To brawl or not to brawl: How MMA coaches try to add strategy to the chaos

Cowboy-Gaethje is a fighter's fight (1:50)

Brett Okamoto details why all fighters will be tuned in for Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc (1:50)

Rafael Cordeiro and his coaches at Kings MMA had a game plan laid out for Kelvin Gastelum ahead of his fight with Israel Adesanya at UFC 236. It was heavy on sticking and moving, counterpunching and wrestling. Cordeiro felt that was the best path for Gastelum to defeat Adesanya and win the UFC interim middleweight title.

After going over the strategy one final time in the locker room at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Gastelum nodded his head.

"He said, 'Master, OK, I'm gonna do everything you say -- but I want to fight him,'" Cordeiro says. "Me and all the coaches, we hugged him. 'That's it,' I said. 'That's what I want to hear from you.'"

Gastelum ended up losing by unanimous decision but put forth a "war," according to his coach. The back-and-forth, bloody bout could end up being the 2019 fight of the year. To Cordeiro, Gastelum's performance demonstrated the perfect combination of the coach's old style of coaching and his new. It was a technical brawl.

Cordeiro made his name in MMA as a fighter and then coach at the Chute Boxe Academy in Curitiba, Brazil, a gym renowned for its exceptionally aggressive fighters. He still keeps his eye on those in the sport who fight with aggression, not unlike his former students Wanderlei Silva and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua. The fighters who don't mind eating two punches to give a single hard one back.

Cordeiro calls them "crazy guys," and Justin Gaethje is a notable example. Gaethje faces off against fellow gunslinger Donald Cerrone in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Saturday. It's a highly anticipated lightweight scrap between two of the most exciting fighters in the world.

Gaethje has either finished his opponent or been finished in 20 of his 22 pro fights. He lands 8.5 significant strikes per minute, the highest rate all time in the UFC (minimum of five fights), and absorbs a UFC-high 10.2 strikes per minute. Cerrone is a human highlight reel, with a UFC-record 18 postfight bonuses to go along with 16 finishes, another UFC record.

Cordeiro's current students are not necessarily brawlers, although Gastelum showed in the Adesanya fight that he has that in him. The respected coach does still enjoy watching fighters of that ilk, even if he sometimes does it with a cringe.

"[Gaethje is] a phenomenal kid," Cordeiro says. "I love the way he fights. He's a tremendous fighter. But for sure, he tests his chin a lot. At the same time, if I had some advice for him, maybe start moving a little more instead of testing the chin. Testing the chin all the time is no good for anybody."

That's just what Gaethje does, though, and he does it well. He has a 20-2 career record and is ranked as ESPN's No. 5 lightweight.

"No one loves to fight more than Justin," says Trevor Wittman, Gaethje's coach. "There's no one I've ever met who truly enjoys the firefight and being in that ... war more. He loves it -- he lives for that.

"And he knows it's a detriment to his later life. But dude, he really just doesn't care. He has so much fun doing it. And it's true fun. It's true bliss and joy. I can't explain it."

Can Cerrone, who is ranked No. 4 at lightweight by ESPN, match that intensity? Wittman, who has worked with Cerrone in the past, isn't so sure.

"When it comes to people loving to fight, 'Cowboy' loves to fight and I think it's a different type of fight," Wittman says. "'Cowboy' is a sparring type of fighter. He likes to flow, he likes to pick his shots, he likes to stay rangy. And he's the best finisher in the game when he's able to get you in a relaxed flow type of state. He picks the most unique combos at the right time, and it comes when you're off balance and when you're falling into his play.

"But when you make it a fight, it's usually different, because 'Cowboy' can't fight like that. He needs to pick combinations and throw combinations through the right timing."

ESPN spoke with several coaches ahead of Gaethje-Cerrone about their approach to training fighters who like to simply throw down. What it's like, from their perspective, to spend a full training camp getting a fighter strategically ready for battle, only for the cage door to close and chaos to ensue?


JacksonWink MMA striking coach Brandon Gibson worked with Diego Sanchez during his training camps for fights against Takanori Gomi and Ricardo Lamas. Sanchez is a legendary brawler. His 2009 scrap with Clay Guida was recently inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame for its high level of excitement.

Gibson has regrets about how he prepared Sanchez to fight Lamas in 2015. He felt like he stripped away Sanchez's kill-or-be-killed mentality by focusing too much on defense and creating angles. Lamas won the bout by unanimous decision.

"I tried to give Diego a little too much technique, and it took away from his gameness," Gibson says. "It's hard for a guy that's not ultra-technical to be up against a technical guy and not have his full emotional push. If you're trying to keep it very strategic, and you don't have all your raw emotions in there, where you're just gonna bite down and throw, it could be detrimental at times. You just take [things] away and allow the technical guy to outpace you and outpoint you."

There are cases, Gibson says, when coaches explain to their fighter during camp that they need to dial it back and not get roped into brawls. He cites JacksonWink product Lando Vannata as an example of that.

"You have to make the strategy fit to their style," Gibson says. "You know they're gonna get wild, you just to try to help control the environment and atmosphere that they get wild in. The positional awareness -- like, if you miss an overhand [right], what's behind it? If you hit a left hook, what's the follow-up?"

Wittman agrees that it's all about location, location, location. He doesn't want to rob Gaethje of his pressure game and winging punches. The coach just wants him to use them in the right moments, in the right spots. For Gaethje, aggressiveness and backing his opponent against the cage is how he knocked out James Vick, Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza and others.

When Gaethje has been finished, against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, he's been pulled into exchanges in the center of the Octagon and made what Wittman calls "lazy mistakes."

Whitman compares Gaethje to a race car, with the ability to rev up his engine to the red line, but sometimes failing to know where that line is and know not to cross it.

"The key with Justin is he's the best at fighting in deep waters," Wittman says. "He can drag people under with him very easily and he doesn't mind it -- he loves that. But the key is, how do you pull that back just a touch, where he's still making good positioning decisions and not making any lazy mistakes?"

Bob Perez, who coaches the heavyweight division's best brawler, Derrick Lewis, says he'd "ruin" Lewis if he tried to make him a more traditional fighter. So, the focus during camp is getting Lewis into the best position to brawl, with a sharp technique like a jab, low kick, clinch or pushing an opponent toward the fence.

Lewis does not spar at all in training. Perez said Lewis cannot separate sparring from actual fighting, so they just don't do it.

A few years ago, Perez said he asked highly respected JacksonWink MMA head coach Greg Jackson how to handle Lewis and some of his limitations. Lewis was already in the UFC's heavyweight rankings by then. Jackson told him at the time not to change anything. Since then, Lewis has fought for the title and is currently ESPN's No. 6-ranked heavyweight.

"You know they're gonna get wild, you just to try to help control the environment and atmosphere that they get wild in." JacksonWink MMA striking coach Brandon Gibson

"It was some of the best advice I ever got," Perez says.

Gibson notes that Cerrone has struggled in the past when opponents force him toward the cage. He mentions losses to Anthony Pettis, Darren Till and Rafael dos Anjos where that occurred. But Gibson, who no longer coaches "Cowboy," says he believes the Cerrone who will face Gaethje this weekend is a more mature version.

Cerrone once told him he knocked out Gaethje in sparring, says Gibson, and Cerrone "knows when he has someone's number."

"I remember 'Cowboy' telling me, 'Oh, yeah, I did that by setting him up, I noticed his tendencies,'" Gibson says. "'Cowboy' is good at forcing guys to make defensive patterns, defensive habits, and then capitalizing on them. I'm sure he'll create some openings on Gaethje. I think 'Cowboy' has a lot more tools and paths to victory."


Coaches constantly try to make adjustments over the course of a fight, but their implementation can be especially dicey when working with fighters who want only to stand and bang.

Lewis fought Viktor Pesta at UFC 192 in 2015. The fight was in Lewis' hometown of Houston. It was a hard-fought, close bout through two rounds, and in the corner before the third, Perez leaned toward Lewis' ear and quietly told him to win it for his sons.

"You can look at the video, man, and Derrick's eyes just open up like, 'Oh, s---, I've gotta win this money for my family,'" Perez says. "He has always been motivated by money, and [in the UFC] it's show pay and win bonus. I'm like, 'Dude, this guy is about to take half your check.'"

Lewis finished Pesta by TKO a little more than a minute later.

Gibson has also told fighters something about their family in the corner between rounds to fire them up. But sometimes, he says, brawlers need to be pulled in.

Cerrone fought Matt Brown at UFC 206 in 2016. Through two rounds, it was an absolute war. Both men had been dropped. In the corner, Gibson says, he and Jackson told Cerrone to have fun but get back to what they had worked on. In the third, Cerrone knocked out Brown with a head kick.

"I felt like 'Cowboy' got real technical [after the break], reined it in, really composed himself, brought his emotions to a centered place," Gibson says. "Now everything is back in balance, now he can be technical, strategic 'Cowboy.' He sets up the head kick."

But a coach also must guard against his fighter being too comfortable. Against Poirier, Gaethje told Wittman in the corner after the third round that Poirier "doesn't even hit hard." The coach says now he should have realized that was a dangerous way of thinking.

"And then in the next round, he goes out there and gets rocked," Wittman says. "I should have flagged that and kept him a little bit more aware. I feel like that's where I really made a mistake, because he was definitely breaking [Poirier]."

The biggest thing for a coach, Cordeiro says, is knowing your fighter at all times. He can't talk the same way to Beneil Dariush as he does to Silva.

"If I tell Benny to go out there and kill this guy," Cordeiro says with a smile, "he'll come back and say with wide eyes, 'Why would I do that, Coach? It's just a fight.'"

Wittman says his typical between-rounds talking point for Gaethje is to go to the body and legs. Gaethje has some of the best leg kicks in MMA, but loves to punch and headhunt.

"It's always been pulling him back, because he wants knockouts," Wittman says. "He wants to finish guys. That's his ultimate motive. It's not to go to decision, it's to break someone and make him never want to look at him in the eye again."