December 29, 2016

The BJB Breakdown: Edmond Tarverdyan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Part One: The Good)

By Schwan Humes

When it comes to Ronda Rousey, there is a lot of discussion regarding her lack of progression in technique, strategy, cage IQ, and preparation. For Ronda, being a top tier, world class, Olympic athlete with a top-end work ethic, consistency, drive, and determination has won her National and World championships, as well as Olympic bronze; most of the blame and responsibility eludes her. Instead it falls squarely on the head of one Edmond Tarverdyan, owner of the Glendale Fighting Club, and most notably, head coach of former UFC Bantamweight Champion and all-time great Ronda Rousey.

The spotlight fell on Tarverdyan mainly as a result of Ronda's story, consistency, and dominance in the cage; he began as the unknown coach being handed the keys to the established and immensely talented Rousey early in the fighter’s career. Then he became the innovative and cerebral coach as she racked up wins and decimated any and every opponent placed in her path. And in his most recent version he has become the limited, overconfident, and massively overrated coach.

This piece isn't here to ignore the negatives, nor to focus on them; it’s to explain the all aspects of Edmond as a coach, giving him his due for the wonderful things (mental and physical) he did for Rousey as a fighter and what he did for himself as a coach. But it will also discuss the negatives that affected his abilities as a coach, and as a result, Rousey’s progression as a fighter; I will address all aspects and give my perspective on them in hopes of educating anyone who is interested in understanding how Edmond has damaged Ronda, which has been often discussed from different perspectives. I will also address the good that Tarverdyan has done, which is often overlooked. And that is where we start today, the good about Edmond Tarverdyan.

One of the main issues a coach has in developing any prospect or fighter is getting that fighter to buy into his or her system; this applies to coaches and athletes in all sports -- football, baseball, hockey, basketball, soccer. Combat sports are no different, the dynamics of the sport veer away from the traditional stick and ball sports, but certain concepts and principals remain in place; the most important is having athletes who buy into what you’re selling, which instantly increases their likelihood of success. For example, Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich are two guys who consistently get the most out of every level of athlete because they get guys to buy into their respective systems and ignore their own views and goals in favor of that of the coaches. Many coaches in MMA haven’t been able to do that; how often do we hear a fighter say, “I didn’t follow the game plan,” or hear a coach screaming at the top of his lungs trying to reel a fighter in so that he or she doesn’t drift away from the game plan? Conor McGregor’s head coach, John Kavanagh, screamed himself hoarse at UFC 202, imploring McGregor to be controlled, to be disciplined, to move, and to counter, which is what eventually got him the win. On the side of a loss we had Eddie Alvarez openly and honestly call himself out for ignoring the game plan Mark Henry set up (in fact doing the exact opposite) and as a result, he was thoroughly outclassed, embarrassed, and knocked out by McGregor.

Henry and Kavanaugh are two established coaches who have had multiple fighters in the UFC winning fights and titles, as well as many fighters winning and capturing titles in smaller organizations, and both had a hard time reeling their fighters in. That has never been a problem for Tarverdyan; he established a connection early on with Rousey, one in which she completely bought into what her coach was selling. No questions came from her, and none would be accepted from outsiders; if Edmond approved it, Ronda did it without failure. Every lead, Counter, or defense he trained or called for Ronda followed to a T. Much of this had to do with the way Tarverdyan handled Rousey when she came to him for training., He didn’t cater or beg, he didn’t try to convince her; he made her pursue and fight for his attention. And that effort, that long period of time it took before he acknowledged and accepted her as a fighter, helped establish the strength of their connection. This used to be a common practice in traditional martial arts and boxing; in the MMA realm, it’s not nearly as common, especially with blue chip talent like Rousey.

Some people think managing blue chip talent is easy; in many sports coaches constantly have marks against them for winning with talent, much less not winning with talent. Marv Levy was a guy who had all-time great talent with him in Buffalo, and his failures have often been highlighted because of their inability to turn that talent into even a single Super Bowl win. On the other side you have Phil Jackson, who has marks against him for winning titles with four of the best basketball players of all time and teams featuring guys who were top shooters, rebounders, or defenders in the NBA. In combat sports, it’s even more prevalent. Jake Matthews, Paige VanZant, Ovince St. Preux, and Jake Rosholt are fighters with top-end talent who haven't reached the top five rankings of their respective divisions, much less the pinnacle (championship). Then you have transcendent talents like a Jon Jones, who reached the championship level, but hasn’t shown the maturity, self control, or awareness to not jeopardize his career, much less himself with reckless and harmful behavior. Some of that falls on Jones but if we give teams like Jackson-Wink, Tri-Star, AMC Pankration, and Team Alpha Male credit for getting guys into the game, reintroducing them into the game, or getting them onto the straight and narrow, then Tarverdyan too must be given credit. He didn't have Rousey losing to inferior athletes or inferior technicians, he didn't have Rousey out of shape, or out of the gym all the time, things that we have routinely seen from other top-end talents from various big and small camps.

Of even more importance was Tarverdyan’s ability to not alienate or upset the talent. Exceptional talents are often mercurial and hard to deal with. Even in the best of times they push back against coaches at best, or at worst go to war with them, and as a result switch coaches. Regardless of what you think of how Tarverdyan handled Rousey, the fact is he did so in a manner that enabled her to win consistently, showcasing new wrinkles and becoming increasingly more impressive; all the while having her prepared and active. And in the one instance where she may not have been as sharp, he had laid the groundwork of faith, comfort, and confidence such that even in the hindsight of a crushing loss, Rousey has has maintained her relationship with Tarverdyan, and as even doubled down in support of it.

Another good thing that Tarverdyan did was something that some of the very best coaches do, they find out their athletes’ areas of strength physically, mentally, and technically, and once they realize that, they put them in the position to succeed and then build on or around that. They provide their athletes with strategy, IQ, and weapons that afford them chances to stabilize, to become seasoned, to improve, and to win. Sergio Mora's coach Dean Campos once said, "I realized Sergio was coming into boxing late in the game, I couldn't handle him like I would handle a lifelong boxer; I had to take advantage of his natural ability and build around that to make up for the lack of experience." Edmond did the same thing for his fighter; he realized Ronda worked great in chaos, that she had top-end athleticism, and that she was a great transitional fighter who was very aggressive, durable, and creative in how she competed. He didn't try to overhaul her game, he didn't try to get her to fight against type, he gave her some control over how she learned, what she learned, and how that would be used. He knew that would be the quickest way to success, the best way to develop confidence, and the best way to efficiently maximize her skills and physical tools. Think of what Peyton Manning’s offensive coordinators and coaches did for him; they recognized his skills, his tools, and his smarts. They also allowed him to take some ownership of their gameplans and direction; a close-minded or system-oriented coach may not have done the same for a young Peyton Manning and may have cost us one of the best quarterbacks in history. The same could be said for Rousey -- she most likely would have been successful, but would she have done so much so fast, so frequently, and in such a consistently effective manner? I don't think so.

An area where Tarverdyan isn't given a lot of credit is the area of technique and strategic awareness; many pieces have been written discussing the lack of progression and depth in Rousey's striking game, and I get that. (In fact I will discuss it.) But what people completely ignore is the good that Tarverdyan has done for Rousey in that regard. Now is she an all-around great striker? No, the depth and breadth of her striking is fairly limited. But the system, as limited as it was/is, has been very effective when put together with her already established skills in judo; Ronda's strengths were the same as most judoka, just at a world class level. Top control, transitions, clinches, trips, throws and entries; all these things were huge advantages for her when jumping into the world of MMA, where she had no real experience in two key areas. The first was the ability to transition from the striking range to the grappling range, and the second was the ability to strike at even a functional level.

The first thing Tarverdyan taught Ronda was functional striking -- the jab, overhand right, left hook, and knees. Now he didn't teach her in a manner that was particularly slick, in either setups or defensive responsibility (including but not limited to positioning). He taught her basic techniques, and based them off of her previously acknowledged attributes and skills developed through her time in judo. He taught her the individual techniques that created opportunities to land quick and impactful offense, all while allowing her the opportunity to transition from being at kickboxing range to grappling range. An example of that was the fight with Sarah Kaufman. Rousey and Tarverdyan knew that Kaufman was too much for her in boxing range, that if Ronda came in too hard she could be countered, or if she wasn't able to get an entry and was instead on her heels playing defense, she could be overwhelmed or beaten up by Kaufman. So Ronda came out fast. Kaufman respected the threat of Rousey takedowns, so she didn't jump on her, instead seeking to catch her coming in hot and use counterstrikes and pivots to beat her up and hopefully stop her. Instead, once she got close to Kaufman, Rousey pumped a aggressive jab, threw a right hand that trapped Sarah on the fence, and proceeded to chain together takedown attempts that led to the inevitable armbar submission.

Another example was the second Miesha Tate fight. In the first fight, Ronda swung with no real form and wasn't able to maintain real poise when hit; in the opening moments of the rematch, she established an active jab that limited Tate's ability to open up or apply real pressure, while affording Ronda opportunities to show an improved range of strikes, including an uppercut, a left hook, a right uppercut, and a lead right. Was it an aesthetic masterpiece? Nah. But was the right idea there? Did it make the most of her power and explosiveness? Yes. It was functionally effective and showed Rousey’s growth as a striker against a much more experienced fighter; she even posed enough of a threat for Tate to eschew exploiting her advantage on the feet and instead attempt ill-timed and ineffectual takedown attempts that eventually lost the fight for her. Rousey basically forced a "superior" striker to transition to a less effective range because of a lack of consistent success at the striking range.

But the best example of Rousey's ability to transition from striking range to grappling range was the fight against Alexis Davis; rather than have me explain it to you, I will give you the link to a piece, "Gone In Sixteen Seconds", masterfully done by Chris Rini. This clip will show you the best aspects of what Tarverdyan showed Ronda, and how it looked when executed at the highest level. For those who say there is no proof that Rousey improved under his watch, I point to this:

The last technical thing I will address is Rousey’s effectiveness in the clinch. She showed elements of it against Tate, pinning her to the cage, and instead of spamming takedown attempts, she used the clinch and head positioning to hold Tate on the fence and attack her with knees and punches to the legs and body. This cut into the gas tank of an already tired Miesha Tate, punishing her physically and exhausting her while conserving Rousey’s own energy, setting Tate up for the inevitable takedown later in the fight.

But the best example of her clinch work was against Sara McMann, a Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, considered to be the biggest physical threat to Rousey, as she was also a world class athlete and someone with the wrestling skills that would allow her to score takedowns and more importantly defend the takedowns of Rousey. While McMann was effective at defending takedown attempts and repeatedly landing one-twos, Rousey pressed forward, walking through a number of cleanly-landing hard shots ( a sign of bad things to come). She got to the clinch (exploiting McMann’s inability to fight off the back foot), but she didn’t get the takedown. She did, however, control McMann, holding her on the fence and systematically taking her apart before eventually finishing her with knees to the body.

These examples are what people often overlook when questioning Tarverdyan's ability as a coach, and while I have been harsh on his approach technique and comprehensive knowledge, I continue to give credit for the very obvious and effective things he helped develop in ronda's striking which she used in combination with her judo. I also give credit to the strategic soundness of what was shown her, on top of all the mental things he provided her that assisted in her ascension to stardom and pound-for-pound greatness.

In Part Two we will discuss the Bad and the Ugly regarding Edmond Tarverdyan, and how that put a very low ceiling on the growth, development, and continued success of Ronda Rousey.

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