DellaGrotte: Florian Could Run Over Huerta

By Jack Encarnacao Jul 31, 2008
You may have spotted Mark DellaGrotte as the bespectacled guy in a flat cap shouting instructions in a thick Boston accent as the cornerman for many notable fighters, from Patrick Cote (Pictures) to Marcus Davis (Pictures) to Kenny Florian (Pictures). The leader of the Massachusetts-based Sityodtong USA Muay Thai academy has risen to prominence as one of the leading striking coaches in the country, having helped transform Florian from a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt into an equally dangerous kickboxer and clinch fighter.

After his stint as an assistant coach on “The Ultimate Fighter 4: The Comeback,” DellaGrotte befriended several mixed martial arts veterans who have spread awareness of his knack for coaching and unique outlook on the fight game. caught up to DellaGrotte as several of his charges face pivotal fights in their careers. You have an interesting analysis about how the size of the UFC Octagon factors into how well certain fighters do, as illustrated by the Patrick Cote (Pictures)-Travis Lutter (Pictures) fight in the finale of “The Ultimate Fighter 4.” Can you explain that?
DellaGrotte: A lot of people don’t realize this; it’s never taken into account. The actual cage, the size of the Octagon, actually varies from venue to venue. Being at the Hard Rock at [“The Ultimate Fighter 4”] finale, it’s a small venue, which means it’s a slightly smaller cage, which plays a huge role in a fight in terms of defending takedowns. I think Patrick Cote (Pictures) was not only up against the wall with his grappling versus Travis’, but also his odds of staying on his feet and keeping the fight standing are pretty tough, too, when you get into a smaller cage. The larger Octagon obviously helps Patrick Cote (Pictures) stay on his feet a little longer. Can you give me the difference as far as Octagon dimensions?
DellaGrotte: The actual size is supposed to be 32-feet in terms of the official Octagon size. They often use a smaller one. I don’t know the exact size of the smaller one. I know the standard is 32, and they actually go down to a smaller size. Nobody even realizes it. It’s something that I’ve noticed and not many other people have. I don’t often talk about it. That’s just something that goes to show you what goes on in the mind of Mark DellaGrotte when it comes to planning a fight. I even take into consideration the actual size of the venue and the Octagon they’re going to use that night.

Sherdog: You’ve helped train and corner Travis Lutter (Pictures) in the past. What’s going on with him?
DellaGrotte: Unfortunately, he had a tough last couple of outings. He didn’t make the weight, and then of course he suffered a loss to [UFC middleweight champion] Anderson Silva (Pictures). That was a huge setback in his career. He hit a big wall. He appeared to have overcome it approaching the [Rich] Franklin fight [at UFC 83]. Unfortunately, he did not spend as much time down here and as much time with me as I think he should have. But his time was restricted, and he did what he could do. He only got a chance to spend a couple of days with me, and obviously that was shown in his performance. It was a little lackluster. He hit the weight OK, but something along the road went wrong, and he wasn’t able to do what he wanted to do against Rich.

In my opinion, I didn’t play much of a role in his training. I was merely employed by him as his cornerman. A lot of people will actually bring me in and have me work their corner because of my experience and my ability to do the whole job … you know, wrap hands, corner the fighter, give him good strategy. It’s an overall plan. It’s kind of like you employing, like, [cut man Jacob “Stitch” Duran] if you wanted to bring a cut man to Japan. You can call “Stitch” and say, “‘Stitch,’ I need the best in the business. I’m up against the wall here.” It’s kind of like what Travis did for me. He knew me well, and he knew I would help him if he asked.

He specifically mentioned on the show, “The Ultimate Fighter” finale, that he doesn’t have coaches; he doesn’t believe in coaches. People were mocking him about it: “You don’t have a coach? Who teaches you? What do you do?” Travis is a rebel, and he does things his own way. He’s been at it for a long time, and it’s gotten him to where he is, so he believes that it works for him and it’s going to continue to work for him. I think even he now realizes that he needs to make changes in his training. He needs to listen better to coaches and to be more coachable. I think it’s a lesson that Travis not only learned but is still in the process of learning. You draw from such a deep pool of things when you try to motivate a fighter in his corner. Either you sound angry at him or sound like the most inspirational guy of all time. What goes through your mind when you’re talking to a fighter between rounds?
DellaGrotte: What goes through my mind is, “How can I touch the nerve?” Part of being a good coach is building a relationship with the fighters and getting to understand who they are and what goes on, even in their private life, and what you can do to motivate them. Sometimes you talk about their kids, and they get crazy and they want to fight harder. Sometimes you talk about the struggles that they’ve had and where their career’s gone and how nobody believed in them and now look at them. It’s not just going through the gym, and you’re going to win fights if you hang out with DellaGrotte. That’s not how it is. You’ve got to get to know the fighter. You’ve got to get to know them on a deep, personal level, so that when it’s crunch time and when it’s in the heat of the battle, you know what nerves to touch to get that fighter to where he needs to be to win that fight. Sometimes, it’s motivating them on a positive scale that brings them the fuel they need, and other times, you kind of got to s--t on them and tell them that they’re no good. And then they look to prove themselves to you. It’s all really just a strategy on the coach’s behalf to get the fighter up for the fight. What would you tell a Kenny Florian (Pictures) if you didn’t think he was pulling through in a fight?
DellaGrotte: If I didn’t think Kenny was pulling through, I would obviously tell him, “Kenny, look at where you are, look at where you’ve come, look at the struggles you’ve had.” Kenny Florian (Pictures) is a lot easier to get up for a fight than some other guys. I’ve often found myself actually trying to bring Kenny down a little bit so that he’s not overconfident and he doesn’t go out there and make mistakes. That happens when you underestimate opponents and everybody tells you, “You’re going to smash this kid.” You start to believe that hype, and you go out there and the kid suddenly is stronger than you thought or suddenly is better than you thought. Sometimes, you have to actually do the opposite and bring the fighter down and say, “Hey, listen, this guy’s dangerous. Don’t get too comfortable out there.” Getting guys like Marcus Davis (Pictures) up for a fight is not hard. Getting guys like Kenny Florian (Pictures) up for a fight is not hard. Teaching them to control their emotions so they use their brains in there -- that’s the challenge. What’s your breakdown of Florian’s upcoming fight against Roger Huerta (Pictures)?
DellaGrotte: In my opinion, I think Kenny’s going to determine what type of fight he makes it. Kenny could run over Roger if he really wants to, or he could allow Roger to give Kenny a fight. I think Kenny’s ability to harness his energy and ability to control his aggression and not become emotionally attached to the fight -- like Roger likes to fight -- is going to give Kenny the technical advantage that he needs. If Roger is able to get in Kenny’s head and make him fight a sloppy, wild, Roger Huerta (Pictures)-style of fight, then obviously that type of fight fits Roger Huerta (Pictures). Kenny knows he not only needs to use his technical abilities, but he also needs to play a very mental game with Roger … make sure Roger doesn’t take him out of the element of his technical ability and turn him into a brawler. I know Roger’s going to try to do that, and that’s what we’re going to try to avoid in this fight. Does Huerta do those things before the fight’s even started, or does he do those things during the fight itself?
DellaGrotte: I know Roger, and sometimes he can try to play a tough guy type of approach before the fight. I know that he told Kenny when they met recently doing some type of PR that, “Kenny, we’re friends man; we’re boys, but I’m telling you man, I’m just going to go at it, man, I’m just going for it.” Kenny came over and was, like, “Check this out. Listen to what Roger said.” And we laughed about it, because that’s just exactly what we know Roger’s going to try to do, thinking he’s going to intimidate Kenny into fighting a fearful fight or a wild fight with him. But Kenny’s smarter than that. Those types of tricks don’t work with Kenny. Kenny is not going to fight any other fight than the fight we plan to go in there and fight. He’s not going to be taken out of his element. He’s not going to switch game plans on the fly. We know what we need to do to beat Roger Huerta (Pictures) on a technical level. We plan on it being a fun fight and an exciting fight, but we also plan on taking Roger out in a tactful manner. Can you give me the quick and dirty rundown of your history in muay Thai?
DellaGrotte: I was introduced to muay Thai by a guy named Guy Chase; he now owns a gym in New Hampshire. He introduced me to muay Thai in 1992. I studied with him for a couple of years before I wanted to take it to the next level. I did so by going to Thailand in about 1997 or 1998. I went over to Thailand, fought as a pro for a couple of years, went back-and-forth to Thailand for a couple of years and was given permission to use the name Sityodtong, which is very similar to, like, the Gracie family of Thai boxing.

When I first started doing muay Thai in the early 90s, nobody else was doing it. Basically, the matches that I would get were smokers, which were inter-gym matches with guys bringing guys from other gyms. It was kind of like the underground deal. The UFC had yet to emerge. It was kind of off-and-on, my career back in the day. Most of my bouts came from Thailand. It’s tough to say what an accurate record is. I have a winning record, but I don’t have many fights. I have probably less than 10 fights, but the fights that I had were all quality matches. I fought good names in Thailand. They didn’t give me easy fights. I had a bunch of wins, ran into a loss [and] had a draw once in my career.

A lot of people think [I’m] a muay Thai champ and [have] this extensive fight background. That’s really not the case. When I started doing muay Thai, it was on more like an underground level. People still were not hip to the sport, and by the time the sport emerged, my career as a trainer had already taken off. I only started fighting because I wanted to be a better trainer. I had taught martial arts prior to my fight career, and I actually said, “I don’t want to teach unless I fight.” And everybody’s, like, “You’re a great teacher. You already have students learning from you. What do you mean you want to take off to Thailand and go fight for a couple of years? Why? It’s working right now.” I said, “Because I haven’t fulfilled that part of my life yet, and I want to test myself in that range, in that field.” And also, I felt that there’s nothing worse than the fat karate instructor who tells you theoretically what to do but has never done it. Why do MMA fighters come to you to train their all-around game if you’ve been so specialized in muay Thai?
DellaGrotte: I think it’s because I just have such a broad spectrum of martial arts that I’ve taught and I’ve studied. I think, more importantly, I’ve been around the fight game a lot longer than some of these guys have. MMA has just emerged, but I’ve been involved in the fight game since the late 80s. I’ve been involved in boxing and kickboxing and helping boxing commissioners organize and sanction things from state-to-state. I’ve been part of a movement of legalizing MMA. I think that comes from not only my broad spectrum of martial arts that I’ve taught and studied but my complete understanding of the arts and how they all come together.

I think of myself as a modern-day Bruce Lee and a jeet kune do practitioner. I don’t believe in just boxing or just muay Thai or just jiu-jitsu. I think all the arts create MMA, and if they’re not put together properly, the outcome won’t be the same. I think the reason it all comes together so well here is because we’re open-minded and we accept all the arts. I think a lot of people are biased to one particular style because that’s their crutch, and that’s what’s gotten them the farthest. At the end of the day, Kenny Florian (Pictures)’s not just a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu; he’s a K-1 Max-level muay Thai striker, he’s a collegiate-level wrestler, and the reason why he’s good at doing all those is because we practice all of those.

A big part of it is my overall experience and time invested in the arts. For example, at the local fights the other night, one of the guys was kneed [in the body] right at the bell [to end the first round], and the ref was debating stopping the fight. Because there’s no eight count in MMA, the referee was unable to stop the fight. I basically yelled to my cornermen to get [the kneed fighter] on a stool. The fighter was almost waiving us off like he was done, and I told him, “Your muscles are spasming; it’s just a spasm. It’s going to stop, and you’re going to be able to breath in about five seconds. Relax and control your mind. Don’t give up. Don’t lay down for this guy. You’re going to win.” And before you knew it, he looked at me, and he’s, like, “I feel better, my breath.” I said, “Exactly.” Experience is what I gave that kid. I told him, “This is what’s going to happen to your body, because I’ve seen this before.”
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