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UFC 206 interview: Donald Cerrone’s trainer talks Matt Brown fight, Cub Swanson, and much more

Brandon Gibson gives his thoughts on Cowboy Cerrone, Cub Swanson’s match up with Doo Ho Choi and the potential of Landon Vannata.

UFC 202: Story v Cerrone
Brandon Gibson corners Donald “Cowboy”Cerrone at UFC 202
Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview one of the sharpest coaches in mixed martial arts (MMA) today, Jackson-Winklejohn’s Brandon Gibson. He is the head striking coach and architect of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone’s recent run at Welterweight, a relationship he details in our conversation below. Gibson will also be in the corners of Tim Kennedy, Rustam Khabilov, Cub Swanson and his protege. Landon Vannata, this Saturday night (Dec. 10, 2016) at UFC 206, which takes place inside Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Check out a partial transcript of the interview below (questions edited for brevity):

Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone

UFC's Jon Jones Open Workout Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images

Q. Donald Cerrone has made significant changes that have been pretty remarkable. How do you look at a fighter’s game and say, ‘we need to work on this.’ Is every fighter able to make those adjustments? You see a lot of professional fighters — especially as far into his career as “Cowboy” is — that they don’t seem to be getting better. What makes him different?

Gibson: Cowboy and I have known each other for about 10 or 11 years, his wrestling coach and I have worked very well together with John Dodson; obviously, Greg Jackson is our collective head coach.

Cowboy and I were friends for a long time, but we didn’t work together, and then we worked together a little bit at the start of the Rafael dos Anjos camp. Guys like Paul Felder actually helped bring us together a little bit more — I trained a lot with Felder before his fight with Edson Barboza and he was training a lot with Cowboy at the time.

I was in Las Vegas to corner Carlos Condit against Robbie Lawler. Cowboy had just lost the title fight against dos Anjos about a week earlier, and he called me and asked if I had time to sit down and talk while I was in Vegas. So we sat down and talked, and he said, “Hey, I want you to be my striking coach. I’m 100 percent in if you are, and I’ll say yes to whatever you tell me to do.” I think that approach from day one made my job easy. I sat down with the rest of his coaching staff -- Hector Munoz his jiu-jitsu coach, Javar Yvonna, Greg Jackson — and we kind of thought, well, let’s look at our next bout against Cowboy Oliveira, and see what we got and see what we can do.

It’s been a very natural progression all the way through, from the evolution…. I just want to help change the other things he’s already good at. Obviously, Cowboy is already a great jiu-jitsu practitioner, a great kickboxer, but I don’t think too many opponents or opposing coaching staffs realized what a good boxer he was and what a good wrestler he was. So I just want to help find all those transition areas, tune them up, make sure his defense is sharp, and help him get these highlight wins. And we are having a good year so far — 3-0 in a new weight class. We were hoping it would be 4-0 after New York, but obviously that didn’t pan out, so hopefully it will be 4-0 after this victory against Matt Brown.

Q. I think Matt Brown vs. Cowboy Cerrone is a dream fight, especially for fans like me. Now, Cowboy has trained with Brown before. How does that play into the game planning, when you have a fighter who is familiar with his opponent like that?

Gibson: Yeah, Cowboy and Matt Brown have spent some time together. And Matt Brown has been training out of Denver, which is Cowboy’s home. Matt Brown’s coaching staff knows Cowboy very well, too. Cowboy has a black belt from Elliot Marshall ... and worked with Duane “Bang” when he was young, so that coaching staff has an advantage as far as their understanding of Cowboy. But, I think that’s going to be an advantage for us because I think they understand the Cowboy of the past — the 155-pound Cowboy, the Cowboy before he was with me. So, I hope they play on the foundation that they think they know.

#AnyoneAnywhereAnytime #UFC205 @cowboycerrone @bmfranch @superdwrestling @htrain1 @onnitacademy

A video posted by Brandon Gibson (@sixgungibson) on

Q. How much does the move to 170 pounds help him?

Gibson: I think it’s a better weight class for his frame. I like him being sometimes the smaller, faster guy — it plays well into his style. I think he’s putting on the proper size at 170 as well to be really efficient and not out-strength all these guys, but out-technique all these guys, out-position all these guys, have more speed and stamina and IQ. I think that’s the challenge at 170, so everything is lining up really for it right now. I see Cowboy matching up really well with all these guys, whether it’s Matt Brown, or Demian Maia, or Tyron Woodley, or Wonderboy, McGregor, GSP ... it doesn’t matter, we are going to have Cowboy ready for whatever he faces.

Q. Cowboy has said in the past he doesn’t look at any video of his opponents before his fights. Is gameplanning something Cowboy doesn’t like to work on as much?

Gibson: Yeah, Cowboy’s not a film study guy. Some of my fighters are — a lot of them aren’t. At this level, film study a lot of the time is watching a bunch of guys’ knockouts, a bunch of guys’ highlights. Sometimes that’s not always the best mental approach. My job is to look for all the weaknesses, all the flaws, set up a gameplan. Then, I’m selective about what I share with those guys. Hopefully, if I do my job right, by the time the fight comes, they are so well rehearsed in the moves, the reactions and the counters, that it’s a passive thought, it’s just a reaction.

‘Groovy’ Lando Vannata

Brandon Gibson has coached Landon Vannata since day one

Note: I refereed to Landon as “Lando” because that’s what his social media accounts say. His name, however, is Landon.

Q: As far as Lando goes, I think everyone was super impressed with his first UFC fight against Tony Ferguson. Is he the first fighter who you have coached all the way through that is in UFC?

Gibson: Yeah, pretty much. I coached Landon all the way from the amateur ranks all the way into UFC. Some of these other guys I’ve helped get into UFC, but Landon’s the first one all the way from day one until now.

Q. Every coach kind of has their own style, and I know at Jackson-Wink you guys specialize in refining what fighters are good at, but … is Lando kind of a “Gibson” fighter? Is that someone you point to and say, if I train someone, it’s going to look a little bit like this?

Gibson: We do try to train everyone based on their body type and their strengths, and build up their weaknesses, but there are a lot of things I personally do that are reflected in Lando’s style. His head movement, his footwork, his power punching, lots of feints, spin kicks; but, there are so many things that Landon can do better than I ever even dreamed of. We are getting to a phase of his career where I’m at with some of the other guys like Cerrone, where we are almost collaborating more than I’m just teaching him.

Q. You mentioned his head movement, and that’s something you don’t see a lot of MMA fighters using the way he does — a lot of what he does is unconventional. Is Lando taking advantage of some of the things other fighters aren’t doing yet?

Gibson: I believe that Landon’s that next generation of guys who are going to help continue to evolve the sport. Where Landon truly excels, I think, is in transitions, everywhere you’re going from boxing to a clinch range, or from kicking range to clinch range, he’s just very explosive in all those transitions. It’s in kind of classic areas where guys would typically not always have to have their guard up and their defense up. He does a lot of those … he gets himself in those movements and areas where he is allowed to be creative and aware through a lot of his unorthodox movement, whether it’s head movement, footwork or feints.

Q. The guy he’s fighting, John Makdessi, does some really unusual things as well, and some of the same things -- he will stand side-on and throw that side kick, because he has that taekwondo background …

Gibson: We are familiar with Makdessi — Greg Jackson’s cornered against him before. This will be my first time cornering against him, but I’m very familiar with that style that he’s bringing to the table.

Q. What are some of the holes in his style that you can exploit?

Gibson: One of his recent fights, against Mehdi Baghdad, I think he showed a lot of flaws. I think Baghdad was the one who made the critical mistakes, and those just come with experience and positional awareness. I think Makdessi brings a lot of strengths, but we’ve got to put Landon in the better spot to not be there for those. Footwork, counters and also our offensive combinations.

Q. Combinations are something Landon’s very good at. Cowboy has also gotten a lot better at countering with combinations, throwing three-to-four punches when someone comes at him with something. Is that is one of your specialties?

Keeping it wavy with my dude @groovylando . @onnit's #alphabrain is keeping us sharp.

A video posted by Brandon Gibson (@sixgungibson) on

Gibson: Yeah, I believe so. I never want to see any of my guys get hit. I never want to see any of my guys get knocked out or injured in this game, it’s a very dangerous game, a high-risk game, so I always put defense first. All these guys at this level have knockout power, they are all highly skilled in all of the striking techniques. The area I specialize most in is defense. Whether that be Cowboy’s new-found head movement and counter-punching that we saw in fights like Patrick Cote and Rick Story, or Landon’s fight against Ferguson, or even some of my other guys like John Dodson and Jon Jones. I like to focus a lot on that, I don’t want any of these guys to have to leave it in the Octagon.

Cub Swanson

Q. One of those guys who have been in the game for awhile, and one of my personal favorites, is Cub Swanson. I was actually there for his Stephens fight.

Gibson: Oh, yeah, in Austin, Texas?

Q. Yeah, well I live in Houston, so I drove over with my buddy for that — it was awesome. Now, Swanson will throw a lot into his combinations, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like sometimes when he throws a longer combination, he will get caught in the middle. How do you close up those holes against someone like Doo Ho Choi, who has that kind of power?

Gibson: Yeah, Doo Ho Choi is bringing a lot of power in that right hand, so we have to make sure that Cub’s head is in the right spot on his entries, and more important, on his exits. And, like you said, throughout the combination, really. So, we need to bring some real creative stuff to the table. Doo throws his cross differently than a lot of fighters, too, so we can’t count on traditional defensive methods to avoid it, especially with these four-ounce gloves on. So, we’re gonna really have to control the kick range, head movement in pure boxing range, and intelligent exits. And, one thing Cub is really proficient at is laying the groundwork — to show something, to show something, to get a fighter’s reaction — and then to capitalize on it. So, hopefully, we can lay some traps for Choi for Cub to get another highlight knockout.

Q. Super excited about that one. Big fan of both guys. Choi likes to stand really close to people. Is that something that Swanson’s going to want to keep it, like you said, at that kicking range, to keep it at a little longer distance?

Gibson: Yeah, I think sometimes people forget what an excellent kicker Cub is. Everybody gets so focused on his hands, so again that’s another one where we are going to have to use a lot of our MMA skills, level changes, takedowns, controlling the kick range, controlling the footwork. And, like we said, setting those traps.

Getting Fighters Into The Zone

Q. My area of research in college is in “flow,” an optimal state of consciousness, what athletes call “the zone.” In training, you can bring someone up into the zone. In fights, they kind of get dropped into it from the other side, where they get that spike in pre-fight anxiety, the rush of adrenaline, and then hopefully they drop into the zone by the time the bell rings. How do you make sure they are there on fight night?

Gibson: Every fight is very different. Obviously, there are some commonalities in the approach, but some fighters have a lot of anxiety, and you’ve got to get them right. Some fighters come in too hot and you’ve got to get them a little bit more level. My favorite warrior poet, Miyamoto Mushashi, said you can’t get too high or too low going into battle, you have to be even keel, and I feel like that’s what leads to the awareness. Some guys, like Jon Jones, know themselves so well that they have their own build up, and some guys need that outside support to help get them there through their coaches or their friends, or, maybe, through music or looking at family pictures. But, I think my job is knowing a fighter more and more, knowing when I have to pick them up a little bit, knowing when to bring them down a little bit, just kind of riding out those waves until it’s time to make that walk.

Q. That’s really interesting — so everyone’s different. Is that something you can simulate in training or is it just something a fighter’s got to learn by walking out and you’ve got to learn by walking out with them?

Gibson: Yeah, I think that is it. Seeing them day in and day out, hard practices. And helping make that walk with them, seeing how they like their hands wrapped, their fight night flow, their build up, their own pace … I think that’s one of the qualities it takes to be a successful coach in this game that’s never really focused on. That relationship between coach and fighter, just knowing that overall process.

Q. Obviously, it’s easier to work with some people than others and there are going to be people you gel with more than others. Has there ever been someone you had a hard time getting a read on them, like its really hard to work with them?

Gibson: Yeah, of course, and Jackson’s is such a big gym, probably 200 students there right now. I have to keep my circle small. I’ll teach big group classes, but as far as the student I work one-on-one with, and the ones I super invest in and give it my all, I’m very selective. And the most major factor when making a decision like that is, how we get along, and how our energy is together. It’s not about money or potential or fame, or anything like that. It’s about what guys I enjoy being around and enjoy giving my time and energy to, and which guys reciprocate that back in a positive way as well.

@andreiarlovski preparing for victory high above New Mexico. Video by @thefoxidentity. Guest staring Maximus A. Arlovski.

A video posted by Brandon Gibson (@sixgungibson) on

Q. One last question, what’s your favorite part about coaching, about living that lifestyle?

Gibson: It’s the relationships I get to build. I get to travel the world with my friends, practicing martial arts. It’s a dream I had as a young man I got to make into a reality. That’s my favorite part. I know that people like Carlos Condit and John Dodson, I’m going to be friends with those guys as an old man, I’m going to be trading war stories, being boastful in front of our grandkids. These are just lifelong relationships. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. I definitely want to be a champion, go down as one of the greatest coaches in this sport’s history, but more important to me than any of that is the relationships I got to make with my friends.

Coach Gibson training Andrei Alrovski in the mountains at dawn
@sixgungibson on Instagram will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 206 fight card below, starting with the Fight Pass "Prelims" matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, and then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.