MMA: Bob Cook
At some point in his career, every fighter gets bit.
Not bit like “Mike Tyson on Evander Holyfield” bit, but by the injury bug. In a combat sport, injury almost is inevitable since the root objective of fighting is to inflict damage on another human being. Fights are harsh enough, but practice, conditioning and grueling training camps can be just as damaging.
UFC lightweight contender Josh Thomson knows full well the impact of that injury bug. At the end of 2008, he was seemingly cruising along in his MMA career. “The Punk” had found success in three fight leagues -- UFC, Pride and Strikeforce -- and wrested the Strikeforce lightweight championship from Gilbert Melendez in June 2008.
From 2009 to 2011, however, a string of injuries prevented Thomson from finding that groove again, sidetracking him out of several bouts, including a title defense and unification bout. Upon his return to UFC, an injury opened a door to a title opportunity in 2013 when T.J. Grant injured his knee and Thomson was offered a shot at champ Anthony Pettis in December. But Pettis injured his knee, and the bout was called off.
So excuse Thomson if he’s tired of fight camp and injuries. Since his convincing win over Nate Diaz almost a year ago, Thomson says it feels like he’s been in fight camp forever.
“Honestly, this might be the worst camp of my career,” Thomson said. “It’s just been so long. I got into camp for Pettis, then he got hurt. Then we got Henderson, so I just extended camp and kept going. So it’s been like 15 weeks. I’m like, ‘Man, are we there yet? Can we just get this crap over with?’”
Thomson cut himself some slack -- about one week’s worth after he took the Benson Henderson fight, which will be Saturday at UFC on Fox 10. But that’s it.
“You know what made it an extra tough camp is that it was all during the holidays,” Thomson said. “Everyone was gone. It was hard to get even anyone to spar or roll around with in the gym. The gym was desolate. No training partners. I had to do everything to stay focused.”
Got that groove again
Finding a moderate pace seems foreign for Thomson’s hard-charging personality. Indeed, some of his past injury issues have originated from Thomson’s own intensity during practice and training camp. Just ask his coach at American Kickboxing Academy, “Crazy” Bob Cook.
Josh is one of those guys who, in the past, probably inflicted more damage on himself than he needed to from practice. Josh has always done more than everyone else. But there comes a point where maybe you shouldn't do that extra conditioning or sparring.” -- Trainer Bob Cook, on Josh Thomson's prior overzealous approach to training
“Josh is one of those guys who, in the past, probably inflicted more damage on himself than he needed to from practice,” Cook said. “Josh has always done more than everyone else. But there comes a point where maybe you shouldn’t do that extra conditioning or sparring. You’ve got to let your body rest.”
Flash back to 2008: Thomson was on a serious roll, riding a six-fight win streak into his Strikeforce lightweight title bout with Melendez that he would win via unanimous decision. Both UFC and Strikeforce were enjoying deep and talented lightweight divisions, and Thomson suddenly was one of the sport’s brightest stars and a marquee draw for Strikeforce.
That star was due to get brighter with Strikeforce set to debut on Showtime featuring Thomson’s rematch with Melendez. However, a broken ankle suffered during training just 10 days before the fight sidelined Thomson for the next eight months. He and Melendez ended up fighting a trilogy; Thomson lost his title in the process and never regained the belt.
Injuries -- suffered in training and in fights -- would set back Thomson another couple of times to the point where many wondered whether he could ever regain the level he achieved leading up to winning the Strikeforce lightweight belt.
In fight camp, Thomson follows the AKA protocol, sparring three days a week and grappling/wrestling the other days. Conditioning is at night. It’s a plan that has produced UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez and some of the best mixed martial artists in the world.
But Thomson knew he had to make some adjustments. When he first fought in UFC, he was 25 years old. In his second UFC “debut,” Thomson was closing in on 35.
“When you’re young, you can keep doing what you’re doing. But as you get older, your body changes and you have to make adjustments,” Thomson said. “I admit I tend to push myself harder. I do a little more mitt work, a little more bag work. I do a little more just about everything. But it’s about training smarter, not just harder.”
While he didn’t detail what those adjustments were, the results have been obvious. Thomson’s return to UFC was spectacular, defeating Diaz at UFC on Fox 7. Thomson bludgeoned Diaz with pinpoint head kicks and eventually earned the TKO via strikes. Until then, Diaz had yet to be finished in UFC.
Strangely, Thomson said he wasn’t feeling very well before the Diaz fight. In his win against Melendez, he battled two staph infections, the flu and several minor injuries leading up to the fight. Against Diaz, he felt a similar sluggishness.
“The morning of the Diaz fight I just felt like crap," Thomson said. "I was sitting on the couch watching TV and just passed out. I woke up at 2 p.m., and check in was 2:15, so I packed up real quick and headed down to the arena.
"On the way to the arena, I felt really, really good. Just that two-hour power nap I got in the middle of the day, I felt like a rock star, man. I felt phenomenal. I had that tingly feeling in my body and had a great fight.”
So if this camp has been grueling, perhaps a new part of that AKA protocol will be a prefight power nap.
For Thomson, it seems like a bad camp doesn’t always mean a bad outcome. Regardless, he’ll be ready.
“Just coming back to the UFC and beating Diaz was sort of the validation I needed to show I belong among the top-five guys in the lightweight division,” Thomson said. “Now it’s about making progress and show I deserve a title shot.
"The shot was given to me before, but Pettis got hurt, so I moved on. Look, if I can’t get by Benson, then I probably don’t deserve a title shot and he does. But to me he’s the best lightweight in the division. So if I beat him, there’s nothing stopping me.”
Heaven only knows what the past few days have been like for Gracie, let alone the past 11 years.
As the longtime coach and manager of one of MMA’s most unmanageable fighters, he sounded like he’d finally had enough on Wednesday when he had to admit that after no-showing back-to-back news conferences, Nick Diaz got what he deserved in getting booted out of the biggest fight of his life against welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre at UFC 137.
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.