Most people would be thankful to have the opportunity to excel at one sport in their lifetime, but I’ve been lucky enough to have a stab at two of them. As some of you will know, before making my UFC debut in 2009, I played in the NFL for the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. I’m 33 years of age now, but feel like a baby in mixed martial arts. This sport has given me a new lease of life as an athlete and allowed me the chance to reinvent myself on the sport’s biggest stage.
I think about that all the time. I’m so incredibly blessed to be doing what I am doing right now, coming off a career in the NFL. I didn’t even jump straight from the NFL into the UFC, either. I had a two-year hiatus in corporate America. I’ve had three separate lives in many ways. I’ve been the footballer, I’ve been the working guy and I’ve been the fighter. I’m incredibly fortunate that my body has been able to maintain itself throughout this journey and that I’ve had great people around me who have opened doors and helped me along the way.
I have so much more time to train and improve as a mixed martial artist now, as opposed to when I first started out in ’09. This is a full-time job and passion for me now, and I truly believe I am reaping the benefits. When I went on The Ultimate Fighter I had only been training for six months and was still kind of finding my feet in the sport. I always attacked training with a passion and excitement, even back then, but now I’m just able to do more of it and am able to work with the best in the business. I travel to quite a few gyms across America now, as I feel it’s important to find the right type of training and the environment that best suits me.
Some guys get caught up in the idea of getting comfortable in one place and sticking there for as long as they can get away with, but I’ve never been like that. I approach this sport with fresh eyes and fresh ideas and I want to capitalise on everything that is out there for me. I know that time isn’t on my side and I know that I can’t wait years and years to mature and develop as a mixed martial artist. I need to make my move now and become the best possible fighter I can be at this stage in my life.
Once you find the person whose coaching style fits you well, it’s fine to hang around and grow under their guidance, of course. I’ve done that. I went to a coach in Indianapolis, then went looking for some jiu-jitsu guys, tried to find Eddie Bravo, tried to find Pablo Popovitch and a guy named Dustin Denes and then I finally stumbled upon Randy Couture.
I remember one day Randy beating the living s— out of me on the ground and yelling at me in the process. He was saying, “Look, kid, you’re supposed to have a lot of potential, and one day you might be something, but right now you’re on your back getting your ass kicked. Unless you figure out a way of changing that, you’re going nowhere.”
That whole experience really opened my eyes. From that day onwards I made it my mission to follow Randy’s advice and work on my catch-wrestling, which is something that puts the emphasis on staying off your back and actively working more advantageous positions. I have Randy to thank for that.
That beat-down he served up to me was one of the best things to happen to me in my career. I never really would have noticed the flaws and weaknesses in my ground game if it hadn’t been for Randy pointing them out to me that day. I would have continued along the same path I was heading down and probably been exposed at some point in the Octagon. Randy flagged the problems and coach Neil Melanson set about putting them right.
The ground game has never really been my Achilles Heel as a mixed martial artist — it’s always been wrestling. That is the thing that took the longest to get to grips with, in all honesty. It’s truly like learning Chinese to me. My main problem was that I was separating grappling, jiu-jitsu and ground fighting from wrestling and treating them all as separate entities. Something was always getting lost in translation.
I’m now connecting the dots much better, thanks to the work of coach Neil and my catch-wrestling has opened my eyes to the potential of jiu-jitsu and submissions. It’s all the same end result, but you just use a totally different setup to get there.
A note to my next opponent Cheick Kongo. If I happen to take you down and have my way with you on the ground on Saturday, don’t blame me, blame Randy Couture. Also, if I happen to shout sweet nothings in your ear in the process, again, blame “Captain America,” not me. It’s all his doing…