The Ultimate Wingman

By Loretta Hunt Jul 10, 2009
Zach Light always knew there was a place for him in mixed martial arts. It just took him a little while to figure out exactly what that was.

A two-time All-American wrestler in high school and junior college, Light might best be remembered for his brief appearance at UFC 37.5 in 2002. Pete Spratt submitted Light with a first-round armbar, the finishing move that would account for four of the Californian’s eight career losses of a lackluster 4-8 pro record.

Light admits he was one of those fighters who couldn’t quite transfer his success in the gym to the cage.

“I’d hang with everybody, but maybe it’s a mental thing,” said Light. “I don’t know why I lost all of those fights.”

Light doesn’t have to ponder over that so much anymore –- this Saturday he will corner “Ultimate Fighter” winner Michael Bisping in his fight against Dan Henderson at UFC 100 in Las Vegas. The bout will cap off a 10-week training camp Light orchestrated over two continents for the 30-year-old fighter.

In the last three years, Light has made the leap from fighter to trainer, though many who have worked with the tireless and patient gym guru describe him as much more than a coach.

Tiki Ghosn calls Light “the ultimate wingman” -- equal parts training partner, confidante, motivational speaker, and personal assistant thrown in to boot.

In final days leading up to an event, Light might procure his fighter a new cup or make sure his fight shorts are just the right color and cut, and that all the sponsors’ brands have been embroidered on them.

“It’s a lot of running around and getting simple things,” said Light. “The fighters are very, very particular over their fight shorts. If it’s not perfect and doesn’t look exactly the way they want, they’ll want something else.”

On one occasion, Light delivered a condom to one of his fighter’s hotel rooms.

At the tail-end of Bisping’s less racy training cycle, Light brought in “The Ultimate Fighter 7” veteran Mike Dolce as an on-site nutritionist so the Brit could have his meals waiting for him after his late-night sessions.

Light never intended to become a trainer. He thought fighting was his calling.

The decision was made for him when Light’s marriage began to unravel in 2002. With a 3-3 record and no foreseeable way to make a decent living, Light left the sport, though he didn’t wander far.

“Every single day, I would be on all the Web sites,” said Light, who took an office job selling fitness equipment. “I’d watch every single pay-per-view. In my mind I was going through strategies in the fight and pretty much picking who would win because this guy was going to do this or that.”

Terry Goodlad/

Light will corner Bisping at UFC 100.
Light’s eye for detail did not go unnoticed. Tito Ortiz, who’d huffed and puffed alongside Light during their days with Team Punishment in Huntington Beach, Calif., doled out the ultimate recommendation.

“Tito told me if I wanna be the champ to train with Zach,” said “Razor” Rob McCullough, “and if I could hang with him on the mat with my standup skills, I’d smash dudes.”

McCullough and Light began a year-and-a-half run training together, one that saw the lightweight with razor-sharp kicks grasp the WEC title.

Light continued to fight as well, but didn’t find the same success as McCullough, losing five of his next seven fights.

The clouds parted when Quinton Jackson hired Light as his wrestling coach in late 2006, just as the future light heavyweight champion was making his cross-over into the UFC.

Light had known Jackson already for ten years, which proved a valuable asset when the trainer had to assert himself.

“I’d wake ‘Rampage’ up at 6 a.m. every morning and I know the guy hated my guts,” he said. “There’s nobody in the whole camp that would wake him up besides me. He hates people in the morning. He hates me all the way leading up to the fight and just loves me after.”

Jackson cinched up the UFC title in only his second fight for the promotion and word started to get out about Light and his services.

In the last eight months, Light has had only seven weeks off and seen his two young children only three times. Most recently, he coordinated back-to-back camps for U.K. lightweight Paul Kelly, Cheick Kongo (who was a three-week replacement at UFC 99), and Bisping, who Light started with ten weeks ago in England, then traveled with to Las Vegas to finish out his last three weeks.

Mario Neto, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who’s helped guide Bisping’s career over the last few years, also moved with the group to Sin City, and watched the Brit trade shots with the likes of Phil Baroni, Trevor Prangley, and Ricco Rodriguez.

“It’s hard to get fighters together to do their training on time,” said Neto. “It takes a Superman and (Light) is perfect for this. Not everyone likes to be all about the fighter like he is.”

Light has drawn from his own career in molding each camp to fit each fighter’s individual needs.

“The biggest thing I learned in fighting myself is that you can’t train yourself,” he said. “A fighter needs a go-to guy. He needs to look at his corner and believe in the person he’s talking to. It’s that somebody that’s looking out for you no matter what.”

It’s not always easy. Light described Kongo’s June 12 fight at UFC 99, a loss to Cain Velasquez, as painful to watch, especially as the Frenchman seemed ill equipped to adjust his game plan from round to round.

“There’s some small changes you can make, but you can only say so much and even in so many words in the corner that the fighter can understand,” said Light. “Me being a fighter and knowing that and what I can take in, even with all those things in play, you can only say too much.”

Kongo certainly didn’t hold the loss against Light.

“He has the ability to know my opponents and set up my training camp and my strategies (to fit that),” Kongo wrote via text. “He’s more than a coach.”

Though his services might seem all-encompassing, one area Light doesn’t intervene in is management.

“I’ve figured out a way as a trainer to not be involved with the fighter’s money so much,” he said. “I’m not their manager and don’t want to be. As a trainer, if you do the best you can with a guy and don’t get involved in the politics of his personal money, you’ll be around forever.”

Finding order in organized bedlam has suited Light well.

“I’m way more confident as a trainer,” said Light. “I find it fulfilling enough as a fighter to be able to be in the gym and still be able to spar with some of these guys or just wrestle with them. I do almost everything that the fighter does and I don’t even have to fight.”

That doesn’t mean Light has satisfied his original itch though.

“I’m probably going to fight a couple of more times in my career,” said the emerging trainer, “but more because I love it. I’m not going to be fighting to become the world champion.”

When that happens, expect Light to have one of the most stacked corners in the biz.
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