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Ricky Lundell - Breaking Down the Mysteries of the Mat

"It (wrestling) is something that’s so tough because anytime you make a
mistake, you pay for it. And you really find out how good you are really
fast." - Ricky Lundell

The plan was simple, but it was the simplicity of it that made it brilliant. There wasn’t going to be some intricate series of maneuvers for Joe Lauzon to pull off if he defused Melvin Guillard’s striking in their UFC 136 bout earlier this month and got close enough to implement his grappling attack; just a few key moves that were drilled over and over again by Lauzon with a newcomer to his camp, Ricky Lundell.

If the name sounds unfamiliar, that’s okay for now, because the 25-year old Utah native is used to being the secret weapon in fight camps around the mixed martial arts world. Suffice to say for now that Lundell is a two-time grappling world champion, the youngest North American to earn a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belt (he was 19 when Pedro Sauer awarded him the honor), as well as a two-year letterman in wrestling for Iowa State, which is even more impressive considering that he never wrestled in high school.

As for his MMA credentials, to say that this secret weapon has worked with various big names over the years would be an understatement, considering that he has shared the mat with Frank Mir, Vitor Belfort, Forrest Griffin, BJ Penn, Sean Sherk, Miguel Angel Torres, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Rogerio Nogueira and Lauzon over the years.

With that out of the way, it’s back to Houston and UFC 136, and a confident Guillard came out firing his punches and kicks, looking for a highlight reel finish. But it was Lauzon who caught “The Young Assassin” with a counterpunch and rocked him. It was time for his new coach’s plan to kick into gear.

“I had Joe stick to the front headlock,” said Lundell. “Front headlock, guillotine, front headlock, run around, choke. And that’s because Melvin Guillard is so athletic and explosive that had we not gone front headlock, he might have gotten away.”

Lauzon worked for the front headlock, but with his arm tied up, he ran around, sunk his hooks in, and finished Guillard off with a rear naked choke. Perfect plan, perfect execution, game over. Lauzon, already sold on his new coach, couldn’t have been happier.

“For pretty much all my camps, I’ve always been the main coach,” said the lightweight contender. “I have a boxing coach, I work with jiu-jitsu guys, and I work on other things, but the gameplan is usually my gameplan. I figure out what I want to do and we talk about it and figure it out. This is really the first camp where I kind of took a back seat and listened to Ricky. And we talked all about the front headlock, though we didn’t think the front headlock was gonna come off me dropping him with a punch. We worked a whole bunch of takedowns, a whole lot of keeping him on the ground and really doing our best to keep Melvin on the ground and negating all the stuff he likes to do to get up. But as a Plan B, when Melvin posts up, we’re gonna grab his head and put him in a front headlock, and then we’re gonna work. And that’s where all the stuff from Ricky came in.”

Lauzon’s meeting with Lundell was a happy accident, as the most recent UFC fighter summit in May coincided with the New Englander’s training camp for his June bout with Curt Warburton. Wanting to take in the summit while still staying busy in Vegas, Lauzon arranged to hit pads with respected striking coach Jimmy Gifford, and it was Gifford – one of Frank Mir’s coaches – who recommended “J-Lau” work a bit with Lundell, who was in camp with the former heavyweight champ.

“I don’t want to work out with some guy that’s here to train Mir,” said Lauzon. “He’s got to be enormous.”

“He’s like 155 pounds,” responded Gifford.

That response got Lauzon’s gears turning.

“Mir can bring out anyone in the world, and he’s bringing out this kid Ricky Lundell,” he said. “So we just grappled and the kid was phenomenal. He made a huge impression on me, but I think I made a little bit of an impression on him too, and I’m thinking, ‘this kid’s perfect.’ He’s a jiu-jitsu guy, he has great wrestling, he’s my size and he’s a great communicator. The communication was a big thing.”

That’s not surprising, considering that unlike most wrestlers who add jiu-jitsu on later, Lundell did things in reverse, studying jiu-jitsu from the age of six, getting his black belt, and then getting involved in wrestling at the behest of one of the sport’s greats, Cael Sanderson. So for jiu-jitsu based fighters like Lauzon, Mir, and Penn, Lundell not only had the wrestling tactics to add on, but he came from a jiu-jitsu background, so he spoke their language.

“The communication aspect is huge, and we definitely speak the same language,” said Lauzon. “You have very, very few guys that are good at jiu-jitsu and wrestling that started as jiu-jitsu guys. BJ’s really the only guy that started with that too. Most guys are more like Jake Shields, who wrestled first and then did jiu-jitsu. So it definitely helps to have that jiu-jitsu first mindset.”

“I think that’s a huge area that’s helped me, and it’s helped me in reverse the other way too,” explains Lundell. “I’ve worked with Sean Sherk and he felt like I could speak his wrestling language and teach him the right jiu-jitsu that he needed. And in reverse, Lauzon and those guys know that if I show them a shot, we both know that he won’t end up in a triangle or an armlock or a guillotine from this shot. Whereas if he went to just a wrestler or a wrestler who had trained up to purple belt or something in jiu-jitsu who wasn’t really well-versed, he may be showing you shots that are really going to get you submitted at a higher level; he just doesn’t know it yet. So it helped me a lot because I already knew the submissions, and then going to wrestling, I was already able to build a base from the ground up, rather than being a wrestler who’s standing above and has to learn the ground.”

Yet given his skill and technique on the mat, it begs the question – why isn’t he fighting as well?

“I thought about fighting before, but it wasn’t my first interest,” he said. “I enjoy coaching and the sport of wrestling and jiu-jitsu together. So I’ve spent my time trying to perfect those areas of the game, and I think that in order to be the best coach I can possibly be, going out and working on my boxing and striking is good, but it’s not where I should spend the majority of my time if I want to be able to coach the best guys.”

And he’s obviously made the right call, as he’s become “the” guy for many of the world’s top mixed martial artists. It’s an amazing feat, considering his age and his journey to this point – come on, he graduated college, yes college, at 18 – and he’s done well for himself with his University of Grappling school in Lindon, Utah. But it’s his ability to break down the ground game in an understandable fashion that has put him where he is today.

“It’s not about how many moves you know,” he said. “I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding this, but let’s say you have three five minute rounds. Well, because we have three five minute rounds, that means we only have 300 seconds to scrap per round. Let’s say it takes us 10 seconds per shot that we’re gonna do in this fight, and that’s way overexagerrating, but let’s just pretend that it only took us 10 seconds to set up every shot. That means you only have the opportunity for 30 shots in an entire five minute round. So if you know 500 shots, how is that going to help you? There’s 470 that you didn’t even get to cover yet.”

As an example, he points to UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who has become one of the premier wrestlers in MMA despite not having a traditional background in the sport. But what he does have is a killer and nearly unstoppable shot that has been built not only from technique but from repetition.

“He (St-Pierre) almost shoots the exact same shot every time,” said Lundell. “I know what GSP’s going to do, but the thing is, he’s practiced that shot 25,000 times. And then I’m like ‘hey, we know what he’s gonna do; here, do this defense.’ And you practice it 300 times. So you have the defense practiced 300 times, and GSP’s coming in with a total count of offensive shots at 25,000? You don’t have a prayer to stop that shot yet because you haven’t put in the time to be actually able to stop GSP’s go to. Just like Cael Sanderson, everybody knows he’s going to ankle pick you. He’s going to ankle pick and double leg. There’s no question, everybody knows, but you can’t stop him because he’s done it so many times and he’s so good at it that your defensive level doesn’t match up to his offensive level.”

It’s that type of unglamorous, often tedious, work that most don’t want to go through on a daily basis, but that wrestlers have perfected because it’s been ingrained in them since they were competing as kids. So if you wonder why wrestling is the dominant discipline in MMA today, one that five of the seven UFC champions (Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, GSP, Frankie Edgar, and Dominick Cruz) would probably count as the core of their style, it comes down to the years of work in wrestling rooms around the country. It’s also why you see many wrestlers picking up solid striking and jiu-jitsu games, but few strikers and jiu-jitsu players doing as well on the wrestling side.

“This may offend people, but I believe that wrestling requires a lot more work ethic,” said Lundell. “It’s very difficult, it’s grueling, it’s not rewarding, it’s painful, and because of that, I think not as many people like to really work in those areas. The thing is though, a wrestler comes in, they’re already naturally strong, they’ve trained hard, they’ve built explosive power, they’re able to endure constant pressure, and they’re extremely fit, so it’s pretty easy for them to come in and already understand position for jiu-jitsu and stay in good spots and move and learn those areas. They also have super heavy hands, so they have that knockout power and learn how to strike really, really easy. But when you take (boxing champion) Floyd Mayweather, he can get punched, but he’s not structurally built to shoot under another person, lift them up and slam them down on the ground. And that’s something that’s only built through years of time and actually doing it and having it done to you. So it’s gonna take somebody years and years to do that because most guys start wrestling when they’re 15 or younger. And how are you gonna catch up to (middleweight contender) Chael Sonnen, who’s been wrestling since he was a kid? It’s gonna be almost impossible.”

So how did he do it as a fresh-faced teenage jiu-jitsu black belt?

“I think the transition’s difficult, no matter what you do,” said Lundell. “Wrestling’s a very difficult thing to pick up, but I think it gave me different views than everybody else has because I got to understand jiu-jitsu fully. I got my black belt and then I started wrestling, and I think it gave me different views than other people, especially because I wasn’t just wrestling with the local best junior high and high school coaches. My training partners have been Cael Sanderson and Justin Ruiz. They helped make wrestling easier for me when it came to proper technique and those types of things. I think a lot of people have a hard time learning how to wrestle because they don’t go to the right guys for answers, and they’re not necessarily learning technical wrestling; they’re learning brute force strength, just blow through somebody wrestling.”

It’s almost a jiu-jitsu-esque approach to wrestling, where it’s not just about size in a fight, but who has the better technique and who the smarter combatant is. Unfortunately, dealing with high-profile MMA fighters before high-profile UFC fights doesn’t allow him to reinvent the wheel. If you’ve got a bout with a world-class wrestler like Sonnen coming up, you won’t have the time to catch up to his wrestling, so Lundell instead focuses on those few moves that will allow you to nullify his game and implement your own.

“The first thing you want to do is look at that person and how they think and how they like to play the game,” he said. “Then you don’t focus on 20 moves from each spot and 30 moves from 30 setups; you focus on the right setups for the right guy. And each guy’s different. When I worked with BJ Penn, his stuff is way different from Sean Sherk’s. With Sean, it was power, explosive shots, and those types of things. When I worked with BJ, it was making sure your elbows were deep so that you could actually lift the guy up. Way different thought process. I know Sherk’s 5-foot-6 and his neck is like three feet in diameter (Laughs), so when he shoots in on somebody, I’m not super worried about things happening to him. BJ, on the other hand, he’s got a skinnier neck and a bigger head, so if he gets his head stuck in a guillotine, he might have a hard time getting out of there. So we tailor your game to you.”

“Joe Lauzon, different game than what Frank Mir’s gonna have, especially with the weight and how they like to strike and how they like to move their feet,” Lundell continues. “We focus on certain aspects of their training and bring it down to the core fundamentals of what they need to do, and we give them their ‘go to’ shot and their ‘go to’ areas. This is what you’re good at. You’re not good at the scramble, so we’re gonna stay out of the scramble. You’re not good at 50-50 tying, which would be like Randy Couture’s over-under, so we’re gonna work at staying out of the 50-50 tie completely, and just work outside shots. You’re about to fight Dan Henderson, there’s no way we’re getting to the 50-50 there; it’s circle and push out, circle and push out. That’s all we’re doing. So we focus on the real core of what they need to do for that fight, while working on what they need to do to become a better fighter in the long run, which is develop their ‘go to’ areas.”

Hearing Lundell break down the finer points of the ground game, you almost get the impression that he could teach anybody how to grapple. But then you look at how world-class fighters get baffled by a dominant wrestler, and you realize it’s not that easy. It’s the top discipline in the sport for a reason, yet for those who work with Lundell, he lets them in on just what that reason is.

“In boxing, if you miss a punch, the guy steps away and you step away, and you both get to restart,” he said. “If you miss a shot in wrestling, you are now stuck underneath me for the next five minutes unless you can get out. So it (wrestling) is something that’s so tough because anytime you make a mistake, you pay for it. And you really find out how good you are really fast. There’s no fake stuff. It’s really self-revealing as to your actual ability. People find out real quick who’s the dominant player and who’s not. The guy on top is dominant, despite what the jiu-jitsu world wants you to believe.”