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Julien Solomita: The lone fighter’s team in the corner (a real support system)

By Zach Arnold | August 28, 2011

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By Julien Solomita

In the mind of a fighter, the solitary goal is, “be better than the other guy in order to survive.” When watching a fight (martial arts, boxing, or any other competition) it is evident that significant strategic preparation goes into any given bout, but really the big question is, how much of this groundwork is the fighter solely responsible for, and who is carrying the rest of the load? At the peak level of competition that professional fighters are involved in, it is obvious that a fighter’s camp and team are highly responsible for their success (or failure), but what is it that makes a team so important? Could a fighter in fact be self-trained, self-coached, and completely alone in the entire process, yet still be as great as a team member?

Being that the only people who actually know this answer are those who experience it as their profession, I interviewed one fighter in particular — undefeated UFC light heavyweight contender Phil Davis, a former NCAA wrestling champion who is 4-0 in the UFC. He gave me some insight to how his team helps him do what he does so well — win.

Davis is part of Team Alliance Mixed Martial Arts based out of Chula Vista, California which is home to UFC veterans; Dominick Cruz, Joey Beltran, Travis Browne, and Brandon Vera. The first relevant question was because of the Jones/Evans dispute which all came about because two teammates refused initially to fight each other. When Light Heavyweights Jon Jones and Rashad Evans had trained with each other, the two “friends” quickly became bitter enemies after Evans refused to fight Jones because he didn’t want to fight his teammate.

“I don’t worry about fighting teammates,” Mr. Davis quickly responded.

Davis, who has earned an impressive submission victory over Alexander Gustafsson, is now “a training partner and teammate” of his.

“My team at Alliance is a complete group of fighters.”

Before joining this camp he remembered being able to stay in great shape but “just didn’t have the combination of coaches and bodies to work with and learn from.” Having a team full of fighters helped Phil bring his “game up a couple notches.”

There are currently many figures in the MMA world that have expressed strong opinions that fighting is not a team sport. Whether or not one approves of fighting against teammates or not, I believe that independent fighters cannot thrive as well as those with a team. Before, during and after battle, the fighter’s team is guiding them through the extremely consuming process.

“With all the resources available, and with all of the fighters, I can pick up their habits, and do what they [my teammates] are doing to win.”

In arguably the ‘purest form of competition,’ collaborating strategies, or as Davis notes, “tips and tricks,” are vital to elevating the skill sets of both athletes.

In addition to such teamwork as exchanging moves in practice before a fight, there is even real-time coaching that a team uses during the battle to stay by a fighter’s side. When watching and attending fights, I have always heard the corner yelling at a fighter mid-competition, but until Davis kindly clarified, I believed most of it was ‘Go get em!’ type encouragement. I believed also that even if it was advice being spurted through the cage door, that a fighter would be too focused on their opponent to even allow any of it to register. It turns out that a fighter’s corner can remind the fighter of a game plan while the fight is progressing.

“They yell out either set ups or when they want a takedown. Or if I’m on the ground, striking, they will tell me which position they want next.”

When I asked Mr. Davis if he was always able to understand his coach’s instruction with all of the crowd noise, he confidently stated, “Oh yeah, I can always hear them.” This makes advancing positions that much simpler because the corner will take a fighter through the grappling aspect, and many times the striking game too.

The average person, whether they are a competitive athlete or just have aspirations to be in shape, hires a personal trainer for one reason that many people miss. It isn’t as if a personal trainer holds the coveted secret to being a ripped, lean, and strong person, but rather the role they play in propelling the client to actually never relent in working. Waking up at eight a.m. before a long workday for the common folk can be very tedious, and after a while, trying to put oneself through a repetitive workout schedule can turn into an insurmountable task. Right when the initial burst of motivation dissipates; a personal trainer comes to the rescue. There now is an excuse to force oneself to be at the gym every day rather than fabricating reasons not to go. The mindset becomes ‘I have to wake up now. My trainer is up waiting for me’, or ‘I can’t skip out this workout or I will be letting down someone that is there for me.’

In the scenario of a fighter and his trainer, the bond becomes much deeper. A fighter’s trainer knows the fighter inside and out; strengths, weaknesses, personality, and habits. A fighter’s camp normally consists of a 6 day-per-week, and 2-3 workouts per day regimen. Spending all this time with any one person will undoubtedly strengthen a relationship, but when going through such extreme training, and pushing each other through freakishly tough workouts the two become like family.

Even with such specimens who possess an awe-inspiring amount of dedication and drive, the long and strenuous preparation for battle weighs on them, and being alone through this can break them. Having a team is having a commitment, and it becomes a family of athletes who are constantly working harder and harder in order to better everyone, and push each other past doubt, and towards greatness.

Mixed Martial Arts is no simple sport, and there are many different dimensions to it. Essentially, an MMA fighter must refine their skills in a numerous individual sports to be successful. The need for a well-versed skill set heavily relies on a strong relationship between athlete and coach. The UFC’s hit reality series, The Ultimate Fighter is one of the most entertaining and well-rounded shows on television. One main reason for this is the complexity of the coaching and training in the many different areas of the sport of MMA. The viewer gets to watch the athletes develop in front of their eyes, and also see’s what methods the coaches use to mold their team.

After coaching season 9 of the show UFC middleweight fighter and coach, Michael Bisping discussed his new role as a mentor during an interview with Heavy MMA.

“It’s very rewarding at the end of it, and I think they all left much improved fighters. I was able to show them things that I like to do. It was nice to show them some stuff, and see them listen and put it into practice when they’re fighting or sparring.”

Being able to experience what the different workouts, and training camps consist of gives the viewer a good taste of what really goes into a fighter’s learning process with his teacher. In addition to the abundant entertainment this show provides with its drama and personality, there is the hidden virtue of passing down knowledge, that Bisping reiterates, “was very rewarding.”

Greg Jackson’s camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico is home to some of the top fighters in the world; Jon Jones, Carlos Condit, Melvin Guillard, Georges St. Pierre, Brian Stann. The list goes on and on. Each and every one of these fighters consider each other a part of their own family. The blood, sweat and tears shed in training glue all of these athletes together on a level that only they can understand.

Recently, a well-known head trainer to many top-level fighters passed away. This sudden loss struck the MMA world with devastation as Shawn Tompkins died of a heart attack on August 14th. Fighters were mourning one of their own. The Canadian, Tompkins was even married to one of his fighter’s (Sam Stout) sister, Emilie. Tompkins’ passing was extremely unfortunate as anyone would imagine, and it depicts the level of connectedness of this family of fighters. Tompkins and his teammates were all related on a physical, psychological, and emotional level. Losing a fellow friend often reveals the love for a person, and this was more than evident for Tompkins. Featherweight Mark Hominick and lightweight Sam Stout, among others, were beside themselves upon hearing the tragic news.

“You did so much for me, more than anyone will ever know. Shawn Tompkins “the coach” I’ll miss you for the rest of my life,” Mr. Stout stated on Twitter.

Mark Hominick added, “I would like to thank everyone for the overwhelming support shown to the Team Tompkins family this week.”

The aftermath of this devastating event, reminded everyone in the worst way, that a fighter’s coach is blood.

When accustomed to having a support system, imagining life without it reminds one how important the camaraderie & help is. Phil Davis knows this point better than anyone else.

“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am right now (without my team).”

Whether or not you believe fighting is a team sport, it is important to hear the side of the story from someone who deals with this issue in their profession. A fighter and their team can develop bonds that mend the same wear and tear that breaks a single fighter down. Coming from Phil Davis, who has never lost even at the highest level of competition in the world of MMA, a team is your support system. Although it is a one-on-one battle, it’s not the destination that matters but rather the journey.

Julien Solomita is a student at Chapman University. He can be reached on Twitter @JulienSolomita. His personal web site can be accessed here.

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