Sometimes you push someone too hard and they run away and you never see them again, sometimes you break them, every once in a while it’s like crushing a rock into a diamond. You crush and crush and a person is transformed through the pressure.
In 2005 Rudi Ott opened up Unlimited MMA in Milipitas California. Since its inception Ott has churned out a regular breed of professional and active amateur Muay Thai fighters. Ott took the time off from his busy schedule to talk about fighting, coaching and the hardships in between.
How did you get into fighting?
I’ve always done martial arts. I started traditional Kung Fu when I was a kid and went to China in 1986. I was super into it. I took about ten years off and went through some growing pains. I found my way back to my old Kung Fu school. At that time I needed to burn off a lot of my bad energy and I wasn’t really focused in my life. I started back up and then wanted things to be more real. In the Kung Fu school we had a San Shou program, Chinese Kickboxing, which is very similar to Muay Thai. I saw it and wanted to do it. Once I punched someone in the face I decided that it was something I really wanted to do.
What are some of the differences between Muay Thai and San Shou?
The sports are very similar with the biggest differences being in the clinch and how you deal with fighting in the clinch. Instead of knees and elbows San Shou focuses on throws and takedowns. The sweeps are pretty much the same. Chinese style San Shou uses more sidekicks than direct kicks Muay Thai does. I’ve always implemented anything that I could take though. I do a lot more Muay Thai now than I do San Shou now though.
When did you first get involved with Muay Thai?
It’s funny I just got back from Hawaii and it was 15 years ago that I met Jongsanaan, Ganyao and Enn for the first time in Hawaii. It was a San Shou card with a competition between Team USA versus Team China. I’d never really experienced true Thai fighters. I didn’t know who Jongsanaan was. I had no clue. I thought that the Thai guys would get thrown on their heads. Then the Thai guys annihilated their opponents. The only guys that won were the Thai guys and Cung Le. My own fight was not very close. I didn’t get hurt but the guy was just much more experienced and slicker than I was.
It was a real eye opener to see the Thais fight. We trained a whole week with them and I was like “Woah! These guys are legit!” Then when I saw them fight I was blown away. Enn knocked out his opponent twice. In Jongsanaan’s fight the Chinese guy threw in the towel.
Even before that I’d seen things that I liked from Muay Thai, like leg kicks. My first experience with leg kicks was at a 1997 Worlds where I fought three times. The first fight was against Khazakstan, the second Aujerbijan, the third was Ukraine and the returning world champ. I lost by 1 one point because my leg was destroyed from leg kicks. I decided after that I wanted to implement leg kicks. I fought three or four times on the same card as Jongsanaan and I started to cross train with Thai fighters after that.
How did you get into coaching?
When I was in Boston with my original school the group of fighters there helped each other. We had one main coach but we all trained each other. When I came to California I became the assistant coach at Cung Le’s place. I started leading guys like Jose Palacios and other fighters that we had. Cung Le and I started to tagteam coach guys then when I opened my gym, Unlimited MMA, my main objective was to have a fight team.
When did you come to California?
I came in 1999 right before the fight in Hawaii. I’d been out to California before and I’d moved around from the Northwest, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and didn’t know if I was going to fight again. I itched real bad to fight and so I came to the Bay area.
What are some of the similarities between coaching and fighting?
They are actually really different. Fighting is way easier to me. Fighting you just go out there and perform. Coaching is really stressful for me as I’m a real hands on coach. I have a 100% control during training camp but when the fight comes I have no control. It’s like sending your child off to college, “I hope they got this shit down.” I’m also really intense in the corner. If anybody has been to fights that I’ve had fighters at he or she probably heard my very audible voice. It’s about learning how to deal with stress. Win or lose I’m always exhausted after a fight card. I always need to go home and decompress. To me fighting and coaching are two very different things.
What are some of the common problems you see with your fighters?
Everyone is different. I’ve built my team from the ground up. Some of the big name gyms get guys who already know that they want to be fighters and so they just have to teach them how to fight. I have a few of those types of guys. I also have people who think they want to fight and they have to learn how to be fighters and learn how to fight at the same time. They have to learn the mentality of being a fighter. That’s the hardest part, getting someone to have the right mentality to be a fighter.
Anyone can punch and kick someone but when you’re getting pushed, when you’re getting beat up, learning how to deal with the humps of losing, that’s different especially when you don’t have fighting as a natural instinct. Sometimes you push someone too hard and they run away and you never see them again, sometimes you break them, every once in a while it’s like crushing a rock into a diamond. You crush and crush and a person is transformed through the pressure.
Who would be your ideal fighter and what would they be like?
I tend to like blood and guts kind of guys but also appreciate technicians as well. If I could cross Petrosyan with Kevin Ross with Porsanae with Hoost with Rungravee, that would be awesome!
My kind of fighter is a coachable one. At a certain point once a fighter has enough experience it’s not so much about X’s and O’s but the ability to use a coach as a third eye in the ring that can really help your performance. My most successful fighters have been the most coachable whether it’s in training or in the ring.
What are some of your strengths and weaknesses as a trainer?
I think they go hand in hand. My strength is that I still train and spar with my fighters. I was a fighter myself so I understand what it takes to be successful and I understand the mentality. That’s also my weakness. I will draw a line and say “this is how you’re supposed to be,” but not everyone can do that, or understand that. If I nurtured people a little more, or was a little more patient with some people maybe they’d come along. I think that I have the fighter mentality still and that I can still train alongside my fighters is good but also if I took some time away from training and watched my fighters a little more I could probably smooth out their rough edges but I’m not really ready to stop training myself.
What do you want/get out of coaching?
For me it’s seeing the transformation of someone and developing someone from a person who didn’t think they could fight into someone that could. Obviously I’d love to have a ton of legit belts on my wall but really to me it’s seeing the evolution and process of someone going from a novice to an amateur, from an amateur to a pro, from a pro to a champion. I’ve had a few guys that have done that. I have a big team and a lot of the guys have been with me from day one and it’s a journey. It’s really about seeing that evolution. Having a successful gym is a separate business aspect but having a successful fight team is what matters to me. Seeing people transformed really inspires me. Hopefully I can continue to grow generations of fighters until I’m like Mickey out of Rocky.
How do you develop a game plan for a fight?
I think that’s one of my strengths as a coach. When I fought YouTube didn’t exist and you rarely got to see who you were fighting before you fought them so before you just had to go in there and make it happen. Now if I’m able to get a video on someone I try to view it. I look at the opponent and figure out what are their strengths and weaknesses are and ask can my fighter’s strengths and weaknesses exploit theirs? If the opponent’s strengths and weakness are greater than my fighter’s than it’s a question of “how can we counter that?” It’s a dynamic process. Sometimes it’s as simple as “he’s a southpaw so you lead with your cross.”
Sometimes it’s much more involved and you need to work on things to set things up. Seeing someone in the ring helps a lot but again once your fighter goes in the ring you don’t have control over him or her anymore. It’s up to the fighter at that point. We drill and drill and we try to emulate who they are fighting in sparring but when the fighter gets in the ring the other guy might have some other strategy going on at which point your fighter has to go to plan B.
Do you manage your fighter’s careers and what is that like?
The majority of my fighters I manage although I do have a couple of guys who train with my team that have managers. I feel like I do a decent job with them. If at some point they get to a stage in their career where they are making big money and they can find someone who can help them make more money and get more exposure I have no issue with stepping aside on the managerial side. For the most part, I have 5 professionals and 12 active amateurs, I am really hands on. I pretty much dictate the path they go on.
What do you do when you have a fighter get injured in a fight?
That’s happened a few times. I’ve had a couple of bad knockouts. As a coach you take it personally. You feel like you failed them. I know that when you’re fighting anything can happen but… It’s hard. It’s really what you do after that fight that matters.
Last year I put Miranda Cayabyab in a short notice fight on Lion Fight against Angela Hill who was undefeated at 12-0. I was really overconfident. I believe that Miranda is the best 110 pounder in the country but she didn’t have a full training camp and I overlooked that. Miranda got caught and got knocked out. I was devastated. Miranda came back and redeemed it all by winning her professional debut a few months later even though she had a missing ACL. After the loss though I had to be really conscious of her state and where she was after that fight.
For some people it’s hard to take a loss like that. To me it’s always good to get back on the horse and face your fear but other people have their own way of processing that feeling. I’ve had a few of my fighters get knocked out before and it never gets easier. I’m still haunted by my first kid getting knocked out eight years ago on an amateur card. But ultimately we’re trying to do the same to our opponent and that’s just how it goes.
What’s one of the hardest things about coaching?
I think it’s getting someone who doesn’t have the fighter instinct to have that. Some people because of their upbringing or something that happened to them have that instinct and all you have to do is teach them technique and point them in the right direction. Some people, however, you have to change their mentality to have a fighter’s mentality. That’s the hardest thing.
What sort of advice do you give to your fighters in the corner?
It depends on the fighter and how well they are doing. Most of it is very technical, “you need to do this, you need to watch out for that.” Sometimes it’s “you have to wake up, you have to be more active, you’re letting this guy go first.” It really depends on what happens round by round.
How do you help them adjustments during a fight?
I try to reiterate a basic command, usually something really simple, “throw the jab, and then throw the cross.” Then I’ll hit their hand and then the other hand to instill it. I remember as a fighter sometimes you would just be hearing Charlie Brown voices in the corner. You’re just so overwhelmed you’re not hearing anything. So I’ll just try to repeat things and say things like “kick with this leg, kick with this leg,” while slapping the corresponding leg. Then I’ll ask them to repeat it to me if they do and can they generally got it.
How do you help fighters make adjustments in training?
Again it depends. If you have a game plan it’s really about making your fighter stick to it. When you spar you really want to be open and “go with the flo” but at the same time you need to treat your sparring partner as if they were an opponent and be working your game plan and that takes discipline. A lot of people are bad at that discipline to of staying on the game plan.
Have you ever had to throw in the towel for a fighter before? What prompted that decision? How did that feel?
Recently one of my kids, Hector Cortes, fought Willy Whipple, and got dropped. We knew it would be a tough fight but right in the first round Cortes got hit with an overhand. At that point everything goes out the window, the game plan, everything. You have to get the guy to survive the round and then he’s going be down by 2 points already.
Pretty much after that you have to just go in there and smash the opponent. You have to take the opponent’s confidence away.
Cortes got dropped again in the third round. Cortes got back up and started to hit Willy. It was a crazy frenetic fight and in the fifth round Cortes got dropped again and I had to throw in the towel. Right as I was doing that the referee stopped the bout so technically I didn’t throw in the towel but I wasn’t going to allow Cortes to get dropped more than three times. Getting back up Cortes would wobble each time and I didn’t want him getting that hurt.
What do you think is necessary for Muay Thai in America to grow?
Muay Thai here in the states is better than it’s ever been but you need more legit coaches. Also the athletic commission and governing bodies really need to do their homework on how to judge and ref. They need to learn the difference between Muay Thai, MMA and Boxing because you have judges for MMA bouts going and judging Muay Thai and they don’t know what they’re looking at. You see on every card some guy with great technique and great in the clinch but some other guy that is busier, slapping punches, and the judges will score the slapping punches more. That’s not real Muay Thai. The coaching and fighting level are starting to come up but the governing bodies need to do more of their work as well.
How do you feel Muay Thai has changed since you started coaching and first was introduced to the sport?
In the United States it’s changed by leaps and bounds. In the last four years Muay Thai has really started to come up. It starts with organizations like Lion Fight putting on really good cards consistently. There have been other great cards out here but then the show is gone for two years. The promotion will bring out Thai guys and that’s great, especially to see guys that you’d never get to see if you didn’t go to Thailand but that’s not going to help the sport here in the U.S. The sport needs consistent shows with local fighters being built up. I think however you are seeing better, well rounded, ready to compete internationally, fighters from the United State now.
I think more interviews with fighters and coaches will also help because not everyone can or will fight on Lion Fight but there’s the whole support unit around that fighter on the card. There are a lot of people involved in making that fighter shine on stage. If those people get more attention that will draw more people in as a lot of people don’t see themselves as being a top notch fighter but if they see people involved in that process they might want to be involved as well.
Where do you think Muay Thai will go in the States?
That’s tough as MMA dominates the combat sport market and boxing will always have a stronghold. With Lion Fight on AXs TV and Glory being on Spike, even though Glory is technically kickboxing a lot of the same fighters on Glory fight Muay Thai, the sport is getting more exposure. If we could get a reality show on Spike with Muay Thai fighters that would be great. I think we’re a couple years away from that but the sport is definitely growing. Lion Fight and Glory have made big strides in getting the exposure needed to develop the sport. It’s up to the fighters, the gyms and the people associated with the gyms to really get the word out about the sport otherwise Muay Thai will always be a niche.
After Palacios recent decision loss to Chasteen at Lion Fight where will you go from here?
As for me I have 3 fighters on a card at the end of them month, 1 for a title so it’s back to work. Jose, however, is going to take the rest of the year off and get used to the routine of being a dad. He’ll get back to fighting in 2015.
What was the game plan with the fight against Chasteen?
The game plan was for Jose to do his thing but to also hit Chasteen with something hard early on. He just wasn’t able to do enough of either.
How do you think that Palacios successfully executed the plan or did not? What were the pros and cons for Palacios?
Jose had some success but just didn’t do enough. This gave Chasteen momentum and you never want to give a young hungry fighter momentum. You have to take away their confidence.
What do you love about what you do?
I think most trainers will say they love the sport and they love the challenge the sport brings but for me it’s the personal transformation of a person. For me though it’s hard to have a favorite moment but I think Miranda coming back from her loss in her last amateur fight to overcoming that and winning her professional debut with a blown out knee. I think there’s a lot more that goes into building a fighter than just the physical. There’s a mental aspect as well and the relationships that are built through training.