"I don’t want to change a guy or take something away from them that’s been effective. We’ve got to find out what shines and bump that up a little bit and maybe add a tool or two.” - Trevor Wittman
If you’re at Newark’s Prudential Center on Saturday night and you see a blur running back and forth between the locker room and the Octagon, don’t be alarmed. It’s only renowned trainer Trevor Wittman, who has three of his fighters – Nate Marquardt, Brendan Schaub, and Eliot Marshall – competing on the UFC 128 card.
Crazy? Yes. Manageable? Yes again.
“We once had a local show where we had nine fighters fighting on a 13 fight card,” said Wittman. “I’ve got a little experience with it, so I think we’ll be good. The nice thing about it is that your night goes by quick, as long as we’re winning.”
He laughs, unbothered by the idea of his charges all fighting back-to-back. Then again, with years in the fight game, it would take a lot to rattle him, and as he points out, this isn’t a one man show either.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of really good coaches coming out with us, so we’re gonna be in the back room making sure that the coaches are running strong and keeping people warmed up, because that’s my biggest key – making sure people are warmed up going out there.”
The way he sees it, it’s the more the merrier when it comes to having multiple team members on the same card.
“There are a lot of advantages to it,” he said. “When you have your teammates and your brothers fighting, it makes for a great atmosphere. You’re building momentum throughout the week working out together, you’ve got all your buddies to back you up, and it brings a great presence to the team. It almost feels like a team sport when stuff like this happens and it gives you some great momentum.”
But for all the team aspects – camaraderie, training together, etc – this is still a one-on-one sport, and Wittman’s job before his fighters step into the Octagon is to give them the strategic tools they need to win. And after working with athletes as diverse as former junior middleweight boxing champion Verno Phillips and former interim UFC heavyweight champ Shane Carwin, it’s clear that the Colorado trainer doesn’t create clones.
“It’s all about finding your fighter,” he explains. “Stylistically, everybody’s different. We gotta find out what works, and boxing is the coolest martial art because if it works, keep it; if it don’t work, throw it out. It’s not one of those martial arts that says ‘hey, this is the way you do it. If you don’t do it this way then you’re not gonna pass and get your next belt.’ For example, people say squaring up is bad. Look at Mike Tyson. He was so good with the shuffles and the bob and weave side to side that he would square his body up to get you off balance. He would bob side to side and once he got to your corner, he’d turn the corner on you and now either he’s got your back or you’re squared if he went around the other corner.”
“So to me, it’s just about finding your fighter, and that’s where the similarities are between MMA and boxing,” Wittman continues. “I really sit back and try to watch my fighter. I try to watch tapes on them before they get to me, because one thing I don’t want to do is what (Floyd) Mayweather (Sr) did to (Oscar) De La Hoya, which is take a six-time world champion and try to make him throw power crosses. I thought maybe his right hand got a little better, but he started getting hit with more right hands and De La Hoya’s always been a left hooker. I don’t want to change a guy or take something away from them that’s been effective. We’ve got to find out what shines and bump that up a little bit and maybe add a tool or two.”
This time around, Wittman was charged with the duty of producing gameplans for three diverse fighters. Brendan Schaub is the heavyweight young gun with the speed and power to end his opponent’s night in a split second. Nate Marquardt is a top middleweight contender with years of experience under his belt who is looking to right his ship after a loss to Yushin Okami last year. And Eliot Marshall is a jiu-jitsu ace with underrated boxing skills who is returning to the UFC after a three fight absence.
“When we’re in the gym, usually there are a lot of guys who have fights coming up and we just do the basic things,” he said. “I structure gameplans for the guys, so first off, I watch tape. For instance, I’ll use (Schaub’s opponent, Mirko) Cro Cop – I’ll pull his strengths and weaknesses, put them down on paper, and then I’ll put Brendan’s strengths and weaknesses down. Then I’ll say what strengths can we use to shut down and take away what Cro Cop does well? What strengths can we use to open up the holes in his game? I’ll structure everybody separately and the nice thing is that we have such a variety of fighters stylistically that it makes for great training partners. Then we bring in guys like Ovince St. Preux to come in to throw left kicks. We had such a variety of sparring partners, and with everybody fighting on the same night, it’s been great.”
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, it is. But you wouldn’t know it by talking to Wittman, who is instantly recognizable by his ever-present smile. And the reason why is that the 36-year old simply loves what he does. He’s had his ups and downs – his budding boxing career ended early due to a lung ailment, not to mention the usual lows that come in sports where the fighter with his hand raised isn’t always the winner – but the ups have outweighed the lows, especially in the last few years, when he moved from boxing to MMA full-time. There will always be a spot in his heart for the sweet science though.
“I’ll never give it a rest when it comes to being a fan,” he said of boxing. “I’m a fan of all combative sports, and even when I’m working my job in the corner, I’m a fan first. The sweet science will never leave me. I might have left the game a little bit, but it will never leave me. I watch the fights, I stay on top of it, but I tried promoting, managing and training boxers at one point, and I felt like I lost a little bit when it came to training. I wasn’t giving a hundred percent, and I always use the terminology ‘don’t wear too many hats.’ If my focus is on MMA, I feel like I have to choose one or the other, and right now my focus is on MMA and I’m enjoying it. I’m passionate about it but I don’t take any combative sport over the other one.”
Yet there are telling differences between the two.
“There are a lot of differences,” said Wittman. “There are guys who look at MMA and think ‘oh, their striking’s horrible, look, they’re throwing single punches and no combinations.’ There’s a big difference. You can’t get real heavy on your front leg and throw a lot of power shots (in MMA) because you’re gonna get leg kicked. The distance in the fight is a lot different. (In MMA) You’re fighting from ten feet out compared to about six feet out in boxing where boxers stand in a close exchange where you pull just enough to get away from a punch but be able to fire back. In MMA, there’s a whole different distance. When I have boxers and kickboxers go together as sparring partners, it’s tough for an MMA guy to deal with a boxer’s distance when they close the gap and get ‘em on the ropes. And it’s hard for a boxer to fight the MMA guy in the center of the ring.”
And then there’s boxing’s not so secret secret.
“When it comes to the head trauma that you take in boxing, I’m telling you it’s a totally different thing,” he said, talking about boxers who won fights and needed to ask him questions about them afterward, or those who would slur their speech after a particularly grueling bout. “I haven’t had one instance of that after an MMA fight.”
“It (boxing) is such a tough, tough game,” said Wittman softly. “Those are hard shots when you’ve got shoes on and you’re able to set into the canvas. And those shots can add up on you, especially if you’ve got a good chin.”
MMA isn’t for the weak of heart either when it comes to hard work and the necessity of learning different disciplines in order to succeed. That goes for the trainers too. So when Wittman made the move, he didn’t arrive as a finished product and a guru of the game. He had the same growing pains wrestlers, boxers, kickboxers, and jiu-jitsu players had when they moved to the sport.
“Experience is the best teacher,” he admits. “There were so many things that I was teaching wrong in the beginning when I was getting in there with the Duane Ludwigs and Nate Marquardts, but something that really helped me was the basics - understanding how to shut down a hand, how to get outside a right hand and make them throw a left hand, and honestly, footwork is one of the best tools that I use and I feel that MMA, still to this day, is lacking footwork. But it’s just experience and learning. Every time I’m at a UFC I watch every coach that’s there and how they’re doing their footwork and how they’re teaching. Every time we go to a new gym I’m learning and I’m watching. It’s about learning, and the day I stop learning is the day I stop teaching. I’m learning every day, I’m passionate about it, it’s fun to learn and I’ve got to evolve with the sport to stay on the top.”
And if his enthusiasm and knowledge won’t catch you, his common sense approach will, so for him there has never been any difficulty in convincing a beginning fighter that having a strong striking attack will pay dividends in a wrestling-centric MMA world.
“You have to go with the Shane Carwin effect,” Wittman explains. “This guy comes up and he’s all wrestling. He comes to me with three or four fights underneath his belt and he’s been taking people down and ground and pounding them. And once he got to learn boxing and learn his footwork, he found his new passion. There was one interview he did after his first fight in the UFC and he said ‘I wish I was younger again, because I probably would have picked boxing over wrestling. I love this.’”
“The thing about wrestlers is that they come in with a nice base and they come with nice balance,” he continues. “They’re strong, they’re powerful, and they’ve got strong hips and good low leverage to be able to throw strong shots. Their necks are super strong from wrestling, which means they can take a punch really well, and you’re seeing a new age as MMA grows, with Cain Velasquez and all these great wrestlers that are coming up and using their hands. Another one is Frankie Edgar. He uses his feet so damn well and I’m so impressed with what their boxing coach (Mark Henry) is doing with him. Maynard’s another one; the guy loves to throw his hands. I enjoy their energy and their willingness to throw their hands.”
Notice anything? Three words from the mouth of Trevor Wittman were repeated twice: love, enjoy, passion. Maybe that’s why he’s always smiling. On Saturday night, as he gets a little bit of TV time when his fighters are introduced to the world, you’ll see that smile again, and it’s the way he hopes it will always be.
“Man, I’m the biggest fan out there,” he said. “I’m going to sit with the judges. I am in the best seat in the house, and I’m a fan before trainer. I’m hearing the emotions of the fans and I feel the same way. I’m excited to be there, I’m excited to see these guys go out and show the art of fighting. I love it.”
If you’re counting, that’s “love” number three.