There are several new challenges on the horizon in 2014 for long-time grappling coach Neil Melanson. The former mainstay at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, Nevada, has recently headed further west to be the main grappling coach at Team Alliance in San Diego, Calif., after being in "Sin City" the last five years.
"The Ground Marshal" has worked with former UFC champion Randy Couture, along with Frank Trigg, Vitor Belfort, Chael Sonnen, former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler and WWE superstar Brian Danielson (Daniel Bryan) among dozens of others. He explained to MMAmania.com recently that the writing had been on the wall to head out to Alliance for quite some time.
"I've been going out there for the last year," he said. "It went from Chandler, to working with Brandon (Vera), to working with Dominick (Cruz), and now Phil (Davis). It was just more and more guys. I really like it out here. I love the environment. In Vegas I had my grappling team and I'm really close with my students, so that was really hard to leave. Both my girlfriend and I were done with Vegas and we were ready to move on, so we thought new year, new job, new everything, so let's do it."
"There are a lot of challenges out here," he continued. "I wanted to leave Vegas for a while. I just delayed it. I didn't want to leave my students. I was really close with them. I wanted to put black belts on them. You can only do so much. I can't kill too many years of my life. Especially as you get older, you can't really do this sport like you used to. The next four years I'm going to push as hard as I can out here and then I'll decide if I'm going to retire somewhere or stay in it."
"As much as I am happy with the new adventure and I am dialed in, it was still a very hard decision to leave my grappling team and some of the guys I worked with in Vegas. And Randy Couture is a good friend, but man he is such a stand up guy. That guy has always had my back and he's always believed in me. It's sad to say ‘Hey boss, I have to go in this other direction. I think it's better for me.' It was really, really hard to say goodbye. I'm really grateful for everybody there and what they did for me. I owe them a lot."
Melanson describes Alliance as "one team going in one direction," and he "loves the challenge" of working with some of the best athletes in MMA. He said he wants to help these fighters "achieve their dreams," but he also wants to allow himself to grow.
"That's why I started doing this, and I have to get better," he said. "The way I look at Alliance is by the end of the year I will be a better grappler because I will have world champion black belts to roll around with any time I want. I'm going to be a better wrestler because I can roll around with Phil Davis and those other guys that are tough. I'm going to be a better coach -- not only because of the athletes and the challenges I face, but from the other coaches that I'm around who I can learn from. Everything I want to do will be reciprocated back at me just by being there. I'm a happy cat right now. I'm really excited. I'm really motivated right now."
The lifelong grappler has been around plenty of camps during his career as a coach and has seen his share of good and bad. He lauded head coach Eric Del Fiero's leadership and said he was "blown away" and "impressed" with how well organized and operated Team Alliance is.
"The way he runs that gym and the way he runs that pro team, I really like it. It makes being an assistant coach ... it makes my life really easy because I'm very confident in his leadership and it allows me to just do what I need to do. It's a great environment."
Melanson said he thinks "the smaller weight classes in MMA, have honestly some of the best pound-for-pound athletes in the world." One of those athletes is the former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz -- who he was working with, and would've cornered for at UFC 169. Cruz, as we know, suffered a groin injury that bumped him from the title fight against Renan Barao, and also forced him to be stripped of his title."
"He's a lot of fun to train," Melanson said. "He's very blunt. He's very honest. He'll let you know how he feels. I like that. I like when fighters communicate like that, even if it's negative at times, I don't care. He's a stud. You know a thing about him, as good as he is because he's champion, he's still going to get better. He still has things he can get better at. He knows his game. It's not random. There's nothing random about that kid. I think he still has a great future as long as his body holds up. I don't see anybody beating this kid, until he decides not to be the worker that he is."
Note: interview was conducted prior to Cruz's injury.
In addition to the major career move in joining Team Alliance, Melanson's book, "Mastering Triangle Chokes," has recently been released by Victory Belt Publishing. A fantastic soup to nuts book, made for the novice or for the expert on all the different ways to land the well-known submission, from various guard systems and positions. Many of which Melanson has developed himself, like K-Control, Irish Collar and the Shoulder Pin series.
The book comes in at just under 300 pages, and features full illustrations on every move, with explanations and an introduction for each chapter. There is a theme to the whole book and that is the concept of fighting the body position with the correct guard system. Every bit of information within it is detailed and easy to discern. This was a huge goal to finish the Triangle/Guard grappler companion, and it took years to accomplish.
"I'm very, very happy with the book," Melanson said. "It took forever to do. When I first started the book it was going to be small book. There was a lot of stuff I was going to through in it, but I was setting it up to do another book, a guard systems book. But basically in the Triangle book I was going to touch on the guard systems a little bit, but I was really just going to do just triangles. As the process went on it was requiring so much time and energy. I met with the owner of Victory Belt, Erich Krauss and I said screw the second book and I'm going to combine it all and I'm just going to make this triangle book something that's studied, regardless if it's now, or 10 years from now. I wanted to do it right."
"If you buy this book, you are going to see a lot of great techniques (sample here) and you are going to see a lot of great systems. It is going to make a big difference, but what I really want is people to read it. Read the chapter introductions because I cram nothing but knowledge in there. I wanted people not just to look through and say ‘that's a cool set up, that was worth buying the book.' I want them to learn it because to me this is the one contribution I wanted to make to the sport. Stuff that I know really well that I never hear other coaches talk about."
"You are going to see a lot of the guard systems come out of this book that people aren't really familiar with. Like K-control is one of my favorite open-guard systems. These are systems that I use ... everything in the book is going to be based on something that you can translate into an MMA situation. That was one of the biggest things I focused on because I was always rolling around with MMA guys when I first started. I had to adjust things because I was getting beat up on the bottom. For me I always had to find a way to win and I realized that you can't play one system all the time, you have to adjust based on how your opponent is playing you. To do that you have to be able to read them right. That was the whole basis of the book: how to read your opponent and adjust your system based on how he's playing you, and by doing that you can actually use that to protect yourself, attack, and trick him by off balancing him into the system you want to use the most."
Speaking on MMA situations, the grappling specialist touched on what he would like to see in current MMA grappling that he thinks is lacking, and would help improve a lot of fighters overall games. One of the biggest things he would like to see more of is mat work wrestling, and something as simple as a granby roll.
"That was something I always liked doing, and they work great," he said. "I almost never see anyone do it in MMA. "It's crazy when I was training Randy, I was teaching him to do these things. He was like ‘no it's a high school wrestling move, it won't work.' It's different in wrestling, guys don't reach in like that. In MMA guys can reach in big time and grab you. It actually works great. So, he went back to it and realizing all this wrestling stuff he was doing as a young guy works great in MMA, but he never tried to translate it. That's one of the things that I tried to get him to do and he started doing great, is going back to that classic mat work wrestling."
"I would also like to see fighters work from a referee's position a little more," Melanson continued on the position he feels is lacking use in MMA. "A lot of guys don't want to be on their back anymore, they are getting hit in the face. If you can't work guard, you have to supplement it. In pretty much any position on the ground you can give up your back. You can bridge out and turtle. Most guys can make that happen. If you don't know how to fight from that position, if you just turn and stop, or don't roll, or don't create some motion, then you are going to get pounded out. I would like to see more of that mat work wrestling. Okay I'm bridging out, I'm in this referee position, and fighting to win a scramble."
A big problem that Melanson has in regards to coaching is hearing the words "always" and "never." Especially since he teaches multiple styles, and has implemented diverse techniques from all the great grapplers he learned from like "Judo" Gene Lebell, Gokor Chivichyan and Karo Parisyan.
"I hear that from coaches sometimes and it drives me nuts," he said. "They will say ‘never' go for this and ‘always' do that. If you are saying those two things you are probably wrong about something. People always felt like leg locks were too risky and don't go for them, then Palhares comes in and he's breaking everyone's legs. If you are good at something it will work for you."
The book is complete, but the journey with all the fighters at Alliance is just beginning for Melanson. As he continues to give to the sport of MMA on a daily basis out in San Diego, he hopes that aspiring athletes can live vicariously through his methods in "Mastering the Triangle," and that the book can make a huge impact right now, and for years to come.
"I would really like to see the feedback, positive or negative on some of my ideas," he said. "I know I can apply them well, and I roll with some really tough guys and some great heavyweights. I've gotten to spar Randy Couture a gazillion times and that guy is a beast. I've gotten a chance to work with a lot of world champions, and I've found this stuff works. I've gotten some my students to use it as well in a MMA setting, so I believe in it. I would like to see a lot more of the top athletes play with it, and see if they can have the success that I had with it. I'm excited about the future. I hope this book really serves as a contribution to the sport, because that's what I want is to make that contribution."