As I entered the Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas on my first morning, Randy’s daughter, Aimee, greeted me from behind the front desk. I got approved for the pro class, signed the waiver and bought a month pass for $300.
Randy’s oldest son, Ryan, also worked the gym, splitting his time between helping to run the place and training for his MMA debut. He was unassuming and soft-spoken, like his old man. We were about the same size, so we end up training together a lot.
In addition to the many stars that called the gym home, Xtreme Couture drew up-and-coming fighters from all over the world. The gym housed a steady stream of unknown fighters hoping to learn from and test their skills against the best in the sport. They rolled in almost daily, and the talent and athleticism of many of these “walk-ins” amazed me.
It was a good sign for the future of mixed martial arts, but training around them could be humbling. I once saw a monstrous young heavyweight warming up on the mats. 6 feet 4 and 250 pounds of solid muscle, I watched him float weightlessly across the floor in series of five perfect cartwheels. “What am I doing here?” I wondered.
After all the individual attention I got when training with Irving Bounds in California, I felt lost in the shuffle of big names and constant activity at Xtreme Couture. It was a busy afternoon and I was surprised when Wanderlei Silva walked through the door. He was training with the Couture pro classes while his own gym across town was in the final stages of construction.
I introduced myself and we fell into a friendly conversation. It turned out that he was not only familiar with FIGHT!, but he also knew who I was and even that my office was in Atlanta.
“I know Georgia,” he assured me in English, which was rough but understandable, “Ray Charles is from Georgia.”
“ He is, indeed,” I said.
Wanderlei was the kind of person you instinctively liked: open, generous, plainspoken and charismatic. When he found out that I was in Vegas training for a fight, he insisted on helping me with my cardio.
“You’ll train with us.” He grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed to his trainer and sidekick, Professor Rafael Alejarra. “We’ll help you!”
“Sure, that’d be great,” I said, surprised by the generous offer. It was like we had been friends for years.
Wanderlei said he liked working with Alejarra, a conditioning guru, because he ran a very structured program. “He tells you exactly what to do,” he said, as he checked off an imaginary list in his hand.
Wanderlei was right. By the next morning, Alejarra had me on a specific conditioning routine designed to achieve maximum results in a short amount of time. We’d meet every other morning either at Xtreme Couture or at Wanderlei’s new gym. On the days we didn’t meet, he’d give me detailed training instructions to follow.
He put me through an array of circuit exercises: calisthenics, plyometrics, weight training, agility drills, etc. He insisted that I do every exercise at maximum effort, always. Whether I was doing push-ups, or leaping up and down on boxes, or doing curls, or whatever, I did as much as I could as fast I could for a minute, then rest for thirty seconds, and then do it again. This type of hyper-exertion simulated the intense bursts of energy that took place during an MMA match, and it got my body used to recovering quickly.
When I trained, professor Alejarra watched me closely and pushed me right to the edge. His English was strained, but he knew enough. “Faster, faster, more power!” And a strategic “don’t quit,” if he saw me starting to falter.
We finished every session with sprints on the treadmill that pushed me to my extreme point of effort and fatigue.
“You don’t win here,” he said sternly after my first day, as I gasped for air. “You win by not quitting.” I recalled my experiences sparring in The Pit, in Victorville. I realized that the real battle would be to get my mind right. And that was a more daunting task than any drills or exercise, even the harsh ones Professor Alejarra concocted.
First was blocking out the physical discomfort. My arms, legs, and lungs hurt so much that I just wanted to make it stop. Aristotle compared the mind controlling the body (with its tendency to avoid pain and seek pleasure) to a charioteer driving a team of wild, unruly horses: difficult, but not impossible.
Second was learning to quiet the stream of unproductive and disorganized thoughts that tended to flood my mind and overwhelm my ability to focus on the task at hand. Buddhists call this phenomenon “the chattering monkey.” I discovered that repeating phrases over and over in my mind helped me to keep focused. After some experimentation, I settled on the mantra: “Destruction and Destroy! ALL MINE!” Because I remembered being a kid and watching a tape of Marvelous Marvin Hagler chanting this phrase to himself as he did his roadwork.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult, was the deleterious little voice in my head that coaxed me to ease up in my training just a little bit, tempting me with rationalizations of why it wasn’t necessary to push this hard all the time. While I never vanquished it completely, I did manage to “meet the devil at the door” by habitually intensifying my efforts and going harder every time I heard it, until doing so became a moral reflex.
“Don’t look at the floor,” he voice of Shawn Tompkins, Xtreme Couture’s head trainer, carried loudly in a room full of shadow fighters. We all exhaled sharply with each punch, kick, and knee, and Shawn had to shout to be heard above the racket. The room was crowded, so I was stuck in a corner of the mat. Since I didn’t know how to throw knees well, and my kicks were no good, I mostly stood in one place and threw as many fluid punch combos as I can. The multiple punch combinations are showy but of dubious merit. Everyone in the room knew that anything more than three punches will get you taken down in MMA.
“Fighters who look at the floor end up on it,” Shawn bellowed. “Always keep your eyes on what’s in front of you.” The room was a Who’s Who of the upper echelons of MMA. Everywhere I look, I saw someone well known in MMA: Forrest Griffin, Wanderlei, and even Randy himself, who was across the mat from me grunting and sweating like all the other fighters. It was very egalitarian. The stars work just as hard as—or harder than—everybody else.
Suddenly, Shawn shouted, “SPRAWL! ” The whole class dropped loudly to the floor in unison, legs thrown out behind and hips pressed into the mat, then popped up and resume where we’d left off. We raced to beat each other back to our feet, conditioning ourselves to get up quickly after a takedown attempt.
After about an hour and a half of conditioning and technical work, we’d begin sparring. You’d pick the closest person to you that was about your size, and we’d all go for five minutes a round. Every few rounds, Shawn shouted to change partners.
There were all levels of fighters in the room, from World Champions down to the midlevel guys and even fighters who were just breaking in. If you started the class, though, you better be able to finish it. I once saw Shawn lambast some poor guy who decided to sit out a round of sparring against the cage that borders the large mat area.
“This is the PRO CLASS,” he shouted. “YOU DON’T QUIT IN THE PRO CLASS!” The message was meant for everybody. Chastised, the guy pulled himself up and jumped back into the fray.
Alejarra had gotten my conditioning up to snuff so I never really gas out. The work I done in California with Joe Stevenson and trainer Irvin Bounds also paid dividends. I used the lateral movement they taught me to negate my opponents’ kicks and to frustrate takedown attempts. As long as I backed up and constantly circled away from their strong sides, it kept my opponents off balance, just like Irvin said it would. If I stopped moving and set my weight, I had better throw something quickly and with bad intentions, because if I didn’t, a kick or a takedown attempt was coming. Once, I made the mistake of planting my lead leg too obviously, and Ryan caught me with a leg kick that hurt for a week. Another time, a good fighter named Jay Heiron faked me out of position and then woke me up with a head kick.
On the whole, however, I was satisfied with my striking. I was holding my own against a high caliber of athlete. I wasn’t the quickest guy in the room but I had a few tricks up my sleeve to camouflage my lack of hand speed. One of them was to lure my opponent into throwing a punch or kick at me and then punch back in between his strikes, before he could get his defenses back in order. With the notable exception, Mike Pyle, who was about as easy to hit cleanly as a puff of smoke, I could consistently pull this off, and usually gave as good as I got when on my feet.
I wasn’t nearly as competent, however, when it came to grappling. On the ground, I’d spend a lot of time in half guard covering up, eating punches, and trying to not get submitted. I’d never wrestled, and I was only a blue belt in BJJ, so my knowledge base was far beneath where it needed to be for me to have any shot at hanging with the caliber of mixed martial artists I was training with, but I did my best to pick up as much as possible.
In one of my first practices, that day’s instructor, Mike Whitehead, chuckled when he saw me grunting and straining to power my training partner into a slam. Shaking his head, he crossed the room and showed me the trick. The power for the maneuver didn’t come from the arms or even the back. It was all in the hips. If I got my hips under my opponent’s, then I could pop him up and over pretty easily. By the same token, to make myself “heavier,” I’d lower my hips as much as I could.
I also picked up little tricks from watching Randy out of the corner of my eye. One of the things he did is always hit on the break; and I heard him tell someone that a trick to sweeps is to start them as soon as you feel your butt hit the floor, after your opponent’s taken you down. It was interesting to see him in the class. He moved slowly and deliberately through most of the exercises, and sometimes even looked a little creaky but when it would come to sparring, he’d start throwing around all of the giants he trained with.
For my part, I’m was doing my best to learn as much as I could, but it was difficult to judge my progress against fighters who were so much more advanced. At one point, top middleweight Martin Kampmann suggested, tactfully, that maybe I should look into one of the amateur grappling classes.
It was embarrassing that the disparities in my skill set were so obvious. After giving me a particularly brutal drubbing in Greco class one day, UFC fighter Dale Hart warned me about the dangers of being one-dimensional.
”MMA isn’t about what you’re good at,” he said. “It’s about what you’re not good at, because your opponent will know where you’re weakest, and he’ll always try to put you there.” This was good advice and my experience at Couture’s furthered the lessons in humility began in Victorville. The slogan “ Leave your ego at the door was necessary advice at Couture’s because everyone trained to their limits and got beat up all the time. In the really good fighters like Couture I saw how a correctly humble person has great confidence because there is no vanity in them to be wounded, which of course can in most cases, be done by trifles.
The Ultimate Fighter helped resurrect the UFC and explode the popularity of MMA. Not only was the show a driver for ratings and revenue for the UFC but it was also the talent pool for the next generation of competitors. I needed only look around the gym on any given day to see this in effect. Randy was a coach on the first season and it seemed like half the people in the gym have been involved with the hit show at one time or another; Forrest and Stephan Bonnar, Gray Maynard, Diamond Dave Kaplan and last season’s winner Amir Sadollah, all came in to train.
Season 8 was currently on and, since the show was taped, some of its contestants were in the gym too. One of them I’ve known for a couple of years since Team Quest first brought him up from Brazil; the Jiu-Jitsu world champion Vinnie Maghalaes.
“Guess who’s coming in to train tomorrow?” he asked me one day as we were doing our warm-up laps before class. I shrugged my shoulders and he said with a knowing grin “Junie,” referring to Junie Browning the notorious breakout star of the current season. Junie owed his notoriety to his penchant for pithy one-liners and psychotic temper tantrums. Between throwing glasses at his housemates, slurring his way through drunken tirades, and bouts of inconsolable weeping, he seems to me like kind of an Asshat on the show. “What’s he like?” I asked Vinnie, skeptically.
“Just like on the show.” Vinnie said, “he’s either the coolest guy in the world or the world’s biggest asshole.”
When Junie showed up he wasn’t like I expected. Impeccably polite, with a slow southern drawl he made a good first impression. He had a lot of physical potential too: one day we did takedown drills together and he could change levels faster than the eye can see. Tompkins had taken a shine to him and gave Junie a lot of individual attention. Like the higher ups at Spike and Zuffa he smelled money on the kid.
I’d watch Junie doing interviews in between workouts and noticed he always looked directly into the camera and made sure to carefully articulate his sound bites, like a politician. The whole country thought he was crazy and wondered what he would do next week. But I suspected he was crazy like a fox and crazy and that the furor and controversy are going according to his well-laid plans.
Junie was trying hard to follow in Forrest Griffin’s footsteps and become the biggest star to come out of the show. I saw Forrest every day in training and sometimes twice a day. In the gym he could be surly and uncommunicative and we seldom spoke to each other. He was a lot bigger than you’d think and he was as strong as an ox. One day he and Mike Whitehead were practicing takedowns. Forrest, as a joke, bum rushed Mike and shoved the big guy down with a crash, the way a 6th grader might push over and 2nd grader on the playground. Everybody watching laughed at the maneuver, which like most of Forrest’s fighting style was artless but effective.
Forrest was often funny in spite of himself. Whether sipping away at a half full cappuccino while running laps or uncharacteristically striking up a conversation about the presidential election.
“Who did you vote for?” I asked impolitely since it was none of my business.
“Well,” he said in his disarming way, “I know that I’ll probably get taxed more because of it but I voted for Obama, I’ve been broke and a liberal my whole life and I just couldn’t be, you know, that guy who jumps ship to the Republicans when he starts to make money.”
Forrest Griffin is exactly like you expect him to be. He is completely without pretense and comes across on TV precisely the way he does in person. This is the God given talent that made him a star and it’s one thing he can hang his hat on that long after he’s done with fighting.
As for Randy, I saw him early in the mornings when we would both do conditioning. He’d push his body just shy of the point of breaking. Early in the morning in the gym there was no crowd for him to feed of off, no pretty ring girls or thumping entrance music to pump him up. Just a man and his heart. He’d look very human when he worked himself into complete exhaustion and slumped against the side of the gym’s ring apron. My sessions with Alejarra made me realize what mental strength Randy must have had to be able to punish his body year in and year out. I came to admire the man, not just the image or the fighter. Charismatic yet introverted, uncomfortable in the spotlight yet striving to be a movie star, unassuming yet with the gravitational force of a born leader; Couture was one of the most paradoxical and fascinating personalities the sport had yet produced. What was he really like? In three weeks of training at his gym we didn’t say two words to each other but when I stepped through the ropes to make my MMA debut, he was in the front row cheering me on.