Greg Jackson, Master of the art of cornering

Friday, April 26, 2013

Georges St-Pierre is one of the greatest fighters in our sport’s history, and one of his many great wins was vs. Thiago Alves in 2009 at the amazing UFC 100.

GSP related what happened in a blog.

All of a sudden, I’m starting to put my wrap and my gloves on and I’m not even warm, and when Michael Bisping got knocked out, one of the guys of the athletic commission came in and he told me that I’m next! I’m very surprised because I was not prepared for this…I was not warm enough…I walked in the Octagon…even though I’m not as warm as I should have been, I tried to jump and keep moving to make my body warm.

The fight starts. I have to keep my strategy in mind. Stay standing up, stay always on the outside, hit and run, touch and not getting touched. And if he becomes too aggressive, put him down, once he is down avoiding the fence because he is very good at getting up from the fence.

So I’m very focused, the fight is going well until the fourth round when I try an arm-bar from his back and something happened…I felt my right abductor cracking…something went wrong.

I hear the noise of the ligament ripping. I end up in my guard and Thiago Alves landing big shot on me. I hold his head down, I wrap his arm, protect myself and I make a prayer in my head: “Please God, help me to get out of this situation, I work so hard to win this fight and give me the strength to keep going and fight well.” I found a way to stand up – I pushed my thighs and pushing in his hips and I stand back up, and even though I’m in a lot of pain I keep fighting.

Round four, when I came back in my corner I told my trainer Greg Jackson that I pulled my groin. All of my trainers are very worried. Greg Jackson answers back to me, “I don’t care! This is how champions are made! Fight on it and hit him with your groin! I thought I was kind of funny (afterward) but it was not funny during the fight.

The (5th) round starts and I tell myself if I only try to survive, I’m going to be easy prey, so the best defense is an offense. So I make sure that he respects me by using my jab on his head.

So the fifth round starts, I throw a couple of take downs and even though I was in a lot of pain, I was able to control the fight and win in a unanimous decision.

The next day I went at a pool party at Rehab with all my friends who came to support me. We had a booth and it was great spot in the place. I drank so much that I forgot my whole name.

GSP has repeatedly credited the epic win to the cornering of Greg Jackson.

Sports Illustrated’s Melissa Segura details Greg Jackson’s mastery of the art of cornering. It will be on full display Saturday night at UFC 159, with three Jackson/Winklejohn fighters on the card:
•Featherweight Leonard Garcia (fighting Cody McKenzie);
•Welterweight Rustam Khabilov (fighting Yancy Medeiros); and,
•Headliner and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones (fighting Chael Sonnen).

No contemporary corner team has orchestrated more wins from the stools than Jackson/Winkeljohn’s MMA of Albuquerque, NM. Their corner teams, often anchored by Jackson and his co-head coach Mike Winkeljohn over the last 20 years, have guided so many fighters to so many titles and outlasted so many fighting organizations, they’ve literally stopped counting.

The Jackson/Winkeljohn team will look to better their 80% win percentage on Saturday.

Jackson always starts from The Stack. That’s what he calls the seating arrangement he creates before the start of each fight. The Stack starts with standup and striking coach Winkeljohn’s stool placed in front – fights starts upright, after all. The second stool, right behind Winkeljohn’s, will bear the weight of a sport-specific trainer like wrestling-specialist Izzy Martinez, secondary striking coaches Mike Valle or Brandon Gibson. Jackson places his in the back for the same reason Catholic priests anchor processions — because shepherding happens from behind, not in front.

“I feel like I’m conducting a symphony,” says Jackson, the son of a tenor in the New Mexico Philharmonic.

Jackson takes a last look at the opposing fighter entering the ring. Is he nervous? Too calm? Too amped? Jackson tries to make a final assessment based on the other fighters subtle motions, microscopic tells. “This guy might come out swinging hard,” he’s said to his fighter. Or, “This guy looks a little tentative. Put the pressure on him some more.”

“I’m not always right but it’s something to do,” Jackson says.

Cornering is not cheering. Yelling encouragement is not the same as imparting instructions. And enthusiasm must never, ever, spill into emotion.

Most of the yelling from the Jackson-Winkeljohn corner involves a series of carefully constructed codes — “Nice working, be careful of his 7,” Winkeljohn can be heard yelling cageside, or calling for a 2 or 10 or an 8. They’ve drilled their coded commands into their fighters’ reflexes over the course of their camp – even if the call is against the fighter’s will.

“What’s crazy is that if Greg tells me to do something in training or in a fight — even if I think it’s wrong — it’s like my body, it doesn’t second guess what he says,” says Garcia.

But not all that’s shouted cageside from the corner is meant to instruct the fighter as much as it’s meant to influence the judges – an attempt to wring out every advantage possible.

The Jackson/Winkeljohn team usually starts its one-minute break between rounds with Jackson instructing his fighters, “Give me three deep breaths.”

“I want that heart rate coming in under 160, if we can get it so that they’re rational,” says Jackson. “If you’re talking to someone whose heart rate is through the roof, they’re breathing is out of control, they’re not going to hear you.”

The cornermen choreograph who says what and when on their 10-second sprint to the corner. But no matter the message, the defining characteristic of those 60-second meetings remains the same: Simplicity.

“The corners that I see that are good are the ones that give them just a few good instructions versus the 14-punch combination,” says Winkeljohn. “Sometimes it’s not just that one technique works but sometimes it might be a theory that we use that applies to many techniques,” Winkeljohn says.

Corners can address how to fight in an instant but understanding why a fighter climbs in the cage and what keeps him there? It takes months to cultivate what Jackson calls “acquiring your fighter’s utility – understanding what makes them work the best.”

Only through months of training their fighters will the corners learn the specific needs of their fighters.

It’s when they learn, like Winkeljohn did, that heavyweight Shawn Jordan can weather any insult except the word p—y, compelling the coach to look Jordan in the eye between rounds and say, “Go back to your quick motions. Use your athleticism. Do it or forever be a p—y and out of the UFC.”

It’s how they know that nothing will motivate Ultimate Fighter Season 1 winner Diego Sanchez the way the mention of his family will or that Jones doesn’t appreciate cussing in his corner.

“It usually takes me three or four fights,” Jackson said of the time needed to learn his fighter’s makeup. It’s also during this time that the corners learn not only the fixed personality traits of their fighters but their situational reactions, too. In other words, it’s not enough to know Jones doesn’t like cussing when he’s been trapped by a Victor Belfort armbar like he was last September.

“Greg could see on my face that I was starting to freak myself out a little bit,” Jones says of the armbar.

At the end of the round, Jones headed to the corner, having heard his arm pop, then go numb, when Jackson arrived, bucket in hand.

“Be comfortable here,” Jackson told Jones. “You feel no pain.”

The words steadied a flustered champion, eased already damaged nerves.

“He just calmed me down and kept me in the fight just by simply telling me not to be a baby about a half-broken arm. It worked,” said Jones. “I went out there and competed like I didn’t feel it. If it was a different coach, he could have been babying it and making me think in my head that it was worse than it was.”

Garcia remembers a similar instance vs. “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung. Garcia returned to the corner after the second round, feeling the bone in this right hand sliding around.

“My hand is broken,” Garcia told Jackson.

“Leonard, your hand is going to be broken this round. It’s going to be broken next round. It’s going to be broken tonight. It’s going to be broken tomorrow. When we’re on the plane ride home, it’s going to be broken. So, you’ve got to make a choice, are you going to stop throwing it and stop fighting for something you’re not going to be able to deal with or are you going to use that mental toughness and keep fighting?”

“Just keep fighting,” Garcia said.

“Ok, so when you go out there, throw it. Three times. I don’t care if it lands. I don’t care if it doesn’t land. Just don’t let him know that it’s broken.”

Garcia would win the fight.

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