When you’re away from the gym you act as a behavioural manager at a high school in Cardiff. Did your background in MMA have an influence on you wanting to undertake the role? How easily transferable are the skills as a head coach and a behavioural manager?
Yes, when you imagine when we opened the MMA gym up, what type of character are you gonna attract? In the early days, it was aggressive young men. Your Martin McDonoughs, your Marshmans, Kris Edwards – all these lads were aggressive by nature, were in trouble and had been on the wrong side of the law. If you’ve got a young man with real, aggressive tendencies, there’s not good in sending them to some youth worker to discuss and control that temper. Give them something to channel it!
So, I started working with these boys. I was clear from the offset. I was a lot older than them. They’d all looked up to me because, obviously, I’d been the man that was fighting on the circuit at the time, so I had that little bit of initial respect. Within a couple of weeks, I had a real good team, a real good team ethos there. I was clear, “if you step out of line and if you’re violent outside of this gym environment, without any sort of evidence that it was necessary, you will leave the gym!”
While we were doing it, I had a guy that started training with me that worked for the youth offending service. He thought “Christ, he’s doing a good job here with these young lads”. So he pulled me to the side one day. There was no money in running a gym back then, it was actually costing me money to keep it open. He asked if I ever thought about working in the youth offending system and that he could put me on an Open University course to get me qualified. He said that the life skills that I could bring, rather than the academic skills could make me successful in some of the schools round here.
So I went back to an Open University for 12 months, got my qualifications. Did it for one or two evenings a week. A job became available, I was encouraged to apply, I applied. Twenty-two people applied, I was the only one who wasn’t degree educated but I ended up getting the job! It was based on the success I had had with some of the more troubled kids in my gym. I did two years over in a place called Porth, in the Rhondda (Valley). That was a good apprenticeship, there were some tough kids there! Because of my success there, I was approached by a school in Ely, in Cardiff. Those who know will tell you how tough an area Ely is! I worked there for six years. I was then approached by a school in Llanishen (Cardiff) and I’ve been there for three years.
I do enjoy it. It is a benefit in as much as it can help with some of the more troublesome lads. They know who I am, they know who Jack is and about the team. I get a little bit of respect from the off, whereas other people might not.
The dynamic is a bit different. If there’s any nonsense in the gym I kick them out but you can’t just be throwing people out of school. They’re two totally separate roles. My job in the school environment is to educate these kids; not academically but in life skills, in how to carry yourself properly, to help them with their anger, help them with conflict avoidance, help them be respectful to their peers and to adults. And also, to get them to take responsibility. One of the biggest things you find with the youngsters today is that they don’t take responsibility for what they do, which is great when you’re mollycoddling them in school but then they turn 16 and, all of a sudden, they’re in the big bad world. They’re totally different roles but dealing with difficult teenagers in the gym has definitely transferred into the school role.
How involved are you in the fighter’s lives outside of the gym? Have you ever been called upon if they fall out of line?
In the early days, I would regularly be ‘rung up’. I’d be sat down having a cup of tea on a Saturday night and one of the local pubs would ask me to pop across because a couple of the lads had been playing up. We nipped that in the bud within 12 to 18 months. There was one or two boys who thought I’d never throw them out of the gym but I did! Everyone knew what was expected by then. When they’re out there, they’re out representing my name. In recent times it hasn’t been so bad, we’re far more professional now so they’re not necessarily out drinking. I look at them like family. They visit my house regularly. We have nights out. With some of the younger lads, their parents often ring me and ask me to have a conversation with them because of issues in the house. I like to think it’s not the pure coach/student relationship, it’s more of a mentoring as well. I like to think that they think of me as, not necessarily a father figure but the ‘big uncle’ or the ‘big brother’ who can offer them some guidance and advice.
You’ve spoken before about your work in the gym with youth offenders. How would you approach those with a history of offences as opposed to others in your gym? Do you ever have to unravel their egos?
We tend to target local lads so that when they come in, they’re aware of who Marshman is, they’re aware of who Kris Edwards is, they’re aware of who Jack is. It’s for some, it’s not for others. MMA is a very unique taste. We run the jiu-jitsu gym so a lot of them might just transfer into the jiu-jitsu. That’s a lot easier, you can train 2-3 times a week, you can compete without the worry of being punched in the face! And there’s nothing wrong with that! You’ve got to be a certain type of individual to go into a sporting event where the objective is to either render you unconscious from striking, choking you out or breaking a limb!
When they come, a lot of it (their ego) gets left at the door. Say I get a 16-year-old lad, who’s quite a big lad, maybe 14 stone and he’s been in trouble for a little bit of violence or threatening behaviour. Maybe he’s being disrespectful to his mother because a lot of these lads come and they don’t have a father figure in their life. I’ll stick them in with some 60kg, four stripe white belt which will absolutely hand them their arse. All of a sudden, they’ll appreciate that they’re not as tough as they thought! That can be quite a humbling experience. A lot of people can be made on that, a lot of people may break on that. Some return, some don’t. The ones that do stay, our job then is not just to make them effective fighters, I look to try and make them into well rounded human beings. That’s the main objective for me for anyone who comes into the gym. Jiu-jitsu isn’t always about making the best fighter, a lot of it for me is about making them better people. I think anyone that trains in our gym will tell you that they have had huge benefits from the training and being around some of the people that are there.
We got a wide range of characters there, lads that have been to prison, lads that are on the verge of going to prison. I’ve got police officers, I’ve got firemen, I’ve got solicitors, I’ve got accountants, I’ve got school teachers, I’ve got builders, I’ve got landscape gardeners. You know, we’ve got NHS nurses! There’s such a wide range of individuals in both personality and also in their jobs, so yeah, if any of these kids come in with an aspiration of being a school teacher, I’ve got somebody there that can talk to them and take them under their wing. If somebody wants to become a soldier, I’ve got quite a few lads that have been in the forces so there’s something for everyone there. It’s great if I ever need any work doing! My nan has had some benefits over the last 10 years, let me tell you. She’s had a boiler change, she’s had the fire sorted, the wiring done in the house and the heating! . I’ve always got someone I can call. We’re like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party sometimes. There’s such a wide array of characters and it shouldn’t work but it does! If anybody I find is a bad egg and is bad for the team, their time will come pretty shortly. They don’t last long.
You’ve been vocal before about the lack of exposure in Britain for MMA. How do you see the state of MMA in the media now? Any thoughts on Bellator airing on BBC iPlayer for the first time?
Um, I mean, we’re in a pretty good place now. I’m not sure if you saw recently but Jack Shore won the South Wales Argus’ Professional Sports Personality of the Year! Up against people like Gezzy Price (professional darts player), who’s a household name. Again, you know, some top level guys. But I think we’re in the right direction. I mean, we’ve been on Scrum V with Jack and did a piece with Ross Moriarty. What I would like is for the news channels on BBC or ITV to be reporting on all Cage Warriors events, that’s my dream. If we have an event on a Saturday or Sunday I want it being reported on news as if it was Cardiff or Swansea playing football. But I do think we’re a long way off that.
I mean, IMMAF are doing a great job and trying to regulate the sport. But unfortunately, it is the type of sport which is being knocked back with the Olympics. Densign White (former British judoka and Commonwealth Games gold medalist) and the IMMAF team have done a great job of putting a presentation to the Olympic board but it was knocked back again. I think until we start getting recognised boards around every single country, we’re going to struggle to really get into the mainstream. That being said, if you look now, in America, it’s a huge sport. Now when I was over there the other weekend, the news channels are full of the UFC. It’s constantly on TV there but you know, they do work with the local boards, like Nevada State Board. They’ve got governing bodies in every state that they can relate to through the boxing.
I think the best fix for me would be, and I think would benefit boxing as well, would be if the MMA and the boxing boards linked up. There’s amateur boxers being penalised because if they’ve done a bit of MMA, or had one or two MMA fights, you can’t fight amateur in the Welsh boxing leagues. They’re two totally different sports! It’s like saying that a British Judo champion shouldn’t box at amateur. It’s the same with MMA, it’s a totally different sport. There is a striking aspect to it but I think if we worked alongside the boxing board, you’d get a lot more crossover. You’d have a lot more boxers dipping their toe in the water with MMA and a lot more MMA guys using amateur boxing to gain really good experience.
The problem at the moment and it’s the same with a lot of these committees, is that there’s a lot of old school guys that are stuck in their ways, they’re not willing to embrace change. Until we have a changing of the guard and get some younger guys coming through. I think we’ll struggle.
Aside from leading one of your boys to a UFC/Bellator title, what remains on your MMA bucket list?
Well, I’m a big fan of the Joe Rogan podcast. I would love for me and Jack to be in America, get a fight out the way and then be invited onto the Joe Rogan Podcast, that would be brilliant. But I’ve got to be honest, the aim has always been to win a UFC title. When we moved into the new gym, we got a wall with all the belts that we’ve won. We’ve got a Grapple and Strike belt from the early days when I was fighting, we’ve got an AMMA belt, which was an event Mark Goddard (UFC referee) used to run back in the day. We’ve got a Pain Pit belt, we’ve got a Cage Warriors Academy belt, we’ve got two Cage Warriors world titles from Marshman and Jack Shore. The dream for me, and I really believe this, Brett (Johns) will fulfil this next year, we’ll have a Bellator title in 2021 and I’d love a UFC title then in 2022. One of our sponsors actually went to buy us a UFC belt to go up on the wall. I said, “no, no, it’s a bad omen. Let’s wait until we get the original, then you can get us one.”