I talk to Dr Alex Channon, a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education and Sport Studies at the University of Brighton and on the board of The Martial Arts Studies Research Network. He also manages a group called Love fighting, hate violence which promotes teaching non-violence through martial arts.
He authored a paper titled Edgework and Mixed Martial Arts: Risk, Reflexivity and Collaboration in an Ostensibly ‘Violent’ Sport that explores the nature of violence and risk in MMA which we discuss in depth.
Sonny Brown: I’m here today with Dr. Alex Channon, who is a academic. I came across your work, first of all, with a paper entitled Edgework and Mixed Martial Arts, Risk Reflexivity and Collaboration in an Ostensibly “Violent” Sport. Violence is in apostrophes there. That’s what we’re going to get into. How are you today, Alex?
Alex Channon: I’m pretty well. Thanks. It’s really nice to be on your podcast and thanks for inviting me. I love talking about this stuff. Jump at the chance for anyone to listen their ear off about academic theory of martial arts.
Sonny: Pleasure is all mine. What drew me to the article is really you’re putting forward a case that MMA isn’t really violence as we consider traditionally. To do that, you encroach on the topic of or the subject of edge work. I love that even more because I find out that it’s roots of that word is in a Hunter S. Thompson novel, which is brilliant. I wonder if you can just give us an overview of what your ideas are and then maybe into the concept of edgework itself.
Alex: Sure. The idea that Mixed Martial Arts and another combat sports aren’t really violent is something that myself and my colleague, Chris Matthews, who I’ve done a fair bit of work with over the last few years, we’ve been developing these ideas for a while. It basically stems from different research projects we’ve done where he does his work in boxing. I did my work in a range of martial arts initially, but then more focusing on mixed martial arts more recently. One of the consistent things that we were hearing from people was, this isn’t really violence or I do this, and it’s a violent sport but I’m not a violent person. There was always some qualification that separated these activities from what people call “real violence”. We find that quite interesting, how is it that people can spend X number of hours a week learning how to be good at beating people up and enjoy beating people up and even perhaps enjoy themselves getting beaten up from time to time and call it, and say it’s not real violence or, use some other term to describe it. That sparked our curiosity is as researchers, but of course, doing martial arts ourselves we’d also had this feeling too. This isn’t the same as what happens in a street brawl or fisticuffs at the bar or domestic violence situations, even though the actions might be the same, punching kicking, chocking people. The meaning that we associate with that action is quite different. The feeling that we get, the relationships we have with the people we do it with, these are all very different. We decided that we wanted to have a think about this as academics do theorize it, investigate it a bit more. We published a couple of papers, which we challenging other sports academics to think carefully and critically about their use of the word violence. What is violence to begin with? Is it really fair and fitting to apply it to sports such as MMA boxing, even rugby and American football, and so on? When the people who do those forts are saying, look, this isn’t actually violent, or this is violence of a very different type and so on. That’s where we started. In a nutshell, the core of our argument is that for something to constitute violence, it needs to involve both the physical force that we typically associate with that term, the punching the kicking, but it also has to involve a violation of somebody. If you and I are sparring, we spar within the rules of, let’s say we’re doing kickboxing, it’s perfectly normal and perfectly legitimate. In fact, I would want you to try to kick me. If you didn’t try to kick me actually, then it would be an invalid experience for me. There’s an explicit consent involved, or maybe it’s an implicit consent, but if we meet on the mat, we meet in the ring, I give my agreement to you to try and hit me. I might touch gloves with you. Here’s, my fist, here’s your face. We’re going to touch gloves. Then let me go because it’s like a little ritual that symbolizes that. The referee gives us a rules talk before a competitive fight and tells us what’s allowed and what’s not. There’s like formal parameters there that shape what we explicitly consent to in a martial arts context. We’ve argued that that issue of consent is what differentiates the types of interactions that go on in a martial arts fight or sparring and so on, from violence on the streets or violence in other contexts. It’s that consent principle that’s, plays a large part in the legal status of combat sports and philosophically and also, from a social sociological and social psychological perspective, consent is a really key underpinning principle that makes this different. That’s the main thrust of our argument in a nutshell.
Sonny: The main thing there seem to be that even though the actions of punching and kicking are the same in a violent compared to what you’re putting forward as a nonviolent context, it’s the meaning that those actions have behind them. Is that correct?
Alex: Yes. It’s what those meanings tell us about the relationship between the people involved. In a sparring context, you and I are rolling, let’s say, and I’m a junior belt and you’re a senior belt. I’m going to get something out of this by you beating me, I’m going to get something out of it by you choking me or armbarring me. I’m going to learn, and I want that to happen. Our relationship is shaped around that my dependence on you as my senior or my instructor, perhaps. If you and I get into an altercation outside and you choke me, the relationship that exists between us then is very, very different. I’m then in an object of your hostility and I’m being destroyed by you rather than being taught. Does that make sense? It’s that relationship that’s really important here. If you think about any context where in which we’re doing things that we would normally consider to be violence, think about the relationship that exists between the people who are involved. The objective action is important and certainly, when the objective action includes things that might render you unconscious or cause you lasting damage, we need to think quite carefully about that. Am I really clear on the risks I’m taking when I go to box, for instance? Can I really consent to something I don’t understand, et cetera? The core issue here is the relationship that exists between those two people. Is one forcefully violating the other, or are they doing something which they find mutually beneficial?
Sonny: That does make sense. It’s something that is interesting to think about, especially in the context of a sparring practice like kickboxing, where there could be agreed upon intensity where one person will then actually take it a bit further and there’s that negotiation might even happen on the fly. Right?
Alex: Absolutely and it’s funny, we were trying to write a paper about this now, how is consent actually worked out, in practice. One of the worrying things is that it often isn’t explicitly articulated, I’m okay with you going a little bit harder. We do sometimes do that, but not always. In situations where let’s say you’ve got a new person coming along to the gym, they haven’t sparred before, maybe the coach hasn’t really got their eye on things and escalates and they throw a heavy shot when they shouldn’t. That’s when we start to see problems in the gym. It’s because of consent. I didn’t consent to you loading up on that right hook. That wasn’t right. That wasn’t fair and I wasn’t expecting it. Now we were at odds and now it’s not a productive, mutually beneficial exchange. Thinking about consent, it’s not to say that all martial arts fighting is never violent. It’s to say that when we don’t have consent and when our actions aren’t explicitly framed by what we’ve consented to, then it risks falling into that. One of the things that we’re trying to argue is that we need to be quite careful with how we approach that as coaches, as practitioners, or we ensure that our training partners are happy with doing A, B, and C.
Sonny: That’s funny. I know that when we have someone new or just everyone in general when we’re sparring, the golden rule is only ever hit someone as hard as you’re willing to be hit back. That gives a good little rough guideline, but of course, sometimes that isn’t good enough because people sometimes don’t quite exactly understand how hard they are. They are punching. On the topic then of consent I know that there was Nicholas Dixon who you refer to a fair bit in your paper who was putting forward the idea that really consent can’t be given, I think was his main thrust for people competing in a fight because– Maybe you could be best to explain that. It seems to be a common what would be a more mainstream opinion of violence in MMA, right?
Alex: Yes. Dixon’s argument rests on the idea that the things that happen in MMA are so far beyond the limits of what’s acceptable, that it becomes almost a crime against yourself to allow yourself to be put into this situation. The notion that you can’t give consent to allow somebody to damage you is basically what underwrites his argument. The main problem I have with that is, he doesn’t really attend to what people who do MMA actually think about MMA. The vast majority of the points that he makes, while there is a logic to it philosophically, and this is a difference between the philosophy, academics and the sociology, academics, such as myself when we’re interested in what people are actually doing and saying, whereas philosophers tend to, not all of them, but they tend to place less emphasis on the empirical data. They’re more in the realms of logical theoretical arguments. What’s missing from Dixon really is a sound appreciation of what it actually feels like to be a fighter. What is that motivates people to step into the cage and to take their lumps and to put themselves in harm’s way? What do they actually think of their opponents when they’re beating them? He consistently uses this term, “they see one another as worthless objects to be destroyed.” I have a huge issue with that. I’ve never-
Sonny: Me too.
Alex: You get your trash talking that you get your Conor McGregor’s given it all this on the camera, but we know there’s a reason for that. That’s to get ticket sales. By and large, the vast majority of fights, I’ve seen the small number of competitive fights I’ve had in my previous life as a semi-contact kickboxing, I’ve never seen that. People genuinely believe their opponent was a worthless object to be damaged. Yes, it looks like that as an outsider, but when you step inside this world, when you listen to what people in the world are actually saying about it, then that perspective starts to fall away. I’m sure that Dixon if he was in on this conversation would have a pretty robust argument to what I’m saying but that’s the main issue that I have with it. It’s devoid of that voice of people who actually trained and experienced this firsthand and the meanings that they bring to the sport.
Sonny: I’d agree with you there because I too, would consider myself not a violent person, but yet I spend a good portion of every week teaching how to throw elbows or punches or kicks or choking, and all that good stuff. I’m well aware that that is the perception that people would have of the sport. Very often when I tell people what I do, their first instinct is to reply along with something of lines, “Oh, you don’t look like a fighter.” I take it, that’s because the idea they’ve got in their head is like something from the movies, basically, the stereotype. To me, it seemed like a big portion of what your argument was to bridge that gap, then is that fighters are getting something out of the experience. That was where that notion, I think of edgework comes into play, where it’s the idea of extreme sports and pushing boundaries for a valuable experience in a valuable goal. Is that kind of correct?
Alex: Yes. That’s in terms of my own thinking, this conversation has followed the lines of it quite nicely actually. The initial idea of the interaction or study of fights and what frames those relationships, consent, et cetera. That was what we started, then encountering work like Dixon’s this very strong critique, which we thought, oh this thing’s wrong with that. Then I came across edgework or at least I revisited it. I read it when I was an undergraduate and pretty much forgotten about it for a few years and came across the work again. It seemed like this was the missing link in some of this theory that if fighters aren’t engaging in fighting purely for money, or because they hate each other, what do they get out of it? Specifically, with respect to sports like MMA which are, I don’t like using the word extreme, but I think we can agree, it’s towards the more extreme end of combat sports in the sense of it’s risky, it’s injurious the kinds of things that can happen, though there’s more variation in the ways you can get hurt and so on. What is it that motivates people if it isn’t those things that we’ve already dismissed. Edgework is a really nice concept. It won’t work for everyone. It won’t fit every fighter that steps in a cage or in the ring, but I do think it has a lot of explanatory potential, particularly. This is when I wrote this paper, I went to every study that I could find that was ethnographic. People who have participated in MMA themselves as researchers, as well as interviews with fighters. What is the voice from inside the sport saying about this phenomenon? Actually, from the theoretical work on edgework, it lines up very, very well with the empirical work on MMA. Things like seeking out the most extreme challenge you can find, wanting to push yourself beyond what most people think is physically impossible. Having done other sports, like kickboxing or Judo, and wanting to go beyond and have something more, something that’s even more of a challenge and pushes you out of the normal reality of your day to day life. All of these experiences, they tell us a few things about the motivation, which is to seek out those experiences which give us the chance to test ourselves like nothing else can. That’s what edgework is all about. It’s about finding an extremely dangerous risk that gives you the opportunity to test your mettle in the face of overwhelming odds. Can I really defend myself against someone who’s really trying to beat me? You can’t really answer that question in a semi-contact karate match. You can answer that question, at least to an extent in the confines of a professional mixed martial arts fight. That gives us some explanation as to why mixed martial artists do mixed martial arts, but it also points toward something very interesting about their relationship with each other. You remember from before when I was saying that the relationship that exists between the fighters is very important here in the whole fighting violence thing. I can’t do my mixed martial arts edgework without you genuinely trying to beat me. This experience that I’m hungry for, this self-affirming, very, very positive existential search for my true self or whatever I want to frame it, I need you to genuinely try to hit me and beat me unconscious, in order to get that experience. If you don’t try, then I don’t get it. Our relationship then becomes in that moment where we look like we’re very, very strong antagonists trying to knock each other’s heads off, actually, we’re doing each other a service, which is to build towards that opportunity to experience edgework.
Sonny: Which I guess is when fighters will congratulate each other at the end of the fight, to an outsider, it might seem just strange why that would even be possible, but in my own sake, most of the opponents that I’ve had keep in touch every now and again and there’s no ill will or anything like that. It’s they did us a favor by actually stepping up and fighting when– People can drop out of fights and it doesn’t happen and you end up all disappointed, a training camp gone to waste. I guess that’s getting that mutual benefit from each other rather than an enemy or what was it, a useless object. [laughter]
Alex: Worthless object? I just love the language you use it, man. By love, I don’t mean love. That notion that opponents are there to help each other, it’s inspiring. It’s much more obvious. I’m there to learn, and my partner is there to help me learn, to teach me, and whatnot. If I’m doing a self-defense class, yes, I want to be able to defend myself so you need to scare me and you need to intimidate me, you need to actually try and hit me. Otherwise, I will get the benefit of becoming better at defending myself. In competitive match, of course, again, to go back to the qualify for before, not everyone is going to have the same motivation. Not every fight is going to fall into this category, but I think from what I’ve seen from the research that I’ve done, going to events, speaking to fighters, and looking at other people’s studies as well, it does seem to be a very normal motivation and a very normal state of affairs that you and I as fighters are doing each other a favor by stepping into the cage. Certainly, at the lower levels of participation where we’re not looking for big paydays. If you beat me, I don’t lose sponsors, and I don’t lose out on opponent, person, whatever. Even at the high levels, you do have that commercial motivation. Still, that needs an opponent, willing opponent, especially as you say, to step in at the last minute and save a fight. We talk about professional fighters, you’re talking about a big payday to breaking even for most of the money with the expenses of training. In that can be the whole edgework relationship. There is still a mutual dependency, which we need to take into account if we’re thinking about a list of moral issues.
Sonny: Continuing on with that, I guess one of the things I really liked in your paper was the idea of reframing the violence as then a mutually constructed risk between the two competitors. Can you explain that idea a little bit better for us?
Alex: Yes. If we’re calling the action of a mixed martial arts fight violence. The reasons that I would say we need to think past that is usually the term violence, not always but most often, the term violence gets associated with quite strong moral condemnation. This is one of the reasons I think that most people who I’ve spoken to who say, “Oh, I’m not really a violent person.” That’s one of the reasons there are pains to make that clear because to be a violent person is to be dangerous, it’s to be potentially a criminal, it’s to be bad for one of a better term. We do need to think if we’re going to attach these labels to sports, even if, as an academic, I might not always want to conflate violence with something that’s bad. People generally do see violence as bad. There is a desire to clarify and to refine that sort of thing. As with the theoretical ideas we mentioned earlier, this notion of edgework leads us to thinking about the action of fights in a different way. It serves as well to think well, if it’s not violence, then we might as well come up with some other way of describing it. Mutually constructed risk is a bit of a mouthful, might need to have worked a bit harder on that, maybe, but I think it does explain what the meaning that gets attached to that action is for the people who are doing it. It’s not that I’m engaging in this fight because I enjoy destroying somebody else, or because I want them to try and damage me for its own sake, I enjoy this and I go into this and the meaning that I take from it is that it’s a risk that allows me to test myself. Again, that notion that I need you to construct that risk comes in. A mutually constructed risk, I think is a better and certainly more adequate way of explaining the action of MMA than using this quite problematic term, violence.
Sonny: Yes because of course, there’s so much meaning of the negative connotation attached to violence. I like the term mutually constructed risk and a couple of other people I was talking to about it enjoyed it too. Even if it is a mouthful, it’s certainly I think it’s got a good ring to it. There’s that idea then that people will get into MMA as a way of developing character and showing character. We do that through the process of developing our skills in the sport. Is that a part of the edge work process itself or is that really just confined to the competition now?
Alex: The guy who initially articulated this concept is derived from Hunter Thompson’s work, but it’s a chap called Steven Lin, who’s a sociologist who’s been writing about sports and other extreme activities for quite a while. In his conceptualization of edgework, there are numerous components to it. The most important one is this thing we’ve already discussed, seeking out extreme risks that allow us to test ourselves into seeing what we really made off, and so on. What that involves is giving yourself the opportunity to demonstrate mastery in the face of chaos. In order to demonstrate that mastery, that self-control of your emotions that remaining calm and being tested, and so on and so on, you need to have the skills to allow yourself to exist in that environment, the physical skills. Edgeworkers of all stripes will spend a lot of time preparing. They spend a lot of time studying, learning those physical skills, developing strategies. They will get the right equipment in place, they’ll do their research, they basically want to make sure that they don’t encounter risks that they can’t control. Because the point of edgework is to put yourself in a situation that you do have the capacity to resolve, but you’re going to be placed under so much stress that you test yourself in doing that, resolving that situation. For MMA fighters, you wouldn’t go into the cage without practicing Jiu-Jitsu because you know, that you need to do that in order to succeed. Of course, some people do, and they don’t generally tend to do very well. Whether that’s standup or striking, sorry, I’m grappling there that they’re lacking, you do need to be well versed in the vocabulary of the activity that you’re pursuing for edgework in order to actually use it to test yourself to that extreme level. The skills trading element is a central part of edge working in all variety of things. In so much as this notion of preparing for risk so that you know, that you can physically overcome that risk. It becomes more of a mental challenge, that test of self, rather than a test of your skill. As for the community and the identity belonging, proving yourself, again, this is something that’s written about in links, other work, and other people who’ve used the edgework concept. It’s not necessarily the point of edgework. It’s not that people do edgework in order to get other people’s approval. There is some theoretical difference between edgework and other conceptual frameworks. One of Ling’s papers, he compares edgework with another famous sociologist, Erving Goffman, who’s written a lot about identity and performance that we put on a particular performance in certain social spheres to get recognition and respect from other people. Certainly, there could be an element of this, that presentation of self and that performance of the desired identity in a martial arts context. To try and win status and to win respect. In terms of edgework as its own concept, it’s not the central part of it. It’s more that that respect, it develops alongside edgework when you recognize other edgeworkers, this is someone who’s also tested themselves to the extreme and shown that they’ve got what it takes. You have respect for them because you also know what it takes. It’s not that you are doing it specifically to win that respect if that makes sense.
Sonny: Yes. It does. There’s two portions of that. The first part you were talking about it’s really not just risk for risk’s sake, it’s got to be a well-planned, well-calculated attempt to control those elements of risk. Is that correct?
Alex: Absolutely, yes. If you’re talking about skydiving as a form of edgework, you don’t get people skydiving without a parachute. You obviously uninte
Alex: lligible 00:27:23 the equipment that you need in order, to overcome the challenge that this involves. It’s no being an adrenaline junkie or wanting to live on the edge. It’s about wanting to give yourself the opportunity to demonstrate to yourself as much to others, your true character, your true self.
Sonny: That then makes sense with all the training that we do, and that has to be done really. It elevates it beyond what someone might do if they took a flight on a day’s notice with no training. As you might say, we can’t really look at them as another edge worker which brings up something else you touched on in your paper, which was the idea of what you call independent fighters but what I guess might more colloquially be known as cans or flat as we maybe aren’t putting in the effort of others. Let’s just say. Can you expand a bit more upon that idea then and how that you mentioned would rob some fighters of the satisfaction of doing that edgework?
Alex: The cans and the crush matches is sometimes referred to I suppose. In the UK at the moment, I’m not sure if it’s the same in Australia, I would imagine probably is if the organization of mma is any thing like it is here. It’s quite common for these very low skilled type of journeyman fighter that travels around to earn a quick buck for filling in for people who’ve pulled out the last minute. They don’t put any resistance in or some of them might, but there’s no real chance that this guy is going to win the fight. They’re purely there to keep a fight on the card. Promoters, generally that the lower level promoters, seem quite happy to employ them. Not all of the promoters I must say. The study that I’ve recently finished, which was about a different topic, it was about medical provision in the sports, I was seeing this phenomenon through the eyes of the medics who were there and they really didn’t like it. The amount of risks these guys were taking with their health fighting sometimes three times in a weekend, getting the crap kicked out of them each time. The promoters that I encountered, some of them wouldn’t employ these guys, but a lot of them did, purely to protect ticket sales. You’ve got a fighter who sold a lot of tickets and if he gets pulled from the card at the last minute, his fans are going to want refunds. It’s going to damage your reputation and all the rest of it. They do employ them quite often. These guys, they take fights far more regularly than they should. Of course, they aren’t taking the beatings in training because they aren’t training and they’re not taking that much of a beating on the night because they just fall within 30 seconds. The fact that they’re getting properly tuned up, some of them each time they get in the cage, it does pose a bit of a risk to thinking about brain damage, concussions, and so on, and accumulation of repeated strong blows in a very short space of time. It does happen. With respect to its implications for edgework, generally speaking, and again, this is a generalization, it might not be true of everybody in the field, most people in MMA don’t look too kindly on this thing. They don’t really appreciate what these guys represent. They know that it’s there as a quick fix to keep a card, looking reasonably healthy. Of course, if you have done a training camp, it might be better than nothing, but you step in the cage and do something, even if it’s over in 20 seconds. Generally that they’re not looked on with much favor because their precedence it detracts from the opportunity to really test yourself. If I’ve trained for six months and I’ve seen these developments in my abilities and then I’ve put in a really grueling few weeks of a training camp, I’m having my first fight and the experience is over that quickly. I know, and everybody else knows it wasn’t a real fight, then it certainly isn’t the same as if I’d had a fair match with somebody who is at my level. There is a sense that perhaps their presence detracts from the opportunity to experience edgework. In the paper, I argued that this was one of those exceptions that proves the rule about what motivates fighters and what the relationship should be between two evenly matched opponents in the ring.
Sonny: Then along with the idea of it being a mutually constructed risk that these two people are undertaking, you could also look at it like there’s a mutually constructed reward that both parties have to bring to reap the full benefits of the experience of a fight. Would that be one way of looking at?
Alex: Yes. I think that’s a good way to put it. Even if I lose, I’ve still have gone out for three rounds or however long the fight is where I’m at is or whatever. We’ve put ourselves through our paces. We’ve really proven that we’ve got what it takes. For some people even getting into the cage, is a victory in itself. To come that far in your training and to not back out from nerves and so on. Even if I lose, I’ve still experienced that thing that’s really valuable to me. Certainly, I wouldn’t have known to get that reward without my opponent. Even if they beat me, I still got that thing that I wanted. Of course, I might be upset, I might be in tears. I’ll reflect on it as that was my first fight, and I learned so much. I learned about what I’m really capable of et cetera. Sure, I think there’s certainly a mutually constructed reward. If you’re a professional, the reward might be financial, particularly if you’re developing a career as well as that the experience of the fight. Certainly, at amateur level, I think the rewards are far more intrinsic and without your opponent, you’re not going to be able to get them.
Sonny: I think there’s definitely that change of motivation or just those different opportunities for motivation when it turns into the professional realm. It does seem like there’s although intrinsic motivation especially, of course, at the amateur level that would even draw those professionals into the sport, to begin with. In other conversations I’ve had with fighters touch on if people are doing this just for the money, just for them to make it professionally, they’re going to have a hard time because you got to get through a lot of low paying fights first before that slight chance of making big money even gets put on the table.
Alex: Of course, yes.
Sonny: One thing you talk about in your paper too is then how people will or the idea of those lower-skilled fighters will then have the onlookers or other people detracting from the experience as well. That was one thing I thought of was that for me, if I see someone beat a can and then they celebrate a bit too much, a bit too happy with themselves, it could be a reflection on me that I’m like, “Come on, come on, settle down, settle down, I saw that other blocks record, and maybe you should just be a bit more subdued in your celebration.” Is that anything you’d pick picked up along with other people or is that just my own problem?
Alex: That’s really funny, you should bring that up. Actually, I have my day job, I’m a lecturer. The majority of my work I’m teaching and I teach on a PE program, and sport management and sport studies. I have a module that’s in martial arts and we do a little bit of practical. We go on field trips to the boxing gym and the MMA gym, have a karate guy come in and do some stuff. We’ve got some practical things going on. We also have quite a lot of theory where we talk through some of the stuff that I’ve done, and there’s plenty of other martial arts studies literature that we worked through. We had a lecture on this sort of topic a couple of years ago, and we actually addressed this point. What is worth celebrating as a fighter if we take all of this into account? We watched a video of a guy. A guy that I don’t know him that well, I’ve met him. When I first met him, he was like “I am a pro fighter, I’ve had, and my record.” Oh, that’s really impressive, but I thought, this guy is the real deal. Then I saw his videos of who he’s fought and they’re all cans. It’s just quite funny using it as a teaching resource to get the students to reflect on these questions of motivation, and intrinsic versus extrinsic, and that wider structure of the sport. I would say it’s a good question, and I don’t think you’re alone at all in raising an eyebrow at the overenthusiastic celebrations of those fighters.
Sonny: I know it’s one of those things that it’s only to the trying to either can pick that up. It’s maybe for the majority of people in the crowds, they might not see the other person’s record or they just might not notice the skill disparity and then for them it’s just winning to win. It’s really just you can look at someone else who knows and goes, given a note of that was a bit easier for them, wasn’t it? It’s that undercurrent of understanding there. Then the overall idea then of the paper that you’ve put forward is that these negotiations are going on then constantly with people inside the sport and it has to be outlined then to receive the full benefits other than a monetary gain. It’s, we both competitors have to come into the sport, looking for that reward in a good fight with each other. Then that offers up those moments of self-reflection, and in time of introspection back on training and how you performed, and how you handled that risk. I guess that reflection and that experience then is where the value can come from. Is that round in the right ballpark?
Alex: Yes, I wouldn’t say that both fighters necessarily need to have that as their primary or only motivation. Certainly, if somebody throws a fight for instance, and it’s ruined it for the other person and if you both do share that motivation, then I suppose it would be that notion of community and friendship that forms after a fight. If I lose and I was only really in it for the paycheck, or I was only really in it because I want to improve my record and find someone better and I’ve lost, maybe there’ll be some sour grapes. I wouldn’t really look at it in the same way that my opponent might who was really genuinely seeking that introspection and that chance to demonstrate autonomy and so on and so on. I wouldn’t have thought that it needs both people to really be aligned with that motivation. Although, I think in most cases, most fighters probably are, even if they have other things going on as well that drive them. Certainly, when you’ve got those very one-sided matches with the independent fighters, the cans, or when you have a match that perhaps somebody isn’t really taking very seriously, there are numerous ways you can go wrong, and early stoppage as well. Nobody likes an early stoppage. Least of all the fighter who got eye punched and feels fine because they’ve been robbed by circumstance. I didn’t include that many notes from the fieldwork in that paper because of lack of space. There were several examples. I’m sure, you and your listeners will be familiar with these situations that fight nights where there’s been an eye poke or there’s a heavy bleed. If it’s an amateur to fight, usually the medics and the ref will maybe be a little bit more hesitant to let them continue even if they say they’re fine. You do get that really strong anticlimax, and you can feel for these guys because they’ve been no fault of their own, they’ve been deprived of what they’ve been working for.
Sonny: Certainly, a few things come to mind when you mentioned that. Actually, I was just reminded then of something that I did myself, where I guess there was a fight that I was taking a lot of punches and the ref didn’t stop it, I ended up coming back and winning it. I remember thanking the ref for, “Oh, thanks for letting that go on and allowing me to get that victory.” As you’re saying I’m thinking, I guess to any outsider that would seem like a weird kind of gesture to say, “Thanks for allowing me to take some additional shots to the head and give an opportunity to come back and win.”
Alex: Yes, absolutely. I think referees face such a dilemma in those situations because the majority of them have been fighters themselves, haven’t they? They know what it’s like. They empathize and they know that if they stop it early it deprives you of that experience. It possibly deprives you of a chance for victory, and that becomes important for your livelihood if you’re a pro. They also know that it deprives the fans who are paying and financially supporting the sport of a good and a more climactic end. They have to balance all of that with the stated commitment. Which all the referees I spoke to, all of them said front and center, the most important thing is the fighters welfare. I’m the only one that rests on my shoulders because it’s very rare, isn’t it, for a corner throw in the towel, and it’s very rare for a fighter to tap strikes or something. The referee has the primary responsibility. Yes, the pressure they’re under to balance all of those competing risks, if you like and make decisions in split seconds. I don’t envy them for sure.
Sonny: No, I would not be that keen to start getting into refereeing, but never say never. Seems like that could be another element of risk, accepting risk going on. It’s useless to do that.
Alex: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that I haven’t got around to it yet with the study that I’m currently writing up the research on medics. Couple of papers out on that now, but I want to write something about the referees that I encounter because I think it’s a fascinating job. The decisions they have to make and the situations they make them in, and all the risks they have to balance while processing that, it’s remarkable. Maybe next year I’ll have something out about referees, fingers crossed.
Sonny: Beautiful. I’ll make sure to read that as well. Finishing on from that, or moving on from the ideas that you’ve put forward there, what can people be doing themselves to help reframe that idea of violence in the sport we love? I know you’ve got a organization called Love Fighting Hate Violence, that aims to potentially do that?
Alex: Yes. Love Fighting Hate Violence is something that Christopher Matthews, my colleague and I, we set this up a few years ago now. Initially, we wanted it to be an online presence for fostering this kind of debate. We’ve also written a coaching tool kit which we’ve designed so that coaches can explicitly use martial arts games and activities that involve martial arts training to specifically teach young people about consent, but about respecting your own, as well as others limits and being explicit about what you’re okay with. Basically trying to use that knowledge that a lot of fighters, a lot of martial artists, have about the difference between fighting that isn’t violent, and fighting the is violent. That knowledge is often quite tacit, it’s often implicit. It’s not something we spend a lot of time maybe discussing it overtly. They’re trying to use that knowledge as a way to make that explicit and to teach consent to young people. Which we hear a lot about the positive role of martial arts in reducing bullying for instance. Generally encouraging people to be more disciplined and to be more respectful, and all the rest of it. We thought that with Love Fighting Hate Violence, LFHV, we can try and do something that is purposefully aimed towards that rather than just assuming it happens on its own. If you put on a boxing club and you get some kids alone, they will become respectful. Not necessarily. Especially like they only go once a week, but if you do something purposeful, you specifically work towards those learning outcomes that you want, then maybe we’ll have some more tangible and robust results for that. That’s where were are at the moment. We’ve written this coaching tool kit and we’ve distributed to a few of our other partners in the project. We’re hoping to eventually do a study on how well this is worked, and refine it and make a version two and push that out more widely.
Sonny: I really like that idea because as you say, it’s accepted that it’s just an intrinsic part of learning martial arts, but everyone can probably think of an example where it hasn’t quite panned out that way with someone. I do wonder if it’s something with MMA, where some of that philosophy maybe was thrown out along with a lot of other traditions martial arts techniques. Where all the discipline and respect, even though I do believe that’s still taught in MMA, it’s maybe not as much a forefront as what it is or was in other traditional martial arts. Is that something that you would consider a possibility as well?
Alex: Yes. I don’t think you’re a million miles away really, my own take on this is that it’s highly specific to the gym that you’re talking about, the instructor, the local school. We’ve got fairly well-established notions that traditional, particularly Asian martial arts, are grounded in a culture of respect and discipline and so on. Equally, you could have schools where you get taught karate and you don’t get taught those things, or to borrow from The Karate Kid and we clear it up, Cobra Kai. Which is if you’ve watched the YouTube series.
Sonny: I have.
Alex: Where they have reinventing, I love that by the way, let’s talk about that for hours as well. They’re reinventing it and rescuing the legacy of Cobra Kai, and that approach to martial arts as being valuable. It’s not just about showing respectable times. Actually, you’d sometimes need to go out and stand up for yourself by beating up your bullies. There’s various ways that we can articulate what it means to be a fighter, and why we should train to fight, and I wouldn’t want to say that categorically traditional martial arts do this well, and MMA does it less so. Although you might be right, as a general observation, there’s less of a tradition in MMA really, and less importance attached to that in MMA. Again, historically speaking, but from one school to the next, it could vary a great deal.
Sonny: Yes, that makes sense that it is going to come down to the culture within the gym that is going to be the main determinant of that. While I feel that in our gym that it certainly is an element, and it is with the focus just being on effective techniques, and whatever works use it, it does seem to be something that you’re not going to spend valuable training time worrying about the philosophy of something when you better just be doing the things that work and they’re going to win you the fight potentially and in any way. I do like that idea. What would be, if you don’t mind, maybe one of the examples of in the coaching tool kit that people could put into practice?
Alex: Yes, sure. That’s not a problem. I can probably send you a couple of copies if you’d like, which will sort out later I guess.
Sonny: Yes, please.
Alex: The important thing is, as you said, why would you waste valuable time on something that’s all about philosophy and not about training? What we’ve got here it’s not something that’s going to make you a better fighter per se. This is specifically geared towards, I’d say, younger adults and children really. It’s supposed to be a fun way of teaching them things like respect, and consent and what have you. We draw on the idea of values-based teaching, which my colleagues at University of Brighton have been using for many years, Football For Peace program. Which is a similar idea, use football-related games to teach a set of values. One of the activities- which one should I talk about? There’s a game where we divide the space into four quadrants. In the first quadrant, you might remember this sort of thing from PE from back in the day. We do this all the time when I’m teaching PE students. We’ve got these four quadrants divided by a rope or by coins, or whatever we want to use markings the on the gym floor. In one quadrant we’re only doing punches, in another quadrant we’re only doing kicks. In the third one we can do punches and kicks, and in the fourth one, let’s say we’ll just throw elbows, for instance. One person’s on the pads, one person is there doing the movement and you move around in your pairs around these four quadrants. As you cross that line, you then need to pay attention to that and you just switch to only doing kicks, or you could do it where you’re not using pads but one person’s the attacker one person’s the defender and so on. You use that little game, you get them doing it for a minute or two, and then you use that game as a way to think about that notion of crossing the line. What does it mean to cross the line? We say that all the time, don’t we? What does it mean to cross the line? Then you get thinking about younger children, you get some answers and it gives you a chance to have a quick little discussion about what crossing the line means. Then we could talk about things like is there an appropriate space for you to punch people? In the game, it was that first quadrant. In a gym, it’s okay to punch in the gym. If you go into the boxing ring, it’s okay to punch there. What about if we go outside? No, it’s not okay. It’s a way of just basically using these games as a physical metaphor, if you like, to help teach those lessons. Again, this isn’t about martial arts training. It’s about things that martial arts coaches or PE teachers who do martial arts, things that you can use to make a fun and imaginative way to teach children about these values.
Sonny: I really liked that idea. I think that’s great. Especially for youth and teens classes. That sounds like a wonderful way to help impart, as you were saying, physical metaphor, impact some knowledge of these topics in a fun and engaging way. I think that’s great. I’d love to see that the rest of those games that you’ve got.
Alex: Yes, sure. Happy to share. We do want to make a digitized version, but we’ve been holding off on it because say we want to refine it a little bit after we’ve done some evaluation of it and we’d rather not send it far and wide until we’re really confident in what we’ve produced. Yes, I’m happy to send you a copy of that and have a look through.
Sonny: Yes. Sounds great. Then, so if people want to get involved with Love Fighting Hate Violence, what should they do to try and help you out in supporting that?
Alex: Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been doing anything on the Facebook and on the blog and so on, but Christopher and I keep saying we’re going to kickstart this again. If we’ve got folks listening who got something to say about this stuff, anything to share, whether that be a reflection on something that’s happened recently in the world of combat sports. Whether it’s something to do with lessons that they’ve used like the one I just described that they know can be useful, anything that might fit on our blog. Just to say we haven’t updated it in a fair while, but if you do go on lfhv.org you’ll see on the blog is a few entries there about 1,000-2,500-word long mini-essays. If anyone wants to write for us, that’s great. We always love to receive that. Give us a like on Facebook and a follow on Twitter, they might give us a little bit of a reminder that we need to update those things and get moving with it. Otherwise, you watch this space really. We’re hoping that in the new year once the lockdown hopefully is over, we’ll be moving forward again with the evaluation of the coaching toolkit and hopefully have more tangible a little bit later on.
Sonny: Beautiful. I really like that idea. I’ve really been really enjoying this discussion, Alex. It’s been great. I’m wondering if people want to get in touch with you, what is the best way that they should go about doing that?
Alex: Drop me an email and that’s the best way, firstname.lastname@example.org. If you Google my name and University of Brighton, you’ll find all my contact details. Via email is definitely the best way. I’m always checking my emails way too often than I should . Always happens.
Sonny: That’s what we all do probably. That’s been wonderful. I’m very interested in those other upcoming studies that you mentioned you’re undertaking, especially, if we go back to the start, when we were talking about how the negotiation process takes place during sparring. That’s something that’s always fascinated me, so I’ll be very interested to see what you come up with in that.
Alex: Brilliant. Well, that’s a good little bit of motivation for me to put that to the top of my agenda then. It’s like a loose first draft to revisit, very much a first draft so a lot of work, but we’ll get there by the end of the summer, hopefully on that one.
Sonny: Beautiful. Because yes, it’s always, that’s just fascinated me how it’s all worked out in sparring. Do it every week and it’s still sometimes it just astounds me how it all plays out.
Alex: Yes. People who’ve been training for years and years still get it wrong and you still find those kind of moments where you cringe at your own ….
Sonny: Beautiful, Alex. I’ll let you go and you have a wonderful day.
Alex: Well, thank you so much, Sonny. Thanks again for having me on. Yes. Cheers.
Sonny: Pleasure’s all mine. Thank you. You have been listening to the Sonny Brown Breakdown, until next time. You can visit sonnybrown.net to find out more ways to break it down.
I talk to Brian Ebersole, a veteran of over 70 MMA fights, including a memorable run in the UFC. We discuss his early beginnings in the American scholastic wrestling system and the competitive mindset that helped to produce. The start of his fight career which includes training with American Kickboxing Academy, Frank Shamrock and leading all the way to the UFC and finally, how chaos theory, math and abstract thinking, including fish that getaway, has helped to inform his training and coaching methods
Podcast Transcript – Episode 014
Sonny Brown: Welcome to Episode 14 of the Sonny Brown Breakdown, a podcast where we discuss the training, teaching, health, and education of mixed martial arts to help you find the difference that makes the difference. I’m your host, Sonny Brown. In this episode, I talk to Brian Ebersole. Brian is a veteran of over 70 MMA fights, including a memorable run in the UFC. We discuss his early beginnings in the American scholastic wrestling system and the competitive mindset that it helped produce. Also starting his career training with American Kickboxing Academy and Frank Shamrock, all the way to the UFC, and how abstract thinking, including fish that getaway, has helped to inform his training and coaching methods. Now let’s go to the podcast. Good morning, Brian. How are you today, man?
Brian Ebersole: Hey, not too bad. I just got a bit of a workout done. Onto the easy part of my day now.
Sonny: Beautiful. That’s what we like, kick back, have a chat, reminisce with some good martial arts tales, and make plans for the martial arts future. Beautiful. [laughs] Now, I’ve been aware of you for-
Brian: You have a visitor.
Sonny: Nice. nothing wrong with a nice cat on-screen.
Brian: He just climbed the back of my chair, I couldn’t help it.
Sonny: The Internet loves cats, so we’re all good.
Brian: [laughs] I’ve noticed.
Sonny: The internet and ancient Egyptians. We’re on to something. [laughter]
Sonny: Now, I’ve been aware of you since you came to Australia and started fighting with the CFC, which, at the time, it was the biggest promotion in Australia, for sure.
Sonny: That was probably maybe your 50 fights, 60 fights deep into your career at that stage, I would have guessed.
Brian: Yes, the 50s.
Sonny: In the 50s. You were well-experienced and established veteran. It was interesting to have someone like that come on into the Australian scene because there was really no one else like that around. I know you’d grown-up wrestling and got into fighting through that. I wonder if we can start just exactly how you got into wrestling over into America. What’s the story behind that?
Brian: There’s a big difference in sport in America and in Australia. Everything in Australia is through the club, like club sports, where everything in America is scholastic, it’s through the school itself. Schools actually fund most of the athletic endeavors for kids. They do all the scheduling, they take care of the buses and uniforms. Everything’s covered, and there’s minimal expense. It’s a lot easier, like is a barrier of entry. There’s no big financial barrier of entry. Logistically, you’re done with school, you just go to the gym. You just have another PE class at the end of the day, where, here you’ve got to get picked up and brought maybe even to another town, to an oval or a certain aquatic center or whatever the case may be. Well, all of our schools have those aquatic centers built-in. What do you call them, leisure centers here?
Brian: All those separate pieces of a leisure center would be in our high school. My high school, for example, had three gymnasiums, a main gymnasium, a women’s, and a boy’s. The varsity teams always played in the main gym most of the time. It was the big, nice one with all the bleachers. A lot of the JV and freshman squads could play their games in a smaller gym if sports were booked over the top of each other. It was very interesting being able to go through that process and have it very organized. Our schedule, from the time I was five until the time I was in eighth grade, looked very much the same. We were wrestling the same schools, we had very much the same dates on the calendar and things like that. When I got to high school, those four years were almost exactly the same in high school. Freshmen, sophomore, and varsity would have the same schedule. We’d go play one school and all three teams would drop, which is very regimented and very easy, or I find here it’s very different. My grandfather started the wrestling club in my hometown. I co-founded it because there was a gap. All the people in my town, they never got to wrestle until they were in grade nine, which we call high school, secondary education. We had some athletic, tough kids, and they were always getting beat because they always ran into more experienced guys. They founded the youth program, which is just coping and pasting what other communities have done, but all these other communities that kids wrestling since they were six, seven, eight, nine years old. What’s happening at the high school, they were seasoned veterans as far as competition and skill and things like that. It just made for a bit of a lopsided affair sometimes. My dad asked me to wrestle. I remember one night when I was five, and I told him no. I remember the first day told him no. The next day, or a couple of days later, I can’t remember, but soon after, he asked me again, and I said yes. The next day I went, and then I just never stopped going. I hated the offseason. I was like, “I’m bored now. Can I go wrestle?” [laughs]
Sonny: It was a family tradition. The grandfather, your father wrestled as well.
Brian: No, I don’t think my dad wrestled. I know I saw my uncle wrestle in high school, my youngest uncle, but my dad’s one of the older– Sorry, dad. He’s one of the older brothers and sisters out of the 10.
Brian: I’ve got nine aunts and uncles, and I only saw my youngest uncle wrestle live. Now, I know my second-youngest uncle wrestled because his name is on a plaque in my high school, hanging up as well, next to my youngest uncle. Those two had won MVP, like the team captain-type awards in the late ’70s, early ’80s. When I grew up and I got to school, I knew those names are on the plaque, but I’d already started wrestling. I was five years old, I was already well and truly hooked. It wasn’t one of these things I looked back and went, “Oh, I’ve got to do what they’ve done.”
Sonny: You just started doing it, I guess, from a young age.
Brian: Yes, and it was social. My coaches made it fun. Could it have been more regimented and more [mimic] ? Yes, it could have been, but then we’d had lost a lot of kids. I had coaches when I was really young, that did a great job of keeping a large group together through all the bad grades and getting in trouble and being a ratbag little poor kids from a socioeconomically depressed part of town. Dealing with all that. Going as far as coming to pick us up to go to practice, or coming to pick us up to go to a tournament at 4:30 in the morning. We’re all supposed to meet at the school at 4:30 and drive an hour and a half. Well, we’d all meet at the school at 4:30 and half of the caravan would go and one or two of the coaches would swing by houses and just knock on the door and say, “Hey.” With the best of intentions, there were just parents that didn’t get up that early and get their kid there. Not that they didn’t want them to go, the permission was there and the $10 to enter the tournament was there, it’s just they can’t be bothered to get up at 4:00 AM and drive across town. They did a really good job keeping the whole group involved. When I got to high school, it got a bit more serious. I had a really, really full-on coach, but he did it with love. He was a really, really good guy. A Catholic guy, eight or nine kids himself. He’s actually just retired this year. COVID came and he just went all out, “I retire, I’m done.” [chuckles]
Sonny: Good play.
Brian: Now he retired, he had that decision well and truly made well before. No, wrestling back in the US, it’s just part of the school thing. A small, small percentage of boys wrestle, but still, that small percentage lends to a fairly large raw number. Because it’s built like a pyramid, you’ve got to win to get to the finals, we really do find who is the best of the best, at least in the statewide region.
Sonny: That is such a different culture from here in Australia. Just to be able to have that martial arts format baked into just regular life in your schooling system, so different from what we have here. The importance, I guess, of being able to do it for lifelong pursuit and making it fun for those kids, it’s something that I’ve been talking about a bit lately, is just how fun really Trump’s being able to focus on techniques or anything like that. I went through a stage of, okay, I imagine every person in America wrestles.
Sonny: It’s actually been like, “Oh, no, not everyone actually wrestles.” It’s still people don’t like doing it. People will drop out of it.
Sonny: That’s been a bit of a learning curve. What do you think kept you keeping going? To keep going through into college, what was the driving force? Was it just that sheer enjoyment?
Brian: I was good at it.
Sonny: That helps.
Brian: When you start getting good, you start setting goals. I was taught to set goals early. Whether or not I was a great goal setter, I did things, I kept my schedule on my refrigerator for wrestling. Every time win, loss, two wins, one loss, whatever it was, first place, fourth place, I’d write that down. I’d just sit and look at it and I’d have a goal by the end of the year, and toward the end of the year. It’s got to be, but slightly out of reach. For me, it was always, “If I can beat someone that I’m not supposed to beat, if I’m like the fifth best wrestler in my weight class, I want to take third, hit that final tournament.” I’ve got to beat someone that I’m not supposed to. That has to be the goal. Not, “I’m the fifth best wrestler. As long as I beat everyone I’m supposed to beat I take fifth, I’ll be happy.” You’ve got to push yourself just a little higher. I’m not going to beat Robert Whittaker tomorrow, but if I go to a tournament, there’s going to be a couple of guys that are pretty good, and I’m going to say, “Well, I’m going to beat these guys.” I run into Rob and we give him a go, but I wouldn’t rest my whole happiness on beating him tomorrow. Things like that. Trying to keep it realistic, but also still pushing past what you know, or knowing that you’re going to run into a kid again. If it was a close match, I got to beat him this time. Split decisions in fighting are no fun. No one likes that. In wrestling, it instills– Because we have to wrestle that guy again, I tell myself, “I’m going to beat him. I’m going to pin him, I’m going to whoop him this time.” Or here you get guys that will win a pro-fight by split decision, and then they’ll act like they’re entitled to a title shot or, “I need a UFC contract.” or da da da. It’s almost offensive to offer him the same fight a year later. “Well, I’ve already beat the guy.” Well, one, did you really beat him, and two, what’s this, “I’m going to clear out the division kind of thing.”? Maybe go in and fight even a lesser guy just because he’s different, how does that make you a better martial artist, or how does that solidify your spot as the top whatever weight in the country? It breeds a different mentality. As a matchmaker over here, I’m finding it interesting. I don’t judge. I just find it very interesting that I’m putting kids through a system and helping a system with attitudes that are much different than what I came up with, because of the system, I guess. Over here it’s very free and open and everyone has an opinion, whereas in the US, your opinion doesn’t matter in sport. You just show up and play the game, and then results speak, and then you just show up and play the next game. I find it so awkward. AFL, they play the same team a couple of times in a year, you don’t get to choose.
Sonny: Yes, I’d be very interested, maybe we will get into it, just with your experience as a matchmaker and just your opinion on people seeking out maybe easier fights in an attempt to pad their record up to get a better win loss ratio, because clearly, that’s something that you haven’t done with 70 odd fights, isn’t it? You’ve–
Brian: Yes. I just didn’t pick and choose. Would it have been smart? Maybe, but in the end, we didn’t grow up looking to avoid people. We wanted the toughest match. Even in practice those days, you have to go in and go, “I’m going to go beat up on someone 15 pounds heavier than me today.” because that’s the challenge, or, “I’m going to try to wrestle with the lighter guys, but I’m going to wrestle like a lighter guy. I’m going to try to beat him with speed not just–” Like playing basketball, when your shooting with your brother, you can post him up and back him down and hit layups all day. “Can I put a few jumpers on, can I outrun him, can I do a few other things.” would be the challenge. You’ve got to make everything a challenge to get better.
Sonny: I’m with you on that. I don’t understand it as well where, yes, people will take the easier fight in a sport where especially they might present the image that they’re tough and hardcore and scary individuals, but yet, you know that they’re going easy on themselves by picking and choosing certain matchups. I don’t get it. It’s a sport where you can really test yourself, and you can really show legitimately you are a tough guy, no doubt about it. You can get out there and leave no mistakes, but yet there are people who will give that impression to people who don’t know any better. You can go back to work and say, “I smashed this person.” and everyone will believe you and think that’s pretty gnarly, and it’s really only the people who can look at two records and go, “Oh, hang on, something’s not right here. Why are you fighting this guy when you’re [crosstalk] “
Brian: This is a little bit in the US too. I found like, amateur sport-wise, people were willing just to go and try to beat the best guy. Then once you turn pro– Boxing is like this, once you go pro in boxing, you have to go 20 in a row to ever get a shot at anything, blah, blah, blah, blah blah. Our sport’s not really like that. If you really look at the guys that are, and have been in the UFC and have been successful, their early pro-career, there are plenty of losses for a lot of these guys, but they were against tough people. I don’t understand sometimes coming across people that just think, “Well, if I can get to 10, I’ll know I deserve to be in the UFC.” Sometimes they look to see if you beat someone, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they don’t care about you, they’re just going in there because they need a hole filled, but in the end as an individual or as a coach, you’ve got to trust that you’ve put yourself in enough situations where you can handle a tough spot under pressure. I’ve had guys tell me, that I’ve coached, “I want to be in the UFC, da da da. I should be in the UFC.” or, “I take a shot tomorrow. I’ve won this.” and I look at them and I say, “You don’t want to be in the UFC tomorrow. You don’t. You don’t.”
Sonny: It’s going to be tough.
Brian: Like, “Do you want me go sawn off 20 pounds real quick and then beat you up tomorrow? You don’t want to be in the UFC tomorrow. Can we give it a couple of years? Can we give it a couple of test runs against tougher people?” You don’t really want to go on national TV or Pay-per-view and get beat up that bad. There’s a lot of dudes on that roster that would beat up a lot of dudes that I know that bad.
Sonny: I look at the guys, especially from Australia, Volkanovski and Robert Whittaker, who, champions, done their best. From an early stage, you could tell their goal was to fight the best and be the best. You know what? I think that’s worked out better for them.
Brian: Yes, neither of them padded a record. Volkanovski fought some tough dudes, and Robert really fought some of the best to the best as well. Even taking on international challenges, I think that was Robert’s first loss, but he learned a lot. He wrestled a [inaudible 00:16:36] wrestler in CFC.
Sonny: Yes, Jesse Martinez, I think maybe it was.
Brian: Jesse Juarez.
Sonny: Juarez. That’s it. Yes. I’m sure he grew and improved from that.
Sonny: I look at them as our models for– If people want to be good in the sport, those are the guys in this local area that you should look to. They would have had that goal and been able to follow through with it, embedded to find out here, what you have to work on then probably get, as you say, get into the big show, the tomorrow and maybe it doesn’t go so well.
Brian: You don’t always get a second chance. You might go lose a fight or two in the UFC and get booted out, and then that springboards you athletically. You get that brain-body connection, you put a few things together, you come win a few fights, and you feel like you’re unstoppable now. You might be, but you might not get back in.
Sonny: Yes. I know that there’s some people I can think of that’s happened.
Brian: Then you get relegated to protecting your record domestically, and you get into that weird middle ground like, “Well, then what?”
Sonny: Yes, I’ve always felt like some of the local guys who have been in the UFC and come out, kind of owe it to some of the other local guys to put that on the line, to be like, “Okay, you had your chance. Now you’ve got that Rep. Can you help take on some of the other local guys here so they can have the opportunity? Prove yourself.”
Brian: That’s it. Be a gatekeeper, at least. Go be the national champion. If that’s the next best thing, go do it. Go clear out the division. I don’t know. Just competition has a different flavor coming from that system. The two guys you mentioned were very happy to go out of their comfort zone and do boxing exhibitions or kickboxing, and Robert Whittaker is a national champion wrestler. He was going to wrestle in the Commonwealth Games a year or two ago. Alex had wrestled, done a few other things. Go jump into grappling industries. I think Robert got healed up by Tito Carlo. Not all that long ago. Just for the challenge.
Sonny: After his fight with Israel Adesanya, nearly every grappling– Probably less than a month afterwards. If you can’t be inspired by that and take something away from that looking at the guy who’s just been in tens of thousands of people in front of Melbourne and now just he was at the local gym taking on the local, grappling-
Brian: Just that want to compete, just put yourself in that– It’s not always like, “I need to win, win, win, win.” everything is just, “I want to have a good go.” You can’t always do it in the gym with your mates. It’s not always an honest, fair fight with your mates.
Sonny: There is that extra level of competition that just breeds that little bit of extra intensity.
Brian: It’s the unknown.
Sonny: The unknown.
Brian: The unknown. The uncertainly. I’ve seen some really unassuming looking people in all different avenues, whether it’s an ESCO or a Waco, or a wrestling tournament or Jiu Jitsu cup, that don’t look like they should even be in the room, and then they go out whip people. Imagine a chubby old guy grabbing Robert, you’re having his way with him, Dean Listering him or something. Can you imagine? Just that unknown, you just never know if someone’s got a good game here, a good game there and a nice trick move that works every now and again. Maybe someone is just super fit and you can’t wear him down, things like that. There’s all sorts of challenges in those tournaments and those uncertain matches where in your room you know, you can go and pick and choose your opponents and your teammates and everyone knows each other’s game and everyone has that little brotherly, well, that’s our agreed intensity.
Sonny: Which you need as well for training, but–
Sonny: Longevity, you need that. Speaking of the unknown and uncertainty, when you would have started competing yourself and would have set that goal, I guess at some stage, you said you’re big on goal, I’m sure you would have set that goal to compete and there would have been no way that you could have known where the sport was going or what you were maybe getting yourself into for the long run. What first prompted you to take that first fight, maybe, and how did you go about dealing with those unknowns of competition in those early days for you?
Brian: When I was 12, 13, my parents actually ordered the first UFC, and we watched it. It wasn’t something that was all that interesting to me, it was cool to watch for martial arts, I didn’t even consider wrestling martial art until way later, but it was me just watching it and having a go. Then a couple of years later, I started playing basketball with a group of guys through the summer, and they were kenpo and Taekwondo and did some point fighting tournaments. One of the other ones was really into the whole, “This wrestling thing is really cool.” We’d always wrestle and play and try to figure out how to do some of the moves, kind of like what the guys do now with YouTube, the blue belt YouTube thing. We were doing very much the same thing, but as subpar white belts back then. Eventually, that morphed into, could you, because I’d wrestle, I was only one that wrestled in the group. Well, you couldn’t take me down to submit me because I did okay on the ground with them and some of the guys weren’t very good and didn’t get it, so I was always on their back, pinning them, and even if I couldn’t sub them, just wearing them out and sitting in mount. That whole ego thing turned into, well, you couldn’t take me down before, so we could get out on the grass and put some gloves on and take them down and da da da da da. Then it turned into, I’ll teach you to wrestle, you teach you me how to strike. Then they tried to take me down while I was boxing. We just mixed up all these games, and some of that’s still with my coaching style now, just mixing up games, you play one character, you play the other character, you got to be this way, he’s got to be that way. I went off to college, wrestled my first year. Matt Hughes had fought earlier in that year. I actually went with one of my teammates to watch him up in Chicago. That was the promoter I first ended up fighting for, funny enough, in that same gym. A year or so later, after my second wrestling season, I had four fights that summer, then I came back from my third season, gotten a scuffle with a college kid from another school that was down visiting, and got arrested for it, charged, set through most of the wrestling season awaiting trial and going through court procedures so I couldn’t play sport. The charges got dropped toward the end of the year, I’d missed most of my school year, definitely missed all the wrestling season and wasn’t invited to come back to the team the next year. During that time, while I couldn’t go on campus, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that, had a few more fights. Once I knew I couldn’t wrestle, that was going to be my only way to stay active, so I ended up getting a key to a local dojo to be able to train after they were done training in a matted area, and had a couple guys that were interested. One of them, big heavyweight fella, ended up fighting two or three UFC guys; fought Tim Sylvia, fought Jason Riley and did okay, considering where we’re coming from. Had Tim Sylvia at a bit of trouble, to be honest, and then Tim went on to be a UFC champion less than two years later. It was a bit of an interesting one. Had another kid that got into Bellator and did a few good things, young fella. Funny enough, my school, the wrestling team itself, produced about nine or eight UFC guys, and then some of just the offside, random kids that I trained with ended up getting into, like I said, Bellator, some other big fights. The whole goal thing, I think, started after my wrestling was gone because wrestling was always primary, that was first. Then I decided, well, I’m going to make a go with this. I ended up moving to California to go train at AKA in 2003. I was out there until 2006, ’07 because 2006 I visited Australia the first time for a couple of months. I went back for four months and left in April of 2007 to come back, and I’ve stayed most of those 12 years in Australia since.
Sonny: Did you move to California then with the intention of, I’m going to make this my career, my profession?
Brian: Yes, I went to AKA. Jon Fitch and I had taken a Thanksgiving break, we met through the local Midwest meet grinding fight every weekend kind of scene, and we took a couple of trips together. We ended up going out to AKA and staying with Crazy Bob Cook and Josh Thompson, sleeping on their couch and floor for a little while. Then we moved back separately not too far apart from each other, but after that school year was over. He got his degree and moved on out, I just stopped mine. I was 20 credits short, I should have stayed for another year and finished, but I just went, I’m going to go do this. I just followed it. I went out there, and by the time we’re out there, you’ve invested a lot to move to California. I think both of us looked at it like, this is what we’re going to do. In different ways, it work out for both of us.
Sonny: Yes, that burned the boats mentality, I guess.
Brian: I know. I definitely did, but he didn’t tell his parents he was fighting for a long time. His parents didn’t know until he was in the UFC. He went a long time without mom knowing that he was punching on for a living.
Sonny: That’s funny.
Brian: ‘Jon, does your mom know that you just spent a weekend in Mexico drinking Corona and punching people?” “No, Brian, she doesn’t.” “Well, I won’t tell her, Jon.” [laughs]
Sonny: That’s good.
Brian: I moved out there and trained at AKA for a good two years, and then Frank Shamrock left to open his own academy and I went with him. In my first fight out of his own academy was a [unintelligible 00:27:05] against Cung Le. I’d never kickboxed in my life, and I went and fought Cung Le in his sport.
Sonny: Correct me if I’m wrong, but that seemed to be what Cung Le was doing with his Sanshou. No one in that area actually did Sanshou, so he was getting some people who he could– His highlight really looks amazing. I’ll just say that.
Brian: Oh, it does, but it’s a couple of rungs up from Steven Seagal highlight. The guy could throw some punches and kicks, but he’s scissor takedowning people that can barely stand on their own two feet in the stiff wind anyway.
Sonny: It seems like that. I love what Cung Le’s done, I love enjoying watching his fights ….
Brian: He’s amazing.
Sonny: But those Sanshou fights he had in California just looks like–
Brian: He was not on the grind in those fights.
Sonny: [laughs] Just things like that, but there wasn’t much Sanshou background in his opponents, but that’s a big step in to keep going into your first fight.
Brian: Definitely into the deep end, but it ramped up my training, I was really excited for that fight. That was the one reason I went with Frank instead of staying at AKA because I thought Frank would get me into those kind of fights. I looked at the situation at AKA, which was still very fledgling. When I left with Frank and signed this fight, the other boys just got on to the Ultimate Fighter. Four of my teammates, Jon Fitch was the fifth and he got pulled off the plane with his luggage at the last minute. Four of the teammates went off to Ultimate Fighter, and then soon after, I was fighting Cung. I ended up getting one opportunity while they got another, but that’s the one that really set AKA’s MMA team off, and it turned into a big recruiting machine and sinking entertainment as far as the management started to get big and they recruited a Josh Koscheck as a couple of time national champion wrestler and the Daniel Comier’s of the world and Cain Velasquez’s followed soon after. I went off looking for those fights, and was super excited to get it. I had a feeling that he wouldn’t try to wrestle much, and in the end, he didn’t. I took a fair few leg kicks to my lead leg, and it turned nice and purple over the next few days as I rested and hung out, but it was a fairly close fight, and I was pretty excited to get in there and actually not get beat up against someone dangerous, because that, again, just showed me I was on the right path. That fight, and probably the M-1 fight where it was USA versus Russia, Chael Sonnen was on the card, Justin Eilers was on the card. We had a pretty good group of American guys fighting a stack of Russians. I fought a Russian whose record ended up being, it was 27 and 3, coming out of that red double team. It was at 93 kilos, and I usually fought 84, and later on I fought 77 and 70. He was a very large gentleman, so to be able to TKO him in round three, after trying to stand with him, because I was, “Hey, I’m trying to get American Kickboxing Academy. I’m going to show off my striking.” I stood with this guy for two rounds, and didn’t get beat up too bad. To be able to go do that again, with no choice really. If I wrestled with Cung, they just stood us back up anyway. To be able to get through that next bottle saying okay, I don’t want to fight Wanderlei Silva yet, but I’m on the right path.
Sonny: In part of that early formation of your style then, when you’re training at AKA, leaving to go with Frank. Frank is one of the all-time legends of the sport, no doubt, with his early mix of styles. How much did his influence translate on to your eventual fighting style? What was training under him like?
Brian: Training with him was– I wasn’t starstruck. I had met the Tito Ortiz’s and all these people, and I realized, Tito wrestled in a division in college that wasn’t as competitive as the one I was in. That said, he had some accolades. He won some medals. Had I went to that division, I don’t know if I had won those same metals, but I was wrestling the best of the best in competition in my room for the two years I wrestled. I didn’t look at it like it was out of reach. Matt Hughes, who was my wrestling coach used to pound me and pick on me and beat me up, so I looked at him like he was on another level. He was a three, four-time all American, and then you get to a Matt Hughes, and I looked at Matt very much– Oh sorry. You get out to Frank and I looked at Frank the same way. Complete physical specimen, you might be in a good position, but you still feel like you’re in danger with him. He was a pretty generous guy. It just took me to get over that hump to actually ask him for some help, because he ran like his own programs. He wasn’t part of the fight team, really at the time. He was just doing his own thing. He wasn’t really actively seeking fights at the time for himself. There was just that little bit of when I ran into him asking him for some of his time, like, “Hey, can I come in before one of your classes or stay after one of your classes?” First thing I remember asking him was about leg locks, because I didn’t know a thing about them.
Brian: He spent some time with me there. Then when I decided to leave with him, he was very much in that early 30s, trying to make the most of his brand, because he’d already done all the hard yards and the fighting and didn’t make all that much money doing it. By all that much money, I’m not even going to throw a ballpark figure out, I have no idea how well off he was from it, but he’s not making what they’re making today, and that’s for sure. You could see he wanted to make the most of the Shamrock name. He’s trying to set up a gym and set up other corporate stuff. He got in the gym a fair bit, but he wasn’t always on the mat, on the mat, on the mat. He was definitely more like a coach or a team manager at that stage. Which was okay because he did leave us with a pretty good knowledge base and he brought in some pretty good people to teach them the classes and play. It wasn’t like every day it was I got to wrestle with Frank, which would have been a dream. Getting over there and have him kind of lead the ship, like I said, was a bit of an interesting look into the other side. Maybe a bit late for me and maybe not my style, but he was putting us in front of cameras, and having us do mock interviews and all that stuff and said, if you’re ever going to make money in this game, it’s going to be as much doing this as it would be fighting. With the group of guys he had, he was giving us amazing knowledge. I’m the only one that got out to the UFC out of that group that trained there. It wasn’t my style to kind of be like a McGregor, but he very much gave us those tools and that insight if we wanted to. That would be the path to travel to try to increase your social media footprint. Social media wasn’t really a thing back then. He knew it was in the pipeline and coming, obviously knowing people in the Silicon Valley and the tech world. He had that insight and knowledge that it was all coming. Very interesting. Had he had a group of UFC based athletes 6, 7, 8, 10 guys, and did what he did with the group that I had, which was just a rough and tumble group, like a ragtag group of guys, I think he’d created a few superstars, to be honest.
Sonny: Yes, that’s fascinating that he got you guys in front of the camera to do mock interviews, because that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone in MMA doing that. My understanding is that they do that in pro wrestling as like a form to get their interview skills better, but it certainly makes sense if you’re going to do it professionally to practice that for MMA. Very interesting. I remember him, his fight versus Phil Baroni actually. He did the full video packages beforehand that he produced himself and put on YouTube. Maybe he was one of the first person to do something like that. I remember at the time that seemed like a pretty big deal.
Brian: It’s one of the ones, he’s a bit of a visionary in that regard. Unfortunately, at every step of the way, it’s like he was just born too early. He was doing the stuff before, but it didn’t pay off until a couple of years later for other kids that were coming up. He did a great job for Strikeforce, and I know they had good buy rates and things like that. Again, to be able to leverage his name, his resume, and things like that, to be able to do that maybe five years later, would have been a whole different story. Could you imagine how many Instagram followers Frank Shamrock would have if he was 31 right now, 32 years old?
Sonny: For sure. That Phil Baroni fight would be gone viral. Making that hand gesture of him being on the pillow and things like that, in the middle of the fight, that would be a viral clip. 100% that will get around–
Brian: He’s not shy. He does the 10 second clips and does the really good hard sound bites that are going to get attention. That’s what he was telling us. It doesn’t matter how much you talk, it’s kind of how hard you hit with your words in those short bursts. When I got to the UFC and they wanted to do all these interviews backstage, there were times, I remember doing one in a dark room and they’re asking me these questions. I’m kind of going very long form with it, and finally one of the guys goes, “We’re just really looking for short, sharp clips.” He basically told me what they were going to do with it. You know when you come out and they’re doing the announcement of the fight and they put, for example, they put Chris Lytle up talking for sevens seconds and then they switch over to me for like seven or eight seconds, and then back to Chris. He goes, “That’s what we’re doing this for.” I’m like, “Why didn’t you say that? I thought you were interviewing me.” I was treating it like a podcast. As soon as he told me that, and that was my first fight, it got a lot easier to just go through those interviews and just say what they sort of needed. If I hit him with my left hand, he’s going to fall down. He’s going to go to sleep. If I get his back, I will choke him. That’s all they want to hear. They don’t want to hear about, how do you think your styles match up? Well, that’s what they ask you, but it’s not what they want to hear. [laughs] It was very interesting. I look at someone like Frank, I think he would have definitely thrived in a different era because he understood it, and he understood it early, and it didn’t have to be forced or pressed upon him. It was a very, very interesting time with Frank, and I left Frank’s and came to Australia and fought for Justin Lawrence twice before going back for a couple of months having one more fight, and then I moved back to Australia, and ended with a coaching job in Perth. I had a short-timer on Frank, and his influence besides being in the gym then, like all the stuff he taught me, most of it didn’t come out and come to fruition for me until I was coaching in Perth, leading another group of young men like 18, 19, 20, 21 year olds, and having a lot of time to do solo training and bag work and kettlebells and mat drills and just getting better at my own movement. That’s really where a lot of the lessons he gave me sunk in, and probably because I have that quiet time to reflect with no distractions as well. Frank’s knowledge has kind of been the gift that keeps on giving for me.
Sonny: Taking that knowledge and building on it, how did you manage to actually get through your fights until you get to Australia with, I believe, never knocked out, never knocked down? How does a wrestler manage to strike with people, even getting a cartwheel kick knock out, which I think there was some controversy about? Maybe you can explain that. Take those risks over and over again and then managed to come out relatively unscathed. Do you think that’s fair to say?
Brian: Yes, I came out pretty unscathed. There’s a little bit there. I don’t try to create train crashes very often. Even my striking style, not really trying to strike to kill people most of the time. Even the big stuff I throw, I’m expecting you to cover and I can take you down off of that or clinch you off for that. I expect to get that high hardcover, and I use that high hardcover to my advantage as well. Most people, and I never ran into like a body shot master or anything like that, most people have very big toes before they swing with something powerful. I learned to read people through wrestling. You could see when people are loading up to wrestle, and the same thing came with striking. I never really came across like a Vasyl Lomachenko that could faint and make you really jump and then slick out to one side or the other or change levels so well. I never really got hit with a big body shop, which I always thought it was just because someone’s going to hit me in the liver, someone’s going to slick me and make me scared one place and get me somewhere else. Fighting Hector Lombard is pretty straightforward. He’s going to swing with his left and then his right and then his left and then his right, then his left, then his right until he doesn’t want to swing anymore, or until I break distance or make him clench, or hit him back and make him think. Super easy for me just to use a high guard. Sometimes I look a bit silly doing it, but nothing really got past my forearms. It was a bit of pattern recognition, and then just a little bit of smarts. I don’t need to try to beat people to a punch. I didn’t have that pride where you throw 10 punches, I had to throw a couple back. I would let you throw a 10 and I’d throw a zero and that’d be fine, and I will just go to the next engagement. It was all about competing and winning. If you want to take 10 bad shots with a basketball, that’s fine, but I’m not going to rush into mine.
Sonny: That makes sense. Now you say you didn’t take too much of the showmanship stuff from Frank Shamrock, but then you did have the arrow. I believe, the arrow shaved into your chest pointing at the chin, goading people to come and try and knock you out. Was that just a part of gamesmanship?
Brian: Yes, eventually, like I said, Frank’s lesson started to sink in a little bit. I realized I’ve got to go out and show. It can’t just be head down, hoodie up, EarPods in, warm-up, compete, leave. I started to have a little bit more fun at the way so that whole arrow thing was a weigh-in thing. I told the guy at the weigh-in that he’s going to have to hit me to beat me. You’re not cow wrestling, you better bring your hands tomorrow. Then when I showed up, I left a goatee and an arrow on the chin. It was a longer story than just shaving the arrow. That was a bit set up, a bit of verbal sparring at the way in. Then I kept it from there because people loved it and had a laugh and I was like, “Well, even getting out of UFC–” While I was in the UFC I said, “Nobody knows my name, and that’s okay. They just know the guy with the arrow. Even after, I still get people who are like, “Oh, you’re the arrow guy.” Nobody knows my name. I had a few more fights without a change maybe, but in the end, I left an impression, and like I said, it started to sink in that you got to do something different. I wanted to get out of Australia into the UFC. I’m like, “Listen, I’ve got that many fights. I can compare myself to these many guys that have fought similar opponents or some of the guys I had beaten, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’ve got to get in.” When I came over here, I decided if I’m going to go and be the best guy, it might not be enough just to be the best guy. I’ve got to have a bit of fun with it and show that I can play the entertainment side of the sport a little bit.
Sonny: The first time I think I saw you fight was with the CFC. The first fight was with Dylan Andrews, I think.
Sonny: My recollection was you’re walking out to the cage on your mobile phone, and [chuckles] you went and sat down in the corner having a chat with someone.
Brian: Yes, I told everyone I was talking to my mom.
Sonny: Were you really? What was going on there?
Brian: I may or may not have been, but that’s what I told everyone.
Sonny: We’ll leave that to a bit of [crosstalk] secret.
Brian: Because I’ve done it a few times. I walked out with my phone at Strikeforce in the US. I don’t remember how many of those were real phone calls and how many of them weren’t, but I’ve done it a few times.
Sonny: The most important thing is that you left an impression that when I think about it, I can’t probably tell you what happened in the fight. I remember that walk out very vividly. There’s that to take away.
Brian: I didn’t realize, but they gave me the nickname bad boy without me knowing. I just showed up on the poster. It was Brian the bad boy. That was all. I was like, “Well, okay, I’m the American guy. I’m from out of town. That’s fair.” Then it stuck.
Sonny: Then speaking of the weigh-ins then that led to the arrow, I’ve got to ask you about what happened at the Hector Lombard weigh-in. What was it like fighting him? Because at the time, I guess he was kind of unknown, or he wasn’t what he came to be known as. I remember there was this scuffle at the weigh-in. You were wearing, it was like a Buddhist flag around your neck or something like that. What was that flag? What were you wearing? Then what actually went down there?
Brian: When I fought Hector, he was at 84 kilos, and I was already weighing 76 waking up on a day, and I knew I was going to 70, but I couldn’t get a fight at 70. Without naming names, there were just people in that division that wouldn’t sign to fight me at 70. I looked at Hector and I went, “Well, okay, I wasn’t that weight class. I’m not really weighing in that weight class now, but that’s something only I know. Everyone else thinks I’m a middleweight.” I couldn’t exactly duck him after beating a couple of guys at middleweight and then going on the lightweight or on the welterweight now. Everyone’s going to say, “Well, you’re ducking Hector.” Even though I’d went vegetarian, I’d leaned out a ton for the first time in my life properly without doing weight cutting. I actually had a glass of wine and a liter of water at the weigh-in just to get up to 77.5. Hector would have weighed in 83.9. I had a scroll around my neck, obviously, that got me up to maybe 78 kilos, but it said something about power doesn’t come from something, it comes from an indomitable spirit. Hector is walking around. Obviously we all theorize he’s used some substances in his day. He doesn’t pass the sniff test on that.
Sonny: Didn’t he get positive for a test?
Brian: Yes, there’s that. We made that up.
Brian: You never know. It’s like you can do it when you’re 18 but those gains stay with you. It’s not–
Sonny: That’s not big things with that.
Brian: That’s what people don’t get. Is you don’t need to be on it all the time. It’s just when you make gains like that, your body holds that knowledge and that gain. I’ve talked to some people that know a bit about it on other podcasts, and they’ve given me the science behind all that and very interesting, the way the body lays down muscle and it lays down neural pathways and things like that. I was given a bit of a hard time in that regard, but not so subtle. I asked for drug tests for that fight, and CFC said, “Okay.” My drug test came out of my purse. I don’t know if they actually properly drug tested Hector or not. I remember peeing in a cup and that was really it and I don’t know who read it, who tested that. There wasn’t much said other than I lost 500 marks and I got to pee in a cup later that day. In the end, I was– Because I wasn’t given privy to the process, but I was asking Hector, “Are you going to be able to pee anytime soon? Because I don’t want to wait around for two and a half, three hours while you rehydrate to pee.” He didn’t probably even know what I said, and he just flew off the handle. I looked over at Luke, I said, “Hey, do we have to wait around? You know he’s 83.9 right now. He’s cut six kilos. How long do I got to wait tonight? I just want to go home and rest or go back to the hotel,” whatever it was. Just have a laugh. Hector flew off the handle. He came up to me and threw a combo, and then I stood behind my shortest coach so my Chin’s resting over top of his head and I’m still talking to Hector having a laugh. I’m like, ” Hold me back, Taff . Hold me back.” [laughs] He wasn’t really holding me back, obviously, but just having a big laugh. Well, Hector tried to pick up a barstool and chase me with it after that. I got to block my first four punches from Hector at the weigh-in, and then the barstool stuff and then the, “I’ll kill you in the streets,” and all sorts of crazy stuff coming out of his mouth. It seemed like a Scarface kind of speech that he gave me. The Cuban accent and everything. That left a little bit of a fun start to the whole charade and fight weekend. Then obviously we get in the fight and I cut him with an elbow in round one. I ended up getting cut myself in round three, and I blew my knee out a bit in round four. While in full guard, I just case gave the ref a bit of a wave and said, “Hey, that’s me for the day. I’m not going to go and ruin my knee on this guy.” Subsequent to the fight, Hector’s freaking out saying I headbutted him, [laughs] and that’s how I cut him. I had someone slow the video down and send it off on Twitter or something like that. He’s telling me he bet me $5,000 that it was a headbutt. I’m like, “Well, give me your $5,000 because here’s a video. There’s my elbow.” Having a laugh and flew off the handle. We had a few funny run-ins over the years since then. Obviously, he and I were in the UFC at the same time. He’s always been an interesting one for me.
Sonny: Yes, he’s definitely, definitely a character, who will say that. Then going from those fights, those local fights in the CFC, getting the call-up, finally, to get into the UFC while you’ve been training out here. I think the first one it was a replacement fight.
Brian: It was, yes. I replaced Carlos Condit against Chris Lytle. They were going to fight to see who was going to fight at GSP. The winner was going to get the title shot.
Sonny: Wow. At the time, Condit and Chris Lytle, it certainly wasn’t an easy fight to go into the UFC on. How prepared were you for that? Was that the moment you’d always been waiting for? How did that go down?
Brian: I had fought the June before, like six, seven months before I’d fought Carlos Newton in Brisbane. I practiced a few nasty movements and a few things that are just mean. He was one of the first guys I knew when I got in there that I could do a few things with, and I had to hold back the tiniest bit. I would hate to rip the leg off of a legend. I’m not the meanest guy. Then, I go fight Chris Lytle and it was the same thing. It’s like, “I need to beat him up, but I can’t heel hook him and I can’t do this and I can’t do that.” I could choke him and maybe hit him a few times [chuckles] . I beat Carlos Newton, and after round two, I knew I was up two rounds to zero, so round three, just played the same game, clinch, strike, throw a few kicks, and mostly coast. I didn’t go to the ground with him at all because I didn’t really want to give him any comfort and any shot. Then, the same thing, calling UFC like I want to get into UFC 127, it’s six, seven months away, da, da, da, da, da. “Well, we don’t need an American with 12 losses. You didn’t beat Carlos all that impressively,” when I said, “I’ve just been a UFC champ.” “It wasn’t that impressive. You didn’t finish him.” I’m like, “I have to go kill people to get a shot in UFC?” It was frustrating. Then, obviously, two weeks out or 10 days out, 11 days out, there’s an injury, so I do get a call-up. Luckily, I was training for a fight on the Gold Coast that was going to happen a week before the UFC. They pulled me out of a fight like five days before I was going to fight, maybe seven. Luckily, I was in training, but I was at a point where after the Carlos Newton fight, I was ready to be done. I was ready to just coach and be done. Then, I took a fight in Tasmania that was against someone I know, and I knew he wasn’t going to be able to beat me. That was one of those safe record padding fights but wasn’t really for the record, it was just for a couple of dollars so I could continue feeding myself. Then, I got the call for the UFC. Super happy to get in there, compete really well, get a Fight of the Night bonus which really saved everything because, without those bonuses, my pay would have been so paltry. It would have been tough to continue. I had a really bad injury pop up right after that fight. Two weeks later, I was in Melbourne doing a seminar and I was talking on one knee while holding onto a single leg not bearing any weight or anything from that single leg. I was just about to transition through a double. Before I even went into the move while I was talking, my back seized up. It was a slow little process, but over the course of 10 minutes, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do anything with myself for the rest of the day. I talked to a couple of students that I was familiar with through the rest of the seminar and they did all the demos. That night, I couldn’t even get out of the bed. I couldn’t get up to go to the toilet. I was crawling, excruciating pain. It was a bit of a tough one. Had I not got that bonus, I probably wouldn’t even have fought the next fight. I probably would have called it right there, but because they had that bonus money, I was able to really spend some money on myself and go chiro, osteo, physio, PT, pilates, and get myself core strength and strong to where I was confident enough not to rip my back again. The second fight was Dennis Hallman, I got another bonus. I was able to spend that money again.
Sonny: That’s got to be a good story.
Brian: Oh, that was amazing.
Sonny: Maybe that you were just on the receiving end of–
Brian: He made my day [laughs] .
Sonny: Yes, I guess the story was pretty much, “He’s won.” It’s definitely the most unique bonus probably given in UFC history, which is basically for beating Dennis Hallman after you came out wearing a pair of speedos for the fight.
Brian: I mean, go figure, I let the guy on my back to start.
Brian: The last place you want a guy in speedos, but also the last place you want Dennis Hallman. Shocking, shocking start to the fight but it worked out.
Sonny: Did you flinch at all when he came out in the speedos? Because it was seen as such an egregious act at then.
Brian: I’ve wrestled my whole life, that’s normal stuff. That’s normal.
Sonny: At one stage in the sport, that was par for the course.
Brian: The pro wrestling, just wrestling.
Sonny: Yes, but he certainly coped at that night [laughs] .
Brian: You have Sakuraba. Even Frank Shamrock wore a pair of tights in one of his fights. Dan Severn. Ken Shamrock. It didn’t throw me off. It was so different than what you see in that era because everyone was wearing boardshorts, or maybe the Bad Boy spats closer to your knee. No, because, again, I’m old. As far as data goes, it’s like, yes, that data was collected a while ago seeing all those tiny, tiny, tiny shorts. Hulk Hogan even, Ultimate Warrior, all that stuff. Pro wrestling ravishing Rick Rude. That was all normal to me just because the recent data has drifted away and towards boardshorts and all that, it didn’t quite get me. Had I not had 50 fights and been a pro wrestling fan, then it might have been different. Everyone else freaked out. I had a good chuckle to myself. The only time I flinched in that whole fight was when he threw a head kick a bit unexpected. I caught it off my form and I turned and I went to square back up but he followed me on a path I didn’t expect, and he was jumped on my back pretty early. I was watching the video. I was so upset with myself. I said, “What am I doing?” I acted like he was a Cro Cop. I acted like he was Cro Cop kicking me in the head.
Sonny: That’s classic.
Brian: Yes. It made for good fun. Those bonuses really helped. In one way, I’ve got a lot of knowledge now that I wouldn’t have had I not hurt myself, so that’s cool, but not cool because I had to hurt myself to get that knowledge. Just about core strength and mobility and just different modes of exercise. It’s just not all about just bench, squat, deadlift, pick people up, throw them down if you want to be a real martial artist. Interesting days.
Sonny: You had some more fights in the UFC, but now, you’ve moved on now into a coaching role. I’m wondering, you mentioned there being a real martial artist, what do you expect from the guys that you’re coaching now with getting that– You even mentioned getting the old data and the new data from life experience. Taking that part of being a real martial artist that way that you’re collecting data, how do you translate that onto the guys that you’re coaching now? What do you expect them to grow into?
Brian: More of an expectation of an individual, for me, it’s like once people show me that they actually want to compete because, again, half the people I’m in contact with don’t want to compete, and I love that. I love the fact that MMA and whatnot is a sport where average Joes get to come in and help push competitive athletes a bit. It almost renders that at least team environment that’s missing from this individual type of sport where you get dads and whatnot that come in and can wrestle with Alex Volkanovski, three or four dads or trading rounds with them and giving them a push. When someone tells me they want to compete, it’s my job to find out what their normal life looks like, and then for us both to figure out what their best effort toward becoming a competitive martial artist would look like. All my guys will have a different schedule, and that’s not predicated on like, “To be a fighter, you have to do this, this, this, and this, and spend this much time,” it’s, “This is what your life looks like, so to be the best martial artist you can be, this has got to be what we do,” if that makes sense. If I get someone working four 12-hour shifts, their training routine has to look different than someone that works five eight-hour shifts. It has to be different. The rest, recovery, the time expectancy, all that has to be different. I get guys that– some guys are bucket listers, want to have one or two. It’s like, “Let’s be smart about the one or two we do and when we do them, it doesn’t have to be tomorrow, or do you want to have one now and then take a year to ruminate on those lessons and get good and then have the other one? How do you want to do it?” Some guys want to go back to back to back to back to back. It’s my job more to manage people because if just left to their own devices, some people would just try to run through the brick wall over and over and over and over and over, and that’s not always the best way to get a result. It’s very interesting because it’s not a sport environment. I don’t have people all coming from eight hours of sitting in desks and walking hallways and then training for two hours. I don’t have it to where I can call them in at 6:00 AM to do a run and a conditioned session before classes or go to school all day and then train after. Everyone’s coming from different areas. Some of my best athletes don’t even train together because they have different work schedules. One guy is in my 5:30 class, one guy is in my 7:30 every day. The only day they get together is on a Saturday. It’s such a different story dealing with the amateur guys. Everyone has a different end goal or outlook. Some guys know that they’re going to have four or five amateur fights, and that’s probably going to be it. Then, you get other guys that have that little bit of, “If I catch–” That’s what I did. if I threw mud at the wall and it stuck, and that’s why I kept going. I’m like, “I’m pretty good at this. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to move to California. I’m still winning most of my fights, I’m going to keep going.” At any point, one fighter, one incident could have changed everything. Trying to look at people and stay sustainable and that little bit of longevity and let them fall in love with the sport is one aspect. Then, the other aspect is, “How do we get you as well prepared as possible?” but again, knowing that you have a life outside of the gym. Because, again, we’re not in school all day.
Sonny: With maybe not as many people doing it for the competitive side and it’s not being as regimented for sport, then what would you say the main benefit of training martial arts, of being a martial artist can be for people to apply outside of that sporting context? What life lessons can they take from that training that you think are possible?
Brian: Martial arts is a really, really good– I don’t know if platform is the right word, but in the sense that you can start as a complete beginner and not know anything and feel uncoordinated, and you can truly see your progression with the same effort like weightlifting. If you can lift 10, then 20, then 30, then 40, then 50, you can see it go up, but this is more of a feeling of coordination of whole-body awareness. It’s very interesting for someone to be able to come in knowing nothing, and then the power of, “I can defend myself, I can move people at will, I can sustain being attacked and defend, defend, defend and still turn the tide to where, eventually, I become the attacker in a grappling situation or a striking situation.” Being able to set goals and see progress, again, inside the gym, is very easy where sometimes, in your work environment, you don’t really have a tangible plateau to get to and a hill to climb. For me, with my students, it’s very, very important for them to realize where they were two months ago and give themselves the credit for the work they’ve done to get there, and then to look at themselves in other avenues and go, “Yes, I can get better at everything in my life. I don’t have to stay stagnant.” You can get better as a parent. You can get better as a husband. You can get better as a friend. You can get better just with different bits of awareness in different modes.
Sonny: When you’re talking about getting as a better friend, sometimes, it’s hard to get the tangible feedback on what that actually would involve that you can get with something like martial arts, which I guess makes it more like an art. You can probably tell if you’re getting better at painting, if you’re getting better at playing an instrument, and that puts it into that art field. Would you think that’s reasonable to say?
Brian: Yes. With any drawing, you could draw anything, like a bowl of fruit and do it 20, 30, 40 times, you’re going to notice a difference. That same thing, if you’re going to get on a pads or a mitt routine, you’re going to notice the difference. You can get on a wrestling set of drills from touch to take down, to guard pass, to submission, you’re going to notice that you’re smoother and it’s flowing better and you’re not freezing up or thinking or getting in your own way. It’s interesting that it’s not just one training modality that’s going to get you the big picture of improvement. Sometimes, you hit the bag, trying to be light as a feather and retract really well. Other times, you’re trying to punch all the way through the bag. Sometimes, you’re trying to be as fast as you can. Sometimes, you have to slow it all the way down and try to draw the perfect pathway. With those even just four or five little modalities there, think about going into any other avenue of your life to get a response from a friend or to get a response from your child or your pet, to train my cat how to shake hands. I had to try a few different ways to get my daughter to want to dress her self [laughs] . You’ve got to try a few different ways and a few different things. Yes, it does translate very, very well if people are willing to be a bit abstract with their thinking.
Sonny: Okay. Talk about abstract thinking, in my mind, teaching your cat to shake hands is pretty abstract. Am I wrong? I don’t own a cat, but that doesn’t seem like everyone’s thought that one.
Brian: The first time trying to get him to shake hands was like I’d touch his paw to try to make him give it to me, and he didn’t quite get it. He was just looking at me like I’m trying to start a fight so he bites me, which he’s doing right now. Obviously, trying to get food involved, but then you’ve got to make sure he’s properly hungry. It’s like, “Do I do it during the day? Do I do it at night? Do I do it in the middle of the day?” Funny enough, the one that got it with our cat was my daughter. My daughter actually taught him how to shake hands. I’m sitting here racking my brain trying to figure it out how to get through to him, and then I just handed the treats to my daughter and say, “You try,” and then she does it [chuckles] .
Brian: Very interesting.
Sonny: Would you say a little bit of abstract thinking has influenced your martial arts career or was it the martial arts that maybe made you see the benefit of abstract thinking?
Brian: I think I was always like that. When I wrestled, I had different ticks and different internal processes than my teammates, and because I had teammates, the same teammates, a couple of them from the time I was 8-years-old all the way until 18, we would actually talk about how we trained, not just, “Oh, I took you down today,” and, “Oh, you got me a good one.” It was like, “When you’re hitting 20 double A’s, what are you thinking about?” We all had a little bit of a different answer to that question, so it made me realize there’s different ways to skin a cat kind of thing. Getting our brain and body to connect is different for everyone, but it has to be done for everyone if they’re going to get efficient and proficient at things.
Sonny: Okay. It was your way of just chatting to people about what happened in training and noticing that everyone took away something a little different or saw things a little differently that opened you up to the idea that that’s occurring and there’s maybe a way to use that to your advantage?
Brian: Yes, and that’s why I look at everyone as unique. I don’t train everyone exactly the same. I don’t speak to everyone exactly the same, which is the one nice thing. In the scholastic sports, it’s a lot of teams speeches or team talks, which is good in one way because you can say something that might only be about one or two players but you’re saying it to the whole team, and it’s up to the individual to figure out whether that’s a general speech, whether it’s actually talking about you in particular [chuckles] or your mindset in particular because there’s some speech where you’re like, “He’s not talking about me. The coach is razzing on someone, I don’t know who it is, but this isn’t about me, but I’ll just sit here and suffer anyway.” Whereas, the martial arts thing, I get a lot more one-on-one time with my athletes. I do have to take into account how they’re motivated, what view they take because you can really push someone the wrong way and get a completely different result and put them off. Like I said about my early, early wrestling coaches, they made everything fun. Even the challenges have to have some semblance of the dangling carrot or a bit of fun to get people to respond.
Sonny: Okay, that makes sense. I hear that. Is there anything that you would say outside of your martial arts experience that has given you different perspectives that you found useful when going back into martial arts, things that you’ve taken outside? Maybe a different form of art that hasn’t been able to translate over for you?
Brian: Can you rephrase that one time, sorry?
Sonny: Sure. There’s the benefit of seeing different perspectives within martial arts training and knowing that each individual needs to be treated as an individual, and you’ve taken that from abstract thinking. Is there anything abstracting from that? Is there anything outside of martial arts practice that people wouldn’t necessarily associate with martial arts that maybe has helped inform your journey in martial arts? Maybe, maybe not.
Brian: I was a history major in college. Not that I got all deep and I didn’t have a major specialty, I just wanted to be a history teacher in high school. I basically just had to know– I didn’t have to specialize in English history or this or that, I just had to know how historians operate, how they do their research. All the reading and all the stuff, you come across history repeating itself over and over and over, but it always has different little wrinkles. Wars were waged for the same reasons over and over and over, but it always seemed like it was a different emotional trigger that would get a leader or a warlord to decide they wanted to take someone over. Whether it was a slight or whether it was they have that resource that I really like, the shiny sparkly thing over there, I’m going to go attack them and take that from them. I always find that very interesting. Then, having a bit of a mathematical mind and taking finite math was probably one of the weirdest, most interesting classes I ever took. It talked about like chaos theory and we used to do stuff like drops of ink and how they splatter, and how somehow mathematically, it makes sense, and trying to get my mind around stuff like that. I found it very odd, but statistics and order have always resonated an interesting way with me. Everyone thinks they’re unique, but if you take a bigger sampling, they’re not, but then again, you can’t– If I try to judge what you’re going to do next, I couldn’t. You’d be unpredictable. On a larger set of a million, it would be predictable. There’s going to be a certain percentage that this, this, this, and this. I know I’m getting a bit out there with it.
Sonny: I know but keep going.
Brian: It’s hard to explain exactly.
Sonny: It’s funny, actually, you say you’re getting out of it, but it’s one thing that keeps coming up in different avenues with conversations with different martial artists is the idea of chaos and order and informing different training practices. It’s like a little test tube where, obviously, things we know for sure can get very chaotic in the training room.
Brian: I see it all the time. Yes, it gets a bit ugly, it gets a bit chaotic. We try to make things look pretty on the mitts all the time. We try to make things look pretty with a grappling drill, and you see some of these flow drills that people do that are amazing. The mitts one is easy for me. I’ll get guys on the mitts that look good when I stand still, and then as soon as they throw their jab, I back up half a step and then their cross and their hook fall short, and they don’t know why and I’m like, “Because I moved and you didn’t.” Then, they start moving and they follow me, they follow me, and then I stand still after three or four reps, and they run into me and they’re too close. They’re like, “How do I fix that?” I’m like, “What do you mean? It’s just up to you to fix it.” If you’re trying to maintain a certain distance, it doesn’t matter what I do, you got to maintain that distance or you just got to call it quits. The first thing I’ll start doing is drifting back, then I’ll start drifting left and I’ll start drifting right and make them finish their combo. It’s very interesting how some guys can shift their stance without thinking about it and how other people have to break it down, the way each individual process that problem. For me, as a coach, it’s just introducing a bit of order, get them on 10, 15 good reps, and then do something slightly different where they need to make an adjustment, and then problem solved like, “How are we going to do that? Are you going to stop and think about it? Are you going to be hard on yourself or are you just going to get on with it, see if it works and go?” Then, there’s times I’ll have someone on the same combo for a while, and I’ll throw a different strike at him in the middle just to see if they pause or hesitate or play. You’re going to throw a jab-cross-hook, I’m going to catch jab-cross, and I’m going to throw an inside leg kick while you throw the hook. Then, the next time, I’ll throw an outside leg kick, and then the next time, I’ll lift up a knee, and then the next time, I’ll try to keep you on your jab, things like that. It’s very interesting to see the different responses that they have, but in the end, they all start to realize that I’m just trying to put them off of their path, and it’s their job to find a way to stay on their path because when it comes to sparring, it’s going to get even worse. That’s one of the few ways I try to mix sparring-type pressure and just shaking things up into mitts. As we were talking about before, it’s just me introducing a little bit of chaos to what had been perfect order in the previous reps.
Sonny: Is that somewhat influenced then by your– you just mentioned that study of chaos theory, eavesdropping on the–?
Brian: Yes, a little bit. When we used to wrestle, we’d hit like 20, 30, 40 double legs. At the time, again, was when I was taking some of these interesting math classes and I had some really cool teachers. If no variable changes, then nothing should change but then nothing can improve. If you’re going to hit 20 double legs on me in 2 minutes and I just stand there, that’s easy, but then if I sprawl 100% all the way, that’s one response, fair enough, and it might be difficult, but it’s not the only response you’re going to see in a live match. If I can break down my sprawl into like a quarter and a half, three quarter and full, and then I can add a bit of left and right, and then even instead of sprawling, sometimes, actually hitting in and walking into you, now, I’ve got six responses I can give you over your 20 reps. Now, you don’t know which one’s coming, but you have to shoot on as double legs every single time.
Sonny: Wow. I really like that.
Brian: If I just stood there you, don’t even to shoot on double legs at me. I’ve stood there for 10 reps and on rep number 11, I’ve taken one tiny step back and I’ve completely thrown people off and they were like, “What are you doing?” “Look at what are you doing? You’re shooting the double leg, and now you’re up here talking to me. I’m supposed to be laying on the mat underneath you right now.” “Yes, but you moved.” “Isn’t your opponent going to move?” “Yes, that makes sense.” Then, they understand what I’m doing, but then to get someone else to do that as a partner is actually hard because they might not have the same outlook as you. I find it super frustrating when I’m with a partner and I get no other feedback other than the one thing, and sometimes, that one thing is true stillness. Sometimes, it’s, “I’m going to stop you at all cost from shooting this shot,” and it’s like we’re drilling. I’m supposed to be hitting 15 or 20 of these before we do the next thing, but you’re just trying to spar right now. There’s got to be a lot of stuff in the middle that we can play with that’s not completely taking away your opportunity to finish your drill, but it’s also making your drill a unique journey to the finish. Imagine, you go for a [unintelligible 01:14:01] from north-south and you sit me up on my side, and I just shake the arm that you’re trying to [unintelligible 01:14:06] , that’s going to be a bit more difficult than if I just hold my hand with my other hand and wait for you to separate my hands.
Sonny: That added benefit then of just each drill giving people some defensive feedback, not just being– but a different kind of defensive feedback every time.
Brian: Yes. Even if you’re going to go mount armbar, if I just bump and shake and play consistent, not hard, not intense, but just consistently just move my torso, have fun. You got to find your spot to hit that arm marks. It’s going to be a lot different than from stillness. Imagine picking up a fish that doesn’t really want to be in your boat. Some of them go really hard, really consistent. Other ones are really smart and they play possum. They go still in your hands and they hang out, and they hang out, and as soon as they feel you’re relaxed, bop, bop, bop, bop, and they’re going. I have lost a lot of fish like that where they play still and then they go. That’s influenced some of my game as well, especially submission escapes. I’m dead to rights, you’ve got me, you’ve got me, I’m in a bad spot, but I’m going to surprise you with my one last ditch attempt as best as I can to make it hard for you to hold though.
Sonny: Right. Your submission escapes which you’re notoriously hard to submit, even saying that guillotine chokes are a miss-
Brian: They are.
Sonny: -your submission escapes were actually influenced by fish. Did I hear that right?
Brian: True story, absolutely.
Sonny: That’s fascinating.
Brian: Absolutely. When you hold onto a wet fish that doesn’t want to be in your arms, it’s not easy.
Sonny: When you’re escaping submissions, you’re trying to emulate that. I understand it. It makes sense.
Brian: Look how hard they change directions too. They’re not going to one direction and running from you. They don’t have feet. It’s just small direction changes. They undulate and they play and it’s just short, sharp movement, and it creates space. Like a jackhammer, you can’t really play tug-of-war with a jackhammer, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. You can’t even keep the grip, which changes directions too fast. All these little odd things out in the world definitely can be related back to human movement and a methodology.
Sonny: Okay, I like it. It’s surprising, it’s not even the only time we’ve talked about fish and grappling this week. [laughter]
Sonny: I’m always surprised by how the things do always interconnect and relate to each other. It’s fascinating. I have to ask about the guillotine is a myth thing because I put it to you, Mr. Ebersole, the guillotine is not a myth. How about that? [chuckles] Convince me.
Brian: Here’s where it comes from. I know it works sometimes, but it was so frustrating going back and listening to commentators of my flights or even friends or whoever say, “He had you in a guillotine, he had you in a guillotine.” Listen, and not to use a curse word, but I want to like, “Listen, butthead, I double legged him and I took him down to side control. Where was this guillotine at? The guy was holding my head, it doesn’t mean it was a guillotine. I picked him up, I slammed him on the mat. He held my head so I didn’t get up and punch him.” That’s not a guillotine. There’s a big difference between someone controlling a front headlock and slipping in for an attempt to choke you versus some guy putting his armpit on the back of your neck while you lift him up over your head or drive him to the cage or take him down to side guard half control or half guard. It was just more of a frustration of most of the time my head’s ever been under someone’s arm, it’s because I put it there.
Sonny: I got you.
Brian: He wasn’t guillotining me, he was grabbing my head on his way down to his back. I was taking him down. Now, every now and again, were they able to regain guard? Yes, they were, but most of the time, I would tripod, straighten my neck, and they couldn’t apply much pressure. It came out of a frustration of listening to people like, “Oh, he’s in a guillotine.” I’m like, “I’m in a deep double leg. What are you talking about? I don’t care if you’re Joe Rogan or not, that’s not a guillotine, Joe.” Yes, we had a bit of a laugh with it.
Sonny: Okay, I get you. That makes sense. I’ve started doing a bit of commentary myself, and I’ll give him some empathy because I’ve found that I’m constantly now worried about doing something that I’m pissing off some dangerous fighter and he’ll come back and say, “You said what?” I’ll go easy on him.
Sonny: It’s been a great conversation, Brian. I’ll just finish with just one last question. I’ve had you for a while and it’s been really good getting into some of those topics. Just one last question would be if there was any advice you could give yourself back when you first got into martial arts. Let’s say when you first started fighting professionally, you go back to your first professional fight, you’re the ghost of professional fighting past. What’s the advice you would give yourself?
Brian: Probably to diversify my training a little bit in the sense that I was obviously very wrestler-centric. I would have loved to have had more time around a black belt at a younger age and learn some of those skills, but also diversifying out of the blokey bloke tough guy thing. Not that that was my personality, but that’s what the culture was like, so that’s what I was given. I didn’t have social media to look up like kettlebell, core, pilates, yoga stuff, and that would have been cool. I wish I would have drifted more to those diverse avenues of training because I did meet some really good people along the way, I just didn’t gravitate toward them because I didn’t think that that was an assist to my martial arts endeavor. I’m a guy that I can barely get into a parallel squat, let alone put my butt to the floor, and I would love to be able to go to China or India and have a cup of tea on my own two feet but being a foot and a half tall. I would love to be able to squat and hang out like that. I would love to be able to open up my hips. I would love to be able to bend over and put my socks on every day with no struggle. Yes, diversifying my training and not just looking at it like, “If I do all the hard stuff, the hard stuff will be easier.” Well, sometimes, doing the soft stuff makes the hard stuff easier.
Sonny: I hear you. Probably, I’ll say the same thing. That’s something that I’m focusing on now more especially, just trying to get flexible for the longevity side of things because it seems like in early days, you can get away with so much more.
Brian: Yes, you can get out of bed without being sore every day, but even then, I knew my hips were tight and I knew I wasn’t flexible back then. I just didn’t know what to do about them. I just didn’t see that pathway of like, “Oh, if I just embrace knowledge from hippies, I’ll be all right.” [chuckles] I’m like, “What are hippies going to teach me that is going to help me with fighting?”
Sonny: Surprisingly, it may be a little bit, I think.
Brian: A little bit a lot, I think. Look at Jonathan Brookings, he went all the way to India for a couple of years, didn’t he?
Sonny: He’s a fascinating guy.
Brian: He’d be an interesting podcast, hey.
Sonny: I would love to talk to him, yes. [laughter]
Sonny: Hey, this has been a great show. I’d love to do it again. Maybe next time, we can just go straight into hippie talk and get down to that. [laughter]
Sonny: Thank you so much for your time, Brian. I appreciate it so much.
Brian: It was a pleasure.
Sonny: Absolute pleasure. I really appreciate it. If people want to get in touch with you, they want to look you up, what’s the best way that they can go about doing that?
Brian: I’m on Facebook at Brian Ebersole. That’s just a big sports page I’ve had for quite a while. Direct messages through there will come to me. I don’t have a secretary going through all that at this stage, and Instagram, same, @bryanebersole.
Sonny: Beautiful. I’ll make sure to put those links in the show notes for people who want to look it up. Thank you so much, Brian. I’ll be in touch, and hopefully, we can talk again in the future.
Brian: Hopefully, we can get on the damn mats in the future.
Sonny: I hear that mate. I hear that.
Brian: That would be a pleasure. We could just do this off of one device.
Sonny: Let’s do that. Let’s do that. Hopefully, in the next six months.
I talk to Daniele Bolelli who is a writer, martial artist and a university professor. He is the host of multiple podcasts including the Drunken Daoist podcast and the History on Fire podcast. He has also authored many books such as “On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology” and “Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting”.
Here we discuss how martial arts is the perfect medium for learning the limits of your capability and reaching your potential despite a few broken arms and busted knees, why the timid sport of soccer has the most violent fanbase of all and why a jack of all trades may be the master of none, but can oftentimes be better than only a master of one.
Episode 5 – Podcast Transcript
Sonny: Daniele, great to have you here. It’s a pleasure. I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time, especially On the Warrior’s Path. I just thought I’d get into just initially about what attracted you to start training martial arts back in the beginning? What was it that drew you to it?
Danielle: I think it’s was the local fad, right? We watched too many Star Wars movie. We watched too many Bruce Lee movies. There’s that dream which all those things are built on. Like the mythology of it is a young lost guy who goes to the wise master who show him the way of the force. And it’s sad you are not a young lost guy anymore, now you’re a Jedi master. It’s all we love, right? What it is it’s a dream of empowerment. It’s like the whole martial art movie story and martial arts in general. It’s the story of you’re weak, you are vulnerable, and you don’t want to be any of those things, and there’s a process to that. There’s a lot of the Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey type of vibe. You’re going to go on with this quest that’s going to transform who you are, and he’s going to reform you into something that you like a whole lot better. I think why we all do it. [laughs]
Sonny: I think I’ve had the same thing. I’ve often wondered would I have experienced a broken arm in a mixed martial arts fight if it wasn’t for the Ninja Turtles? [laughs]
Danielle: Right. Exactly. Or probably not.
Sonny: Is that idea that then drawn us to it? Is that just a romanticized fictional idea that western people have of eastern martial arts that is just made from media companies?
Danielle: It is and it isn’t. it’s like anything else. Anytime when people are, “Oh, it’s just romanticized.” I mean, to some degree of course. But it’s also usually based on a seed of truth. You take something that’s real. The way that martial arts do transform people, the empowerment that is very real. You do take the fact that some people in the martial arts who are inevitably have been more than just the thugs and people who can throw a good punch, but have also had something interesting to say about life, and you just zero in on that part that extra interesting and you make it the stereotype. Most stereotypes are not born out of completely making stuff up out of thin air.
You take seed of truth, and you just blow it up to where the image of the martial art teacher. Now, 95% of martial art teacher you’re ever going to run into are not like that at all. But you zero in on the part that you like, that you dig, that you wish it to be, and then that’s what the movies will focus, on to the point where it looks like that’s what it is in all occasions. Of course, it’s not in all occasion, but that doesn’t mean it’s not that way in any occasion.
Sonny: Then to actually get that experience out of it, this transformational turning, making the weak strong, it’s a noble idea that draws us to it. But then we go into the martial arts school, and generally the first thing we might encounter is a savage beating at the hands of some person who is a lot bigger than us, sweating all over us. How can we actually get that through that kind of training?
Danielle: In fact, that’s one of the sayings that that toughest person in any martial art room is usually the white male who signed up the latest because he’s going to sack [unintelligible 00:04:59] you know. Everybody in the room is better than they are. To keep showing up day after day when they know that they’re going to get their ass kicked for at least a year or two before anything starts happening, that takes some serious mental strength. In some way, that should be rewarded with shining the spotlight on it. That will be some hell of a mental toughness to go in day in and day out, day after day after day. All you’re going to experience is just loss and somebody squashing. They can be nice about it. Ideally, you don’t go to a [unintelligible 00:05:34] school where they’re just overly brutal about it.
The reality is that even if you’re playing nice, you’re still going to get your ass kicked. That part is where really debated– In some way, that’s the part that interesting the most about martial arts. Because we all like the perfect armbar, the great spinning back kick, the technical mastery is beautiful to watch, and we all want. One of the real benefits is that toughness that you develop by going into uncomfortable situation. By going into- getting used to losing. Getting used to getting pummeled. Getting used to fighting on when it feels hopeless. That to me that can be used outside of martial art, even more than the perfect technique that realistically I probably never going to do it outside of the martial art world.
That’s the stuff that will translate to life. Because inevitably life will deliver good [unintelligible 00:06:32] kicks that you’ll grow in, and you will have to deal with it, and you will have to have that toughness to come through when things feel hopeless.
Sonny: That makes sense to me. To get that toughness through the martial arts training, could we not also get that through just other forms of training that could possibly cause us less risk of injury? We can push ourselves, maybe someone could do triathlons and or whatever they choose. What would make the martial arts special over any other pursuit?
Danielle: What you’re saying makes perfect sense. You can get there. You can get very similar lesson through many other parts that have nothing to do with martial arts. I don’t think that martial arts is the one and only. I think there are other ways to get some of those lessons. The one thing that’s really special about martial art is that really is- it’s about neutralize conflict. When it doesn’t get any more primal, that just unarmed conflict which another you might be in the least intellectual and most objective way possible. Just through physical body clashing with one another. One will triumph, and one will get [unintelligible 00:07:50] . It’s very primal. It’s an archetype.
It’s something that you can learn lessons about conflict through playing basketball, through rock climbing, through whatever the hell you want. There are many, many paths to it. But they don’t have quite that archetypal quality that martial arts does, because really nothing deals with conflict in such a direct and raw way as martial art.
Sonny: I agree there’s that for sure that primary element of human nature that draws us towards it. If we’re being drawn back to our primal nature into a less intelligent form of being, isn’t that a dead illusion, a regression back? Should we not trying to be the civilized- live in a civilized manner and get away from all that conflict?
Danielle: Yes and no. In the sense that I feel that on one end if that’s who you are and your entire world is built on just clubbing somebody in the head and being physically dominant and that’s all you understand, I can think of better ways to spend your time. At the same time, I feel that sometimes modern civilized life which is also in a lot of ways. I like going to sleep without the thought that an enemy tribe may come in the middle of the night to cut my throat. Stuff that– I dig that part of modern life. But at the same time, there’s something that as long as we have bodies, as long as we have– There are certain energies that are part of who we are, both physical and psychological.
I think martial arts in that sense are the perfect ritualized way to tackle those very primal energies in a way that that’s constructive and can work in modern life. Nobody is telling you that in order to achieve those things, we need to organize gladiator events where we just face off with blades and one will survive. That’s taking it a little too far and in a not so healthy direction. Martial arts are that perfect medium. They give you a taste of this energy, allow you to explore it, allow you to learn that edge, allow you to learn that power about yourself and about life, without being something that takes you to a completely different way of life where it’s not even desirable.
It’s like there’s a difference between training martial arts, even fairly obsessively, and being the guy at the stadium who’s just looking for- classic thing like European soccer stadiums where the hardcore fans are using the games as an excuse to have these giant gang fights. That’s a little different. Not quite. They both deal with violence. They both deal with conflict. My way of seeing things seems a lot healthier than the alternatives.
Sonny: That’s fascinating. I’ve thought about that before where with soccer, it’s so bizarre that it has to be one of the most, I don’t know, least violent sports where they fake injuries. They just fake it. That’s part of it. Part of the sport is just getting someone brushing past you and pretending it was a catastrophic injury, which we know is not true, and yet they have the most violent fan base imaginable. How does that make sense? I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that.
Danielle: I think that speaks volume about a lot of modern society, people loss of identity, people loss of being part of a group, people desperately want to belong to something. All belonging is built on a we versus them mentality. What’s more dramatic of a we versus them, than just- we have our colors, we have our flags, they have their flags, we clash with– It goes back to something that just was there from the dawn of humankind. It’s something that [unintelligible 00:12:00] understand very well, it’s our tribe versus theirs. We don’t live in tribe anymore, but the need is still there.The need to identify with that small group, and it’s fun. You people [unintelligible 00:12:11] in soccer fans, but no sense.
Sonny: It’s interesting what you say then about the tribal conflict because I understand that, and even within the martial arts, I do think that exists still with, or it did, probably does still just within the different styles of training of martial arts. Especially, the last 10 or 20 years now, I guess, the overhaul with mixed martial arts being developed, and there’s still the traditional martial arts schools going around. I guess the broad categorization you could make is the mixed martial arts is more real, but at the same time, there’s all those barbaric elements that people get turned off from in cage fighting, that turned people away from martial arts.
Even though that’s got that benefit to it, could we not go back to just training the traditional martial arts, we don’t get injured, everyone’s happy, and we’re getting a workout in? Can we not just get the same benefits from doing that?
Danielle: There’s definitely advantages to some of that stuff. It’s like when my daughter- my daughter is 10 years old now. She started martial arts a little bit ago, I think when she was seven or something. People were like, “Oh, are you going to put her in Jiu-Jitsu?” I’m like, “No, I think I’ll just going to put her in Taekwondo at first.” Taekwondo especially it’s so much simpler to follow, there’s the structure, these guys are pros. Their , they have teaching methodology, they know exactly how to handle kids. They know how to teach them some basic body dynamics that they’re going to be able to take a bunch of other things that they’re going to do in life.
My daughter, she really doesn’t like authority very much. At school when there’s calls for the principal says this, but this my daughter follows with a roll her eyes reaction of like, “Fuck this, I don’t want to deal with this stuff.” When it came in, she loved it, she had no problem with it. I was like, “How the hell is that possible?” It’s like, “This is super regimented, and they are so–.” But it’s like, “Yes, but I trust them.” There’s something about these guys the way they teach that I accept discipline and authority from them because they do it well. I don’t accept it from those guys because they are not credible, but these guys already earned it.
I was there, usually that’s not my style at all, the kind of Korean regimented approach is far from my approach. But when I was watching the classes, I was like, “These guys are really good at it.” It’s not going to work for everybody. The next person is going to have the same setup and they are irritable, and they just spend their time yelling at kids and it doesn’t pay off, it’s not a good idea. When it’s done well, there’s something good about that approach when it’s a little more structure, when there’s more emphasis on some values that we like, especially for kids but even for adults.
Sonny: That makes sense. I actually did a bit of Taekwondo myself a couple years ago, I got the yellow belt, but then stopped. One thing I noticed is, yes, they’ve been doing it a long time, they run a good class. It was fine, it was good fun. With that authority- and I especially think that it’s good for kids as well what you’re saying, it’s perfect for kids.
Danielle: You can always do Jiu-Jitsu later, that’s great, but not right now. Early on I felt perfect to go with the traditional one.
Sonny: That makes sense. So then how do you think that people can get that authority and do it right in martial arts when they’re so open to, let’s say, people abusing that authority as well is something that we see. That’s almost an archetype in martial arts of just the dictator-hood, smashing people over the back with kendo sticks or something, and just abusing that authority. How do we get that mix right of proper respectful authority, and just this complete disabandonment of it?
Danielle: I think unfortunately it boils down to individuals. Because we can put together all the right elements that would be ideal, and in the hands of one person, they turn out perfect. In the hands of the next person, terrible. That’s why even martial arts, we all have this idea of the martial art teachers as these guys who don’t just teach you martial arts, but they have something about life they can teach and so on. Most don’t, most martial art teachers are really good at what they do, maybe, hopefully, and they don’t necessarily have deep wisdom to pass on anything else other than how to apply a good [unintelligible 00:17:07] that’s it.
You see so many cases, as you say, abuse of authority by martial art teachers on every direction. From sexual abuse, that unfortunately there’s a whole lot of that stuff that you see going on, to just psychological abuse of their students, to just money. There’s a lot of terrible people that really shouldn’t be teaching because they happen to be good athletes, and they have good technical knowledge, they are teachers. Unfortunately, that’s the same thing in anything else. If you go to school, one teacher is going to be awesome, and the next teacher is terrible, and you wasting your time. They shouldn’t have that authority.
Unfortunately, it’s very hard, it’s trial and error on the part of the customer to figure out, to separate one from the next, to figure out who’s the real deal. It’s the same thing is like, “How do you pick your friends? How do you pick the people you date?” It’s hard.
Sonny: I hear that.
Danielle: You can check all the boxes of what it should be, but then one person is amazing, and one person turns out to be a nightmare. Unfortunately, there’s no certified program to have a good date or the certified way to have a good coach. It is better to have some standards than not having them, but that doesn’t guarantee that they are going to come out being great instructors. Unfortunately, that’s the way it goes. You got to have your eyes open in any field of life when you’re looking for a martial art teacher, when you’re looking for friends, when you’re looking for whatever. Whoever you bring into your life, you need to be able to recognize who’s the real deal, and who’s not such a [unintelligible 00:18:43] human being.
Sonny: That makes sense. I guess it’s an archetype again of martial arts that the teacher, the master, is going to impart some other form of wisdom beyond just the physical training. That’s in the mythology. But then do you think that that’s a responsibility that the teacher should provide? I look around when I’m teaching, I’m just wearing pajamas in a silly costume. The person in front of me might be doctors, lawyers, whatever. Any master in their own profession. And if can tell you how to choke someone, I’m not here to tell you about life. When do you think people you should do that? Is their responsibility to do it?
Danielle: I think what you do, and these would be true in whatever you do, it doesn’t just have to be a martial art, but in whatever field you do while you have students, you’re going to teach them a technical skill, in this case martial arts, and then you’re going to share who you are. If who you are has some depth to you, if you are as something beside technical skill to offer, people are going to pick up. And if not, then yes, you really shouldn’t force it. It’s not good idea to just say, “Let me just teach you guys all about life.” In that sense, it’s going to [unintelligible 00:20:11] indirectly. Just because that’s who you are, that’s how you speak, those are the examples you bring to the table, that’s the energy that you bring to the table.
Not because you have a title, or because you have, “Everybody should listen to me because I’m the master.” It’s more like if people gravitate to you because they like what you have to say, it’s because of your charisma. It’s because maybe they listen to something you’ve said, and it really rang true to them, and they applied it in their life and it worked, and it made their life better. But you don’t do it because you sit down and think like, “Let me how I’m going to teach you the wisdom of life.” You do it because you just share who you are. If who you are can deliver that to people, then that’s great, and you should, it is important.
In anything you do, you should try to help the people you come in contact with, and especially if you have students, the goal is to teach them a skill, but also to help them in life if you’re able to. But without that arrogance of, “Oh, because I got a black belt, somehow I’m the master of life.” No, you are who you are. Again, maybe you have some wise things to pass on, maybe you don’t. I think a lot of it is role play. People take it too seriously, and they think that “Now I’m supposed to embody this idea.” It’s like, “No, you’re supposed to be you, teaching a skill.” If you happens to be somebody who is wise, who can share things that will help people in life, that’s great. You definitely shouldn’t repress that. Let it flow as part of a teacher. But it’s going to come out naturally, not because of a role that you embody.
Sonny: Yes, that’s very important. Just to focus on those skills, just giving the ability to impart the knowledge of the skills in the best possible way. Just if anything else comes from that, people get drawn to whatever else, they can take something from that. Then let that be what it is, but–
Danielle: [unintelligible 00:22:11] and it can be done humbly. It can be done where it’s like, “Hey guys, this something that for me as translated from the match to the rest of life. This is something that in my life it help. Take it as you will. It works for you, great. I’m glad if you can pick it up. You already know it, good for you. You don’t think it applies to you, who cares? That’s fine.” You just share something that is part of your experience, which is what all of us ultimately can do. It’s like, “Hey, this happens to be something that for me, it really help me.” It’s not exactly the fortune cookies irrational quote. It’s more like, “This idea really worked for me.” But again, I’m not trying to convert you to anything. It’s like, “Now I’m done. I shared it. Now it’s up to you to decide whether you want to do something with it or not.”
Sonny: That’s right. I think one of the best things about the mixed martial arts is how it allows that testing because what I found with, especially Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the reasons I keep doing it is just the unique thing of solving difficult problems under stress. It’s simple. I don’t like to attach anything else to it. No mystical side. It’s just we solve problems under stress, and that can be used in any field of profession that you’re in. That’s it. That’s one of those things.
Danielle: I think as a teacher, that may be a good thing to shine a spotlight on. Like, “Hey, man, you’re doing a phenomenal job [unintelligible 00:23:46] training.” You can tell your student, “Hey, you see what a great job you’re doing under stress, coming up with solutions.” Can you do it in the rest of your life? What stops you from– Why is it that when your kids are acting up, suddenly, all your wisdom go out the door, and you’re not able to, why? Is there a way that you can make a translation from that ability that you have when we talk about Jiu-Jitsu, and you bring that to something else? You can toss ideas back and forth and figure out what are the obstacles that people struggle with, if it make sense to you. Nobody is great at everything. You can take all the- not just the technical skill, but even the mental skills that go with somebody like Michael Jordan.
Is he able to apply them in the rest of his life? If he could do that in every aspect of his life, he would be like the Buddha, right? He would be [unintelligible 00:24:48] and he’s like probably not. He has that ability. It’s easier when you have that ability in one field, to then make the jump to other fields. It’s not automatic at all, and it’s not easy, but it’s easier. I think that’s part of something that we should put attention on sometime. It’s like, okay, you’re learning these things for what for? Just because you want to win the next tournament, or just so you can have an hour of mental health when you do Jiu-Jitsu? That’s great. Nothing wrong with that.
Can we take it a step further tough? Can we take that idea and just run with it even a little bit more? Again, it’s not done in a, “I’m the wise master, let me teach you the ways.” It can be more through dialogue. It can be more to just throw in things, and that people can decide to run with or not.
Sonny: Yes, that makes sense. I would never tell someone how to fix a problem in their personal life unless they ask specifically or something, for my opinion. I’m just like, no, I don’t want to give this unsolicited, “Here’s how you should do something.” If you don’t ask, you probably don’t want to hear it from me. [laughs]
Danielle: I think the good thing there is just sharing one’s experience, because one’s experience is usually not perfect. There are situations where you mess up. There are situations where you’re frustrated, where it’s like, “Man, I should know better. How can I apply it in this context and not in this other one?” Not in the classic “Let me tell you how I was lost and then I was found” kind of thing. Again, you’re not setting yourself up to be this– You’re just sharing life. You’re just sharing things that worked, things that didn’t, ideas, and then you let people take what they will from it.
Sonny: That makes perfect sense. Just sharing those experiences. I guess probably the most important part then is just focusing on the skill and being the best that you can at the skill that you do. I guess the better you get at the skill, hey, maybe the more chance there is of people being able to pick up or learning other things from it, and probably yourself being able to learn other things from it.
Danielle: If you’re going to become a good teacher of a skill, that means you’re going to have to be a good communicator. To be a good communicator, you’re doing more than passing a skill, because that means you know how to read the people, because no two people have the same learning styles. That means that when you are working with somebody, you are able to tailor your teaching of that particular skill in a way with a tone that that person will respond. If you learn how to do that, you are learning something about life. Then you can also help somebody out in ways that are, again, more indirect. But because you have that ability, because again, a teacher is not just somebody who can perform a skill in amazing way. It doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher. I’ve had experiences sometime where–
I know I can teach well things that I’m good at, but I’ve had very funny exp– For example, my Jiu-Jitsu is pretty good. My judo kind of sucks, it’s okay at best. It’s not that great. But I’ve had days when I work with people on some judo stuff, and they are like, “Man, I learn more judo now than in the last six months.” I’m like, “How is that possible because my judo really sucks? I’m barely hanging myself. How is it possible that–.” Then I realized, and I’m like, “Oh, because I see these four guys in front of me who are way better than I am, but their communication is not the greatest.” It’s one of those that if you learn by watching, well, watch those guys because they can perform it in a way that’s so much better than I could ever could. But if you learn in other ways, maybe then that’s a different skill.
That’s not just the skill of being able to execute the move perfectly. There are other communication skills involved that somebody may respond to, but sometime we think– Even in school, they don’t teach you how– You go to school, you get a Master and you get a Ph.D, that doesn’t mean in any way that you are a good communicator. That just means that you know how to jump through the hoops to do the research or to do the whatever stuff. That is a completely different field from actually having that knowledge of being able to communicate it [unintelligible 00:29:24] Sometime we think that it’s one and the same, it’s not. Unless you work on communication, unless you work on yourself that way, that’s not going to come through just because you know the technical skill.
They are related parts. If your technical skill sucks, no matter what a good communicator you are, you’re not going to do a good job. You need more than technical skill. By itself, the technical skill is not going to do it. You also need something beyond that, that communication side.
Sonny: It’s funny. It reminds me at university, there was one day they had a lecture on how important it is to engage a classroom and keep everyone’s attention. The way they did that was the lady was reading bullet points off a PowerPoint about the importance of keeping everyone engaged, then I’m sitting here going, as anyone else, “What is going on here?” [laughs]
Danielle: Yes, it’s totally like that. Sometimes when I talk with– I don’t know if you listen to Dan Carlin who does Hardcore History podcast. He’s a absolute genius in terms of communicating history. He has a BA.. That’s it. There are like three gazillion people on earth who have more advanced degrees, who have done that more. That’s why he’s all like, “I’m not really a historian,” but it’s like, “Well, you’re more of a historian than most. You are able to communicate history so much better than three zillion of these guys with their fancy titles.”
Sonny: Part of that I think has to be the way you can tell a story of whatever information you’re trying to get across and weave it into some narrative, just to be able to get people’s attention into it, and somehow just make it interesting too. Just finding out what that is. I find it so hard to just figure out how you can do that with a dense piece of information, or risk lock or something. There’s that how do you bring that stuff to life. Do you have any ideas?
Danielle: There are a lot of ways. None of them are “it”. There are no the seven steps to become a great communicator. It’s not that easy. And I think there are a bunch of things you can do, like reading books. I think reading helps a lot because it develops your mind in certain directions, kind of like Game of Thrones thing, right? Where there’s a [unintelligible 00:31:59] look at me. What am I going to do? I’m not a warrior, I’m not the– But I sharpen my mind through reading books. That’s the skill I develop. Reading books is huge. Paying attention to people, engaging with people, communicate, making a skill of reading people. Seeing how people respond. Seeing if you use a certain tone it works with this person, but this person really doesn’t respond to it. There are so many times that I see cases where I see a person A communicating, and I totally get where they are coming from.
There’s nothing wrong with what they are saying. But they lack the body language. The tone, the humor they are using is clearly not made to be received by person B. Person A is, “What’s wrong with person B? Why can’t they get it? I’m being nice.” Personal B is, “This person is a jerk,” and it’s like you’re both right. It’s just that they are speaking different languages, and nobody’s understanding that you need to switch the language if you want to be understood by person B. You cannot communicate with person B the same way you did with person C. It’s a whole different game. That requires paying attention. [unintelligible 00:33:10] person. They’re a bunch of things that are going to do it, but definitely paying attention is huge.
Sonny: That paying attention to– I find it hard to quantify that, but I know exactly what it means. You have to just be paying attention, and then just go from that, and then you can go from instincts. It’s like pay attention to the data coming in, the scientific [unintelligible 00:33:33] and then just let that guide the instincts for however you’re going to react somehow. However that can work.
Danielle: That’s really a tricky thing. It’s like having all the skills that are human skills. It’s like saying once we agree that, for example, using humor usually helps people relax and pay more attention eventually because they’re having fun and all of that. That’s great. But if you are not a funny person by nature, that doesn’t help you. You can [unintelligible 00:34:04] thanks, but no. It works when somebody who is not funny tries to be funny. It’s like, okay, forget it. Forget humor, that was a bad idea. It’s hard because we all expect that there’s this clear blueprint to acquire certain things. They are granted. There are certain things that are more likely to deliver good results than other, but they are far from guarantees.
And some of it, unfortunately, is not very democratic, but that’s the reality of it. That not everybody has the same talent for all the same things. Some people are going to pick– I can work like a dog at the skill, and I’m never going to be as good as somebody else who has a natural talent for it and work on it on top of it. You can just improve and try to get better at it, but you’re not going to create a skill out of thin air.
Sonny: Just trying to improve and keep pushing that boundary forward and then eventually you’ll be communicating better, getting that engagement, getting that attention, and also then communicating the skill better, and maybe imparting some other lessons that people can take away.
Danielle: Yes, because what we are talking about is not just about martial arts, and it’s not even just about teaching. It’s about becoming just a good human being.
Sonny: That’s huge. [laughs]
Danielle: It’s not a simple answer.
Sonny: That’s not simple at all.
Danielle: [inaudible 00:35:37] human being. I wish it was that easy though. [inaudible 00:35:41].
Sonny: I wish it was that easy. I guess people have tried throughout history of writing down different ways that can be done, but maybe the way where we’re going now is mixing that reading of books and taking that intellectual pursuit to gain that knowledge, gain that confidence, gain that broadening of ideas, and then mixing it with cage fighting.
Danielle: Totally. I’m a big fan of a Yin-Yang approach to life. You need different things, even [unintelligible 00:36:23]. If all you do is read books, you’re going to be really good at communicating with people who are nerdy. They’re not going to necessarily how to communicate– Even if you have the intellectual understanding of what somebody who are coming from a completely different background is like, you don’t have that life experience. You don’t have that energy attached to you, so it’s not going to work. I remember I had students in– I teach in college, so I had students in my college classes who then would want to come train with me.
We’re hanging out, we’re training. Suddenly they developed a whole different attitude to work because maybe some of these guys come from straight up from the ghetto. Where it’s like, look, I like the stuff you say in the classroom. It’s cool. It’s interesting, but none of that stuff translate to my experience in the ghetto. It’s like when I can punch you in the head and you just laugh it off and smile and take me down and choke me out, that speaks a language that I understand very well from [unintelligible 00:37:26] . More than one language that way that you can adapt is something that now that same person can listen to me blab along intellectually, and be 10 times more interested, because I gained credibility in their eyes, because I excelled at something that makes sense in their world.
Similarly, it goes the other way around, right? It goes both ways. Most of life is made of different energies, and you want to try, if not to master at least to be decent at as many of them as possible. You want to be comfortable if you are talking with some professor in an Ivy League university, and if you are sitting in a room full of gangsters, you want to feel just as comfortable, right? Because you can switch the language easily from one to the– You can relate to one, and you can relate to the other, and a lot of that is life experience. A lot of that is just being open to not just stick to one thing in your whole life. I hate it when- as much as I love martial arts, I can’t stand where all the people I know in martial arts, all they can talk about is martial arts.
Come on. Do you not get bored? I love it. I get it. I can nerd out with you forever, but there’s more to life. It’s like, can we talk about something else? I think we do ourselves a disservice when we turn our passion into an obsession, where that’s the one and the only lens through which to see life. No, that’s one lens. It’s a lens I like. It’s cool, I dig it, but there’s so many other. Experienced a whole bunch of them, and then when you are at least conversational in these other languages. If not, of course, time is what it is. There are 24 hours in a day. You can’t master everything. You’re going to pick a few things they are going to focus on, but be at least decent at the many things.
Sonny: I agree. That’s probably what I’m at least trying to do myself. The one thing I sometimes think about that is the old saying “jack of all trades, master of none”. It’s like am I splitting myself too thin? Am I ever going to gain any authority in one realm if I don’t focus all my attention into that? How can that crossover be a benefit?
Danielle: I think there’s a point where it’s diminishing other thoughts. If you’re trying to be the best in the world at one thing, you probably need to dedicate an hour [unintelligible 00:40:05]. The reality is that you can become really good in a much smaller amount of time. Let’s say that you dedicate 50% of the time that somebody was obsessed with an activity [unintelligible 00:40:18] . You’re going to be really amazing at that.
Now, every 10% more that you dedicate, you’re going to gain millimeters. If it’s a game where you’re competing with the best of the best, the millimeter makes all the difference.
But if you just want to do it for life enrichment, even as a teacher, let’s say you do teach martial arts, and you gain enough ability to be– You’re a black belt in jujitsu, you’re a black belt in whatever it is, you have the technical skill, it takes time, it takes energy. But there’s a point where if all you do is keep going down that path, because I want to be the greatest black belt there is. It’s like now you’re losing a ton of time that could be put in other fields so that you could be good at six things, really good at two, and maybe you’re not the number one person in the world at any of them. [unintelligible 00:41:11]
extremely complete human being. You have a lot to your personality. You have a lot. People who know you for that one thing suddenly discover this other side of you and are like, “Wow.” That’s so much more interesting if all there is to you is, you’re the god of that one particular field. It’s like, if you want– Again, it works in sports. When you want to be the absolute best and that’s your goal, that’s a different story. It’s probably a good idea if you’re going to get heart surgery. I don’t care if my heart surgeon is a fool.
I wanted to do it in their sleep. That’s what, but other than those things, most of life, you can get really good at something but then there’s a point where for their time invested into that skill, what you gain is so small. That same amount of time could have been spent elsewhere and you would have gotten to a level where you’re decent at it. You’re pretty good at it.
Sonny: I agree with and I’ve thought about that a few times for the idea that if you’re an Olympic athlete, you’re going for the gold medal, you have to do things to achieve that goal that are going to be detrimental to your health, in long-term health, detrimental to other parts of your life. There’s going to be a lot of negative side effects to achieve that gold medal and that’s just the way it is and if you decide to make that your goal, you have to take that responsibility on and the competition for that too. There’s no guarantee that that’s ever going to– [laughing] There’s no guarantees, that’s ever going to happen.
Danielle: [inaudible 00:42:53] and your entire career trajectory is gone.
Sonny: One day. [laughing] You ate a bad breakfast that morning and maybe that throws it off. It’s a big risk and I salute those people who take it but if you are trying to mix a few different skill pursuits together and get it at good level for all of those, you can actually find yourself in a situation that you’ve created a unique skill set or unique combination of things that maybe you could be the best at that. Maybe, maybe not, or just some level of a unique skill set and depth about you.
Danielle: Absolutely and I think that’s what makes you you. You’re able to do these four, five, six, whatever many things fairly well in a way that allows you to become a more complete human being, which for the point of view of just mental and physical health and relating to other people is way more valuable than becoming the one guy that feel. The one guy, the specialist is usually not the most fun human being to be around because all they can talk about is that one thing. All they know about is that one thing. It doesn’t translate to a life skill. It translate to just that one field and it’s like–
I don’t know, I feel like there’s so much more to life to it that it’s what you were saying about the Olympic athletes. It’s really become detrimental to your overall well being.
Sonny: With that detrimental thing to our well being, if we’re taking the pursuit of being that number one, what do you think is it with the martial arts, particularly the modern martial arts? We go into it knowing that, maybe not even going into it but eventually, everyone’s going to experience some kind of injury probably. People could get lucky and it’s maybe the role of the teacher to minimize the risk of injury, but that’s going to happen. There’s going to be that detrimental side effects, and then, can we not just take a more softer approach, and does that just lead itself to falling over when we come up to against any real test of the abilities?
Danielle: Well, and I think that’s where there’s a line. It’s a balance. It’s he’s [unintelligible 00:45:29] hard all the time, you’re going to get brain damage. Queasy all the time, is completely not realistic and the first time you take a real punch, you’re completely shocked and can’t handle it. You want to find probably around the side of safety, you want more on the soft than the hard, but you need to add a little bit of the health experience in a controlled fashion. Just something that give you that edge.
I think that’s the important thing, it’s fine. That balance is not the same for everybody. If you are 18 years old, and you heal from injuries really fast, you can push a little harder. If you are some 50-year-old guy, you have to tailor that balance in a different direction. We all do it because everybody’s body’s fragile to one degree or another, but that exact spot changes in life, changes from one person to the next. I know a lot of people, for example, I’m 46 now and generally speaking, the people who are good at Judo, they do it from when they are kids because you take so much damage getting thrown that nobody wants to learn Judo in their 40s. You’re already good by that point.
You’re not going to ever become the best at it. You’re not going to win the Olympics. You’re not going to do any of that but so many will never train because it’s taught in a way that just too hard. That is built to teach 15-year-old kids, not to teach people who are adults, who start when they are in their 30s or 40s or 50s, but can you teach it in a way where these people will still learn something valuable? Yes, you can. You can switch it around rather than doing hard randori all the time where people slam each other, you can do more of a playful randori, where you’re doing a lot of entries.
If I am balanced when they set you up for the sweep, and you are right there and I’m holding, I don’t even need to take you down at that point. It’s like both you and I know that I had it, that he was there. Now once in a while, we go a little harder and will do go for the full take-down, but a bunch of times, rather than having to get thrown 300 times a night, you get thrown five times a night and suddenly, you learn a lot of skills that sure, the guy who’s getting thrown 300 times and going at that level of intensity probably learns more stuff if they don’t break down. [chuckles]
Probably is like, “Great. That was realistic” and you learned all this stuff but now three years later, you can no longer practice. Who’s going to get better? The guy who practice a little more mellow for the next 20 years or the guy who push hard and destroy their body?
Sonny: I know what you mean and I think that’s a good point for talking about how to keep people engaged, knowing what would be the best way to tailor training of martial arts to the different body types and ages and whatever their goals will be. That’s probably the most important thing about being able to keep someone engaged and learn whatever it is you’re trying to impart is by making sure they keep showing up on the mats and don’t just decide to quit.
Danielle: [unintelligible 00:48:33] because that’s huge, right? It’s like, I realized, I’m not going to be able to do certain things, and that’s okay, but I can still get decent, I can still learn some stuff. I can have fun. I can. Why not? That’s a good goal. I’m down with that. Again, it’s not the Olympic athlete goal, but it’s a goal that works for my life. That means me healthy, that adds elements to my life. If the only choices are train like a madman or don’t train at all, those are not great choices. The person who can afford to train a madman, they are few and far between, and more likely than not, they are not going to be able to do it for in their entire life.
Sonny: I agree with that and makes me think about the rolling of competition because I know there’s a saying of something along the lines of, once in your life you should train as if your life depended on it or, as hard as you ever train before. I get where that’s coming from. I feel like everyone– You should compete at least once in jujitsu, which has a relatively low risk of injury, but I understand it’s not for everyone too and if your job involves you– If an injury happened and you lost your job and everything would be thrown into chaos, I get it.
Danielle: You train very differently and that’s fine. Again, it’s not a bad thing. There are limits to what you can do and that’s okay.
Sonny: What do you think they could be missing out by never competing or what’s that extra benefit of pushing yourself that one time to get into a competition that– Can you learn that elsewhere or can that only be learned in competition?
Danielle: Some of the stuff are competition, it’s hard to replicate [unintelligible 00:50:16] The reality is that people are going to go way higher there in a way that when you have never experienced it, it’s very hard to even imagine. The first time people compete is like, first they don’t know what it’s to be under the level of pressure. They may be gods in the gym, but now, suddenly, they feel they wake up in the morning and their heart is racing, it’s hard to breathe, and their muscles are tensing up and they’re like, “What? Why?
What’s going on? I’ve never–” You experience that mental state of it. The fear. This time, you’re not going to experience when you’re on the mat with your friend rolling easy. That just not, but in some way, it’s fun not to experience those things, because it’s not a great state to be. For the next three days, I’m just going to be mostly in fear and anxiety. It’s like, “Yes, let me sign up for that. That sounds so fun.”
Danielle: [unintelligible 00:51:12] right?
Danielle: No, you don’t want to do that all the time, but as an experience, it’s something that mainly allows you to learn how to deal with fear and anxiety a little bit better. Maybe. Often it does and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you reinforce with fear and anxiety because you’re afraid, you’re anxious you go out there, you get squashed. You’re more traumatised about it you never want to do it again. It’s worse than if you never did it. It’d have been better for you not to do it at all.
The idea you do it with enough wisdom or where you compete, who you compete against, all of that. You learn that. You get that experience but in a way that allows you to thrive. Maybe you don’t win but you still feel good about it. You feel, “I dealt with it. I felt that anxiety and I was able to step up and perform at my best.”
Sonny: That’s pretty much what I experience every time I enter a competition. I enjoy competition myself and I try entering as much as I can. I understand that’s just me, but man, entering and it’s fine, but the morning of the competition I’m always like, “Why did I do this? I could be out somewhere. It’s a sunny day outside. I could be doing anything else. Sit at the beach, go on and see a movie, kicking back, having a good time. Instead I’m driving to a gym in the middle of somewhere where some guy is going to try and break my arm and sweat all over me and it’s going to be really uncomfortable. What on earth am I thinking?”
Then always, when it’s done, win, lose, or draw, whatever happens I’m like, “Ah.” It’s a sense of relief and I’m glad I did that. That was fun. That was enjoyable, it was a good experience. I still after all these years, I don’t know why that is. [laughs] How that happens, why I keep doing it, I don’t know.
Danielle: What is it you like about the competition then? If you do feel that stuff, you do feel like, “This sucks.” What is it that makes you want to do it?
Sonny: I really don’t know because it’s that something because probably if I didn’t get that fear, I don’t think I’d like it as much. It’s something, that relief afterwards of, “It wasn’t so bad.” [laughs] That “Aha, that was good, that was fun. It wasn’t–” Maybe it’s probably anyone I can have negative thoughts about what’s going to happen in the world and I can get entrapped into ways of thinking about, “Oh, this is going to go wrong in my life. This is going to go bad in my life and something is going to come and hit me one day. Everything is going to turn to chaos.”
You get trapped in those thought patterns. [laughs] Even thinking about it, I can start thinking of examples that I can go back to. When I enter in those competitions, I guess some of that– There’s a tangible example of I’m having bad thoughts about things that could happen on this specific day at this specific time in this specific match. Are these thoughts real? The last competition I had, I was coming back from injury. I had minuscule surgery on my knee at the start of the year and I really wanted to compete by the end of the year just to say I overcame that injury.
At the morning of, I was like, “What am I thinking because I haven’t given it enough time? I’m going to reinjure this knee for sure. Let me just tape it up as much as I can because–” By the time I got to the venue I was thinking, “For sure, there is no way I was getting out of this without re-injuring my knee.” I just had– All the negative thoughts were filled in me.
That’s my prediction of the world I guess. My prediction is, “I’m going here today and I’m going to stuff up my knee again. Well, can’t change anything about that, too late.” Of course, I go in the match, didn’t go my way but the knee was fine. I was wrong. Great. Those negative thoughts weren’t re– Those negative thoughts weren’t real. What a relief. Every negative thought I have isn’t going to come true, brilliant. Thanks so much. That gives me a– I, don’t know that’s the motivation to know the good things will come true sometimes too and not all the negatives will come true. Let’s go with that.
Danielle: There’s something about dealing with fear that people who never ever have to be with fear or unpleasant scenes, the day when those scenes show up in their lives they’re completely unprepared for that. If you have had at least a little bit of ritualized experience, like a martial art competition, it certainly helps. It help to deal with that because otherwise, it is a crashing thing. Fear is [unintelligible 00:56:19] and caution.
Sonny: It’s something that– I think a hard thing is then balancing that fear. I know it’s popular just to be we only need positive thinking about that. Banish all fear.
Danielle: Well, good luck. You can want to banish it all you want but it’s going to show up. The other guy across the cage wants to take your head off. You could have thought positive all you want, but it’s just like, bam, three out. This is not just about what I think, this is about these people who’s coming to kill me.
Sonny: I remember one time I even did that with training where I was thinking, you know what, it’s just my mindset that why I’m getting smashed in this role against this person. It was just in my head if I go in there and I just think confident thoughts, “I know I’m beating this guy today. There’s nothing that’s going to change it” then that’s the thing and then the same thing happened, of course. [laughs] The thoughts, maybe they helped a bit.
Danielle: They have for sure. It’s better than [inaudible 00:57:28] Again, those things are not wrong but they’re inches. It can improve your game a few inches, it’s not going to throw in– Just because I think positive, I’m not going to beat the best in the world tomorrow if anything. It’s just going to be– it’s super interesting. It is important to develop those aspects without becoming dogmatic about it where you think that that’s the solution [unintelligible 00:57:53] because [unintelligible 00:57:54]
Sonny: That’s where I know the danger is and you don’t want to have that delusional confidence that it’s not based on anything. At least with the martial arts, I can get that test. I can get that. Is my confidence warranted? Yes or no.
Danielle: That’s [inaudible 00:58:11]
Sonny: [laughs] I know. Exactly, it’s a firm gauge of my positive and negative thoughts. The confidence and fear. What’s my ability to judge this accurately? Let’s go have a look.
Danielle: Absolutely. That’s exactly how it is. It’s funny how we forget how much of the game is mental because martial art is about fear. It’s different if it was some other sport. You have the fear, there’s performance anxiety for sure. You can have performance anxiety about anything. It’s like when people are afraid to give public speech because it’s you making sound with your mouth. I understand there’s fear that can come from self-esteem, from how people are going to judge you but objectively there’s nothing to be afraid of.
In martial art, objectively, there is-
It’s not just me doing my thing, it’s this person who’s going to try to slam me. They’ve trained the [inaudible 00:59:10] last years to become more assertive and destroy me. I can see how that will [inaudible 00:59:14] anxiety in [unintelligible 00:59:15]
Sonny: [laughs] It’s funny, but yes, without a doubt, you’ve got something to worry about. [laughs]
Danielle: [inaudible 00:59:26] I’ve seen it sometime. What’s funny is that the same person who can be amazing one day can drown the next man. It’s like they can be mentally perfect in one occasion and in the next one they’re just not there. It’s so weird to see because it’s like, “Wait, you did it perfectly the last time, what changed this time?” There are so many little factors that can make or break you mentally.
Nobody is just mentally invincible and nobody is mentally such crap that they’re going to fail every time. There’s a possibility for everybody to rise above and to sink below. Clearly, the better you’ve got at it and the more you have done it, the more the odds are you’re going to stay in a certain range, but there’s [inaudible 01:00:12] is different.
Sonny: There’s that reaching of potential. I guess that taking it back to the beginning, that’s probably one of our types of– That’s one of the mythological things of martial arts over anything else is that you could potentially reach your potential with this. [laughs]
Danielle: On a good day it’s like that, next day, maybe not so much.
Sonny: [laughs] That firm line in the sand, that’s important. You can’t get that through everything for sure, but you’re definitely going to get it with this.
Danielle: I think if I remember correctly it was [unintelligible 01:00:58] Jackson who said it. Who said that, “Everybody can be broken. The point of training is to bring the line which will be broken so far that the other person is not going to be able to push you there likely.” It’s not that that line doesn’t exist anymore, you still have it. If you apply enough pressure, everybody breaks.
Sonny: That’s it. That’s right.
Danielle: It’s to push the line so far that we are going to be able to discover it and push you there. It’s not [unintelligible 01:01:28] there is no such thing.
Sonny: That’s so true. I think it’s our own general kind of quote. Maybe you never know what quotes you read online, if the person said it or not. I’m not trying to be better than someone else. I’m just trying to be better than yesterday.
Danielle: Yes, definitely. That’s all you can do. That’s [inaudible 01:01:53] is a whole other– All you can control is yourself ultimately. You don’t control opponents, you don’t control how well they’re going to perform, you don’t control any of that. That’s why I even like focusing on new victory. [unintelligible 01:02:07] it’s more [unintelligible 01:02:07] All you got to focus on is just going out there and doing the best job you can, putting everything on the line. That you do have under control. You can control that aspect.
If I go out there, I put everything on the line, I do the best job, and I fight somebody who’s 100 pounds heavier than me and they are the greatest heavyweight of all time, [laughing] I’d still feel like [unintelligible 01:02:30] That I can control. Again, all you control is your mental attitude and what you bring to the table. That’s it.
Sonny: Danielle, thanks so much. What a great conversation that I’ve enjoyed having with you.
Danielle: Thank you so much. It was definitely a lot of fun.
Sonny: Like I said, I’ve been a fan of your work. When I saw you comment on something of mine, I was very happy, let’s just say. [chuckles] I was like, “Wow.”
Danielle: I was watching your videos and I’m like, “Oh man, I love his videos. They’re such great, great balance.” I dig down [unintelligible 01:03:07] there were commented on it and you responded, “Hey, I really like your book.” I was like, “Oh, perfect.” It’s so great. It works nice that way.
Sonny: It was very cool. I’ll just say that. I’m very, very happy. If people want to get in touch with you, what the best way they can get- [sound cut]
Frank Shamrock was an early pioneer of mixed martial arts training with a unique approach to cross-training and fight strategy that enabled him to become the first UFC light heavyweight champion before vacating it after an all-time classic match against Tito Ortiz. He formed an alliance and cross-trained his shoot wrestling style with the kickboxing skills of Maurice Smith and the guard work of Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and successfully blended them together to form a well-rounded skill set. Each member of the alliance was able to help each other improve in a different area and in many ways exemplifies his plus, minus and equals training system which we will discuss in this article.
Perhaps due to its inclusion in the book “Ego is the Enemy” by author Ryan Holiday one of the most notable aspects of Frank Shamrock’s training is his system of plus, equals and minus. The plus, equals and minus formula is as simple as have a training partner that is better than you, at the same level and of lesser skill than you, which will enable you to always continue learning and growing. Author Ryan Holiday explains the benefit of the system as follows:
“The purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple, to get real and continuous feedback about what they know and what they don’t know, from every angle.” – Ryan Holiday
Let’s now go more in-depth about how the three parts of the plus, minus and equals system will connect.
The plus will be a martial artist who is more skilled than you who you can learn from and will expose your gaps. In many cases, this will be your coach who will have more expertise on the subject than you but also sparring partners who can put that knowledge into action. The coach can provide the role of mentoring, training guidance and knowledge of techniques that can help develop your martial arts skills. But martial artists will always have a coach who should fill this role except in the rare case that someone was self-training and if so they should go find a coach to become “the plus” immediately.
Sparring partners who are also a step above you will fill this role as you need someone to be exposing the weak areas in your game to help you become aware of them and give you the incentive to work on them. Without a partner who can best you in training, then you are merely giving yourself delusional confidence that may be exposed by in a real fight or confrontation. These mini losses in practice will help you grow, and you want to have these experiences in the gym in an environment where your partner is helping you to learn rather than for it to occur in a public competition setting.
The minus will be a martial artist who is of lesser skill than you who you can teach and help grow. It is someone that you can help along the way to improve their skill set, and in the process, it will help you gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of your skills. It many ways the best way to understand is to figure out how to teach it to another person, and these people will provide an opportunity to do so, ensuring they are willing. Simply giving unsolicited to people can be very frustrating, and some peoples pet peeves in the gym when it is considered the primary responsibility of the coach.
Another practical way that you need to have someone who is a minus is you need someone who can help you put implement skills you have just learned before you can get them to work at a higher level. When you learn a new technique, the chances of you being able to execute it flawlessly at first will be very slim. But you might be able to make it work on someone less skilled than you while you refine the application of the technique over repetitions. Whereas if you immediately try to apply a new technique on someone who is of more considerable skill, it might be stopped immediately before it, you can see it develop into being usable. Ideally, you can take a new ability and troubleshoot it on a minus to a point where it starts working on equals and further and then get a chance to show that technique and any possible counters to your training partner to help them also benefit from the process.
The will be a martial artist who is roughly at the same skill level and can match you in sparring. It can be someone who started training at the same time as you or someone who you happen to be matching skill levels with but overall these are people who are the same point in their development as you. Now we can consider every one of our training partners as our equals as everyone trains together with the same goal of improving and solving the same problems. It can be everyone in your gym being on the same team and all trying to strengthen each other on the same journey. But at a more individual level, you want to have people who are matching you in training with neither person able to get a clear advantage.
These sessions with people who have been your equals should be fun and enjoyable and will also give you a guide to know if you or they have improved. It would help if you were motivating each other by knowing that you are on the same course together and that you are helping each other grow and develop in a way that can be more team building than being bested by someone better than you. A practical example is having a group of people preparing for a competition on the same day. Everyone can help push each other and raise the overall level of the group as everyone works towards the same goal.
The Plus, Minus and Equals training system
The plus, minus or equals system will be there if you look for after training for a short period of time. Even if it’s just having the plus being your coach and the equal being your training partners. Once identified, you can use the system to provide you with continuous real-time feedback on your progress throughout training. Getting that constant feedback will help keep you grounded and honest about your skill level and in the book “The Ego is the Enemy” the chapter that discusses this focuses on always remaining a student throughout life. Frank Shamrock describes the benefit of doing so as follows:
“False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student, that’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use the humility as a tool”. – Frank Shamrock
The system of plus, minus and equals training will simplify the process of remaining a student by giving you a readily identifiable way to learn new skills, collaborate as a team and share what you know with others while continuing to grow, improve and strengthen yourself as a martial artist.
Cutmen at an MMA fight are responsible for treating a fighters lacerations or swelling in the one-minute break between rounds. Therefore, a cutman’s duties include getting the fighters to perform at their highest level of ability by minimising the effects of cuts and lacerations that could hinder their performance. Also, if cuts become too severe, it may lead to a fight being called off by a referee or doctor so in some situations a cutman’s work could make the difference between winning and losing a contest.
All major MMA promotions will provide corners with their cutmen; a smaller show may provide one cutman per fight and rely on the chance of both fighters requiring a cutman from not occurring. However, at smaller regional shows a cutman may not be provided at all, and it will be expected that the coach or cornerman of a fighter will fill this role.
Learning the skills required to be a cutman can be through an informal apprenticeship where you could help out a more experience cutman in their duties and learn on the job. In this case, you will have more success finding experienced cutmen in boxing clubs and venues rather than in the MMA circuit. Otherwise, a few formal training courses exist online and around the world that attempt to pass on the knowledge while providing an “Official Cutman” certification upon completion. The article below will give an overall guide as to what is required, but real insight will come through working corners and getting experience 60 seconds at a time.
The equipment of a Cutman
The lists of equipment for a cutman will be as follows and may include some crossover with the equipment you would be expected to carry as a cornerman. Enswell, coagulant, vaseline, gauze, cotton swabs & towels.
The Enswell (Sometimes called an End Swell or No Swell) is the most distinctive piece of equipment in a cutman’s toolkit, and It is merely a flat piece of metal that is kept cold and used to apply pressure to cuts or swelling on a fighters face. Different styles and variations on design exist for enswells, but their essential use is all the same and can come down to personal preference as to what type you would use. As you want to keep the enswell cold for its use, it should be kept stored in your bucket of ice on fight night, and a thin layer of vaseline can be applied to the enswell to prevent the metal from being so cold that it would stick to a fighter’s skin when used. In the event that you cannot find an enswell to use any small piece of metal can be used as a makeshift enswell providing that it doesn’t have any sharp edges that could cause a cut. A simple bent spoon is always a good option that is available to use if necessary.
A coagulant is a medicine used to assist in clotting the blood to stop or slow the flow of bleeding from a cut. The most common and available coagulant used by cutmen is adrenaline 1:1000 or epinephrine. The epinephrine can be applied to cotton swabs and then pressed directly onto a cut to in-between rounds. It can come in bottles that are designed to be used for injections so it can be useful to transfer the liquid into an eyedropper bottle which is easier to apply to a cotton swab. Also, you may need to get the adrenaline from a doctor or nurse, so if it is unavailable, a hemostatic gauze is also another option to use. Hemostatic gauze is a medicated gauze strip that contains a coagulant in it to promote blood clotting that usually is either zeolite or kaolin. The hemostatic gauze can be cut into smaller pieces that can be applied directly to a fighters cuts in between rounds. Other coagulants do exist, but adrenaline is the most commonly used by cutmen, and hemostatic dressings may be the most easily available over the counter option available from pharmacy or military surplus stores.
A cotton swab is used as the application method for the coagulant and to apply pressure against a cut. Many cutmen will use a wristband that they store multiple cotton swabs in that they have prepared before a fight. Cotton swabs can also help in treating a bloody nose as they will be able to fit up a fighters nostril and help with stopping the bleeding. The cotton swabs used by famed cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran are not your regular swabs used for cleaning out the ear. Instead, he will purchase cotton balls roll them out as much as possible and then cut and attach them to smaller cotton swabs to help bulk them out so they can contain more adrenaline and cover a larger area (Bartlett, 2008).
Petroleum jelly is more commonly known by the brand name vaseline and is an essential piece of kit for any corner to have. Vaseline will be applied to a fighters face before they enter the ring or cage as a preventative measure to avoid cuts by helping gloves slide off the fighters face rather than sticking and breaking the skin. When dealing with an existing cut, vaseline will be applied entirely over the wound as a filler to help “seal” it up and help prevent further bleeding. When using vaseline as a filler, it can be kept cold which will make it harder and more malleable, but this can also make it more difficult for a doctor to clean and stitch together after the fight. The vaseline can also be mixed with adrenaline 1:1000 to provide an additional application of the coagulant to the wound.
One large white towel should be kept for wiping down a fighters shoulders and back and in the unfortunate situation where it may need to be thrown into the ring or cage to halt a contest. Multiple smaller face or hand towels should also be in the toolkit and kept damp on fight night for use in wiping fighters face clean of any blood or vaseline between rounds or at the end of the fight. The smaller wet towel will be easier to handle and manipulate along the curves of a fighter’s face than the standard large towel which has a rough texture when kept dry.
A cutman may use various other pieces of equipment with a lot of crossover with standard corners supplies. Latex gloves are one piece of additional equipment. Wearing gloves is simply a hygiene issue as dealing with open cuts you want to keep your hands as clean as possible to prevent infection. A bucket will be required to help store all the other piece of the kit and taken to ringside. Fishing tackle toolboxes can also be useful to store all the smaller pieces of equipment between fights. Icepacks to help keep your enswell cold or apply to a fighter are also helpful to keep in your tool kit. Plastic zip lock bags make for cheap and useful ice packs as you can fill them with ice you get at the venue. Ziplock bags should be double wrapped to help prevent them from accidentally opening and spilling ice on the floor when used.
What to do In-Between Rounds
During the closing thirty seconds of a round, you should begin to assess what work will need to be done during the break. While a cut could still occur from the last punch in the last second of a round, you should always begin to form a general plan before the bell rings. After the bell rings, you will then need to asses the severity of cuts as soon as you are allowed into the ring or cage. A judgment will then need to be made about what will be worked on during the minute break with priority going to preventing the fight from being stopped and then too, which cut impairs the fighter the most (Matuszak, 2015). In general working out how you will work with other members of the fighters corner who will be wanting to provide technical instruction should be discussed backstage before the show starts.
The following image is a guide to help asses the severity of the cuts according to their placement on the fighters face. The most common and severe cut you will deal with are ones running horizontally along the eyebrow. These cuts are dangerous as they can bleed into the eye and obscure the fighter’s vision and if they are deep enough they can damage important nerves (Gelber, 2016).
Cuts that have occurred within zones 1 and 2 are the most serious and may need you to consider ending the bout. Cuts within all other zones will require careful inspection of their depth to make a judgement call
SUMMARY OF LACERATION ZONES
tarsal plate, lacrimal sac
nasolabial fold with facial artery
superficial temporal artery, facial nerve (at the zygomatic bone)
facial artery at masseter
mental nerve (Gelber, 2016).
Working with Cuts
The number one technique to use when dealing with cuts or swelling is to apply cold direct pressure to the affected area to compress the blood vessels and help contribute to the clotting that needs to occur. Doing too much else can end up making things worse, so unless you are confident in what you are doing or find yourself in a unique situation, it would be best to stick to the basics. Even without adrenaline to apply to the wound merely adhering to the basic principle of applying cold direct pressure will be the most important thing you can do.
The first thing to do when dealing with a cut is to quickly clean the area with your small wet towel, which should be cold from being kept in the ice bucket. Then as soon as possible, applying pressure to the cuts with gauze or your cotton swabs soaked in adrenaline should be done if you have them. You could also place the enswell on top of the swab to apply pressure and cold at the same time. When the break is coming to an end, then you will remove the gauze or swab to apply vaseline to the cut. The vaseline should be used over and into the cut to act as a filler and should be seen to seal up the wound to the best of its ability.
Nosebleeds will be another common injury you will deal with as a cutman. Again wiping the blood away from the nose with your small wet towel should be done straight away. Then immediately placing an adrenaline-soaked cotton swab up the bleeding nose of the fighter while applying pressure to hold it in place from the outside of the nose should be done. It would help if you were careful not to pressure both nostrils as you still want the fighter to be able to breathe but as you work on stopping the bleeding advise the fighter to breathe through their mouth, so they do not swallow blood. You should also caution a fighter no not blow their nose if you suspect that the nose is broken.
Dealing with Swelling
As with cuts, the most important technique you can do is to apply cold direct pressure to the wound using your enswell o if you didn’t have one then even an ice pack will do. Some cutmen will advise to rub swelling out to try and lessen it, and I have seen this used to move swelling away from the eye, but this is a technique that Jacob “Stitch” Duran strongly advises against as it can make the swelling worse (Markarian, 2010). Cold direct pressure to any swelling will still be your most used technique in dealing with swelling. Vaseline should also be applied to any swelling before the break ends to help with reducing the chances of the skin tearing on a swollen area and turning into a cut.
Other Duties of a Cutman
Dealing with cuts between rounds is the primary duty of a cutman, but other skills may also be useful to master and cover the scope of a cutman. Wrapping hands would be the number one skill cutmen would also be expected to have, and I will cover this in another article. Along with wrapping hands, general skills in applying sports tape to other parts of the athlete will also be useful and general first aid skills to help assist in fighters well being after the fight will be suitable to acquire.
General people skills are also useful for a cutman to have as they will need to negotiate with corners to figure out how they will operate in between rounds. On top of that, giving the fighter confidence that they are working with is also helpful as they can help calm them in-between rounds and provide them with confidence backstage going into a fight. Part of the trust you can instil in a fighter can be done by building a reputation as being the best at your craft so that when they know you are working with them, they feel confident in your abilities.
Sixty Seconds to Work
Being a cutman will always be a pressure-filled role as you have sixty seconds to work within where you will need to prioritise what you do and work effectively with the rest of the corner. It may be repeated twice or four times within a fight. With that in mind have a good handle on your equipment and what you will do with them ahead of time will make you better prepared when the time to work on a cut comes.
If you spend time in a fight gym, you may want to keep your toolkit in your gym bag. If a fighter gets cut during practice or sparring, then it may allow you to work with a cut without the pressure of the 1-minute time limit and gain some experience. Otherwise except for the few cutmen courses that are available then first-hand experience working on fights will be your best teacher or if you are lucky you will be able to find someone willing to let you shadow them and learn the craft.
Dealing with cuts is all about helping your fighter be the best they can be and also keeping them as safe as possible during their fight. The above article is a good rough guide, but if this is a topic that you are serious about mastering, then you should seek further instruction, particularly from medical professionals.
(Although this didn’t fit anywhere in the article I thought it was interesting to include at the end. While researching this article, I found a study they did on fighters in the fifties on sewing a single stitch to fighters cuts between rounds which I found fascinating: “Closure of Boxing Lacerations Between Rounds”. )
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Gelber, J. (2016). The Ultimate Guide to Preventing and Treating MMA Injuries. ECW Press.
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