WHEAT RIDGE, Colo. – Trevor Wittman has a case of strep throat. Maybe. At least, there’s a chance he does, and for a top MMA trainer, a chance is too much.
In his line of work, which requires getting right in the faces of elite professional fighters who are anywhere from several months to several days away from important fights, he can’t risk the possibility that he might accidentally infect them. They have enough to worry about, and he can practically feel the white spots popping up on the back of his throat every time he swallows. This explains his uniform for today.
“I swear I don’t normally dress like a ninja,” the 35-year-old Wittman explains as he leads me into his little office inside the Grudge Training Center.
He sports a long-sleeved black shirt with matching gloves, a knit wool cap, and a face and neck gator to ensure he doesn’t accidentally breathe on anyone. In preventing the spread of germs, he’s also hidden his most recognizable feature – his ubiquitous, infectious smile. Only the creases around his eyes can convey how happy he is to be at work in a job where calling in sick is hardly an option.
Trying to create a heart for a guy who doesn’t have it, that just ain’t going to work.
– Trevor Wittman
Wittman’s days start early. He’s usually in the gym by eight in the morning, sitting down for some quiet “visualization” time before the fighters start to trickle in. He thinks about the day to come, what he wants to accomplish, and how to make it happen. Then it’s on to watching film.
Today’s movie is a present from Lex McMahon at Alchemist MMA management, who wants him to take a look at young fighter they’re thinking of signing.
“He’s got heart,” Wittman says as one of the kid’s recent bouts plays on his Macbook. “But he’s very, very green.”
Then again, green is okay. Green is where he’d prefer to first get hold of a fighter, before he’s learned too many bad habits. Green you can work with, as long as the guy already has the core attributes that nobody can teach him.
“I see so many more guys who are talented not make it just because of their lack of a willingness to train,” says Wittman. “Guys who are gifted sometimes grow up getting away with things. They can be the best on the team without hard work. But then they get to a certain point, and you can’t give them a work ethic. Just like you can’t create them a heart. Trying to create a heart for a guy who doesn’t have it, that just ain’t going to work. If they’ve got a little bit of quit in them, you just can’t change that.”
For instance, take one of Wittman’s brightest young stars, UFC heavyweight Brendan Schaub. He walked into the gym one day just looking for a place to train. A short time later and there he was in the Golden Gloves, knocking out a 6’11″ boxer from the Army squad.
Wittman gestures to the framed photo of that very moment that adorns his wall – one of many in the office that is essentially a museum to his career in fight sports. The photos and memorabilia come in handy, serving as exhibits he can point to as he makes one point after another about the fight business.
One photo of a certain boxer is the launching point for a story about how relatively few fighters he’s ever quibbled over money with. He puts nothing down on paper with any of his fighters to guarantee his ten percent as their trainer, so if they wanted to – as this one boxer apparently did – they could easily deny him his share. Of course, they could only do it once, he points out.
Another photo reminds him of how world champion boxer Verno Phillips would take so much head trauma during a fight that it was routine for Wittman to sit with him in the hotel room afterwards and answer the same questions over and over again.
‘Did I get knocked out?’ Phillips would ask. ‘No, you won a decision,’ Wittman would tell him. ‘Yeah, that’s right. I did win,’ he’d say, as if he remembered it vividly now.
The thing I like about MMA is, MMA is so freaking safe compared to boxing.
– Trevor Wittman
This is just one reason why he’s glad to be out of the business of training boxers and on to MMA instead, Wittman explains.
“The thing I like about MMA is, MMA is so freaking safe compared to boxing. Boxing is a brutal sport. Just brutal.”
In the fifteen fights he worked with Phillips, for instance, Wittman says that Phillips urinated blood after at least ten or eleven of them. In all his time training MMA fighters, he says, he’s only seen it once – “and that was after a war.”
“I love boxing. The sweet science. I love it. But I’m sort of glad to be away from it. I love the science of boxing, but it’s just brutal. A life in that sport is absolutely brutal over the years. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want my son to box. If he wants to grow up a little bit, learn to defend himself, that’s fine. But not as a career. I see now why my parents didn’t want me to box.”
MMA takes a different toll, such as the one that’s growing out of the side of Schaub’s ear when he shows up for his morning one-on-one training session with Wittman.
“Look at that thing,” Wittman says, gesturing at the bulbous mass of fluid and tissue on Schaub’s left ear. “Seriously bro, it looks like a butt cheek.”
Schaub nods and fingers the ear self-consciously, admitting that it hurts so much it even wakes him up in the middle of the night if he happens to roll over on it in his sleep. He’s been draining it twice a day, and now it’s a tender red mass that he can’t forget about, in part because Wittman’s constant jokes won’t let him.
“He used to be such a good-looking guy,” Wittman needles. “Every girl who came in here would always say to me, ‘That Brendan is fine.’ Not going to happen anymore.”
You can’t see Wittman smiling beneath his homemade hazmat suit, but you can almost feel it. Everyone in the gym takes the good-natured ribbing in turn. It helps to alleviate the stress of the long training camps, particularly for those fighters nearing the grueling end, such as lightweightTyrone Glover.
Glover’s just getting back into the swing of a professional career after leaving MMA behind to finish law school. Now he works full-time as an attorney for a Denver-area law firm and also fits in a full training camp for his upcoming bout with Robert Washington at the MFC: Supremacy card in Canada on February 25.
“The hard thing is not necessarily even the training, it’s making sure you get enough rest and making sure your nutrition is right,” Glover says in between swigs of a protein shake after another hard day on the mats. “Most desk jobs or jobs where you have to be in court, the diets aren’t always that healthy.”
Glover left the sport in 2005 after a decision victory over Din Thomas in Japan. After surveying the dim prospects for 155-pound fighters at the time, law school just made more sense. These days it’s a different story, and forgetting about his former life as a pro fighter isn’t so easy.
“One thing I realized after going to law school is that fighting wasn’t just something I was doing and then I can be done with. It wasn’t like a first career before my second career. It’s something that’s in me, and I wasn’t done. I’m still healthy. I have great resources, with a place like Grudge Training Center right in my back yard. So why not keep going and do it until it no longer makes sense? It still makes sense now, so why not?”
These are the guys Wittman lives to train, he says. Ten percent of a purse from the small local shows is barely worth mentioning on his tax return, but if the fighter is a true worker he never has to think about whether it’s worth his time to train him.
It’s the guys with a constant hunger to improve who can make a lot out of very little, he points out. Give him heart and a willingness to work over natural talent and ability any day. Give him the Clay Guida’s of the world, he says, and he’s a happy trainer.
Guys like Clay Guida are a trainer’s dream.
– Trevor Wittman
“Guys like Clay Guida are a trainer’s dream,” says Wittman. “He comes to Greg Jackson when he’s honestly at about .500 or even, let’s say, gatekeeper level, and now here he is submitting [Rafael] dos Anjos and [Takanori] Gomi, who was, five years ago, one of the pound-for-pound best in the world. … And Guida just comes out there bouncing around, keeping his hands up because he’s fixing his hair, but his work ethic, his ability to want to learn, his willingness to do every little thing in his power to become a better fighter, that’s a coach’s dream. That’s what you want.”
Somewhere out there that dream is waiting to start up anew, maybe via another link to another video waiting in his email inbox. Maybe it’s waiting to walk through the door to the gym on Kipling Street, in the form of some kid with more enthusiasm than skill.
Someone who will work. Someone who, like Schaub, sometimes needs to be forced to go home, but never needs any encouragement to show up.
That, Wittman can work with, he says. That’s why he’d rather cover every potentially disease-spreading surface on his body than call in sick. That’s what he’s here for.