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Certainly he couldn’t have been totally shocked. Gracie has mentored Diaz since he was 16, after all. If anyone knows what’s brewing inside the talented but troubled fighter’s head from one moment to the next, it’s got to be him. Yet even after all the incidents of the past -- the positive drug tests and hospital brawls and televised gang beatdowns--– Gracie seemed particularly discouraged after this latest and gravest turn of events.
Yes, he said, he understood the UFC’s position. No, he said, he didn’t know where Diaz was. Yes, maybe he was finally, finally ready to admit that his star pupil has some problems. That maybe the kid should seek professional help.
That was two days ago. Fast forward to Friday and, through surely no small amount of finagling by Gracie, Diaz is back. Back in the UFC. Back on the same card even, now scheduled to fight B.J. Penn on Oct. 29 in the co-main event of the pay-per-view he was originally supposed to headline.
Unbelievable? Insane? Bizarre? You betcha. For an MMA coach? Just another day at the office.
“You mean this crazy rollercoaster that we as coaches ride every day?” a chuckling Trevor Wittman tells ESPN.com when asked about the Diaz situation. “Yeah.”
Trainers and managers are perhaps the fight game’s most important and least heralded brotherhood. Spend a few minutes talking to any of them -- the Wittmans, Bob Cooks or Greg Jacksons of the world -- and you invariably come away struck by how reasonable they all seem. How unflappable. How normal.
Then you consider their charges. Even in the strange, catch-all of professional athletics, the average MMA fighter undoubtedly falls on the more unreliable end of the spectrum. Just as Gracie has done with Diaz, a trainer can work with a particular fighter for his entire adult life. He can put in countless hours, innumerable training sessions and dozens of fights to prepare him in every conceivable physical way for the biggest moment of his career.
Then the guy doesn’t make weight. He doesn’t fill out his paperwork. He doesn’t get on an airplane or, as the case may be this time, three airplanes. Suddenly, all that work seems like it was for naught.
“It is what it is,” says Cook, also laughing. “There is a reason why these fighters are driven to step in the cage and challenge themselves. It’s my belief that not just your average Joe wants to do that. You’ve got to have something special in you -- or something special missing, one of the two.”
Guys like Cook and Wittman ought to know. They run two of the nation’s top MMA gyms -- Wittman at Grudge Training Center in Colorado, Cook with American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. Both have trained world champions in boxing and/or MMA. Both have lent guys money, let guys live at their houses, loaned them cars or whatever else they needed to survive the months and years leading up to their “big break.” They've also both had the bottom unexpectedly yanked out from under them when they least expected it, just as Gracie did this week.
“You work with fighters and you put your time and effort into these guys and you love them like they're your kids,” Wittman says. “We kind of take this role of being somewhat of a father figure. [Trainers] take these guys under their wing, they give them all their time, they drive them around, they help them with their outside lives, you put a lot of time into these guys and, when someone makes a decision like [Diaz], it all comes back on you.”
What a strange and maddening thing it must be to be the man behind the man. When a fighter is winning, it’s typically all about him. My God, his striking looks great!, the guys on TV say. He’s really worked hard! the journalists write. What a warrior! When things go wrong? The same fighter had a bad game plan. He looked over-trained or under-trained or he got bad advice from his corner. What he needs to do, we all say, is find a new camp.
“There’s the saying, ‘You can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make him drink ...,’” Cook says. “All you can do is voice your opinion of what the right decisions are. Sometimes the fighters will agree with you, sometimes they won’t. Hopefully they can have enough respect or wisdom or faith to just go with it and do what’s in their best interests.”
You look at a situation like the one Gracie found himself in this week and you wonder how it could all possibly be worth it. Considering the innumerable ways a fighter can screw up, it’s actually surprising it doesn’t happen more often. Why put up with the headaches? The answer, the trainers say to a man, is that they really can’t help themselves. Most them are former fighters themselves and the fight game has seeped into their blood. They probably couldn't quit it if they tried.
“It doesn’t matter how many times I get hurt or fighters step away from me or whatever it is,” Wittman says. “I love to see guys earn world championships. I love it. To be able to see a guy get to the highest level of the game and get that belt put around his waist, I mean, those are the moments I’ll never forget. Those are the moments I’ll take to the grave with me.”
Those are the good times. On Wednesday? That was the bad.
All those hours. All that blood, sweat and tears and then your guy misses his flight. He gets cut. He faces what is probably the darkest day of his life. People spend 48 solid hours mocking him, mocking you and mocking your methods on the Internet. The boss is livid, saying your guy will never work in this town again. You know what you do then? You do the only thing you can do. You do exactly what Gracie did this week.
You do whatever you have to do to get him back in.