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Photo Courtesy of Will Fox / The Fox Identity

New Mexico MMA Corner Stories

Combat sports are far more intimate than the visual perception of two athletes striking one another and attempting to manipulate the other’s limbs inside a ring or cage. As most fight fans will understand, combat sports are infinitely deeper than what is seen by the eye on the surface level. Real emotions are invested into these individual fights and those emotions run through the fighters into their coaches and teammates and continue on to individuals such as family, friends, support groups, etc. While combat sports is obviously physically demanding, the mental and emotional state of combat sports may be the most intriguing aspect of it all being that fighting is actually quite simple in comparison to the complexity of a person’s mental and emotional state.

One of the deepest connections a fighter can have is the connection with a coach. A fighter’s coach has a duty outside of simply coaching that often goes unnoticed. A coach is responsible for aiding the fighter in progressing in talent, preparing the fighter for competition and for ensuring that a fighter is learning on and off the gym floor. Success virtually rests within the hand of an exceptional coach.

The relationship between Coach and Fighter can be extremely close. While the physical connection can be exemplified by mitts and gloves, the emotional investment is deep for both individuals.  Photo Courtesy of Will Fox / The Fox Identity

The relationship between Coach and Fighter can be extremely close. While the physical connection can be exemplified by mitts and gloves, the emotional investment is deep for both individuals.
Photo Courtesy of Will Fox / The Fox Identity

Typically, a coach will develop such a good rapport with a fighter that the coach is the person a fighter trusts most when they are amidst the heat of battle so to speak. In MMA, bouts are more often than not three rounds in duration and sometimes in main event or title fight situations five rounds in duration. During that period of time, should the fight see the second and third (fourth and fifth) rounds, a fighter has one minute to rest and receive guidance from his coach serving in that capacity as a cornerman.

What goes on during that 60-second stretch is imperative to the success of a fighter. Starting with serving water for hydration and ice for possible hematomas, bruises, etc., the cornerman ensures the fighter is rehabilitated to the best of his ability with aide from a cutman (who handles lacerations, bleeding, etc.).

Once the rehabilitation concludes, the coach has a limited amount of time to offer guidance and direction, coaching the fighter on what he saw during the first round of the fight. A good coach instills adaptations for the fighter to improve on, a great coach reminds the fighter of all the hard-work put in during training that involves the ability to adapt to every scenario.

Brandon Gibson is a striking guru and one of the best coaches in New Mexico, quickly becoming a recognized success throughout the country. Part of the talented coaching staff at the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym that includes the iconic Greg Jackson and striking extraordinaire Mike Winkeljohn, Gibson has worked with fighters from every part of the spectrum ranging from UFC Champion Carlos Condit to up-and-coming top prospect Joby Sanchez.

“Cornering is like being an anchor for someone during a storm. I have been very fortunate to study under Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn. I doubt that there are any coaches that have cornered as many high level fights as these two men. In my short career, I have been privileged to work 11 UFC title fights, along with countless others. I have cornered Jon Jones in 8 of his 9 title fights, both of Carlos Condit’s UFC title fights, and John Dodson’s.” – Brandon Gibson

As mentioned previously, a connection has to be present between coach and fighter in order for the relationship inside and outside the cage/ring to be strong enough to lead both individuals towards success. A successful fighter sprinkles that success on the coach, and vice versa, a successful coach can sprinkle his success onto a fighter. The connection, that bond is solidified by one extremely strong characteristic.

“It is always an honor to be trusted by a fighter to help guide them into and through battle. Most camps range 8-10 weeks, and during that time a close relationship is built with the fighter. Film is studied for countless hours, numerous rounds of sparring are cornered, technique and timing are mastered through mitt and bag work, strength and conditioning workouts, etc… A lot of time is spent in preparing for the fight, both mentally and physically. To be an effective corner, the coach has to trust in the fighter, and the fighter has to trust in the coach.” – Brandon Gibson

With trust being the prevalent trait mentioned by Coach Gibson, it is easy at that point to start detailing the essential functions a coach/cornerman are responsible to complete. In a combat sport, danger is always looming. From training to the actual fight, hand-to-hand combat can lead to injury and not being prepared only increases the likelihood that an injury can occur.

Through that detail, it is very simple to understand why it is essential to have a coach that you can trust, and can trust you.

When SWFight was able to speak with Coach Gibson, we asked which fight stood out as his most memorable, he was quick to answer that it involved UFC Middleweight Contender Tim Kennedy. Gibson worked with Kennedy often, especially before his fight at the UFC Fight for the Troops 3 event in November of 2013.

“Cornering Tim Kennedy in his fight against Rafael Natal at UFC Fight for the Troops 3 was a fight that carried a lot of emotion. Right before we had left Albuquerque, Tim injured his quadriceps muscle. The injury was preventing Tim from being able to do any of the explosive footwork that we had built our game plan around. Fight week was filled with massages and ice baths, desperately trying to get some range of motion back. I could see that Tim was worried.” – Brandon Gibson

If you see a connection between fighter and his cornerman during a fight, that connection was built through countless hours spent in the gym together. Whether that time is spent training or conversing, a trust begins to build as the hours continue to pile up.

If you see a connection between fighter and his cornerman during a fight, that connection was built through countless hours spent in the gym together. Whether that time is spent training or conversing, a trust begins to build as the hours continue to pile up.

As one could imagine, the coaching staff and supporting individuals of Kennedy were extremely concerned when it was revealed that Kennedy had suffered a serious injury. This was Tim Kennedy’s first UFC main event; it was his biggest break since fighting Luke Rockhold for the Strikeforce Middleweight Title.

Kennedy had previously aligned himself with the Jackson-Winkeljohn gym and began to hone in to improve his already vast skillset. The veteran of over twenty professional fights also had impressive military experience on his resume, a Sergeant First Class in the United States Army part of the elite Special Forces. Kennedy was Light-Heavyweight Champion in the service-wide Combatives military tournaments three years in a row and a Black Belt in Matt Larsen’s Army Combative Program.

Needless to say, Kennedy was a battle tested individual, both inside the cage and more importantly in the capacity of a soldier who fought for our country.

Still the injury to Kennedy was a real concern and the fight versus Rafael Natal in Kentucky was an enormous opportunity for the 185-pound fighter. Plus, the stakes were high on a personal level considering where the fight took place.

“I had helped Tim prepare for several fights before, but this was the first fight that I cornered him in. Tim was headlining the card at his former home, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Fighting in front of your home town always carries extra pressure for a fighter, but I couldn’t imagine the pressure that Tim faced fighting in front of a hanger filled with his fellow soldiers that he went to war alongside.” – Brandon Gibson

While the pressure on Kennedy has been amply stated, the pressure was definitely felt by Coach Gibson working as Kennedy’s corner and standing as one of Kennedy’s coaches. It was important considering the stakes of the bout that Kennedy entered the cage that night as prepared as possible.

“During camp, Tim worked extensively on his striking. He always carried a lot of power, but has had a hard time effectively closing distance in the past. Coach Winkeljohn, Jackson and I worked with Tim on his ability to be explosive with his foot work, and capitalize on Natal’s tendency to circle and post out while retreating. Camp had gone great, and we were excited to see Tim capitalize on the work that we had put in at the gym.” – Brandon Gibson

UFC Fight Night 3 was literally held inside a military hangar on a Wednesday night. The event was broadcasted on Fox Sports 1 and featured big time wins for Rustam Khabilov (teammate of Kennedy), Yoel Romero and Alexis Davis. The stage was set for Kennedy, who remains the fighter in the UFC with the most significant military exposure.

“Fort Campbell’s hanger bay was not designed to host fights. It was a dreary night, filled with rain and howling winds. The fighters warmed up in barracks located behind the hanger bay. During our warm up, Tim was pushing through the pain of his injured leg, but as the sweat came, he began to get more comfortable. As we entered the venue, I could feel the energy from the soldiers. I have worked fights in much larger venues, but this one seemed to carry the most pressure and the most support. When Tim’s walkout song (Alice and Chains – Rooster) came on, I was filled with an overwhelming sense of focus and confidence.” – Brandon Gibson

While Tim Kennedy may appear to be larger than life to most, for Coach Brandon Gibson, the connection is of great sentiment as Kennedy's success positively impacts the spirits of Gibson.  Photo Courtesy of Will Fox / The Fox Identity

While Tim Kennedy may appear to be larger than life to most, for Coach Brandon Gibson, the connection is of great sentiment as Kennedy’s success positively impacts the spirits of Gibson.
Photo Courtesy of Will Fox / The Fox Identity

The walk down to the cage could often feel like eternity; while it actual time it could be as minimal as 90-seconds from the time the music starts to the time the fighter walks into the cage, nerves start setting in whether good or bad, and time seems to slow down.

Kennedy’s opponent Rafael Natal was already awaiting him in the cage and he brought to the cage a three fight win streak. Natal was 5-2-1 in the UFC and was hot of a “Fight of the Night” performance just two months prior.

This was a big fight. A big fight in an emotional setting.

“Early on in the fight we could tell that Tim’s injury was bothering him. There were times that he lost his footing, and time that he switched his stance to protect the injury. As the fight progressed, I could see that no matter what the circumstances, Tim was going to implement our game plan. When Tim began to pressure Rafael, Rafael circled aggressively towards his power side. I remember calling out for the explosive lead hook, which was repeated by Coach Jackson. Tim immediately recognized the position, and launched a ferocious left hook that crumbled Natal right against the cage. The cornermen were elated.” – Brandon Gibson

We circle back to the trust a fighter must have in his coaches and cornermen, fighting through pain from a severe injury, Kennedy executed the game plan. The time in training camp was not lost or forgotten, the hours of time dedicated to Kennedy was retained and absorbed. Through all the emotion radiating throughout the United States military base, the connection between coach and fighter glimmered bright.

“The moment really set in when I saw Tim leap up onto the cage, and began to express his love and gratitude to the soldiers. I was proud to be a part of Tim’s camp and corner for that fight.” – Brandon Gibson

That specific journey had concluded, the battle had ended. The coach and fighter walked out of the venue that night successful and satisfied. It was a story of a man’s ability to overcome physical and emotional obstacles to triumph in competition. That story wouldn’t be the same if not for the strong connection to his coaches and in finale, those coaches working in the capacity of cornermen.

That is the first installment of SWFight’s new mini-series “New Mexico MMA Corner Stories”.

About Phillip Lujan

Phillip Lujan is one of the lead contributors and a featured writer for SWFight.com. Specializing in MMA breakdowns and analysis, Phillip is considered the MMA aficionado on staff. With nearly ten years of experience in combat sports, gazing through the eyes perceptively as a fan and a cornerman and from fight manager to analyst. He can be reached on twitter at @KingStark24 or through email at marcello.lujan@gmail.com.