MMA Ratings Podcast

February 23, 2021

Camp 101: A Comprehensive Understanding of Camps and Corners

By Schwan Humes

Combat sports are often considered the world’s toughest due to the nature of the competition, i.e. getting kicked, punched, elbowed, kneed, wrestled, and grappled. Of more importance is the fact that it’s not a team sport -- when you step into that cage you are out in no man’s land by yourself. Your team watches outside the cage while you and your opponent wage a battle inside of it; they can’t fight for you. What they can do, however, is prepare you correctly between and during fight camps, directing you intelligently and efficiently to help guide you to victory. And this is the crux of today’s article -- as talented as these fighters are, as tough as these fighters are, as experienced as these fighters are, and as skilled as these fighters are, they can’t do it alone. For all the loneliness that is experienced in-cage, in-fight, everything else leading up to them stepping into the cage is a team effort. And as much as we key in on fighters -- what they did or didn't do -- we have to ask what the reasoning is behind their actions and inactions.

Why did Dustin Poirier use calf kicks? Why didn't Conor McGregor know how to defend them? Why didn't Conor counter more aggressively with the hands or use his own kicking game to offset this? Why did Tony Ferguson have no Plan B once it became clear he couldn't strike with Justin Gaethje? Better yet, why did he insist on engaging Gaethje in a firefight on the feet? Why did Sarah Moras choose to get into a distance kickboxing match with Vanessa Melo, instead of using pressure, aggression, and physicality to bully and outwrestle her? Some of it could be a matter of a fighter’s lack of discipline, IQ, or awareness -- that is possible. But once again that puts the onus only on the fighter, and based on my experience as a skill developer and scout/strategist, that is rarely the case.

More times than not the issue isn't JUST limited to the fighters; that’s too easy. The issue is how the fighter has been conditioned, developed technically, directed strategically, and prepared mentally by their camp. Due to the romanticized aspect of combat sports we forget about the people who get the fighter to the cage -- the guys who don’t receive a show/win bonus, the guys whose paycheck doesn't change win or lose, the guys whose ranking doesn't change win or lose, the guys who OFTEN get away scot free, regardless of how poorly the fighters perform: the corners and camps. So I am going to take a closer look at camps in general -- the things they should do and the ways it limits a fighter when these things are not done.

1. Corners/Camps should constantly improve a fighter’s skill set, fight IQ, and situational awareness

When fighters plateau, often the blame falls on the fighter -- maybe they aren't as dedicated to pushing themselves, or they aren’t smart enough to know the work that should be done. But a camp is paid to at least touch on these things, and many of them do not. They wait until an opponent is picked or named to develop the specific skills it takes to neutralize the threat posed by said opponent. This is a short-sighted and ultimately flawed approach to developing a fighter. To maximize a fighter’s skillset and awareness, you have to CONTINUOUSLY be working on their game, not just what they like to do or what they want to do. You have to address anything and everything in regard to the sport BETWEEN fights; your down time between fights is where the growth occurs, because you have the time and freedom to explore various aspects of your training. Then when a fight is announced, then you pare it down so that you can directly address the specific threat posed by your contracted opponent.

Too many fighters try to figure out their defensive wrestling, their striking setups, and their grappling positioning in a 6-8 week camp, which isn't enough time to truly encompass the intricacies of any aspect of any individual range of MMA. You may address key positions, specific ranges, a particular technique or setup, but you can’t address the width and depth of things necessary to offer legitimate counters or defenses if things don’t go to plan. That sort of poise, that sort of width and depth of skill, that ability to adjust comes from countless reps, countless rounds of sparring, countless film sessions; you can’t cram that into 6-8 week camps, there isn’t enough time, not at the elite levels.

Don’t believe me? Ask me why McGregor in a short notice fight against Nate Diaz was head hunting, not leg kicking or touching the body. Better yet, tell me why he almost completely eliminated his kicking game and had no technical or strategic answer for Poirier’s kicks to the legs.

2. Camps should find sparring partners capable of pushing their fighter to improve

Quality sparring really is something that makes or breaks many fighters. At the lower levels athleticism, length, strength, power, and durability is enough to beat most opponents, even when you aren’t being pushed in sparring or you aren't getting the right sparring in regards to skill sets, styles, and physical tools. But as you move up in caliber of opposition, those things that were manageable before get you beat. This is because the advantages you have are no longer good enough to navigate the lack of depth, subtlety, technique, and cage IQ. You have to face people who can put you in positions, and can handle your power and athleticism, opponents against whom your size or physical strength can’t always dictate terms, whose stance limits your strengths and exposes some of your weaknesses.

An example of this would be Ovince St. Preux, who has gotten by on being very long, tall, and physically dynamic. He is at a small camp where he is one of the best and biggest athletes. How many fighters in his camp (historically) have been able to handle his power, physically impose themselves on him, or have the size and length to punish his numerous mistakes on the feet? In fights he has many losses to guys who had comparable physical tools, and technically he has never addressed his boxing offensively, nor his bad habit of being tall in the pocket. It could be that OSP is just lazy in his preparation, or it could be that he hasn't been punished for this in sparring enough to make him develop. If you aren't facing sparring partners who can and will exploit what you are doing wrong, you won't be prepared for opponents who can and will exploit what you do wrong in a fight. Sparring is to educate you and condition you for what you will be facing on fight night; if your sparring isn't up to par, you aren't getting better. Because you're not being pushed, you're not being denied, you're not being punished, all of which breeds complacency and sloppiness, which will cost you at the biggest moments.

3. Camps should properly assess their fighter

One of the biggest mistakes a camp makes is seeing something in a fighter that isn't there in regards to their physical tools. When a camp feels a fighter is a better athlete, a bigger hitter, or more durable/physical than average, they often take shortcuts, relying on said fighter’s physical gifts to navigate a lack of experience, IQ, and technical skill. If their fighter has power, they might not work on setups or accuracy because they think,”if my guy touches the other guy, it’s a wrap.” If their fighter is super durable, they might not focus on defense or pacing because they think, “my guy won't crack, and the other guy will gas, break mentally, or get broken down physically due to the pressure and volume my guy generates because he can't be hurt.” It's a similar argument for speed, strength, physicality, and conditioning. But what happens when a camp overestimates these things?

Karolina Kowalkiewicz was ruined by her camp, as they built her whole style around physical gifts that weren't nearly as elite as they were made out to be. Her style was based around her ability to impose herself physically, fight at an incredible pace, and absorb ridiculous amounts of punishment. That style is fine if you are Jessica Andrade, maybe even Holly Holm -- those women are elite in those regards and have been able to maintain their effectiveness because of those physical gifts. However, Kowalkiewicz’s team assessed her erroneously. They thought she was special physically, but she is regular in regards to athleticism and tools; what she’s exceptional in is actually heart and mental toughness. This is a very bad combination when her team has developed her based on perceived physical tools, and allowed her to fight in a style that is both wildly inefficient offensively and ridiculously irresponsible defensively.

So while Holm and Andrade are still competing in the top 5-7 of multiple divisions, Kowalkiewicz is hanging on by a thread and being beaten from pillar to post by every opponent she faces, all because her team didn't see her very real physical limitations and instead built a style that resulted in the world class being beaten out of her over the course of her career. Combat sports coaches are known for relying on their fighters’ physical tools, and it's understandable to a degree -- you play to a fighter’s strengths, of course. But you CANNOT be wrong in exactly what those strengths are.

4. Camps need to properly study film

The film always tells the truth -- at the end of the day, watching film will tell you everything that needs to be done to frustrate a fighter, make a fighter work, and beat a fighter. It's your job as a coach to be able to recognize patterns, setups, positions, and situations that allow you to exploit the opposition and limit their opportunities to return the favor. The problem is, many coaches can’t be objective -- they skew things in favor of their fighter because they have a relationship with their fighter and they want things to be true that aren’t. This ultimately leads to them lying to the fighter, and while some will say lying is okay if it builds confidence, I would say that false confidence won’t stand up under any sort of pressure. The only thing that stands up are the facts. But you can't get facts if your camp can’t see what the issues are.

An example of this would be Team Alpha Male’s struggle with Dominick Cruz. They had countless guys from their camp face him, and guys who had ties to their camp faced him as well. Every single one of them tried to do the same thing -- pressure him, use volume, fight at pace, and land big shots -- and every single one of them were summarily outpositioned, outsmarted, and outslicked to fairly one-sided losses. This was until years later, when Cody Garbrandt did the most obvious thing: let Cruz take the lead and exploit his lack of offensive footwork and refined technique to outposition, outsmart, outslick and punish him en route to a decision win.

The second issue that arises with watching film is that coaches can get caught up in a narrative and focus on the result of a fight instead of carefully watching what is happening In the fight. When that happens, the information being relayed to the fighter isn't based on what’s actually happening; it's based on what the coaches want to happen, and that's a dangerous game. Don’t believe me? Ask Tony Ferguson. The narrative is that Ferguson breaks guys and runs them down once he gets going. This ignores the fact that in almost 87% of his fights he is exposing himself to defeat, fighting in a manner that engages his opponents in spots that are guaranteed to provide them with their best chances to win. And it worked for him until it didn't, because once it didn't work, his team had no Plan B -- no technical answers as to how to be effective offensively or competent defensively. This cost him a long awaited shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov and subjected him to the worst beating he has taken over the length of his career.

At the end of the day the fighter is the one who gets paid, becomes a celebrity, and ultimately works their way up the ranks to become a contender, title challenger or champion. It’s an individual sport where the successes and failures rest squarely on the shoulders of the fighter. But the fact of the matter is that it takes a team to prepare, direct, educate, and empower these fighters. These guys are charged with doing the day-to-day work necessary to put their athletes in position to win, and many times these guys aren't doing their job in a manner or at the level necessary for these athletes to be the fighters they want to be and to achieve the success they would like financially.

When a fighter wins, everyone associated with that fighter benefits, but when a fighter fails or flames out, they often bear those repercussions alone. A fighter’s career could be done, a fighter could be cut from the UFC, a fighter could go from main card, to mid card, to preliminary fighter. Coaches have many fighters, many opportunities to get it right. FIghters don’t have that many avenues, or that many opportunities, so doing the things I mentioned becomes immensely important for the longevity and quality of their careers. When these things don’t get done, the fighter suffers unnecessarily.

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