Sometimes it’s something a fighter doesn’t do as much as what the other guy does do that gets him beat. These omissions can be tiny, almost invisible to an untrained eye. A right hand held an inch too low, a posture a bit too forward in an opponent’s guard, a slip or parry mistimed by a fraction of a second, a momentary lack of concentration.
Was it Rashad Evan’s Hail Mary right hand, or the fact that a frustrated Chuck Liddell was chasing him around the ring with his hands a fraction too low that put The Iceman to sleep in their 2008 match? When Rampage Jackson KO’d Wanderlei Silva in their third match it was with a haymaker over a right hand that Wandy left out a second too long. Would Gabriel Gonzaga’s slow-arching head kick have ruined the career of Mirko Cro Cop if the Croatian had the proper respect and kept his distance from the Brazilian? Randy Couture’s head movement is just a fraction too stiff, causing him to be bedeviled by an opportune punch throughout his hall–of-fame career.
Victory or defeat is often secured in such tiny spaces and brief flashes of time. Fighters are constantly trying to create such mistakes on the part of their opponents or lull them into a false sense of security before going in for the kill. When fighters get knocked out, especially when it is suddenly by one punch, they will often shrug and say, “I got caught,” as if they got careless and fell into a hunter’s trap.
I watch UFC welterweight Carlos Condit work with his coach and trainer Trevor Lally at the Tempe Arizona gym of AZ Combat Club. Looking at the so-intense-it’s-just-this-side of- maniacal expression on Condit’s face, I can tell where he got the name “The Natural Born Killer.” He is tall and lanky and is uncorking smooth combinations in quick succession as his trainer calls out to him. Trevor Lally is a small, bald man with a goatee, resembling an Irish version of Ming the Merciless from the old Flash Gordon movies. He’s holding the pads well and working almost as hard as Condit. He’s moving, circling, and forcing Condit to move his head and feet. In response, Condit is slipping, adjusting himself to the feints and shots his coach throws back at him. They’re both moving purposely and with a rhythm and timing that proves the old saying: “Smooth is fast.”
Trevor Lally and his brother Todd are identical twins. If you hang out at AZ Combat for any length of time you will constantly wonder who is who. To avoid confusion, people around the gym refer to the two brothers collectively as Lally. As in “Lally told me this the other day” or “Hey, Lally, come over here.” The brothers have even adopted the practice themselves.
If you want to see Lally get really animated, ask him (or them) about fighters in limbo. These are talented fighters who aren’t in the major shows yet (UFC, StrikeForce, etc.) but have a hard time getting fights because everybody knows how dangerous they are. AZ Combat has produced some big stars, but the gym is also home to a number of hungry and talented fighters, who haven’t had their shots yet, laboring away in smaller regional promotions and waiting for their big breaks. One pair of fighters on the verge of a breakthrough is the brother act of Ray and Steven Steinbeiss. Steven is a kickboxer who has competed in K-1 and is now nibbling at MMA, and Ray, his older brother, is a tough-looking fighter with an easygoing nature who once gave StrikeForce champ Nick Diaz a scare back in the day, losing a narrow decision to Diaz in Nick’s hometown of Stockton back in 2006.
When I first met him, he was wearing one of those James Cageny-type hats and looked like a 1930’s-era boxer straight out of central casting.
Lally says Ray is an MMA “Rain Man” because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. “He can tell you the record of any fighter you can name,” Lally brags on him. “If he’s fought in a major shows, he’ll know. Try him.”
I look at Steinbeiss who readies himself for the challenge. I decide to throw him a curve. “Art Jimmerson.”
“Easy,” he says. “The guy from the first UFC with one boxing glove. He fought one time. Lost to Royce Gracie. He shakes his head disparagingly at the weakness of my challenge. “Give me a hard one,” he says.
My mind races through all the obscure names from the UFC’s dark post-Royce, pre-Dana past. “Scott Ferrozzo.” I say, pretty convinced I’ll stump him. “Four and two,” comes the answer like it was spit out of a computer. “He was that big fat car salesman that upset Tank Abbott at UFC 11. His last fight was at—let me see.” He thinks for a moment. “He got stopped by Vitor Belfort in the next UFC [12 in 1997].”
Feats of memory and recall always impress me and I end the exercise agreeing with Lally about his gym’s particular savant. In addition to being a walking MMA database, Lally tells me Steinbeiss is a murderous puncher. Later, when the Steinbeiss brothers are gearing up to train, Lally says to me, “Pound for pound, Ray’s the hardest puncher in MMA. If he hits someone at 155 [pounds] they’re dead.”
Joe Riggs is also in the gym preparing for an upcoming fight. He speaks to me as he passes me on the way to the cage. “Hey man, when are you going to put me on the cover of your magazine. What’s up?” I smile as he brushes past me and enters the cage. He’s about to do a drill where he spars five, five-minute rounds against several different opponents.
“The rounds are really six minutes but I didn’t tell him,” Lally tells me in a hushed tone. “We keep putting a fresh guy in with him every three minutes.”
About midway through the final period, a tiring Riggs begins to be passive and just cover up. Lally shouts out at Riggs: “Be first. Fire back. You’re not Tito Ortiz. You’re better than that.” (In some MMA circles, Tito Ortiz is a byword for the well-versed grappler who is inept at striking.)
“I hate that Muay Thai cover-up shit!” he tells me. He’s says, too many mixed martial artists freeze up under attack, doing nothing but standing there with their hands up withering under a barrage. The correct things to do, he says, is to fire back immediately after an attack that has failed.
Lally’s exhortation wakes Riggs up and he ends the session with a big flurry. This elicits a clap from Lally as the timer sounds the final bell.
“All right, good work. We can be there in five weeks. We’ll have to buckle down, but we can get there.”
The Phone Booth
The next day I am scheduled to leave, but Lally says they’re doing a patented AZ Combat Club drill called the phone booth, so I hang around to see it. In the phone booth, they take yellow bands and divide the boxing ring into four quadrants. A pair of combatants gets into each of the four quadrants so that at any one time there are eight fighters in the ring. They are right on top of each other and they’re supposed to stay there. Distance in the phone booth drill is totally different from the distance typically seen in a mixed martial arts match. The drill is designed to inculcate, so Lally tells me, the ability of his fighters to get hit and hit back, and to get them used to remaining in striking distance to their opponent or “staying in the pocket”.
When he tells me about it, I asked Lally if I could jump in because I figure that this exercise will be right in my wheelhouse. I’ve been boxing my whole life and am of a shorter, stouter build, so I prefer the sort of cramped infighting the phone booth forces.
I get gear up and the first guy I go with is a newer fighter to the gym who is from a wrestling background and just starting to learn the rudiments of striking. He is strong and athletic but not very polished. Since I know he can’t take me down or kick me or really get away, I just stand in front of him, keep my chin down, and hands up, and hit him with a slow, stiff left jab any time he flinches. After doing so much MMA training over the last couple of years and never finding a way to incorporate my jab, being able to use it so consistently feels like being reintroduced to an old friend. When I’m not touching the guy with a jab, I’m crowding him into the corner and hitting his arms and body with short, quick hooks. I feel like I’m doing pretty well.
After the round we rotate partners and the next fighter is a much better striker. Unlike the first wrestler who was strong but plodding, this guy has good feet and he is able to move fluidly, even in the confined space of the phone booth. He is moving around me, forcing me to constantly exchange with him. His punches are quick and light but trying to keep up with his pace is wearing me out.
By the third round I get Steven Steinbeiss, who is a world-class kickboxer. But since we’re not kicking, I figure I’m relatively safe. Once we begin, I am surprised how easily I’m able to make contact with him—double jabbing my way in and forcing him into the ropes like the first guy. I’m thinking, “Man, this guy’s good and I’m doing all right with him.” As I’m congratulating myself mentally, Steinbeiss does one of those tricky maneuvers Lally teaches, spins off the ropes, gets me out of position, and hits me with something— a left, a right, or maybe it’s a baseball bat he had hidden somewhere. I see a flash of white light. “My God!” I think as my attention goes from how well I thought I was doing to how can I survive the next two minutes without getting KTFO.
By the end of the round, I’m in the “happy place” fighters go to when stunned. I’m not down, and I’m holding on, throwing back and doing my best but I don’t really have my wits about me. Lally must recognize it because he tells me to step out after the third round. I’m a little embarrassed he didn’t let me go the whole four rounds but in the back of my mind I know that I probably would have started to really taking a beating in the next round. As I get out of the ring FIGHT!’s photographer Paul Thatcher has a look on his face somewhere between a smirk and genuine concern for my well being.
“I’m ok,” I assure him as I wobble into the locker room to take my gloves and headgear off. So much for my delusions of being a master infighter!
When it’s time for me to leave, I take one last look around the gym, which is a buzz of activity. There’s the line of posters on the wall of the gyms big stars in between is a poster that says, “Year here = five years somewhere else.”
In one corner of the gym, Lally is busy working the pads with a fighter. I scan to the other side of the room and their Lally is again, watching a kickboxing class. It must be a pro class because Condit is in the group. They are all shadow fighting and practicing techniques in the mirror. They are drilling their technique slowly and smoothly, adjusting for the tiniest inaccuracies. There also are fighters sparring in the boxing ring and in the cage, and I can hear the other fighters and trainers on the outside rooting them on and shouting instructions. Before I leave I try to take in how incredibly much is taking place in this one room.