Don House couldn’t wait to get to Puerto Rico.
Already a top boxing trainer, House was working with the future owners of the UFC – Dana White, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta – in the gym in Las Vegas every day at 6am, and one day, while he trained a boxer White managed – light heavyweight contender Derrick Harmon – the future UFC president had an offer for House.
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“He asked me would I train ‘Tito,’ and I'm thinking, hell yeah, I’ll train Tito,” laughed House. “First of all, I'm trying to figure out how in the hell did you get Tito under management?”
“Yeah, I manage him,” White replied.
“When do I go to Puerto Rico?” said House.
“He lives in Huntington Beach.”
“Who the hell are you talking about?”
“Man, I'm thinking Tito Trinidad.”
House laughs. There was no trip to Puerto Rico, but he did get to Huntington Beach to work with the UFC light heavyweight champion and the rest of Team Punishment.
“I was there basically to just teach 'em how to strike,” said House. “That's how I got started. And since I was training most of the guys, they were only having fights like every two months or so.”
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When Ortiz was king of the 205ers, the UFC wasn’t having 40-plus events a year and the sport wasn’t even on pay-per-view or regulated around the country or the world. That started to change in late 2000 when the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were adopted and UFC 28 was sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. A few months later, White and the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC, and a new era began.
As for Don House, he was all-in, even if his peers in the boxing business weren’t convinced that mixed martial arts was the sport of the future.
“They said to me, ‘What are you doing over there with those clowns,’” laughed House. “And I said, it’s very simple. My hotel room is always there when I get there and I get paid on time. That's all I had to say.”
We both laugh, knowing how the boxing business often operates. That wasn’t the case for House with the UFC, even before he was an official cutman for the promotion. Back in those early days of the Zuffa era, House was going to most of the shows simply because he had Ortiz and Team Punishment fighters on the card.
“Every other month I’d go to Jersey and I would have half the card because I trained half the card in striking,” he said. “And Leon Tabbs was the only cutman, and I was wrapping my guys’ hands. Then the opponents were complaining because they said my guys had an edge. So Dana said, can you wrap both sides? I said, Dana, we don't do that. He said, House, you got to stop thinking boxing, man. Okay, so that's how I got started. I started wrapping both sides.”
Twenty-one years later, he hasn’t looked back. He’s kept his coaching gigs on the boxing side, and when it comes to MMA, he’s working with all the fighters stepping into the Octagon. No regrets.
“Actually, I didn't like the training side (in MMA) because in the beginning, I'm not sure how it is today, there was no structure. It was just a bunch of guys training sporadically. I guess they had a buddy who was a kickboxing coach, and a jiu-jitsu coach, and everybody thought their discipline was more important. The fighter was all confused and it's like, I can't do this because I can't be a part of it. Boxing is one head trainer and here's the rules, here's what we're going to do. It (MMA) was unorganized, it wasn’t structured.”
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Folks like House did bring structure and professionalism to the sport, along with the street cred that goes along with being a respected figure in combat sports. But part of that respect was earned because House never went into a situation believing he knew it all. And maybe he did, but occasionally there were those situations when he still had to learn on the fly.
“I've been in boxing since ‘72 and as a fighter / trainer, you kind of watch what the cutman does,” he said. “And sometimes as a coach in the corner, I had to do both jobs. And you kind of learn on the job, right? There's no school. You sort of learn on the job and eventually you kind of get good at it. My first cut was with the UFC, and I remember the fighter, Andrei Arlovski. There was one cutman, Leon Tabbs, only both sides got cut.”
Enter Mr. House
“He (Arlovski) had five cuts,” recalled House. “Matter of fact, I had to use two of his hands to hold the two on the top of his head. And I dealt with the eyes and the nose. That was my experience. That's how I started out.”
And despite leading Bermane Stiverne to a world heavyweight title and currently working with former heavyweight king Deontay Wilder, House can still be found on most Saturday nights in the building for UFC events. And being recognized as much as the ones with the gloves on.
“One guy chased me through the airport in New York and I saw him coming up to me,” recalled House. “He said, ‘Man, can I get your autograph?’ I said, ‘Look, I'm not Sugar Ray Leonard, I get that a lot.’”
“I know, you’re Don House.”