A lengthy pre-fight Q&A with UFC 158 lightweight John Makdessi, who faces Daron Cruickshank on the card, that includes his entry into martial arts at age 6, the fighters that inspired him, his view on fear and how he actually has no style at all.
Dallas Winston: Tell me about how you first began in combat sports?
John Makdessi: I started to compete in Taekwondo at the age of 6. I was competing every week and doing very well at that. My first coach was a great coach and mentor. Through my teenage years I was doing other sports but then I got back to martial arts, and I met another coach at the age of 17 -- a Shotokan karate guy -- and I started competing in Shotokan. I was with him for 2 years and attained a black belt in Shotokan karate. I competed in that and was also successful.
I was more interested in kickboxing because it was a full-contact sport, and I met another coach for kickboxing and went on to win a gold medal in USKBA [United States Kickboxing Association]. I also won an amateur tournament in Quebec. Then kickboxing kind of died out and I was looking for something; a new challenge. I started watching Pride and Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic was my inspiration, and everything else is history.
I heard about Tri-Star Gym and found it, and started to work out there at the age of 22-23. I won all my amateur fights in MMA and later turned pro. Then I started to practice Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling and grappling.
DW: I couldn't help but notice you specifically mentioned Pride Fighting Championships. I was a ridiculous fan of Pride. What made you gravitate more towards Pride than the UFC?
JM: Oh, to be very honest, I was familiar with the UFC, but the cage thing ... I was never too pleased about the cage. Obviously I adapted to it. It is what it is and it's out of my control. I was a fan of boxing and the Pride fighters seemed like professional athletes. Sometimes the cage can maybe make us look a little bit like animals. People think we're just killers but we're also human beings. We have our own lives and we're professional athletes. It's a sport, you know? We're prize-fighters.
But the biggest reason I got into Pride was because of CroCop. I was a kickboxer and he was also a kickboxer. I watched him back in the K-1 days and followed his transition into Pride, and of course from Pride to the UFC.
DW: If I can backtrack a bit, you started at age 6, which is a very young age for combat sports. It's rare to see someone start that early and stick with it for so long. What was it that got you started so young?
JM: My older brother is 8 years older than me and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. My father worked all day and I never saw him much. He was a very hard working man. That being said, I was a little bit of a troublemaker. My older brother was taking Taekwondo and he stopped and went into business, and I just love martial arts. I'm very passionate about the art and I just found something. I always had a hard time expressing myself through words and, for me, martial arts, or sports in general, was another way to challenge myself and turn the negative into a positive.
DW: So would you say that martial arts has been almost like a religion that's shaped who you are?
JM: 100%. It's a lifestyle for me. I had a lot of problems growing up: I was getting into trouble, I was going nowhere, I wasn't happy, none of my jobs ever lasted and I was always getting into fights. I wanted to do something different; something for myself. Even though I've changed gyms a lot, it was all about chemistry for me, and every coach I had was like a father figure or a mentor to me. I really got close to them. We didn't just train together at the gym, we'd spend time together, we'd laugh, we'd cry, which is a beautiful thing growing up.
I have an angry place in me and I've had many ups and downs in my life. But at least I can die knowing that I have no regrets.
DW: Outside of fighting, what were some of the hardest challenges you had to endure?
JM: Being that my parents are from Lebanon, I was Lebanese and obviously raised in Montreal. I was always the outcast. Growing up through my teenage years, I was always trying to get approval from my peers. You know how it is -- you want to be accepted by other people. The only way I got accepted for some reason was through fighting. Another kid would challenge me to a fight and I would win the fight, and other people respected me for fighting.
Then I got to realize that I didn't want to go down that path, because all it brought me was trouble with the cops. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I didn't want to go that route of being a troublemaker. I felt I could be better than that. I'm very close with my family and my mother is my life. Seeing all the hardships I put my family through ... you know, martial arts saved me because it kept me disciplined, kept me focused and kept me away from trouble. I had a lot of energy, and some kids like that don't know how to express it, whether bad or good, so they need to recognize that and channel it, and sports is a good way to channel all that energy.
DW: Compared to other MMA fighters, how much of an advantage is it for you that you've been around fighting and combat sports for so long?
JM: I'm always scared. I think fear is what puts the fight in me. Fear makes me wake up and train hard everyday. I look up to a lot of great athletes and I always stay motivated and try to be focused. I do believe that fighting is in my blood. My mother, ever since I was a little kid, she always said, "You've always been a hard-head." Fighting is in my blood and fighting is fighting at the end of the day.
What was hard for me was transitioning through different sports and finding another coach. Fighting is hard work, you know? It's a lot of hard work and dedication. Some guys are lucky to have a great coach from day one and they have good chemistry. With me, I always had a find another road and find another way to get better, which meant finding a new coach and a new mentor; a new way of getting involved as a fighter. I didn't really know where it was leading but I knew what I wanted fighting to be a part of my life.
DW: Going back to how CroCop inspired you, are there any other athletes or fighters who inspired you, or any other fighters nowadays that you enjoy watching, or maybe try to emulate a little of their style?
JM: Like I said, CroCop was my biggest inspiration because I loved watching him fight and loved his style. Obviously Georges St. Pierre is a great athlete. Then you've got guys like Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Frankie Edgar. They're great fighters. Frankie Edgar is a great guy with a big heart. He always helps out people and I like that about him. He's very genuine. Outside of that, I was a big boxing fan so I'm a big fan of Mayweather, Mike Tyson and Muhammed Ali. I like watching boxing, Muay Thai and wrestling. All the new stuff. I just try to keep getting better as an individual.
DW: Tell me about what you had to change in your original style when crossing over to MMA?
JM: I had to basically forget everything from the past in the sense of my style. Kickboxing has a lot of different positions and positioning. I had to learn low kicks, I had to learn elbows, I had to develop my Muay Thai, my boxing, my wrestling and my grappling. I had to be more aware of being well-rounded, which is why I'm always learning everyday. There's always something new to learn. That was the hardest part for me -- transitioning from a kickboxer who never did low kicks, elbows and knees, to learning those techniques along with wrestling, grappling, and throwing, whether that's Judo or Greco Roman wrestling. There's just so much, so everyday there's something new to learn.
DW: How about specifically the changes to your striking style? Don't be afraid to get a little technical.
JM: I'm a very emotional guy and I take things very seriously. I try to live in the moment because I think that's the best way to go about things, and less stressful. That being said, and I know this sounds weird, but I try not to think about it too much. I let my instincts kick in. To me, a lot of fighting is instincts.
DW: So ... in your old style, which I don't even know what to call because it was such a mixed bag ...
JM: (laughing) I know! But Bruce Lee, he said it best: "no style is the best style." I know some people look at my style and compare it to Taekwondo and all that stuff, but I don't feel that way anymore because it's been such a long time. I train to have no style. I just train strictly to be a real fighter and a true fighter. Every fight is going to be different and that's the beautiful thing about it. I'm very unpredictable and that's what makes me exciting. I'm never going to be one of those fighters who does the same thing over and over again. I don't even know what I'm going to do because I have so many tools. That's why my fight with Daron Cruickshank on March 16th is going to be a good one, because I don't even know what I'm going to do.
DW: On that topic, let's talk about your fight with Sam Stout, because I expected you to stay outside and use your rangier kicking weapons, but you did the exact opposite by going inside and using your quickness, and you boxed the hell out of him. Did you specifically go into that fight wanting to showcase more of your hands?
JM: No, of course not. I practice endlessly, everyday. I train hard just to get better, and there's so many things I do in the gym that unfortunately don't come out in the cage. My goal is to bring all that into the cage, because I know I haven't used my full potential yet, and that's the dangerous part.
DW: Wait a minute ... you're saying you didn't go into that fight planning to box more?
JM: No, not really. That just came out in the fight. I was surprised too. (laughs) That just came out in the moment -- you're body just takes over when you're in the moment. Thinking too much slows me down. In my previous fights, thinking too much slowed me down and you just need to go out there, let it all out and pull the trigger. That's why we train our muscles everyday for repetition. It's all about repetition, having a routine and being consistent. That's what it comes down to .. just letting your body take over.
DW: That's honestly completely shocking to me that that wasn't a pre-planned strategy against Stout. You're saying it could be a hook-kick highlight reel from outside or a phone-booth boxing match, and you have no idea what until you're in the fight?
JM: Yeah, 100%. Like I said, I'm a "feelings fighter." I go with feeling. You can watch footage on your opponent, but this is MMA, and MMA is a complex sport. There's so many things the guy can do, so you have to be aware of all angles and options. With Sam Stout, it came down to action/reaction. You have no idea what the guy's going to do, so that's what it's about ... action and reaction.
DW: Before we get into Cruickshank, I want to ask you about one of your losses but make sure I do it respectfully. I think the Dennis Hallman fight is totally understandable because he's one of the most experienced and under-rated submission grapplers around. But tell me about the Anthony Njokuani fight? Something just seemed ... "off" in that match?
JM: You know, my last couple of losses ... like I said, sports teaches you a lot. I always go out there to win but that's something you can't control. I don't want to take away anything from my opponents but I was in a dark mind-state and wasn't really 100%. My opponents did what they had to to win the fight and I just have to learn from my mistakes. I was a little too focused on my injury against Dennis Hallman and, in the Njokuani fight, I let my emotions get the best of me, and you can't really fight with anger. I was chasing him the whole time and I took all his shots, his best shots, and I kept coming forward.
People need to understand that styles make fights. MMA still has to evolve. You see these big guys fighting at 155 and I'm a real natural 155er. Some of these guys are bigger and taller. I look at it like this: you can win, you can lose, or you can lose and give your best performance and you can win and give your best performance. My goal is to go out there and win by being the best I can.
Again, no excuses. Anyone can take someone down or beat someone where they're weak. But beating a guy at his best ... Sam Stout is a dangerous fighter, but I wanted to prove to myself that I can also be a dangerous fighter. I out-struck the striker and I out-wrestled him too. That's my goal as an individual and as a martial artist: to out-strike the striker and out-wrestle the wrestler; to out-grapple the grappler. To beat the guys in what they're best at.
DW: I respect that you're not making excuses or taking anything away from Njokuani, but is it safe to say that fight was an anomaly, or not the best John Makdessi in the cage?
JM: You could tell by my body language that I was very disappointed in myself and, after, you could tell by my face. I was like, "I can't believe it's over." I train so hard that I can do 10 rounds. That's another thing. I think the rounds in MMA might have to evolve. Sometimes as a fighter, it takes time to warm up. You feel him out in the 1st round and get going more in the 2nd round. Look at boxing -- you've got 10 or 12 rounds.
I believe that MMA should maybe shorten the rounds, and make more rounds with shorter times. I believe that, if that happens, you're going to see better fights. Some guys, they know it's 5-minutes long and they take a guy down and stall. 5 minutes is a long time in one round. So, that being said, mentally I wasn't there against Njokuani. There's always room for improvement and I need to get better in every aspect; to be mentally better. I know that, if I'm 100% mentally and physically, that I can be one of the best fighters in the world.
DW: What weight do you walk around at between fights?
JM: I float around between 170 or 175 pounds. With a strict diet, I usually get down to around 165.
DW: Based on that, do you think 145 might be an option in the future?
JM: I thought of 145 but then I realized ... I already have enough trouble cutting to 155. People don't understand that weight cutting is a dangerous process, especially if you don't do it smart. My goal is to be healthy. If you're not healthy, you can't fight, right? I'm not thinking about it right now to be honest. I'm just focusing on Cruickshank for March 16th.
DW: Give me your take on Daron Cruickshank as an opponent?
JM: He's very diverse. He comes hard and he comes aggressive. He's probably bigger than me and he has a wrestling background. I never underestimate any of my opponents. That's why I train hard every day. I don't really focus on what he's going to do, I focus on what I'm going to do. All I'm going to say is tune in on March 16th. It's going to be a good fight.
DW: What do you think about his striking specifically? Are you impressed? Is it anything special?
JM: Well, they call him "The Detroit Superstar" for a reason, you know? For the first time, I saw his kicks, and having the same background will make it interesting between us. Basically, if he tries to take me down the whole time, that's going to be a boring fight. But if he's willing to stand up with me and test his skills, I truly believe it will be a technical fight. We're going to find out which guy is well conditioned.
DW: Do you see an advantage for either of you in a particular range? He's a lankier guy but you have good fringe striking too.
JM: I'm a smart guy so I want to fight inside the pocket. That's where I get my power. But advantage or disadvantage, inside or outside, my goal is to be a smart fighter; to fight smart, to fight clever and not to get hit. I try to be a smart fighter and showcase my technique, my skills and my speed. I truly believe that speed and defense is the key to victory.
DW: What's your prediction for this fight or, when you envision it in your head, how do you see it unfolding?
JM: I envision this as a war. I don't really predict fights though. I'm on those guys where I'm just going to go out there and give it my best and put on an exciting fight. I think it's going to be a great battle.
In addition to his family, friends and fans, John Makdessi wanted to thank Hector Castro of MMADiehards and his sponsors:
- Fear the Fighter
- Alien Ware
- D & N Enterprises
- The natives at the Six Nations of Toronto