Trevor Wittman: The Octagon is too big for Mirko Cro Cop


One of the most respected striking coaches in the game, Trevor Wittman, will have his hands full on March 19th, with three of his fighters competing at the long anticipated UFC 128: Shogun vs. Jones event in Newark, New Jersey. Eliot Marshall will look to make a successful return to the UFC against Luiz “Banha” Cane, Nate Marquardt will square off against Dan Miller, and Brendan Schaub will face the toughest challenge of his career against the legendary Mirko Cro Cop.

Wittman is a head coach at the Grudge Training Center, which is located at the City of Wheat Ridge, suburbs of Denver, Colorado. Grudge Training Center is represented by top ranked MMA fighters such as Nate Marquardt, Brendan Schaub, Gerald Harris, Shane Carwin and many others.

Here’s what Trevor Wittman had to say about the upcoming UFC 128 fight card, the evolution of Mixed Martial Arts, ZUFFA’s purchase of Strikeforce and much more. Yes, it’s a long read, but definitely a worthy one.

You have a pretty big night coming up at UFC 128, with three of your fighters competing at the same night. What will it mean to you as a coach to get three victories at one night?
It’s going to be something special. I believe we are going to get three victories. The fighters are in a great shape, they are looking aggressive and I just can’t wait to see them in action. Some fighters had a last minute change in their opponents, but the training camp was simply great, so I don’t believe it will have some sort of effect.

From other side, there’s pretty much at stake. How hard it will be to recover from three defeats at one night?
It will be hard. But you know, the thing is that we win so consistently… so I don’t believe it’s going to happen. You know, when you lose one fight it’s a bad night, but when you lose three it’s a shitty night. So you’ll definitely see guys with their heads down. But again, we win on a consistent basis… We have three strong fighters at UFC 128, so I’m pretty confident all of them are going to be victorious.

Many people confuse the Grudge Center with Greg Jackson’s Academy. Can you explain once and for all what’s the difference between the two?
You know, the thing is that we are a united gym. And what I mean by “united” is that we share training partners, we share sparring partners, but still are in different locations. So if someone from Greg Jackson’s fights a guy who’s bigger and stronger, we’ll get him over here to train with all the Heavyweights we have. If Nate is fighting Akiyama, we’ll get him to Greg who worked with Akiyama before to get some ideas. I think it’s a key for success and a good co-operation, especially when you have such a great fighters in both gyms.

All three of your fighters are facing strikers. Well, maybe Dan Miller is not that much of a striker, but how challenging it was for you as a coach to prepare for three different styles?
You know, it’s not too hard for me. Whether we are fighting on the same card or not, there’s always a number of fighters at our gym preparing for their fight. So I’m always building gameplans for fighters on a consistent basis. The nice thing is that we have such a variety of training partners here, so I got all the tools to prepare for what our opponents bring to the table and how we are going to shut it down.

Arguably the biggest fight of the night is between Mirko Cro Cop and Brendan Schaub. What do you think about Cro Cop’s striking, and do you still consider it dangerous?
Cro Cop is a legend, and also a veteran of the game. Now what happens when you are a veteran, you’re having a tendency of waiting for your big shots to make a payment. His big shots are left body kick and left high kick. He was a super wrecking force back in PRIDE, but it’s a whole different story when he was in the ring. There’s a huge difference between fighting in a 20ft space to 31ft space, which is the Octagon. So there’s two situations there, one that he’s getting older and tries to save energy by picking the right shots and another is that he simply can’t fight the way he wants in a much bigger space. Cro Cop likes to fight in close corridors. And that’s one of those things, when you’re fighting him inside the Octagon you can fall asleep by fighting him, or get caught by the great power he produces.

You know, Cro Cop belongs to era of Fedor and other great fighters. But speaking about Fedor in particular, do you think it’s the same thing with him, that he simply can’t adjust to the cage?
I don’t think it’s the case with Fedor. Strikeforce cage is smaller, so there’s no such big difference from the PRIDE ring. But I think that his problem is to adjust himself to the sport as a whole. He was a great fighter back then and still a legend in my mind… but the thing is that the sport is growing so fast… The level of striking in MMA right now is simply unmatched to what we had back then. During his last couple of fights he won, Fedor was outstruck but still managed to land a shot and win the fight. Still, it’s not enough and you have to adapt yourself to changes in the game. The big key in this sport is that if you want to win, you have to evolve. And then again, you’re getting older and then it’s hard to keep your old tricks effective.

This actually leads me to my next question. Do you think that legends like Cro Cop and Fedor are now too predictable?
Oh yeah. That’s the whole thing with evolving. Let’s say Chuck Liddell, he was great for his takedown defense and then the following right hand. To me it’s one dimensional, and in time you gotta overcome these dimensions. You can defend some of your opponent’s takedowns, but it doesn’t mean that you gonna defend everyone’s takedowns. Also, you have a good KO power, but for sure you’ll always meet someone with a chin good enough to take your punch.  You gotta evolve. If you flat line in your career, and what I mean by flat line is that if your level of fighting stays the same, and you are not getting better… people around you are.

Exactly. Moving to the next subject, Nate Marquardt was heavily criticized by Dana White for choking out at UFC 122 against Yushin Okami. Did you work with Nate on the mental aspect of the game? Or do you think it wasn’t necessary?
You know, before I answer I just want to clarify something. Dana White said his corner told him he didn’t have to win the fight… we told him he has to go out there and knock him out. We told him he has to go for the finish. Also, Nate and the mental aspect, he sees himself as a student of the game. He’s very smart and always has questions on everything I teach him. Now, after such defeat we had to take a step back and see what we did wrong and of course to take all the mind games into consideration. Nate has a full package of striking, wrestling and jiu jitsu. Our gameplan going to this fight is simply to fight. He has a great mental aspect, and a strong mentality that he’s always going to perform no matter what.

And you know, it also happens from time to time. Everyone loses. I remember Marquardt’s fight against Wilson Gouveia, which in my opinion was one of the greatest displays of Mixed Martial Arts I witnessed in my life.
That’s Nate. I really think that he’s one of the best finishers in the game. What I mean by finishers, is that when he hurts someone, he’s really good on going forward and finishing the fight. And when he’s going backwards, he’s a counter-puncher, trying to pick his right shots. When you see him throwing flying knees, spinning backfists and all the other crazy stuff, it’s just him. It’s nothing we ever worked on, it’s just him going out there and bringing these combos to the table. And like you said that it was one of the best displays of Mixed Martial Arts… heck this was Martial Arts and he deserves every credit for it.

In your opinion, as a coach, how important is the mental aspect of the game comparing to a technical one?

Mental aspect is more important than the technical one. You can learn all the technique in the world, but if you don’t go there with the right mindset – you’re not going to win your fight. Mental preparation is the key. Speaking of the guy like Chael Sonnen… Sonnen doesn’t bring all the great attributes and he’s very basic in his game. But, he has that second to none mental aspect that breaks people. He’s going to be in your face all night. So mental aspect is the key, and any fighter out there has to be mentally tough to compete at high level.

I would like to ask you a question not related to your camp, but it’s still a hot topic in MMA, and finally I get an opportunity to ask someone who understands. Alistair Overeem. He won the K-1 WGP, but many people still say that his “K-1 striking” will not translate itself into Mixed Martial Arts. What do you think about it?
I think that everyone who says it is crazy. The thing is that he does Mixed Martial Arts for a very long time. I remember him coming out skinny with a big hammer. He’s doing MMA since a very young age. And the thing is, this is about the spirit. He can definitely adapt his striking to the Mixed Martial Arts aspect. He knows how to sprawl well, he knows how to use his speed, he has a lethal Thai Clinch and very good kicks… the guy is wonderful. I’m a very big fan of his. Overeem is a tough fighter, and like I said, he has all the experience to be continuously successful in MMA.

Overeem is one of the fighters who are now under contract with ZUFFA, who bought Strikeforce. What do you think about this purchase and its future impact on MMA?
The advantage I would see is that if they keep Strikeforce as another professional level of MMA. So fighters could come from the UFC to Strikeforce. That might be good for fighters not losing their jobs, but on the other side, they might just get all the contracts they want and leave everyone else out of business. It may produce a monopoly, which is never good for the sport. And you know, if Dana doesn’t like you, you won’t fight for any of his organizations, so it kinda puts you out. In the end, there’s more positive things about it, and I like to focus on the positive things and not the negatives. I don’t know why they bought it and what they are going to do with it, but hopefully it’s for the better of the sport. Hopefully they are thinking about the sport and not just to have all the power.

Do you think it’s now or never for fighters to create a union?
Honestly, it something that needed to be done for a long period of time.  It’s like a having a National Commission, someone who will step up, put boundaries and make sure things are run well. So yes, I think having a union is a great thing. But who knows, we all know about NFL, so you know, it’s hard to tell.

Alright, thanks a lot for your time, Trevor. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Thanks, you’re welcome.