There is a level of combat that can only be obtained through education, discipline and repetition. A fighter may come to mixed martial arts as a master jiu-jitsu practitioner or national champion collegiate wrestler but in MMA every fight begins on the feet. Boxing trainer Gil Martinez takes pride in helping some of the top fighters in the sport develop their hand skills.
Martinez has been the head boxing coach at Xtreme Couture for several years. Of the current roster of fighters that train under Martinez perhaps the one pupil who has shown the most growth is none other than number one lightweight contender Gray Maynard. "The Bully" came into mixed martial arts with an All-American wrestling background and under the guidance of Martinez has developed his boxing skills. That combination has allowed Maynard to burn through his weight class en route to his first title shot. Waiting for Maynard at UFC 125 will be current champion Frankie Edgar whose only career loss came against Maynard in 2008. With the fight less than two weeks away and training camp coming to a close I caught up with Gil Martinez and in this Bloody Elbow Exclusive interview he talked about the differences between boxing and MMA, combating Edgar's style and what steps they have taken to insure that Gray Maynard becomes the next UFC lightweight champion.
"I started working with Gray for the first Edgar fight and since that time there has never been a fight where Gray has come into the camp completely healthy," Martinez explained. "Every other camp he's had some type of injury and this is the first camp he has been injury free and the amount of progress he has made just in this camp alone...I couldn't be happier. He is amazingly focused and Gray is ready to go."
Maynard and Edgar both come from wrestling backgrounds and both have improved their striking technique tremendously since debuting in the UFC. Edgar has recently adapted an approach that utilizes foot work, speed and movement and he used those skills to dethrone long time champion B.J. Penn.
"We are well aware that Edgar's plan is going to be to out run us," Martinez answered when asked about Edgar's style. "That's a smart thing to do because the last thing Frankie wants to do is stand in front of Gray because if he does that Frankie is getting knocked out. Another thing he can't just stand in front of him because Gray will take him down at will so we expect them to keep moving and we've focused on that a lot. Gray is going to surprise a lot of people because he's going to be able to close that gap a lot better than people think. I know that Frankie is very fast on his feet and I think a lot of people under estimate Gray's speed."
The basic idea behind a style such as the type employed by Edgar and WEC bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz is that by using movement they will keep their opponent off balance. After landing strikes they once circle out of range and return to moving which makes it extremely difficult to counter.
"You can counter that approach because more and more people are going to begin fighting that way," Martinez stated. "That type of style is going to work against flat footed fighters like B.J. Penn. That is why Edgar was able to get in and hit B.J. then escape but Gray is not that style a fighter. He is going to be just as quick as Frankie and that's been one of the things that we have been working on. Gray will be getting close to him and cutting that cage down...giving him as little space as possible to move so it's not going to be very hard for Gray to get to him."
Martinez continued, "Gray is way too strong and powerful for Frankie. Going into this fight we know he's never going to stand in front and sit there and trade. We also know he is not going to try to out muscle or out wrestle Gray so we've known the entire time that his plan is going to be to hit and move. They believe Frankie's big advantage will be that he is faster than Gray but he will only be able to have the movement for so long and I hope they have a plan B. If they don't have a Plan B they are going to be in a lot of trouble."
Despite Maynard's perfect record inside of the octagon the former All-American wrestler has come under fire for the amount of decision victories on his resume. Critics have panned Maynard for being a boring fighter often overlooking the caliber of fighter that Maynard has defeated inside of the cage.
"Gray has always fought the guys that no one else wanted to face and if you go back and look at who Gray has beat he is in a class all his own," Martinez declared. "The majority of them have been left handed fighters and hardly any of them have ever been stopped. The most important thing is to win and we've done that. Do we want to make it an exciting fight? Of course we do and Gray doesn't sit back, pull someone to the ground and wait there. He tries to finish and he is constantly working to inflict damage but when you look at the guys he has fought...who else has been able to finish them? Anybody who says that Gray doesn't like to finish fights I feel it is an unfair assessment and I would like to see them face the guys that Gray has fought and I dare them to do better than what Gray was able to do accomplish. I think that Frankie Edgar is a great fighter but I do not see Frankie beating Kenny Florian and Nate Diaz. Those are some of the guys that Gray has been able to beat so I really don't understand the criticism."
Martinez continued, "Going into the second round I could already see Kenny's (Florian) frustration because he could not do anything against Gray," Martinez described. "If you look at Kenny's face at the end of the fight, even before the announcement he was beaten and frustrated. Take a guy like Jeremy Stephens for example. Jeremy is a great fighter and he will stand there and bang with the best of them but the thing that gets fighters to the next level is being able to prepare for every different aspect of an opponent and not being the same fighter you were in the fight before. If people can prepare to face the same fighter each time out then the chance for success will diminish. When a fighter can keep his opponent guessing then he becomes even more dangerous. Gray has done this time and time again and he follows a game plan because we know what it is going to take to beat the fighter we are facing. You can't go in there and be a one dimensional fighter because eventually someone will figure out. Gray has shown that he can deal with anything and anybody regardless of their background. It doesn't matter if it's a wrestler, striker or a jiu-jitsu practitioner...he has handled them all. That is what has lead him to the point where he now gets the opportunity to fight and take the title on January 1st."
The "Boxing vs. MMA" debate is a popular topic that usually surfaces after big events from either sport. Of the variables that are disputed and argued one of the more common elements has to do with the caliber of striking displayed amongst top MMA fighters in comparison to elite level boxers.
"I think it's a very unfair comparison because any MMA fighter that has come from a jiu-jitsu or wrestling background is not going to be comparable because boxers develop their skills over years and years the same why those fighters who come from different backgrounds have developed theirs," Martinez shared. "It would be nearly impossible for a boxer come in and out wrestle and wrestler just like we saw with Randy Couture and James Toney just as it would be for an MMA fighter to go in and out box a boxer. Boxing and MMA are two different animals...two different sports. Although I will say that overall in MMA I've seen a huge improvement in fighter's boxing skills and one of the fighters who has shown tremendous improvement is Georges St. Pierre. His striking is extremely good and it is up there with just about anyone. I think in this fight a lot of people are going to see that Gray's striking has improved to another level as well. I think that right now the new generation of MMA fighters that are getting their start are working every single aspect of the game...those kids in about five to ten years are going to be just as good as anybody currently fighting. Personally I am a boxing fan...my background is in boxing but I'm an MMA fan as well. I guess you could say I'm a fight fan so to me I consider those sports to be two different animals because you can't stand the same way when facing a jiu-jitsu practitioner as a boxer when stand when he is in the ring fighting. You have to worry about getting taken down and kicked. There are so many different things an MMA fighter has to worry about but overall I've seen striking improve tremendously throughout MMA and I only see it getting better over the next few years."
In his shutout victory over Koscheck at UFC 124 Georges St. Pierre worked behind a flawless jab that proved to be unstoppable. After the first round Koscheck appeared to have lost every ounce of confidence in his ability and despite the bout going the distance, Koscheck's corner was unable to come up with an answer for GSP's attack.
"The one thing I noticed in that fight that GSP did very well is that he never let Koscheck establish any form of offense," Martinez explained. "He worked that jab tremendously and it put Koscheck so off balance there was nothing he could do. Now when you are getting hit in the face with the jab there are a lot of things that a fighter can do. You can slip the jab and counter, throw over hand rights, roll underneath and throw a hook...a lot of things that you can do to prevent getting hit with that jab over and over. If you don't take the jab away from your opponent it is going to be a very difficult night. Those are a few of the things Koscheck could have done. He also could have parried a bit more to counter over that jab. Yes it's a lot easier said than done, especially with someone like GSP who is so athletic and fast but instead of getting hit with 100 jabs, get hit with 50 and counter with the other 50. It would be difficult to take the jab away from GSP because he is a great fighter but you can definitely take the amount of jabs he is going to hit you with."
Another factor that is brought up when comparing boxers to mixed martial artists is spacing. Great fighters over the ages have been heralded for their ability to keep perfect distance from their opponent and when mastery of spacing is mentioned amongst today's fighters names like Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are some of the fighters that top the list.
"The distance between you and your opponent, whether you are comfortable in the pocket or just outside the range of his punches those distances are things that you have to know," Martinez stated. "When you are in the pocket there are certain punches you will be able to counter with and when you are on the outside there will be different punches necessary to counter. It becomes very critical and crucial for each fighter to know their range because the better that you understand the distance between you and your opponent the less you will get hit and the more punches you will land because of it. When a wrestler has a good shot it's because they know where they should be shooting from and it's the same thing with a good stand up fighter. They have to know what range they are most effective from and won't get countered. The same is true for wrestlers because they know they can't shoot from too far away or too close so they learn to develop a perfect distance. It's very important for every fighter to learn."
As the head boxing coach at one of the best gyms in all of MMA, Martinez works with the sport's top fighters on a daily basis. He also continues to work in the boxing world and this allows him to keep boxing as the primary focus in a world where multiple disciplines surround him constantly.
"I think in MMA people need to be slipping and rolling beneath punches much more," Martinez answered when asked which boxing technique he would like to see utilized on a greater scale. "Of course there is the danger of catching a knee while slipping or rolling a punch but there are only certain times it should be used. Not utilizing the slip and roll is like saying don't ever throw a jab because you are going to get countered with an overhand right. There is always going to be the opportunity for your opponent to counter with something...always. If you shoot you can catch a knee to the face so does that mean that you should never shoot? No...it just means that you need to know when and when not to shoot. I really believe the slip and roll is one of the most under utilized techniques in MMA and as a matter of fact if you watch Mike Pyle's last fight against Hathaway in London you will see that he did a lot of slipping and rolling which was never his thing to do. Once he realized how easily he was avoiding punches it gave him one more technique for his arsenal."
As we worked through some of the major comparisons between boxing and MMA we finally reached the most popular argument that boxing is a dying sport. This criticism has hung over the sport for some time but with boxing's failure to heavily promote up and coming fighters to their inability to make the one super fight fans wish to see, some critics believe boxing is on borrowed time while others believe boxing will endure as it always has.
"In boxing, ever since I can remember growing up, boxing has been dying for years and years," Martinez replied when asked what could be done to revive boxing. "There is always someone that comes along and revives interest in the sport. Whether it was Muhammed Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones Jr, Julio Caesar Chavez, Fernando Vargas or Oscar De La Hoya those are fighters that people can really follow and that is what boxing is missing right now. There are a few guys coming up and if everybody wants to follow a tough kid coming up on twitter check out @goldenboysfinest. He is 6-0 with 5 knockouts and he is going to be the one that brings boxing back to the level that it used to be at. There have been a lot of good matchups and I know for a fact that Golden Boy Promotions are working on some excellent fights that will be coming up in 2011. I think there are a lot of things that are going to happen in the next year that will put boxing on its way to returning to what it was. Then again you are never going to be able to please everybody but most people who complain about boxing or get in an uproar about MMA have never been in the cage or have no idea what it takes to be in a cage. It's very easy for people to throw their opinions around but they have no idea how difficult it is to get in there and actually hit somebody...especially someone that is going to hit you back."
While the debate will inevitably continue for years down the road the banter typically remains between critics and fans of each sport. Occasionally a high profile representative like Floyd Mayweather Jr. will step over the line and attempt to strip away the credibility of their competition.
"I think there can be equal admiration because boxing and MMA are completely different animals," Martinez stated. "Gray Maynard is a huge boxing fan and we go to a lot of the fights here in Vegas. In the same turn most of the boxers that I know are huge MMA fans. Juan Manuel Marquez came to Xtreme Couture for training during his last fight and he is a huge MMA fan and has a ton of respect for what MMA guys do. Marquez said that he would rather get punched in the face 100 times than getting kicked."
With the interview coming to a close I took the opportunity to pick Gil's mind about several of the boxing related issues that have surfaced in MMA in recent months. One of the topics recently in the headlines was not only former light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's request to fight James Toney but Rampage's insistence that he would stand and bang with the former boxing champion.
"When we were preparing Randy for James Toney one of the things that I know for a fact is that no matter how Toney looks, being heavy and a bit out of shape, he still punches extremely hard. He has power and speed in those hands so for Rampage to sit there and try to box him is going to be very difficult. That's why our entire game plan with Randy was to shoot low so that he didn't get caught with an upper cut, take him down and get him out of his world. I think if Rampage decides to trade with him it will be an exciting fight but I don't think he can out strike him. Rampage needs a little more movement and is known to be a bit slow on his feet so I think...if that fight happens that Rampage would realize he is outmatched and take the fight to the ground."
Moving the next topic, Martinez was asked how he would prepared for the enigma that seems to be the striking attack of Nick Diaz. The Strikeforce welterweight champion has appeared unstoppable as he has battered and beaten every opponent he has faced for the past few years. Diaz's most recent victim, K.J. Noons, split time as a professional boxer but Diaz was still able to get the better of the exchanges in their fight.
"I would prepare the same way for Nick that we did when Gray fought his brother Nate," Martinez replied when asked how he would prepare a fighter for Nick Diaz. "You know that those guys are coming with 20 punches but they are not trying to knock you out. They are trying to hit you as many times as they can and with those small MMA gloves any punch is going to hurt. The Diaz's try to out strike you and frustrate you into opening up so that they can land counter shots which has proven to be effective for both of them. When fighters get frustrated and start swinging with wild shots it becomes easier for them to pick their shots and take advantage of the openings. So if I were training a fighter to face Nick Diaz I would have my fighter work more of a counter game plan and for to force Diaz to be the one to force the fight. Then I would make sure there was constant movement because it's much harder to find angles on a fighter that takes that approach. That is the game plan that we used when Gray fought Nate and we were very successful with it."
In less than two weeks time Gil Martinez will see years of preparation culminate in one night at the MGM Grand Arena as his top pupil Gray Maynard will enter the octagon to face current champion Frankie Edgar for the title. All the hard work, dedication and sacrifice have lead to the opportunity to shine for Maynard and Martinez ended the interview expressing his confidence.
"It will come down to how long Frankie decides to run but I see Gray stopping Edgar in the third or fourth round and the UFC lightweight title will be staying with us in Vegas for a long time."