Striking coach Brandon Gibson reflects on the recent performances of three of his fighters, and the hectic schedule of an MMA cornerman.
Under a spotlight meant for the top two 155-lb. fighters in the world, two un-ranked lightweights engaged in the most compelling fight of the night at UFC 209.
Lando Vannata had entered the promotion back in July, a late-notice fill-in to keep then #3 contender Tony Ferguson busy. He was an underdog in the truest sense — to spectators it seemed not a matter of if he’d lose to Ferguson but when, and how grisly the defeat would be. On that night in South Dakota, Vannata flipped the script on Ferguson, moving effortlessly through fluid combinations and counter-strikes as ‘El Cucuy’ pressured forward, grappling with his sudden bewilderment at this newcomer’s effectiveness.
Vannata did lose, but proved himself no underdog, and he made good on the newfound hype surrounding him with a highlight-reel knockout in December. He walked to the cage at UFC 209, his grinning face cast in shadow beneath his hood, his head bobbing, carrying the swaggering step of a grizzled veteran.
His fight with Swedish striker David Teymur morphed quickly into a high-octane stunner. Vannata wasted no time, pulling the trigger on every stinging trick in his toolbox, counters and cartwheels and quickfire punches all landing.
When Teymur proved more durable than anticipated, Vannata once again showed that beneath his flashy exterior he possessed a brawler’s gritty disposition. He waded forward into the manic exchanges of leather and limbs, taking damage as a means to dish it back out. In his third fight in the Octagon, he was once again putting on a show.
Except he was losing. His dazzling attacks came at a cost, and as his energy dipped he relied less on feints and defensive intelligence and instead hunted the knockout. By the end of the first frame it was Teymur — the underdog, counted out by many before entering the cage — that countered effectively, landed the heavier shots and pressured Vannata as he began to fade. After fifteen minutes, Vannata had failed to find the knockout blow and in the process he’d gotten outworked.
Two months prior, when looking back at Vannata’s 2016 loss to Ferguson, Brandon “Six-Gun” Gibson described the experience of watching Lando suffer damage. He sounded more like a friend than coach. It broke his heart, he said. When asked to explain the emotions of watching Vannata go to war with Teymur for fifteen minutes, his words carried the same personal weight.
“I don’t ever want to see my fighters take strikes like that,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking as a coach to see your fighters getting hit.”
Given Gibson’s lifetime of striking experience and his tutelage under the great Greg Jackson, it’s no surprise that he can pinpoint with a profound clarity exactly why Vannata was getting hit. As Lando showed in the early goings of the fight, he possesses the skill-set to dazzle and damage in equal measure. As for why he couldn’t continue to win the exchanges, Gibson believes that some qualities are learned only through experience.
“Landon hit him with some big shots early on,” Gibson recalled, “and he hurt Teymur, but Teymur showed how durable he was. He kept the pressure up, he was able to recover really well. Landon started to look for the big shot more and more. As we got deeper into the fight the feints and the footwork and the range all left, and it did turn into a bit of a brawl.
“Learning how to control the pace of a fight is something a lot of veterans have,” Gibson said. “It’s something you develop, and the only way to do that is with time spent in the cage. We see that from a lot of young fighters — they want that 100 percent shot thrown. You see from the savvy veterans like Demetrious (Johnson) or Jon Jones or Dominick Cruz, they know how to control the pace of a fight. There’s a lot of rhythm changes, feints, and they’re able to recover in specific areas of the fight. Landon has all the skills and ability to do that, and we just have to keep developing the psychological part of the fight, learning how to control the pace and finding areas where he can recover.”
For a coach like Gibson, and Jackson, and Mike Winkeljohn before him, the time for reflection is often brief. Sometimes there’s no time at all. Like at UFC 206 in December, when he had to shift gears after Vannata’s knockout of John Makdessi so he could corner Tim Kennedy and Donald Cerrone in their bouts later that night. But after Lando’s loss to Teymur, his work for the night was done, and he wasted no time in analyzing what went wrong.
“I’m invested heavily in Landon,” he said when asked to describe the emotions of falling short in a fight that otherwise satisfied the audience’s desire for bloody action. “As a fan it’s great to see a fight like that end up in a brawl. As a coach, I feel like I let my guy down.
“We had an after-fight debrief with myself and Landon and Coach Jackson, and then it’s right on to the next one. It’s just about finding where to get better from here, what we did right and wrong, and helping Landon make sure that the next fight, he’ll get his hand raised.”
Vannata turned 25 the week after his loss, his best days still ahead of him despite the highlights he’s amassed in just three UFC appearances. He and Teymur will remain un-ranked in the stacked lightweight division after their technical brawl at UFC 209, but their fight increased the stock of both men. In their gritty exchanges and advanced techniques, spectators could picture the fighters they’d soon become. It would be no surprise if they met again down the road, each with a number next to their name.
Like fighters, a coach must possess a certain kind of short memory. In a game like mixed-martial-arts, the highs (like Vannata’s UFC 206 knockout win, or Donald Cerrone’s later that night) can elicit an adrenalized elation that can become addicting. And the lows, in the moment, can shake the soul, introducing doubts to otherwise confident minds. To linger upon either is to compromise the next task at hand, which is often right around the corner.
Less than two months before Gibson cornered Lando Vannata in Las Vegas, he was in Denver, Colorado for Cerrone’s homecoming bout.
Cerrone had practically stumbled upon his status as a welterweight contender. He’d moved up to 170 lbs. after a failed title bid at lightweight, and in 2016 he seemed to show up every few months and ice another welterweight before promising to be back soon. By the year’s end he was ranked in the top five of the division, and anyone who knew Cowboy knew that a December slugfest with Matt Brown wouldn’t derail his wish to fight in his hometown in January.
That January bout against Jorge Masvidal served as a reminder that the breakneck pace Cowboy keeps, the prolific activity that has become his brand, comes at a cost.
With the Denver crowd cheering him on, Cerrone was stopped a minute into the second round, climbing to his feet after being dropped and then slumping along the fence and covering his head as Masvidal dug malicious shots to his body.
The end began in the waning seconds of the previous round, when Masvidal flattened Cerrone with a counter right hand to the head and followed up with what seemed to be a series of fight-ending strikes on the mat. Referee Herb Dean appeared to step in to stop the fight, but quickly clarified that he was reacting to the bell instead (a careful rewatch will only inspire skepticism that Dean made the right call: his body language when stepping in between Masvidal and Cerrone had certainly suggested that his intention was to call off the fight).
Cerrone rose to his feet, his fighter’s spirit unbroken but his head foggy and legs unstable. Gibson was at his side immediately, and helped him to the corner for a minute’s rest that felt like a fleeting moment. There, Gibson and Greg Jackson gave their fighter what instructions they could while Cerrone shook off the shot that had put him on the canvas. As Gibson calmly rattled off technical advice, Jackson stared into Cowboy’s clouded eyes and spoke with the fiery conviction he reserves for the most crucial of moments. “We are not losing in Denver. You are not losing today. You get out there and you move your head.”
After Cowboy was stopped a minute later, some questioned whether Gibson and Jackson should have allowed their fighter to answer the bell for the second round. Corner stoppages, or “throwing in the towel”, are common in boxing, where a fight is often decided long before the boxer is physically unable to continue, thus preventing further damage. They’re relatively uncommon in MMA, a fact that many have pointed out as potentially problematic.
Critics, however, were not in the corner with Cerrone on that night. Gibson, whose investment in his fighters on a personal level is clear in the passion with which he talks about them, saw enough in Cerrone to feel confident in him continuing the fight. This is mixed-martial-arts, not boxing, and a swing in momentum can present itself at any given moment.
“It’s my job to give my fighters every opportunity to win the fight,” Gibson said. “At the end of the minute, Cowboy was focused, his eyes were dialed in. The doctors came in and checked him, the doctor approved him, I felt good about him going out. Things didn’t get that turnaround of momentum in the second round, but there’s countless examples of fighters getting hurt and then going out and getting that opportunity, that chance to come back and win the fight. I didn’t feel like that was a moment where we had to throw in the towel or protect our fighter from himself. Cowboy was himself, and he went out there in the second and tried to get it done.
“I’ll never apologize for trying to give my fighter that opportunity to get the victory.”
The momentum swing never came, and Cerrone’s frantic run to the top of the welterweight division came to a screeching halt. It’s a familiar setback in the story of the sport’s most prolific renegade; Gibson draws the comparison to Cerrone’s 2011 loss to Nate Diaz, which came at the end of a year in which he had strung together four impressive victories. In such an unforgiving game, even the most skilled fighter can only return to the fire so often before being burned.
“Sometimes it’s the rate that Cowboy fights at,” Gibson said, though he credited Masvidal and American Top Team for their well-executed gameplan. “The pace that Cowboy likes to fight at makes it almost a year-round camp and that can be grueling on any athlete. You’re not always gonna have that performance you want when you’re always active, always in camp. There’s a reason these guys in the NFL, NBA, and NHL have offseasons — you need that rest and recovery. Cowboy is such a competitor and he loves to fight so much. And the UFC loves him and the fans love him, but sometimes he doesn’t always give himself that time to recover and then come out fresh and 100 percent focused on the next bout.”
After the loss to Masvidal, Gibson and the rest of Cerrone’s coaches recognized that it was time to slow the train down. For once, they’re training purely to improve rather than to prepare for another bout weeks down the line. Gibson believes this much-needed period of recovery will lead to the best possible Donald Cerrone stepping into the cage the next time out.
Of course, as is the case with Cowboy, there’s a caveat to this newfound sense of “offseason.”
“Then again, if there was a big opportunity next week I think Cowboy would jump right into it,” Gibson said. “That’s one of the things that makes Cowboy so special, and our team is always ready, always prepared.”
Many fighters echo the cliched mantra of anyone, any time, anywhere. But for the few who truly mean it, that’s a mold that can’t be broken.
A week after UFC 209, Gibson was on a plane to Brazil, the losses of Vannata and Cerrone tucked away in some closet of his mind. He was in Fortaleza to corner Ray Borg in a fight against fellow top-five flyweight Jussier Formiga. The fight would be critical in establishing Borg as a future contender.
Borg had come to Albuquerque prior to his previous fight — where Vannata is a fighter Gibson molded from the start, he calls the 23-year-old Borg “already a diamond that I just find ways to polish and sharpen” — and his improved skill-set was on display in his unanimous decision win over Formiga.
Gibson was proud as he left the cage, but not simply because Borg had executed the gameplan and techniques he’d laid out for him. Rather, he could see in his relatively new pupil the same intangible flame that drives the likes of Vannata and Cerrone on their own journeys as martial artists, the qualities that cannot be learned from even the savviest of coaches.
“There’s things I can’t teach a fighter,” he said. “Things like heart and resiliency and determination. Ray, he just has all those attributes already.”
After the losses suffered by Vannata and Cerrone in the weeks prior to Gibson’s trip, Borg’s victory should elicit some sort of satisfied sigh, like a weight being lifted off his shoulders. But, he speaks of the win and the losses in nearly the same manner, almost strangely removed from them, as if they were anecdotes of fights long since passed.
It’s the only way a coach of Gibson’s aspirations — and more importantly, his pace — can be. The manic schedule kept by men like Gibson and Jackson, among a host of coaches with ties to many fighters, is staggering and often overlooked.
“It’s part of the lifestyle but it can go unnoticed, how much work must be put into just the travel,” Gibson said. “It takes a lot of work and balance with our family lives and all our guys in the gym, and then we’re on the road.”
Asked whether the lifestyle ever catches up to him, or if the constant travel ever wears him down or makes him reconsider his schedule, Gibson speaks with the conviction of a man who found his path a long time ago.
“It takes a lot of dedication,” he said, “but I do what I love. I really enjoyed competing, but more than that I enjoy being there for my fighters. We came up short with Landon and then I regrouped, reset, had a good week with John Dodson and some of the other guys coming up, and then took off to Brazil. And I was very happy with how Ray performed.”
And with that, Gibson sets his sights on the next fight, be it a win or a loss. It is his mantra to reject any self-congratulation after a victory, or the urge to dwell on the bitterness of a defeat. The satisfaction of their success in Fortaleza would linger only for the length of the plane ride home.
“I’ll admit,” he said, “it does make the flight home easier when my guy gets his win.”
In a career defined by constant movement, those small luxuries don’t go unnoticed. There will be plenty more flights home ahead, some spent satisfied and others crestfallen. But when the wheels touch down in Albuquerque, it’s on to the next one.