A lot of trust is required between the team working the corner and the competitor in the cage. In this blog we explore the role of a corner man in MMA, and why this member of a fighter's team can be so crucial to their success or failure in the cage.
Mixed martial arts is such a fast-paced, multifaceted sport that it is often a challenge to pinpoint all of the many factors that may influence an outcome. When handicapping a fight, we take an unlimited number of variables into account, from the altitude of the contest to the length of the fighter’s arms to the size of the cage; everything matters. But one aspect of the fight is almost always overlooked, and that is both athletes’ respective corners.
Now, depending on the fighter, the role of their corner will vary from person to person. Some competitors hand over total control, allowing their trainers to simply yell out code words for combinations, to which they respond with the appropriate action. It’s almost like playing a video game. Other arrangements are less rigid, and the corner is more concerned with motivation or keeping a fighter focused.
Bad cornermen can be downright depressing to listen to between rounds. There isn’t a B.J. Penn fan in the world that doesn’t hang their head in disappointment when listening in to his trainer’s expert advice of “kick his ass” round after round while the aging fighter flounders to the finish. Sure, what each person needs from their trainer is different, but I can’t imagine hearing bar-fight-quality commentary between each round inspires much confidence in an already struggling combatant.
Before we go any further into why the corner plays such a vital role in MMA, let’s break down what this job consists of. Your average corner consists of three people: two trainers or teammates, and one cutman. In many cases, because MMA requires knowledge of so many disciplines, a fighter will have one grappling coach and one striking coach with them between rounds.
The cutman’s job is to help close cuts and decrease swelling on the fighter’s face. You will see these men rubbing Vaseline onto the forehead and cheeks of the contestants, pressing the frozen Endswell onto the parts that are beginning to swell, and using a variety of techniques to minimize damage and bleeding before the action resumes. A quality cutman can be an instrumental member of the team, as, without their mastery, the athlete risks having the bout stopped by the doctor.
Every member of a combatant’s corner plays a critical role in their success. This small group divides responsibility to play the roles of psychiatrist, coach, motivational speaker, tactician, and doctor. Just like the pit crew makes the difference in a NASCAR race, the team that an athlete trusts to have in their corner is fundamental to having sustained success in mixed martial arts.
One of the three people in any MMA corner is the head trainer. Typically, this person helped organize and schedule the entire training camp, studied film of the opponent, and developed the game plan with which the fighter and their team would approach the contest. But there are times when an opponent comes in fighting differently than anticipated, making the planned strategy ineffective.
When this happens, a quality trainer will provide the fighter with some adjustments in their strategy to help improve their success. The corner has a unique perspective from which to see the fight, sitting cageside, and thus may notice things that the athlete can’t during the heat of battle. Corners that can help their fighters make adjustments between rounds are worth their weight in gold.
MMA is an absolutely grueling sport that tests the mettle of even the strongest-willed men and women. Sometimes a corner’s role is less about tactical, strategic adjustments and more about the mental game. In these times a fighter may need a fiery, motivational speech to get themselves pumped up and confident again.
I’ve even seen fighters give one of their corner spots to spouses or family members. These familiar voices keep the athlete comfortable and remind them of what they’re fighting for. The top corners can inspire their fighters and put them in the ideal state of mind to deliver their best performances. Watch Pat Barry coaching his strawweight champion girlfriend, Rose Namajunas, before her fights to see this in action.
Many fighters will rely on their team in the corner to call the fight for them. The combatant will continuously listen for their coaches’ voices and react to what they hear. These teams will drill certain combinations and techniques all training camp, then assign code words or numbers to the moves. When the commands are yelled out, the fighter throws the corresponding combination or attack.
This approach to the fight game makes the whole ordeal somewhat like playing a video game for the men in the corner. However, if the opponent figures out the commands, it may lead to disastrous results. We will cover one of these instances that occurred between Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson later in the article.
The corner gets to watch the action from a different vantage point, allowing them to see things the competitor in the cage may be too close to notice. This second perspective can be extremely beneficial, especially when the contest goes to the ground. When the two fighters are grappling, corners can see what the opponent is setting up, while their athlete has an obstructed view.
Teams will often shout out instructions, helping their teammate prepare for specific maneuvers or submissions. This way, the fighter knows which limb to defend, or how to arrange their body to stop the aggressor from moving into a more dangerous position. There are times when combatants are fighting utterly blind on the ground and using the cornermen’s perspective is the only way to survive.
I’ve heard the famed mixed martial arts trainer Greg Jackson talk about the necessity of approaching each athlete differently based on their personality and needs. When fighting in MMA, you don’t want to get too pumped up or too down. If you’re too emotional and excited, you will experience the “adrenaline dump.” This is when you start out overly hyped, and then a few minutes later when the adrenaline dies down; it significantly depletes your stamina.
A helpful corner knows when to bring their fighter up, and when to settle them down. Jackson even spoke about the different tones he uses with athletes. He will talk more softly to his people that are naturally high-strung to induce a calming feeling. The fighters lacking confidence, however, might get yelled at! It’s all about getting the fighter right into their sweet spot emotionally.
In addition to the many strategic and mental duties, there are physical factors that must be tended to by the corner team as well. As soon as the round ends, the trainers should be rushing into the cage with a stool for their fighter to sit on and a handful of other supplies. Once the slugger is seated, it is the corner’s job to remove his or her mouthpiece so that they may breathe more comfortably and recover.
They also aid in recovery by placing ice bags on the back of the combatant’s neck or on their chest. The trainers even spray the water into their athlete’s mouth for them. The fighter doesn’t need to do anything but rest, recover, and listen to instruction for the next round.
The cutman will also be working on the fighter during this time. He will re-apply Vaseline to the face to help close cuts and help prevent further damage in the next round. They will also use cotton swabs to absorb the blood and stop the bleeding, and use the frozen Endswell to place pressure on any puffiness to help reduce any swelling.
People won’t like this one, but the truth is, a great corner will help their athlete cheat. I’m not talking about loading the gloves with plaster or doing anything to hurt the opposing fighter. What I’m talking about are the little tricks of the trade that fight teams have been utilizing for centuries.
If your athlete barely survived the previous round and needs extra time to recover, pour a ton of water on their head to help them “cool off.” The referee will be forced to delay the beginning of the next round to clean up the mess, providing the fighter with more time to recover.
When Muhammad Ali fought Henry Cooper, he was nearly knocked out at the end of the fourth round. Conveniently, his gloves got cut right down the middle, exposing the horsehair inside. The tear required a replacement glove to be brought to ringside, put on Ali’s hand, and re-taped. All of this gave him lots of time to get his wits back, and he went on to win the fight.
Or what about when Panama Lewis spiked his fighter Aaron Pryor’s water with antihistamines and illegal stimulants? After giving the doctored water to Pryor late in a contest, the boxer fought with renewed energy and stamina, leading to his upset victory over the fatiguing Arguello.
I would argue that doping the water or doing anything to harm the opponent, like using plaster in the gloves, is much too far. But in the heat of the moment with an ailing fighter on their hands, the most productive corner teams will bend the rules a bit to gain an advantage.
A cutman’s job is different from the other coaches in the corner. In the UFC, these men are hired and provided by the promotion, so they aren’t really a member of a fighter’s gym or team. Regardless, they can be astronomically crucial in a close matchup.
There is an art to being an effective cutman, and there are many tools of the trade. Here are the many tools that these wound-healing maestros are responsible for and why they use them.
- Corner Tote – An easy-to-access piece of equipment in which to hold all materials.
- Gauze – This is for wrapping the fighter’s hands and stopping cuts from bleeding. The dressing is stuffed into the wounds to absorb excess fluids before coagulants or Vaseline is applied to stop the bleeding.
- Vaseline – This is applied to the forehead, cheeks, eye ridges, and nose as a way to prevent cuts. They’ll also put Vaseline into an open laceration to stop further bleeding.
- Icepack – These are needed to cool down the fighter and treat swelling.
- Spit bucket – It’s not pleasant, but the fighters often need to spit out blood.
- Endswell – This is a steel tool that looks a bit like a hockey puck. They often have compartments inside in which to freeze water. The ice-cold steel is then pressed on damaged areas of the face to stop or reduce swelling.
- Latex gloves – Because a significant portion of this job revolves around other people’s blood.
- Towels – For wiping off blood and sweat. Also can be used to throw into the ring to stop the fight.
- Cotton swabs – These are used to stop nosebleeds. Cutmen will use long cotton swabs on the end of sticks to jam up the fighter’s nose; it’s incredibly painful but worth it if it frees up the nasal passageway for breathing.
- Coagulants – These are chemicals such as Avitene or epinephrine that can be applied to a cotton swab and then placed on a cut where they constrict the blood vessels and stop the bleeding.
Trust between the fighter and all of the members of their team is paramount to having a successful outcome. The athlete competing in the cage must know that whatever advice they are being given is accurate. When a combination is called out, it requires considerable trust for the fighter to begin the attack as instructed, since every offensive move leaves one open to counterattacks.
Fighting in a cage creates an extreme amount of stress in the body. At that moment, an athlete will only be able to process and execute instructions or advice coming from a respected, trusted voice.
A corner team’s ability to honestly diagnose how a fight is playing out and communicate that to their fighter is hugely important as well. If the competitor is losing, they need to know that’s the case so that they can turn up the intensity or try different tactics. Some trainers always give their fighters good news to the point of delusion.
When Ronda Rousey lost to Holly Holm, her corner spent every rest period telling her how amazing she was doing and that they had Holm right where they wanted her. Except the entire world, including Rousey, could see that was not the case, and she was knocked out shortly after that.
It requires immense tactical knowledge to train and corner somebody successfully. The top coaches can break down a fight into hundreds of specific techniques and factors and analyze how their protégé can exploit weaknesses in their opponent to win the battle. The best tacticians can develop game plans that allow their fighters to overcome talent discrepancies or gaps in athletic ability. It’s all about having the action play out where you want it and stopping the competition from utilizing their strengths.
A particular ability to psychologically manipulate your own fighter is needed to win at coaching in MMA. Like we covered previously, the trainer needs to know what buttons to push and when to get their fighter in the right state of mind.
What needs to be said to get the athlete locked in and violent? What approach is required to ease their nerves and calm them down before the bell rings? Ring psychology is a crucial aspect of any fight; being able to manipulate that psychology as a trainer is just as vital.
In MMA, one size rarely fits all. These competitors come from all different backgrounds and disciplines. They also respond differently to differing stimuli. To successfully corner a fighter, it’s critical to adjust coaching styles to meet each athlete’s individual needs best.
A pumped up, yelling, motivational speech-giving coach might get the most out of a certain personality type but overwhelm others. Likewise, a calm speaking voice and humor will center some combatants, while it will give others anxiety. It’s all about knowing your audience.
After Ronda Rousey’s stunning defeat at the hands of Holly Holm, you’d think her trainers would work on her deficiencies and prepare her for better strikers in the future. Going into the bout with Amanda Nunez, it was clear that if she hadn’t changed her approach, Rousey didn’t stand a chance. The former champ’s corner did her no favors in this one, as she was wholly unprepared and outclassed.
Just check out the transcript of Ronda’s corner during this 46-second humiliation.
Greg Jackson is one of the most eccentric trainers in the sport. Part fight expert, part motivational guru, Jackson has earned a reputation for his solid game plans and ability to adjust his approach to each fighter he coaches. While he was cornering Georges St-Pierre, it was clear he wanted his athlete to focus on finishing the fight, ignoring the injury he had sustained to his groin, leading to this hilarious audio clip.
Alexander Gustafsson was climbing the light heavyweight rankings again when he was scheduled to face off against Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in his home country of Sweden. The lengthy Swede was expected to have the edge in reach and overall striking skill, although Johnson was the more potent puncher. During a brief break in the action, Gustaffson’s corner inexplicably called for a front kick in clear English, which Rumble clearly heard and reacted to. This led to the end of the fight.
The quality of a fighter’s corner can be a significant contributing factor in how a contest will play out. A lot of trust is required between the team working the corner and the competitor in the cage. An athlete is trusting that his team will give him the information he needs, will communicate any required adjustments and will give them an accurate accounting of how the contest is going.
Each individual athlete responds to different forms of stimuli in their own way. The best corners can adjust to give each fighter precisely what they need. When it works, the bruiser is given an enormous advantage. They have another set of eyes helping to defend against submissions and takedown or calling that perfect combination that will end the fight.
Knowing which coaches a fighter has in their corner is valuable knowledge when handicapping an MMA match. The best teams of coaches can give their competitor a chance to win against anyone. The worst corners will yell meaningless platitudes into the face of their withering teammate. Either way, MMA is more of a team game than people realize, and the corner will play a role, for better or for worse.
This article was first published by Ronald Black at legitgamblingsites.com