, it’s like we just got to go out there and let it shine. I remember, this is a funny thing because each fighter is so different. If you look at it Sean Sherk, pretty much it wasn’t not a big secret what was going to happen. He was going to shoot a double at some point, put you down on the ground, and it was hard to get up once he hit you on the ground. That was a big thing. He had, I’d have to say one of the simplest game plans all the time. If you look at him, he was not that tall. He was maybe 5’7′ that’s with shoes on. I’m about the same size. For the first 30-whatever, 35 fights of his career there was no one 55 weight class, it was all 170. He was fighting people that were way bigger, and taller. His philosophy, “Whether they’re taller than me now, but when I take them down, and I’m on top, I’m the tall one in the cage.” What he did because he had a speed, this whole thing was, “How do I transfer, how do I get myself from here to there.” Every single day he had a routine that he did. At least three days a week he was just really maximizing combinations and shots in every possible way, focused mitts, cables, shadow boxing, partner drills, wherever. We always joke about it because we always say he had one real guard pass and everyone goes, “Well, yes, but he had like four options.” He was so good at it, you could stop it. It was really tough. Then, if you were inside the guard and he could pass it, he was so dangerous inside there because he had short arms, he was like T-Rex, but he could hit super fast and cut you open inside your guard, so that was a problem. He had this very streamlined game that he just developed, “Okay, this is my game plan, I’m going to go in there, I’m going to take him down, and I’m going to be in better shape than they are. I’m going to condition myself so I can just keep going, and going, and going.” His game plan never really change that much. He just got better at it. That was that mindset. He was also one of those guys that was a product of the classroom. He would take regular Thai boxing classes with students. You’d look over and some white belt would be arm barring him because he’s letting them be,” Oh, you got me. Good job.” He didn’t care because he knew he could absolutely smash the dude. He could play. He’d say, “Okay, I want you to put me in a triangle and choke me out. Ready? Go.” Then, he just methodically work his way out. I never ever had to worry about anybody getting hurt rolling with Sean Sherk even though he was the fastest, most explosive just really good fighter. Never had to worry because he just had that mindset. It’s like, “Yes, I’m training and having fun.” He had also this mindset where at nighttime he’d always ask somebody to come and train. He’d say, “Hey, so do you want to come train tonight?” You’d say, “Yes.” Right away he’d go ask somebody else, “Hey, do you want to come train tonight? “Yes.” He’d have two people that were going to come to train tonight. He’d write down his third workout when neither of the guys showed up because they were going, “Oh, my God. I’ve got to keep up with Sean tonight.” He’d look at the clock and whatever, you got to train at eight o’clock at night, 8:01, nobody showed up, he was already putting together his thing and nothing would change in his mind. He already had the game plan set. When one of them showed up, he had the plan. When both of them showed up, he had a plan, so he never looked at it as, “Geez, no one’s going to show up.” He was like, “Okay, let’s go,” and that’s his mindset. That’s how he developed. I look at the other fighters that have been really successful, they have that same mindset. They know what they got to get done, and they’re going to get it done no matter what. They don’t really worry about whether this person is going to show up or that person is going to show up, because they’re going to be fighting alone in the ring anyways, so they’ve already mentally prepared for it. It’s funny because you have Sean on one end of the spectrum, then you have Brock on another end of the spectrum. It was kinda like a Sean Sherk but giant . He had already gone through so many different evolutions of his game; great wrestler, NCAA champion. Then he goes from there to, “I’m going to go to the WWE and I’m going to become a world champion at that. Then I’m going to leave that and I’m going to go play professional football.” To be the last person cut off for a professional football team without playing football since high school is pretty amazing. Then he’s like, “Okay, I’m going to try MMA,” and every one of those things, he’s risen up to the top at some point. He’s very methodical about how he trains, what he does, wants everything. When I would work with him, myself, Marty Morgan, Eric Paulson was even involved with it, he wanted to know what was going to be done during that day so he could know how hard to push. He goes, “I just don’t want you to add stuff on at the end of the day, because I’m going to push already.” He knew he was. That’s just the nature of the beast, He didn’t want you just to add stuff, “I think you should add this.” “No, I’ve already put my mind and when it’s time to go, I’m going to go hard.” The people that we brought in because he could, it’s a different game with a guy like that who has millions of dollars and he can bring in whoever he wants. We’d bring in Cole Conrad who was a two-time undefeated NCAA wrestling champion and four-time All American, and Tony Nelson, two-time national champion and four-time All American, and Marty Morgan was an undefeated NCAA national champ, and runner up in third place very good multiple time All American. Then we brought in Comprido who was a two-time absolute world champion in Jiu-Jitsu, then we got Pat Barry. We could bring all these people in and you would put them in a house or wherever and they would live there. He’d pay them and they’d train. His mentality was, “Okay, you’re being paid, that means you got to show up. If you don’t, then you’re just going to get fired.” It was pretty straightforward. But all those guys were competitors at the highest level. There was no qualm there. Then his strength and conditioning coach was the strength and conditioning coach for the Denver Broncos that would fly in. So we had the highest level people there. He would get pushed through these really strenuous camps. Then he gets done with that journey, goes back to the WWE and is still a big superstar. It’s so funny because you have a different type of mentalities, different athletes. Rose, different entirely again. Comes from an absolute striking base. No wrestling, but became very good at Jiu-Jitsu. She’s physically very tough. I’ve punched her hard in the face, I’m telling you that right now, and she’ll punch you right back. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this girl’s tough.” She’s 115 pounds, 120 pounds max maybe. She’s tough, but she’s also very educated, very smart. I don’t have to take that abuse, I’m going to have to learn how to create angles and get in there. I want to have a set plan going in. Each one of them had a very specific mindset, but knew where they needed to be stronger, and had no qualms about developing in that area as much as they could, so it was fun to watch and seeing their growth.
Sonny: That’s great. It’s great to hear how their mindset was enabling them to all reach their goals. All were world champions. Brock Lesnar world champion in fourth fight, just absolutely incredible from pro wrestling. It’s just incredible stuff. When you’re game planning for the fights, you’re getting them prepared, how much will you tailor what they’re planning on doing? I think we probably went over Sean Sherk not so much, but tailor what those guys were going to do for their individual opponents? How do you approach your athletes and say, “Hey, your guy’s really strong here, maybe we work on something else,” without coming across as scared or without coming across as being negative? Or thinking that, “Oh, you got to worry about something here.”? Do you do that? Do you tailor it much? Or do you just focus on their positives? How do you go about that?
Greg: I guess it’s a little bit of both, because you can’t take a person who has a certain skill set and just say, “Oh, guess what? You’re going against this guy. We’re going to Lego you together and turn you into this person.” They already have a specific skill set that they have, so you look at what they have, “Okay, this is where you’re great. This is where you’re really good. This is where we got to probably avoid as much as possible in this fight. But if we do end up in that position, here’s how we’re going to deal with it.” That’s how we look at it. We just say, “Okay, this person’s a really good wrestler or a really good striker or whatever their deal is,” and then we’d say, “Okay, so now that we know that, how are we going to deal with that? How are we’re going to deal with that strike?” You can game plan, especially if you watch– This is a really detailed version of it, but with Frank Mir, obviously, the first fight, hey, it was still pretty good. He got caught. He thought he actually won, after he smashed him, he gets pulled up, and he thought, “That’s it? That’s over?” His mindset was like, “Wow, this is crazy.” Then he gets his hand raised, and then, “One point.” He’s like, “What is this?” Then he had to go back. The second fight, we knew what Frank was about. I already knew what Frank was about, so I said, “Okay, here’s the deal.” We broke him down really well, and it got to the point where we looked at him and said, “Okay, 86% of the time after Frank throws a combination he moves to his right. The other times he moves to the left, so that’s a major tendency that we can exploit to shoot in or do whatever. When we’re down on the ground, we know he’s going to probably try to work that half guard, he’s probably going to go after your legs because it worked already. Look at your upper body, it’s going to be tough to get you. You’re so dominant there.” This was a dig on Frank at the same time, because he said, “His submission skill, his ability on the ground is nowhere near mine, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and I’m like, “Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to go back to some of my first catch wrestling move that I ever learned in my life, and that’s what we’re going to drill.” That’s what happened. If you look at it, it was that reverse half, catch the forearm, trap it, and that’s what we drilled. That was pretty much the nuts and bolts of that whole game. Get in the half guard, stop that and just pound him into oblivion, and it went to plan perfectly. We looked at where his strengths were, but, hey, here’s what he has worry. How is he going to find anybody with the attributes, the strength, the speed, the explosiveness of Brock Lesnar and then imitate? It’s a lot easier to find somebody who’s not as fast, is a good grappler, and we have a two-time absolute world champion grappler. He’s got some good things. So we were able to find those people, but it’s hard to find a person like a Brock. You also have to play with their mindsets as well. You have to keep them strong, what feeds their strength mentally, and you have to bring that into your training. Usually they’re pretty smart. Brock was pretty smart when he would say, “Hey, listen, I know we had two really hard training sessions today, but now my body’s trash,” and I’d say, “Okay, let’s do one and then maybe swim tonight.” You have to know your own body, because that’s where you’re going to get injured. Especially as a big, super fast dude, you’re throwing that much weight around that fast with another human that big, and you could get injured really fast. He was very smart in that respect, knowing if and when he had to taper down, because he knew he was a great athlete, pushed himself for so many years. You have to trust your athlete too, and you’d know that when he says that he’s not like, “I’m a big puss.” It’s not normal. It’s like, “I get it. I get it.” You have to be smart with that as well. There’s a time where you tailor-make. You can try to say, “Hey, this guy fits perfectly with what we do. We’re just going to–” “Game on. Go for it,” or say, “Hey, we got to watch out for this person’s x, y, z. We’re going to move more like this. We’re going to put that into our training camp.” The other thing, too, is you have to remember, they might be game planning the exact same way. “Here’s what they’re expecting.” Here’s a great example of that, Sean Sherk versus Hermes Franca. We watched Hermes. Every time he threw a punch, he’d go like this. Sean was like, “That’s when I’m going to shoot every single time.” He’d throw that big old haymaker. He could hit hard. He was good on the ground, but that’s when Sean was going to shoot. Guess what they were game planing? When we go like this, we’re going to lift our knees straight up because he’s going to shoot. That’s exactly what happened three times. It was lucky that Sean’s neck is this thick, and his skull must be super thick because he took that knee square in the face, boom, and was able to continue and keep fighting. He even got caught once in a really tight guillotine, but he was able to deal with that because he already trained for it. He already knew, “I’m a great double leg takedown guy.” He wanted people to get him in guillotines a lot, and he would fight his way out of it. He’d figured out. He goes, “If I’m going to shoot a lot, there’s a good chance I’m going to end up in a guillotine, or I got to be able to deal past the guard.” That was a big focus of his game. That’s why it was almost impossible to choke him.
Sonny: That’s funny. I was speaking to Brian Ebersole just recently. He was saying, “Guillotines don’t exist. I’m just in a double leg.” [laughs] My memory of that fight with Sean Sherk, too, is that, it was something like– Was it 20 takedowns or something like that? I think, at one point it was the highest takedowns in UFC?
Greg: To this date, number two in UFC history, to this date, 10 years after he fought. He had that probably just to go and go and go and go and go.
Sonny: There is some debate that fight, that’s number one now with Khabib what they score as takedowns could actually be classed as mat returns under wrestling. I think it only puts it for six takedowns for Khabib if you change that. We could make an argument that if we score how takedowns are done in college wrestling, Sean would still be number one. Also, what you mentioned with Brock Lessnar with the reverse half nelson, the crucifix, pirate’s crucifix stockades, I love to hear that. I actually did a video on that. I did a breakdown video on that technique. Brock’s the best. He’s finished the fight with the highest percentage or the biggest name to use it in MMA. That’s just incredible to hear.
Greg: Good game plan. We’re going to use the stock, and we’re going to tie him up. This is one of the first things I learned way back with Larry Hartsell in the ’80s. We’re going bring it to life. Because he was such a good wrestler at controlling top crossbody anyways, it just tied in perfectly. We knew, he’s going to try to block with that other arm, pin it down. Comprido brought his elements to it. “This might happen. Here’s how I want you to control that.” We were all just coming together to take that one little area of the game and just master it.
Sonny: That’s incredible. Did you practice that one from half guard? Were you practicing those setups?
Greg: Yes, from half guard, from crossbody, from everywhere.
Sonny: That’s so cool. I’m so happy to hear that. [laughs] Just following on then with that game planning and coaching. When you actually get into the fight then, I like that idea that you can only really change little bits about people’s tendencies. We can’t let go on together and replace the whole fight. That’s one thing I had to tell myself as well and tell people who I’m coaching is that if you watch a video on someone, they’re in there with someone else. It’s going to be different when you’re in there. When they actually get in there, what kind of coaching advice do you like to give? Any cues, or do you use code words, or do you have a backup game plan that you might say, “Hey, switch to plan B.” When the fights on, how do you do that?
Greg: I think because you’re trained for so long and you’re training with a variety of different people in your own camp all the time, you’re going to be able to adapt really fast. Hopefully, you have a good group of wrestlers in there. You got really good jiu-jitsu guys in there. You got really good strikers. You got the ground and palm guy. You have all these people that they’re already dealing with constantly. They’re going to be able to adapt pretty fast if they need to because it’s flow. They feel when they go. This is another really good example with Sean Sherk when he fought Nick Diaz. Going out there, we were like, “We got to take Nick Diaz down because he’s got those long hands. He’s going to sit out there, and he’s going to try to keep you at length and just punch you right in the head. He’s got some heavy hands, so we don’t want to do that. We want to try to get him down.” But when we got there, Nick Diaz was crouched over, totally ready, prepared for the double leg. Sean shot in, he got sprawled on, he got stuck, and then he got back up, he sprawled again. He comes back in the corner, and he said, “He prepared for the double. I can’t take him down.” I go, “Yes, but he’s crouched over. He’s as tall as you now, so punch him in the face.” If you watch that fight, all of a sudden, in the second round, he’s like doing boxing combos and people were like, “Oh my god, Sean Sherk can box.” He’s always been able to box. It was right there. Then he was able to set up to take down and get him down on the ground from there. It’s not like he was just rocking Nick Diaz, but he was punching him enough that it was just like, dang dang dang . It was really fast shots that he was able to set up his takedown. We had to change that whole game plan from first round to the rest of the fight. That was done, “Sean, start boxing. now its time to box. He’s as tall as you. He has to change his entire position and his footwork and everything because he’s crouched over. He’s not normal.” That was changing it on the fly but having the ability because he’s trained all that stuff already ahead of time.
Sonny: That makes sense. Just having the advice that you can actually give to someone within the fight is really what they’ve done outside the fight in preparation. You can’t just yell out, “Hey, reverse flying whatever.”
Greg: Yes. That’s all I am, too. I’m pretty straightforward in the corner. Sometimes, I hear people yelling entire instructional videos. It’s like, ” the persons not hearing anything ” It’s like all they hear is, ” wah wah wah .” One of my fighters that I used to corner, I had three commands. It’s all I said, hands, that meant something with his hands are open. Leg, and everybody thinks, “Oh, leg kick.” No. That meant kicks are open. There it is because he was really good at faking a low kick and head kick, and he knocked out a lot of people with it. As soon as I see the person’s hands come in or that neck was exposed, I would just go, “There it is.” Sometimes, he would not take it right away. He would start setting it up and look, and then he’d come back and say, “I see it. I see it. I’m going to take it this round.” It was very simple sometimes because we worked so well together. We trained so much that he just knew exactly when I said– With Sean, he already knew what he was going to do, how he’s going to do it. Maybe he would have to come in like in that Nick Diaz thing and be reminded, “Hey, you’re really good with your hands. Let them go.” “Okay.” Baam. He was also one of the guys I would just say, “Okay,” and then do it. That again is a different type of guy. Just to say okay.
Sonny: I like that, definitely one of the best guy code word, combo things that I had when I was fighting. One of my coaches, Carlos, was just blue, just blue,simple . That was a coded word, but it was just one word. For you is that, keep it simple.
Greg: Keep it simple. Usually, in the corner, they hit in there, and the first thing, I’m like, “Sit down, breathe, just breathe.” I get them to breathe and get them to try to as much as possible. If they’re busy just going, ” breathing ,” and you’re trying to tell them something, they’re not hearing anything. It’s like, “Breathe, calm down, doing good.” I’m also pretty honest. I’ll be like, “Listen, you’re getting your ass kicked. You’ve got to figure this out. You got to start doing something now.” Sometimes, you need to light that fire. Who knows what’s going on in their head. It’s like, “Listen, I don’t know what’s going on, but you’re getting wailed on,” or I’ll say, “Hey, you got to watch that leg kick. You’re walking right into it. You’ve landed your right hand, so walk away. Keep with your game plan but know that he’s going to come with that right kick. I guarantee, they are telling him right now, “Kick his leg.” Sometimes, it’s simple because there’s not enough time to tell them all what’s going on. I’ll also also confer with the other people that are in the corner, and they’ll have one thing to tell him. It’s one thing. That’s it. Because if I’m telling him one thing, someone else is telling him one thing, three things isn’t going to be an overload. It’s like a lot of times simple. Sometimes it’s the attitude like, “Hey, listen, to turn up the heat or impose your will. This guy is about ready to break.”
Sonny: That makes sense. I think that getting everyone in the corner on the same page, and then probably knowing their personalities and the personality of your fighter and doing all that preparation work beforehand.
Greg: I have a couple of guys that have such booming voices that I’ll tell them what to yell. Because, I’m like, “Waah,” my voice is starting to crackle. Marty Morgan was like that with Brock because he was Brock’s wrestling coach in college. That’s the voice he could hear. Anything I had to say I would just tell Marty and Marty would just , “Woo,” he had just this booming voice and Brock will hear it. You got to be smart with that, and the voice he hears is the voice you want to be yelling.
Sonny: I hear that. Yes. Sometimes when I’m in there and I just feel the urge to yell especially where kickboxing coach is,Nick Pudney he’s yelling out the advice and I want to yell something, I’ll just be like, “Okay, I’ll just repeat what Pudz is yelling because I get it out of my system and then, it’s just following orders. [laugh]
Greg: These guys see different things. They have a different, they fight differently. They come from a different background so both people are going, “Kick him. Punch him. Kick him. Punch him. Take him down.” The guys are, “Aah.”
Sonny: That’s so good. Amazing, I’ll just finish up with a couple more questions. There’s one with Brock Lesnar’s training, especially in terms of preparation. At one stage there was, I guess, Bas Rutten had said that when Brock was sparring, he wasn’t allowed to be hit in the head, hit in the face. There was something like that. I’m wondering, is there any truth to that? What was the deal? What was the actual– the truth behind that?
Greg: There was times where sparring hard and hard sparring for sure. Then there’s other times, where it’s just like we know that he could take a good shot. He took a lot of shots and we were trying to develop different parts of his game plan. It’s like, “Okay, we don’t want to sit there and sling punches,” we’re in there with who knows who, a couple of guys obviously one of them from your part of the world. You don’t want to get hit by that dude. Hunt, you don’t want to throw his overhand right land it on your head because if it does, it’s going to be game over. There was a time where I remember Marty yelling at him. “No.” He just yelled no because they both started swinging and somehow they both missed each other and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, this is–” but get back in the game plan. There was a time where we didn’t want him to just sit there and get into that mentality of trading blows. What are you going to do, train your head to be hard enough to take Mark Hunt’s overhand right? Not going to happen, right? Remember how much you get hit in that training camp.
Sonny: Makes sense.
Greg: It was like, “Okay, we have to try to get to your game plan, get it in there and have punches thrown at you.” Your goal is not to become a striker, it’s to become a fighter that wins at what you’re great at. There was times where that would happen, but he had to be hit. There’s times where I’d say that he’s got to be punched in the face a little bit more. We had to bring it up. But he’d been in a lot of crazy things. The other thing, too, is you have to look at what he’d come into the camp with. Does he have a tweak in his body here or there? Obviously, if you ever saw him when he did his, whatever the heck was called a shooting star where he flew up in the air and landed right on his neck. You don’t want to have this guy’s neck getting snapped back all the time when he had that issue. There was times and places where, when we said, “Hey, you got to pick it up.” He would.
Sonny: That makes perfect sense actually, now that you explained it. You’ve got a guy who’s a primarily a wrestler learning striking, sparring with World Champion kickboxers in K-1 and Pat Barry, Mark Hunt. You don’t want to send your athlete in there just to get lit up by them. That’s not going to help anyone. So, of course, it would make sense, “Hey, let’s work different areas of the game.” Like, I guess, what you said with Sean Sherk, working with a white belt is like you want to have people tailor their training to help that person improve. Again, a guy like Mark Hunt wouldn’t need to go 100% for Brock Lesnar’s head to get his point across of, “Hey, I could have hit here.”
Greg: Yes, I had been for that fight too. If you watch that fight, and you see how much Brock is just bouncing around in an unpredictable pattern, that was planned out. Because I said, “If you give Mark a steady bead on your head, he’s going to land. It’s going to happen.” You got to be unpredictable and move in and drop low for a low ankle pick and then come bounce back up. That’s why he was hopping around and was almost like a jumping bean in there, because he was trying to be really unpredictable with his footwork, and then just explode in as fast as he could. That was the purpose behind that and then he’d get out of it a little bit and start swinging and we’re like, “No. Get out of there.”
Sonny: That’s right. That makes perfect sense. Actually one of my favorite clips of you is where you’re talking about the importance of timing sparring, and especially what we know or what we’re learning more and more about with CTE. It’s like, obviously, holding back on some shots to the head doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. [laugh] Doesn’t seem like such a bad idea now. I send my guys who are sparring, I’ve got a clip with that with you saying that, talking about the importance of timing sparring and just getting those rounds in because I think it’s such an important thing to do. You got to go hard sometimes but life long, right?
Greg: Yes, you definitely got to go hard, but I was tell my guys this too. I said, “If you know you can already take a really good shot, you don’t have to keep reminding yourself that you can take a good shot. You already can.” Because guess what? Your brain is not like your body. It doesn’t get harder through the contact, it gets softer. There’s a time if you’re getting zinged a lot and you’re getting flashed or whatever, and you’re just fighting your way through it, that that little toughness just shuts off, and also, duh, you get hit and it’s over. It’s like, you got to get out of the game. It’s done. Why force that issue? A big part of it is because when I would go and train in Thailand, these guys have hundreds of fights and they play all the time, they’re playing. When they do tie pads and they do heavy bag and they clench. They’re going hard, super hard, but they’re not going to spar like they fight. There’ll be nobody left to fight. The whole art is designed to wreck the human body. How could you spar with that? They can have some speed in it and some snap, but they’re not out there to try to knock each other out. In fact, if someone gets a little bit out of hand over there, they’ll be like, “Whoa, whoa, who, what are you doing? This is not the fight. If you want to fight there’s a lot of opportunities for that.” You watch some great fighters have hundreds of fights, and you watch them timing sparring and they’re having a blast, because they get so good. Training over there, it’s like they can read your mind. You’re about to do something and it’s like, “No. Boom.” Why? Because they’re so used to playing the game and watching each other that they see this. They see that and they stop you already. A big part of it is being able to educate your eye and your ability to perceive what’s going to happen and then be able to just stop it or just move out of the way as opposed to just bang and you never see what’s going on, except for flashes of light every once in a while. You want to have the ability to watch and educate your eyes to be able to see what’s going on. Then, like you said, there’s a time and a place where we got to spar hard and sometimes they’ll say, “Okay, hey, we’re going to, at this time, at this day, we’re going to spar hard, be ready.” Get ready for it. You just don’t bring them in and say, “We’re going hard today.” They’re like, “Really, great.” You can get smashed and injured. You got to be smart with it, especially now that we do know that there is so much more damage being done than we know. This is already a seriously damaging sport to your brain. No reason to increase it.
Sonny: It’s like everyone probably had a fair idea. It’s probably not the healthiest thing to do, but now we know for sure.
Greg: We know for sure.
Sonny: I like that, just setting a day that, okay, this is the hard spar day. Other times we’re playing because we can get so much more reps in and do it for a lot longer as well. The ability to train your instincts and intuition through that play sparring is something I’ve recently been thinking is just so valuable.
Greg: It’s the exact opposite in Holland.
Greg: It’s like, oh my gosh, this is a love jungle. You walk in those play and it is this hard core. Even there now, I guess that you’re starting to see that they’re starting to address a little bit of that and they’re getting more time. At that point, it is going to be the toughest of the tough that can be able to survive in that arena. Maybe somebody gets injured that could have been a great fighter at some point, but they’re just like, “Oh, man.” It was almost like if you walk into the gym over there with a limp, everyone was like, ” [swirls tongue] I’m going to get after him.” That’s great for the toughest guys that just can endure. For everyone else, it’s not so great.
Sonny: Yes, that makes sense. Great for tough guys, great to prove your toughness in a gym, but for longevity, I’m certainly not so sure about. If we look at martial arts as one of the goals is to be a lifelong martial artist, then the ability to make the weak strong, certainly we can’t just have a sharp pick tough guy competition where the weak get kicked out and never get to do martial arts. I wonder what your advice could be to be a lifelong martial artist. If you were to go back to yourself and visit yourself when you’re white belt just starting, what would be the piece of advice you would give yourself or maybe anyone else who wants to be that lifelong martial artist?
Greg: My thing is, do what you love and love what you do and have fun with it. When you go in there, it’s inherent in martial that there’s going to be challenges, and there’s going to be struggles, but those are something that you’re going to want to embrace. Those are the goals. The goal is to find as many challenges and as many struggles as we can and figure out ways to get through them and have fun with it. Don’t worry. Nobody’s getting paid or getting medals for being the toughest guy in the gym on Tuesdays. It’s just the way it is. You can get caught 100 times, but be the toughest guy on whatever you’re fighting. I saw that when I was wrestling at the U . You’d watch guys that were getting beat in practice and you’re like, “God, maybe this guy’s going to lose his spot.” The coaches knew that under the bright lights, that dude wins. That’s the way it is. Who knows what he’s doing? Maybe he’s trying new things, he’s trying to play around. He’s having fun. He realizes we’re going to be here for four years doing this hardcore against other guys that all want to win and all want that spot. I got to pick and choose my battles. The biggest battle is to win on the night that I’m supposed to win for the fighters. I even tell that to my fighters, “Who cares if you’re in a regular class and you get tapped out? Big deal. Put yourself in as many odd, strange predicaments as you can find because that’s how you’re going to figure out.” Everything that you go through in the ring, you want to be able to deal with it and go through it in the academy far before you ever have to deal with it in the cage. I have My guys that are really good fighters and have many, many, many fights. I’ll look over there, and they’re getting arm barred by somebody and they’re laughing, “Oh my God, I can’t believe. I didn’t think you were going to take it.” That’s the mentality I want because then they’re having fun and they’re being creative, and they’re learning and growing and they’re not worried about, “Okay, I got to keep my reputation.” Nobody knows you’re fighter. Have fun. Then, guess what? You’re going to have more people want to grapple you because they know, “Hey, he’s just having fun. I’m not going to get hurt. I don’t have to worry. He’s just fun to grapple with.” How many different looks and feels do you get when you’re that guy? You get them all. That’s a huge part of it.
Sonny: That’s beautiful. I like it. It’s good advice. Do what you love, love what you do. I love that. I love your sayings. You’ve got a bunch of phrases that I love. Just to finish up, I’m going to ask you about just to hear it from the man himself, because I’ve certainly used these a lot myself. Yes, I’ve used them a lot myself, so I’d love to just hear your explanation of these two, and then, well, I’ll let you go. One is just that, “Repetition is the mother of all skill and discipline is its daddy.” I like that one. Can you tell me what you think?
Greg: Repetition is the mother of skill, right? Everybody hears that one. They go, “That’s great.” But if you don’t have discipline, you’re not going to put in the rest. Discipline is going to be over there. Daddy’s going to be over there going, “Hey, get those reps in. You got to go.” You got to have the repetitions, but if you don’t have the discipline not only to do them but to do them how you’re supposed to do them with the right mindset when you want to and when you don’t want to because you said you were going to do them. That’s where the discipline comes in. Discipline, that’s the name of the game.
Sonny: That’s beautiful. The other one is, “Jack of all trades, master of none; master of few and jack everyone.” Love it.
Greg: That’s right. I sell people this. One of the best examples of that, again, I’ll bring him up, is Sean Sherk. Everybody knew a double leg take down was coming. Good for you. You got to stop it. He had a couple of guard passes. Good, you know him, stop him. He just had that mentality. Under pressure, and Guru Dan said this once, I remember just saying, I can’t even remember when, but it was a long time , Dan Inosanto . He goes, “I might know 600 submissions, but when I’ve about 50%% pressure, it drops to 50. When it’s live, it’s down six.” I always tell people, especially self defense or fighting, I said, “When is the last time you saw a new punch invented in boxing or a new tool invented in Thai boxing? Or a new single leg, double leg, high cross, sweep single move invented in wrestling?” There isn’t any. But, you might have options and different setups, but it’s taking those simple things and figuring out, “How do I apply them?” Those arts like that: wrestling, judo, Muay Thai, boxing, if it’s not working, it’s going to be filtered out pretty dang fast. They figured out what works and now it’s about honing those skills, so you’re being pretty good instead of being a guy that’s going to be great or trying to be great at everything. You can train a whole bunch of stuff. Man, I trained hundreds of things from all these different arts, but I know exactly what my few is that I will know I can jack as many people as possible with. I always tell people for self defense, “Think about this; self defense or a real fight situation, how many moves do you have in your repertoire that you think you could pull off against anyone at any time under any circumstance on any environment?” Man, that goes [noise] really fast. I go, “Because what if you’re sick and you got the flu?” People don’t attack healthy, strong looking people. They attack the people who look sick or they’re just like, “You’re now sick. You got to be out,” or whatever. Now, you get attacked. What are you going to do? No warm up. You can’t jump around. You’re not feeling as strong. What’s our game? What’s your move? That’s the no jack of all trades, master of none; master of few and jack everyone. You know the ones to jack them with.
Sonny: [laughs] Yes. I love it. It’s funny with that self defense, one thing I always think of is that the positive mindset and feeling confident when you’re walking around is actually one of the key themes of self defense that before the techniques in martial arts get there is that ability just to be confident makes it less likely that people are going to attack you.
Greg: I used to work at a Target store. It’s a retail store here. The one I worked at was the highest crime store in the entire state. It was the second most 911 calls, emergency calls of all business establishments in all of Minnesota. It was chaotic. All the male employees that worked there got stabbed at least once. I got stabbed twice. It was just a crazy store. It was in the ’80’s. ’80’s and early ’90’s where things were a little bit more available to do, and they didn’t care. When you walked in, and you were going, “Oh man, I hope somebody goes after it today.” No one would, because they could see it. They could feel it. They knew it. But when you’re like, “I don’t feel so good today. I don’t know what to do,” that’s when the guy would punch. That’s when they would fight. It’s like they can read it. Having that confidence in that way you’re moving, like when you’re walking, you’re walking like that lion. You’re just like [growls] yes, and they know that’s a lion. Let’s wait for the next one to come by. Then also they see the little tippy toed around, doesn’t know what he’s doing, they’re like, “That’s the one we’re going after.” That’s a huge part. A huge part of it is having that attitude. It’s not being a jerk, it’s not being cocky. It’s just showing that you’re confident in who you are and yes, “You jump me, you’re getting a battle, buddy. That’s all there is to it.” They can read it. They’re saying, “Oh, I pass. Next person.”
Sonny: It’s so important and I think that really ties together everything we’ve talked about, I think, today. The ability of that visualization and positive thinking, going into the techniques, having a plan and then how that’s going to help you be a martial artist for life and keep you safe. It really puts it all together in a beautiful little perspective, little package, little philosophy. I just thank you so much for your time, Greg [laughs] . It’s a big honor for sure. I’ve enjoyed it. As far as power visualization goes, I can go put a tick next to my interview dream list. [laughter]
Greg: It was fun. I like it. Enjoy it. We have the time now.
Sonny: It’s been great for me. I’m trying [laughs] to get in touch with people. It’s been brilliant. Look, thank you so much. If people want to get in touch with you, follow you, what’s the best way for them to do it? I know you’ve got the online academy now as well, which might be a good option for people. How do they go about that?
Greg: That’s gregnelsonmma.com for the online academy. Then, of course, in my Instagram, Greg Nelson MMA, Facebook, Greg Nelson so look it up, look at the goofy stuff I do [laughs] . Training, having fun, loving what I do. That’s it.
Sonny: Thanks, Greg. Thank you so much. It’s been brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you stay safe and have a great day. I’d love to have you back on sometime in the future when things get back to normal and have another chat.
Greg: Yes, definitely would love to.
Sonny: Thank you so much, man. Really appreciate it.