Sometimes fans take it for granted, but even the mixed martial artists competing in the opening bout of the preliminary card has everything on the line.
That was the case for Sean Spencer last week (Sept. 4, 2013) when he battled Yuri Villefort on the Facebook portion of the UFC Fight Night 28 prelims in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Both men had their backs against the wall after losing their first UFC fight.
Spencer had made his UFC debut this past January, stepping in on short notice and bumping up a weight class as a late injury replacement against Rafael Natal. He held his own, but had been worn down and submitted by the bigger stronger fighter in the third round. UFC rewarded his effort with a second bout, this time at his natural weight class of welterweight and with plenty of time to complete a full training camp.
His head coach Sayif Saud of Octagon MMA in Texas understood the stakes, having trained under Greg Jackson in his fighting days and now transitioning to a very successful start-up coaching gig in one of "The Lonestar State's" brightest upcoming gyms.
Spencer was able to walk away with his first UFC victory, a hard-fought split decision, but it wasn't without the help of his coach, who knew exactly when the push his buttons in between rounds with some very direct cornering advice.
Saud spoke to MMAmania.com during a guest appearance on The Verbal Submission talking about fight night strategy, making adjustments and getting the most out of the 60 seconds you've got in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I really thought you did a great job cornering your fighter last Wednesday night. After round one, you came out very calm, kept Spencer relaxed, told him all the things he did well and a few things he needed to work on. What was your strategy there after a close first round?
Sayif Saud: Well our gameplan for him, we watched a lot of film, we watched the Nah-Shon Burrell fight, and Yuri, great fighter, pretty good all-around game. He's a little bit wild with his striking so we wanted to go straight down the middle, a lot of jabs, control the range and actually wanted to counter all those kicks with punches.
Sean did a pretty good job of it, a better job than the first round of hitting him with a jab on the inside leg kick, hitting him with a straight right when he comes with the outside leg kick and we didn't want to throw any leg kicks because Yuri likes to grab and get takedowns off that. We knew they watched the Natal fight. Sean fought great, but with Natal being as big as he was, he did end up getting the better of him on the ground and it's not a secret that Sean is a striking guy.
I thought Sean did a good job with the gameplan to control the distance and what your job is is to really tell your fighter what they need to do and what they need to not do in a very short timespan. If they're doing great, let them know they're doing great, stay calm, stay relaxed. At that point I felt like he had won that round. I knew his conditioning was good and Yuri, the other thing we saw in his tapes was he slows down a bit in the second and the third. I was hoping we could put some combinations together and go from there. After the first round we felt pretty good about the fight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What was it that changed for you after the second round because it was still a pretty even round, although Yuri did open it with a takedown. You came out and instead of being calm, you were fired up, "Do you want to lose this fight?!?! Let your hands go!" You were really letting him have it and getting him fired up. What was the change in strategy there for cornering?
Sayif Saud: Well I thought Sean might have lost that round. Now that I've watched it, all they kept talking about is that he was not checking the leg kicks and every time Yuri would tough Sean, the crowd went crazy. I don't know if you got to hear that, but they were so loud. So that, on top of the fact that we were in Brazil fighting a Brazilian, I felt like at that point, it was a 50/50 shot.
You've got one minute to get your message across to your fighter and let them know what they need to do. Sometimes in that minute you need to be extreme. You need to let them know there's a huge sense of urgency. They have five minutes to determine the rest of Sean's career. I think that was a make-or-break fight for the both of them and that's really what it's about. Just letting him know, "This is where you're at right now, this is the moment and you've got to seize the moment."
I think he really went out there and did that. In the third, he pushed the whole time. I think he had a great flurry at the end and watching the fight now, I'm glad I said that because he kind of really tapped into the conditioning and the abilities I knew he had left in him while I feel Yuri kind of slowly faded out and I think that was the difference in the fight.
It's not about me, it's about the guys and I know how much work these guys put in. Day in, day out, three or four months of hard preparation and the mental stress that goes into it. Whatever I need to do as a coach to get them motivated and get the best out of them, I'm gonna do that. I always tell my wife I'm gonna have a heart attack one of these days because these guys stress me out but I've got to do what I've got to do. To see him win and have that joy, it brings me a lot of joy as well.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I've actually spoken with cornermen, even fighters who corner their teammates and they always tell me that watching someone put it all on the line like that is more stressful that stepping in the cage themselves, and you would know that as well since you had a few fights.
Sayif Saud: 100 percent. I was lucky enough to train with Greg Jackson and he cornered me for my first pro fight and I remember I was sleeping and he was telling me we needed to get downstairs by five o'clock and I completely slept through it. People are different. Sean was relaxed on fight day as well. When you're in control, that's it, everything is laid out in front of you. That's what's there.
When you're coaching, you want what's best for your guy and that's the measure of a coach. You need to know when to push, when to tell them to turn it up, when to encourage them, when to let them know if they missed it. At that moment in Brazil, I felt that's what he needed to hear and it turned out well.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): The commentators brought this up and I wanted your thoughts on it. Kenny Florian was asking why you guys weren't working over Sean's legs with ice in between the second and third rounds.
Sayif Saud: Here's the thing. You have one minute. Sean didn't even feel the leg kicks and after the fight he was fine. The next day he felt them, but I know Sean, I know his pain threshold... Ice on the legs for 50 seconds is not gonna make the swelling go down and make him have that much more bounce. Sure, it might, but I was much more focused on something else. My directions, what I wanted him to do. It's their job to commentate and they've got to talk about something. That's fine they talked about that. I know Sean and it didn't bother him that much during the fight. He just didn't fight that well in the second round and as you can see, he came out in the third round and was a lot more aggressive. If the leg kicks were taking that much of a toll on him, he'd have been even slower in the third round.
He was hitting him with the foot most of the time and I watched the tape and they never said Sean countered with a straight right. Sean countered over half of those with straight punches right down the middle. The UFC.com guy came up to us and said, "You guys landed the most significant strikes out of anyone on the card," which was 99. Ninety-nine strikes, Yuri's got a great chin, but he took some shots. He got hit with a few leg kicks and the crowd went crazy, but besides that, I was really happy with how Sean performed.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Was Sean the first fighter you've ever trained who picked up a UFC victory?
Sayif Saud: He was. I've been to the UFC quite a few times. As a fighter, all my old training partners are high level guys in the UFC still. But as far as training a figher, it was. We were really happy about that. Sean worked so hard, he put in so much extra time at the gym, hours and hours. Yuri's training at Blackzilians and they have a bunch of really, really high level guys there.
I'm just so proud of my team, our guys really rallied behind Sean and we didn't bring in much outside help. King Mo is a good friend of mine and he stopped over for a few days to do some training, but it was really just our team, our camp and all the guys banding together. Damon Jackson was one of Sean's training partners and they were going at it every single day. It was a team effort. It takes a village. You've heard that 100 times and it's true. Our wrestling coach David Burtolino, our jiu-jitsu coach who put countless hours in for that win.
You can follow Saud's gym on Twitter @OctagonMMATx.