“Fighters” vs. “Black Belts” and other observations on the fight game

28 Feb

I have written about this a few times before. I put my first fighter in an event in 1994. I’ve trained people to participate in a wide variety of combat sports from amateur boxing, to American kickboxing, to Muay Thai and San Da, and Mixed Martial Arts. In total I’ve trained three world champions, 18 national (tournament) champions, several national champions and regional champions. I’ve had a good deal of success and been on a few sides of the “fight game” over the years. I have made a few distinct observations on training “fighters.”

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If you’ve spent any time in combat sports, you have seen fighters and their trainers break up. You’ve seen fighters float from camp to camp. You’ve heard all sorts of disagreements. At it’s worse, the parties may say some pretty horrible things about each other. But if you understand what a fighter is and what a trainer is, none of this should really surprise you.

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A fighter, by their nature, has to have the utmost confidence in themselves. In fact, they have to have more than that! They have to think they are the best. They have to picture in their mind that they are future champions of the world. They see no weakness in themselves and believe they can defeat anyone and everyone. Fighters and big egos go hand in hand.

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By contrast, a trainer/coach HAS to know a fighter’s weaknesses. They have to know who they can easily beat, who they MIGTH beat and who they definitely can not beak. A trainer’s job is to not only develop the fighter but to protect them. It is anything but an easy job. Give them too many easy fights and they will never grow. Give them too many hard fights and they may become injured, discouraged or dropped from the rankings.

Most fighters are also young, with hot tempers and little experience in the fight game. Trainers, the good ones, know how the industry works. Some titles are off the table because they are held by a promoter and they know that your fighter will beat their fighter. Sometimes titles are offered precisely because they know their fighter can beat your fighter. A fighter may think their trainer is “holding them back” or denying them opportunities. The reality is a lot more complex.

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Personally, I never want to turn a fighter pro until I feel they have enough experience. Part of that experience is seeing them fight a tough opponent, having the fight go badly, and seeing my fighter adapt under pressure. If you’ve been fed the bum of the month club, you aren’t prepared to be a professional fighter.

For example, I had a guy with a wrestling background. In the amateurs, he had been paired with a lot of guys who not only had no wrestling, but also questionable striking skills. The amateurs are often take-what-you-can-get. My fighter racked up a bunch of wins and wanted two things; a title shot and to turn pro.

A number of titles were simply off the table, controlled by promoters who have vested interests in the current champions. We had been offered fights which I considered “set ups.” Unfortunately, the fighter kept pressuring me to arrange a “title fight” and I finally agreed. My worst fear of course materialized. The existing champion was a better wrestler and my fighter suddenly found themselves for the first time on the bottom. Worse, they simply did not adapt, they did not respond, they shut down. Conclusion, definitely not ready to “turn pro.”

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I have very high standards and very specific rules, which is why I have only had a few bad stories like that. I’ve even had some wonderful reverse situations, taking fighters to what the promoter thought was a “set up” and going home with the title. But having high standards has meant I’ve had quite a few frustrated fighters who didn’t understand the larger picture. A few have left. I’ve also asked a few to leave.

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The fight game has no shortage of unethical trainers and promoters. I’ve seen guys that left my gym become the “bum of the month,” fed to a succession of much better fighters. I shake my head, but at the end of the day “I told you so.” I’ve also seen guys who took my former fighter, who may have had 7, 10, 18 fights with me and stick them in with newbies… justifying it as “well, they are NEW in my gym.” Did those wins really mean much? Anything?

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Fighters by nature are these funny creatures. The ego thing. They come to you knowing nothing, you built them up, and after they experience success they often forget who brought them to the party. Yes, I’ve heard some pretty funny things come out of their mouths. All of which explains why as time passes, I have become more interested in training students, rather than “fighters.”

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