Jordan Newmark takes an in-depth look at the grappling coach for Frank Mir and several UFC stars, Ricky Lundell...
Wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu?
When a fight hits the floor, the predominant pick your poison question is which type of grappling animal are you?
Which side are you on? Which one of these martial arts did you spend your time to become an expert? Do you want to secure control or a choke? When push comes to shove and shove becomes a takedown, do you react like you spent your years on the mats in a singlet or a gi?
For a second degree BJJ black belt and a former NCAA Division I wrestler, the answer is simple: both.
Yes, both. For that very one someone who is both the youngest North American to receive a BJJ black belt AND the first D1 wrestler to ever be recruited with zero folkstyle wrestling experience, ground grappling is not an “or” question - it’s an “and” statement.
This multiple-time gold medal winner at both the FILA Grappling World Championships and the International Pancrase Submission Wrestling World Championships is a fighting fusion of two supposedly opposing styles who is passing on his knowledge as a coach to both UFC fighters entering title bouts inside the Octagon and teenage wrestlers just learning the sport in their high school gymnasium.
Who is this grappling chimera? Ricky Lundell.
“With my background being both jiu-jitsu at a high level and wrestling at a high level, my understanding of the game together is kind of what drew so many fighters to me,” tells Lundell. “Not only could I do the stand-up portion, the takedown portion, the control portion, and the jiu-jitsu, but because I speak the wrestling language and the jiu-jitsu language, I could teach both groups. I could teach a jiu-jitsu guy how to wrestle using his language and I could teach a wrestler how to do jiu-jitsu using his language without having to reinvent the wheel for them. I can put them in positions they are used to and I can develop them quickly with the skillsets that they already have.”
One would have to or want to assume someone with these unbelievable credentials is a wise old man with a thousand yard stare, rock hard cauliflower ears, knuckles the size of golf balls, and a wispy white beard like a recluse Shaolin monk. And, one would be sadly mistaken.
Instead, Lundell is a fresh-faced 27-year-old from Provo, Utah with enough raw energy and enthusiasm for the grappling arts that he could power a thousand light bulbs.
Lundell is the missing link between youth and experience as unlike probably every American boy. In 1992, he was working in his white belt in one of the two, at the time, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academies. A year before the UFC changed martial arts forever, Lundell at age 6 had begun learning from an eighth-degree Gracie Jiu-Jitsu red and black belt under Rickson and Helio Gracie.
“My father wanted to get me into martial arts,” remembers Lundell. “He met Pedro Sauer at a school function that Pedro came out to and did a little demonstration. Pedro Sauer's daughter choked me out in front of all my friends, so I decided this is something pretty cool and something I wanted to get into. My dad took me over and signed me up. I started training with Pedro Sauer's team back then.”
Students #16 and #17 for Sauer at his gym - a sister school to Rorion Gracie’s in Torrance, California - were Lundell and his older brother.
“As I kid I had no idea; Rickson Gracie throwing me over his head, Pedro Sauer is rolling with me every day, black belts coming in and out every day from Brazil, Rorion Gracie is there,” says Lundell about the literal “Dream Team” of BJJ players that he was meeting and learning from on a daily basis. “It was such a lucky type of thing of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the opportunity. My father got lucky because there are a lot of other places in town, so many karate places and kung fu places. I'm very lucky my father put me into a ground style because he was a stand-up martial artist.”
A black belt in both Isshin-Ryu and Ed Parker’s Kenpo karate, Lundell’s father looked up to Bruce Lee and his work with “Judo” Gene LeBell, and believed in what the legendary Lee said about the need to learn ground fighting. With no judo school in town at the time, Lundell put his young son into a room with men who were on the cusp of revolutionizing the way the world saw fighting. As Lundell was training this new sport, in the rest of the gym were guys like UFC Hall of Famer Royce Gracie preparing to fight in the UFC, and other high-level black belts training for international competitions of their own or helping the others, and “little Ricky” over the years became a sort of pet project.
“I got a lot of special attention because, at the time, nobody saw me as a threat,” explains Lundell. “Because of that, they would tend to give me more information than other people. They would even use me as a ‘teasing’ mechanism. I had guys around the gym show me techniques then kind of sic me on other people around the gym and I would tap them out with the technique, then they would laugh and be like, 'Ha ha! Oh, Ricky tapped you?! You got tapped by a 13-year-old!' Then that guy would work with me, then this guy would work with me. Other people would have had to pay for that knowledge or even kind of seek it out because people wouldn't want to give it up. As a kid, I wasn't a threat in any way, so people were giving me the deepest knowledge. Because of my age and I was young and unsuspecting, I never had that problem of being withheld information; if anything they gave me over information. Whatever that culture was and teasing that happened when I was young bred me to what I became.”
As the Gracie name, BJJ, and the UFC grew, so did the already stellar clientele of Sauer’s school with the addition of US Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz. Back then, Schultz was the head coach of Brigham Young University and their D1 wrestlers would train at Sauer’s as well. Since Lundell was mostly training with these adults, it wasn’t much of a jump when, in his mid-teens, Lundell began competing against adults in events and tournaments. At 19, Lundell was awarded his first black belt from Sauer and began his nearly flawless career in black belt competition at 152-5 and 78-0 in international competition.
“When it comes to submission fighting, I love the danger in it,” says Lundell as his voice raises with excitement. “There's so much danger at any given point. You could get foot-locked, arm-locked, leg-locked, toe-holded, neck-cranked - anything. Wrestling is very difficult. It's very deep, deep in the mental aspect. You will see more people get tired and break in wrestling than you ever will in submission fighting because it is so grueling and so hard that it comes down to looking like a Dan Henderson vs. “Shogun” Rua fight. A lot of times it just comes down to who has enough heart to stay in the middle there and put the other person down first. For mental toughness and mental growth, I really love wrestling for what it offers to our youth, society, and to MMA. From an intricate, dangerous, and adrenaline rush stand-up point, I just love submission fighting because anything can happen and it's going to be bad if you don't tap.”
The following year, the other half of the aforementioned animal began, as Lundell started wrestling for the NCAA Division I Iowa State University Cyclones at 20 years old at the behest of head coach and US Olympic gold medalist Cael Sanderson. Strangely enough, Lundell did try to wrestle for a different college a few years earlier, but was turned away by Sanderson’s 2x NCAA Division I National Finalist brother Cody.
At 15, Lundell began college at Utah Valley University (then Utah Valley State), where he graduated at 18 with a degree in science. Without any specific experience in wrestling, Lundell asked then head coach Cody about trying out and was rebuffed. “I kind of walked away like 'freakin' jerk,'” jokes Lundell, who continued winning tournaments. Not too long later, Lundell found himself sharing the same stage as the Sandersons and impressing them to no end with his abilities in submission wrestling as he claimed the gold at the USA Grappling World Team Trials.
“A few years went by, Cody and Cael were at the World Team trials at 2007,” tells Lundell. “We were competing right alongside the Olympic Trials. They got to see me compete. I put away everyone in my division, I out-grappled everybody, and they watched it first-hand. Cody started a dialogue with me there and introduced me to Cael. Then it wasn't a couple months after that, I had a recruitment letter. Later, Cody was like, ‘I sure wish I had picked you up when you were 15, but better late than never.’”
While the NCAA refused to give him eligibility to start for the Cyclones, Lundell managed to letter in wrestling and go back to the World Team Trials to win another gold and receive the “Most Outstanding Grappler” award. “One of the reasons why I transitioned into wrestling, so quickly is that I have a top-oriented style and it has been top-oriented from the beginning,” asserts Lundell.
Around this time, Lundell began bridging the two worlds and helping MMA fighters prepare for the cage. It began with who was closest, like wrestlers at Iowa State, then with connections through Sauer like fellow BJJ black belt Greg Nelson, who is the founder of The Academy, which used to be known as the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy. It was there Lundell worked with Nelson’s fighters like Joe Brammer, Kevin Burns, and then UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk. If Lundell’s resume didn’t speak for itself, then a few rolls with the ferocious grappling specialist would win them over.
“I was a takedown artist, I was a scrambler, I would take top control a lot,” explains Lundell about his fighting philosophy. “I was very submission-oriented, but very heavy control-oriented. My style had a lot to do with breaking an opponent's will before submitting them. I liked to score, score, score, then I would score again and then I would submit my opponent. That's how I approach MMA, I like to break them first mentally then put them down.”
Who wouldn’t want to be coached by that ethos?
Obviously, many do, as nowadays Lundell’s list of clients is around two dozen, with Lundell being featured as the grappling coach on the past two seasons of The Ultimate Fighter for UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones’ team and for Miesha Tate’s team. On top of that, Lundell is the head wrestling coach for the Gaels of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Arguably his most famous fighter/coach relationship is with former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir. The two have been working together since 2008, and he has seen the ups and downs of his career. The high water mark was the guillotine choke escape to scramble to kimura arm-break over former interim UFC heavyweight champ Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira, which, amazingly, was something Lundell and Mir had been training. The low point has been Mir’s three fight losing skid, which has been against top competition.
“He's really developed as not only as a jiu-jitsu practitioner, but as a wrestler,” affirms Lundell. “From the time we've been together, he's taken down Roy Nelson and controlled him completely, he's broken Nogueira's arm, he's been scrambling in those positions. Even though with [Daniel] Cormier he wasn't able to escape the fence line, you're also talking about an Olympian, and he wasn't able to take Frank down. He was just able to drag him to the fence. From the layman’s view, they just look that Frank can't get off the fence, but you also have to look at the level of competition. In the past, he would've been taken down very quickly. Even a guy like Tim Sylvia was taking him down at one time. As a wrestler, he's improved to the point to where a guy like Daniel Cormier can't take him down. That's very impressive.”
This weekend, Mir will take to the Octagon for a heavyweight record 23rd time to tangle with former Strikeforce heavyweight champion and former K-1 World Grand Prix champion Alistair Overeem. It’s a classic match-up of “striker vs. grappler” and both sides know exactly where they want the fight to play out. To most heavyweights, the ground is like lava when they’re in the Octagon with Mir, so Overeem will do everything he can to keep them upright and striking. As fights always start on the feet, Mir will need to work to get inside and get the fight to the floor, where Lundell’s preparation will come into effect.
“My job comes in later in the fight,” reveals Lundell. “If you can't make it through the striking or be competitive in the striking, then wrestling and jiu-jitsu won't really play a part. Jimmy Gifford, James McSweeney, Shawn Yarborough - they're doing a great job and I have faith in them that they will get the fight where it needs to be to secure the takedowns and secure the submission. If they can get us past that area, get us through the fire, then we'll make it happen.”
As for his bright coaching future, the same work ethic Lundell put into his grappling career, as well as his ability to learn from the great minds around him, has transitioned perfectly into coaching. Lundell’s peer group is incredible, with the Sanderson brothers and Casey Cunningham coaching at Penn State University to boxing coach Gifford in Las Vegas to Greg Jackson, Mike Valle, and Mike Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to name a few. From Sauer to Sanderson, like when Lundell was a kid, one has to wonder if the kids or the parents of the kids at Bishop Gorman understand how overly qualified their young coach is.
In the end, the real question is, is Lundell a BJJ black belt, a wrestler, a UFC champion's coach, or a high school wrestling coach? And the answer is "yes".