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30 August 2016

Trash talk, bro huddles and yakuza tattoos: how I accidentally became a cage-fighting coach

Alex Reynolds, a retired, Guardian-reading Englishman with a hatred for mixed martial arts, began training US cage fighters.

By Alex Reynolds

Cage fighting is not a sweet science. It’s human cockfighting. Dangerous and unpredictable.

I hate and loathe mixed martial arts cage fighting, and its $4bn big-assed brother, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Yet there I was, a Guardian-reading, liberal Englishman, coaching it in the US. How? And, more to the point, why?

Coaching in the gym. All photos: Alex Reynolds

Four years ago, I moved to the US after living and working in Bangkok, Thailand, as a professional nak muay (kickboxer) for nine years. I was 42 years old, retired, washed up, out to pasture.

But, just like the Wild West, word travels fast when a new gun rides into town. Almost immediately, a local mixed martial arts (MMA) gym in Atlanta invited me in to coach amateur and professional cage fighters.

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MMA is to traditional martial arts as chow mein is to Chinese cooking – a bland westernisation. That said, I was curious. Did these lads know what being a professional fighter was all about? Did they understand the long hours it would take to get into shape, never mind learn the basics?

I’ve coached in England. I’ve fought professionally in Thailand. I’ve sparred with British champions, European champions and World champions. But in America the whole MMA scene is different, delusory. Most of my pupils thought that they could do it because they’d seen it on TV.

From the Thai sports press (Alex is on the far right, pulling a face).

But the world of American MMA is a hyper-masculine landscape of death stares, predatory grunts and pounding rock music. Not to mention “Gracie challenges” (picking fights), crashing fist bumps, homoerotic bro huddles, cauliflower ears, smelly spandex shorts; and, lest I forget, trash-talking on social media and redneck crowds at venues like “Wild Bills” and “The Tilted Kilt”, brazenly shouting out racist epithets at the fighters duking it out in the cage. The Bangkok Muay Thai scene, even at its roughest, is a long way from all that. 

Here’s what I learned. Being an MMA coach in America is much like being the manager of a Premier League football team, except all of your players are bloodthirsty killers with hair-trigger tempers and yakuza tattoos who only half understand your quaint English accent (“Coach, are you from Australia? I was watching Crocodile Dundee last night and you speak just like him.”)

American fighters tend to blow their own trumpets more in the style of Donald Trump than Miles Davis. “I want to be legend,” said one of the men under my wing. “Because heroes get forgotten and legends are remembered.” I advised him to be realistic but practical, to learn skills and use his mouth for breathing.

Others have a history of violence. One chap kept making finger gun hand signals at his opponents in the cage. “This always messes with his opponent’s head,” said Pat, our trusty corner and cuts man (whose job is to assist or advise a fighter in the ring). “They all know that he once shot a guy dead who tried to carjack him.”

From the Thai sports press (Alex is wearing the blue gloves).

But could the members of this tribe actually fight? Here’s the skinny. MMA guys in Atlanta, and its immediate environs, are great at “ground game” (wrestling) but rubbish at “stand up” (kickboxing). They don’t like to teep (that’s Thai for front kick). Their knees, vital weapons to a Thai boxer, are dud mortars. Their punches are too wild. And the chins are all too high. They’d seen how it looks on television, but looks don’t win fights. Most can throw a big round kick, off either leg, but it’s a pity about the rest.

Along the way there was the occasional shock. A lot of these MMA dudes liked to square up to me, the Brit coach. On several occasions I had to put them in their place to stop things escalating. “Don’t worry about that,” said Philippe, the gaffer of the gym. “I have had to do the same thing myself and the good thing is that no one will fuck with you now.” Thanks boss. Mighty reassuring.

Looking for a role model, I decided to become an MMA version of the legendary English football coach Brian Clough. If a washed-up footballer could become a legendary manager, why not me? So I tried inspiring them with the basics. Train hard, fight easy. Know your craft and you can become an artist. Win, lose or draw, always remember to put on a showbiz face and be a good sportsman. Never lose your temper. Just as in an argument, you can’t win a fight when you are angry. But don’t forget to hate. Hate from your ankles to your eyeballs and you will be a winner, my son.

Try to live like a monk, fight like a warrior and study like a scholar. Always be humble but strong. Don’t forget to keep your corner and the coach sweet. Be sure to ask about the money before the fight and make sure the man holding it understands that you know his full name and address.

Jared Gooden.

Sometimes training lads to fight like human roosters pays dividends. One of the stable, Jared Gooden, is now fighting for a pro championship welterweight title, and he credits me for being the first person to tell him the basics. I’m chuffed. It’s great to see someone you trained up doing what you showed him in the live theatre of the cage, and, moreover, getting away with it. Aged 46, though, I can’t let it go to my head. I just hope that, when he wins his big fat gaudy belt, it doesn’t go to his.

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