Sack the Coach (Should I stay or should I go?)

Head movement! Head movement! Head movement!” And so it begins. Round one. Game plan. The coach appears to be saying all the right things; his message, this call for elusiveness, is surely no more than a reminder to his fighter to demonstrate something they have rehearsed again and again in the gymnasium; in essence, routine corner talk. Only what follows will add context to this opening gambit and strip it of any pretense of composure.

What follows could be a 9-1-1 call from a woman held captive in a cellar for 10 years, or a man about to be buried alive in the Nevada desert, so palpable is the desperation, so harrowing are the cries. “Hands up, hands up, hands up!” goes the initial wave of panic. “Catch her! Clinch! Head movement! Move! Move! Please! Move, move, move! Clinch, clinch, clinch, clinch! No, no, noooooooooooo!”

It’s December 30 and these are the sounds from Ronda Rousey’s coach, Edmond Tarverdyan, as he helplessly watches his fighter get beaten up in 48 seconds by UFC bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes. They are also the sounds of a coach taking his last breath.

He was screaming at the top of his lungs like someone was getting killed,” recalls Justin Buchholz, a coach at Team Alpha Male who was in the corner guiding Cody Garbrandt to the UFC bantamweight title just moments before Rousey’s capitulation. “A coach has to be calm and cool. They can’t be emotional. It didn’t make any sense for him to be screaming like that. He’s already blown it. This is a professional bout, not a horror movie. Someone needed to grab him and slap him around the face. A loss is not the end of the world. But he saw his paycheck disappearing and that’s the problem. You could hear it in his voice. His life was crumbling before his eyes.”

For Ronda Rousey, her reign at the top was up. For Edmond Tarverdyan, the game was up. Backlash arrived and it was as vicious as it was inevitable. Online videos poked fun at his coaching inadequacy, while audio transcriptions of his corner-work became his epitaph. Sympathy was in short supply. Most, like Buchholz, presumed Tarverdyan donated a few tears to Rousey’s demise but saved the majority for the equally monumental demise of his own reputation.

Of course Edmond deserves blame,” says Buchholz. “Look how unprofessional he is. Look at his corner work. Is that guy screaming the guy you want telling you what to do?

I love all the guys I train, but if they lose my life is not over and their life is not over. We’re both at peace with that. They don’t want the weight of the world on their shoulders like Ronda had. Then you’re only going to handicap yourself. That’s what I did to myself as a fighter. But if you play basketball and lose, do you just stop playing basketball? No, you play again.”

History reveals coaches are only ever as good as the fighter they train. Or, more specifically, only as good as the form of the fighter they train. Edmond Tarverdyan is not the worst coach in mixed martial arts. Nor, of course, is he anywhere near the best. But his fall from grace, cruelly played out in the public eye as a result of his star pupil’s fame, has been almighty and has brought into question his talent, however slight or substantial, to such an extent that it has not only sullied his previous work but almost guaranteed his severance from Rousey should she wish to kickstart another run.

We grind together and we shine together,” says Duke Roufus, long-time coach of the Pettis brothers, Anthony and Sergio, and now an advisor to American Top Team’s title winner Tyron Woodley. “I’m in the trenches with Anthony right now. My heart hurts almost as much as his. It’s a frustrating run (Pettis has lost four of his last five fights). But I’m not leaving his side. I’m not a turncoat. If you want to take the credit, you’ve got to take the criticism.

There are always highs and lows. If you’re fine knocking people out but not taking punches yourself, you’re in the wrong business. If a (soccer) team isn’t doing their job in the Premier League, who gets fired? The coach. I understand my role as a coach and realize people will point their finger at me first. That’s what happens in sports.”

Trevor Wittman doesn’t care much for the blame game. The head trainer at Grudge Training Center just wants to see someone close to the crime scene acknowledge the fact it actually happened.

It’s sad to watch,” says the coach of Rose Namajunas and Justin Gaethje. “One of my biggest pet peeves is when a fighter has to go to the emergency room on their own. I can usually read a coach’s character if he’s in that ambulance with them. If they’ve been there for camp and for the fight, why is it okay for them to go back to the hotel and pack their stuff for the trip home when the fighter is in hospital? When a fighter loses, you should be in the moment with them. That’s the down part of the roller coaster. You can’t jump off at that point.

You win as a team and lose as a team. I don’t feel it’s all Edmond’s fault but I feel it has a lot to do with him. I also think it has a lot to do with Ronda. You see the separation and that’s the hardest part for me. Where is he? Where are the interviews? Instead of biting back, step up and take criticism. If you’re a fighter and you can take criticism, the coach should do the same. The team should be accountable. If negativity is thrown their way, they should assess and confront it. You’ll never change if you just ignore it.”

It seems to be the done thing for a fighter to up and leave their coach when they encounter a rough patch of form. They call it a fresh start. They convince themselves things will be better next time. That it’s not me, it’s you. Sure enough, in some cases, whether triggered by defeat or a desire to improve, a change of scenery works wonders.

Nunes herself relocated from Brazil to Miami’s MMA Masters to Coconut Creek’s American Top Team. She now holds the gold. Michael Bisping, another UFC champion, switched camps and countries in order to flourish. And recently Robbie Lawler, a former champion reinvented more times than Bowie, announced his plan to leave American Top Team to do the same. Move camp, start afresh, reanimate.

Buchholz gets it. He knows they come and go. “Loyalty is not that common in MMA,” he says. “You see all these fighters jumping around to different camps as soon as they make it. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re disloyal if they’re trying to better themselves, but a lot of places don’t really have a clue what they’re doing. The sport is still young. With my team and my fighters, loyalty is a huge issue. TJ (Dillashaw) left and he still talks about us. I’m like, ‘Dude, you left two years ago. Get over it. We’re not thinking about you anymore. Our guys just want to beat you up.’

I think fighters should stick with their coach, but I also encourage my guys to go and train elsewhere. If they’re doing something cool, bring it back. We’ll incorporate it into our program. But you’ve got to have one guy running the show. You don’t want too many Indians and not enough chiefs. You’ve got to have some direction, somebody who is making the decisions.”

Roufus has long been an advocate of this form of sampling. “It’s good to open your mind to other styles,” he says. “If you stay content training one style, you get a closed mind. When you train with your own teammates, you’re learning a lot of the same techniques so you don’t feel they work as well. But all of a sudden you go somewhere else and you realize these techniques work really well.

My relationship with Tyron Woodley is a little different. I’m more of an advisor to him and it works out well that way. You enter relationships with these fighters at different times in their lives and for different reasons. Each relationship has a different style.”

Wittman calls this the St-Pierre and Zahabi approach to MMA. “Georges St-Pierre always took Firas Zahabi wherever he went,” he explains. “They stayed loyal. They grew and developed as a team. He did stuff with Greg Jackson, me, Phil Nurse, Freddie Roach and all these different coaches – but Firas was always his guy. They shared the knowledge.”

Sharing knowledge and the spotlight are two very different things, however. Some coaches have been known to get the two muddled. Success can then breed self-importance. Goals can change. Even positions can change. Wittman, to his credit, is humble enough to admit he once blurred the lines between coach and fan with disastrous consequences.

Seeing Rose (Namajunas) on The Ultimate Fighter and seeing all her great finishes, I became a fan,” he admits. “I was a fan, not a coach. And that was a mistake. Seeing how skilled she was on the show allowed me to get relaxed before that fight (in 2014) with Carla Esparza. Rose showed all the technical attributes to be able to beat her, but I overlooked the fundamentals. Going into the fight, it was more like a celebration. I was a cheerleader. I got relaxed. The result (a second-round loss) was a nice slap in the face, a reminder to focus on what you’re doing and never lose track of the little things, the game planning. After that fight I was embarrassed. That loss was my fault.”

Happy to take the loss on his shoulders, Wittman is just as quick to say the opposite would have occurred had Namajunas triumphed. “When a fighter goes out there and wins, it’s about the fighter,” he explains. “It’s like a race car driver. They’re popping the bottle of champagne and spraying it around and the team sit back and watch the celebrations. But when the racer doesn’t win, you look at the team. You look at the car. You look at those individual jobs. I feel the same way as a coach. When a fighter loses, a coach is 100% responsible for that. A coach should take the rap for it. We’re in control of that machine. There are so many people there for the great days, but when a bad day comes around they kind of disappear.”

I try to keep a low profile,” says Roufus. “I don’t want to take anything away from the athlete. It’s cool when fans say nice things about you, but I had my day in the sun as a fighter and I’m not looking to duplicate that experience as a coach. I like being in the background. There is no glamour in fighting.”

Which brings us back to Tarverdyan and Rousey. Plenty of glamour there. Plenty of finger-pointing, also.

That Nunes loss had to be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Buchholz. “Why doesn’t Ronda show some loyalty to her mom? Ronda’s mom has for years been saying Edmond is not the coach for her and that he hit the jackpot with her. You get these guys in martial arts who convince fighters they know this secret move. But that’s all bullshit. You’re not going to have some secret technique. There are too many charlatans out there.

I believe Ronda can come back. She’s incredible. She just needs a couple of tweaks. And, if she wants to make those tweaks, she’s more than welcome to come out to Team Alpha Male. But we don’t give a shit about how much money you make or what movies you’ve been in. All we do is train. We treat everybody the same. When we do push-ups, the whole team does push-ups. It doesn’t matter who you are. She needs to be treated like that. She doesn’t need someone blowing smoke up her ass.”

Buchholz stifles a laugh. “Edmond can come, too.”

*** This feature originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***