One second: Conor McGregor is already in the center of the ring in his unorthodox stance. His feet are wide apart, farther than most coaches would prefer. His lead leg is extended out in front of him, a danger, many would argue, of being slowly chopped down by kicks throughout the fight and susceptible to the single-leg takedown. His right leg is not staggered but almost directly behind his left, and distant, the kind of thing that is supposed to limit lateral mobility but allows him to float ballerina-like in and out of the Venn diagram of striking ranges with his opponent, Jose Aldo. And besides, McGregor knows how to circle, even if it’s not the way most southpaws are taught. His rear hand, his left, the one with the power, is an inch or two below his chin, the highest it will be the whole fight, while his right is open and reaching for Aldo. Aldo’s stance is more traditional. His feet are closer, his hands higher and tighter to his body. It’s the way a fighter is supposed to look.
Four seconds: The first exchange. It is more of a first date than a first exchange, a test run. Conor throws a left and slips Aldo’s counter. At six seconds, he throws a front kick to Aldo’s thigh and returns to his stance, perpendicular to Aldo, his left hand now at his hip, his right hand out in front, almost like a warning. He’s bouncing on those wide-placed feet, in range to strike and out. In range and out.
Nine seconds: Aldo makes his move. McGregor has expected this. His coach, John Kavanagh, is outside the cage, an expert at picking apart fighter’s games. He knows Aldo likes to rush in with heavy hands. When he does, stepping in and throwing a hard left, McGregor floats just out of range.
Ten seconds: Aldo’s second punch in the combination is halfway to McGregor. It is a powerful right hand, the beginning of stance-switching charge, all crosses, no jabs. McGreogor’s left hand has begun to move. His right hand checks Aldo’s punch, but it is not the one doing the important work. The hand doing the real work is his left, which has begun to move and is on its way now, not blocking or checking but rather intercepting the punch intended to knock him out. Before the tenth second is over, what remains of Aldo’s third, once promising punch will bounce off McGregor’s head, and Aldo will hit the mat.
McGregor follows Aldo down with a couple of hammer fists, but they are unnecessary, the due diligence of a fighter taught to finish. By the time the referee jumps between them, a total of thirteen seconds have passed.
It is one of the quickest, and perhaps the most technical knockouts in UFC history. Perfection is not too strong a word. In the first real exchange of the fight, McGregor has found a weakness, a hole in his opponent’s game, and claimed victory. In time, some people will say that Aldo didn’t get a chance at a real fight. Others will say he got as much as he deserved.
The clock has stopped, but the action has not. McGregor runs to Kavanagh and drapes the flag of their home country of Ireland over his shoulders. The referee raises his hand. Dana White buckles the belt around his waist, and McGregor takes his place for the post-fight interview.
“He’s powerful, and he’s fast,” McGregor says of his opponent. “But precision beats power, and timing beats speed, and that’s what you saw there.”
Powerful, or perhaps, precise words. Words that will be repeated in living rooms and gyms everywhere, a new gospel for many fighters, but not all. For almost everyone watching, the perfect knockout began roughly thirteen seconds prior. But there are others watching who have heard words like that before. They are the same people that lump them in with other concepts they’ve been hearing for years, phrases and terminology that are part of their own dialect in the fighting language that they know they can’t take into other gyms and be understood. They’re people who know that what McGregor has said is true, but that it was just as true more than twenty years ago when a guy from Portland, Oregon began his life’s work of pissing off and changing the martial arts world forever, even if they’re the only ones who remember now.
I first met Matt Thornton at the Torch Bar & Grill, a small pub in an alley off the main drag of downtown Flint, Michigan. I was sitting at the bar when he walked in through the back entrance, stooping his tall frame through the door (he’s closer to seven feet than six), followed by my coach, Marvin Diem. Marvin had brought him here to show me and the other members of Wolverine Martial Arts, our humble club on Flint’s east side—the source of just what it was we were doing.
Marvin was on a long list of people that Thornton had first pissed off, then intrigued, and finally won over. Marvin had spent his entire life studying more traditional martial arts like aikido or the stick fighting art modern arnis. He was good at them. The problem was that whenever he left the safety of his own gym, none of it worked.
He would try to stand with wrestlers and get taken down. He would spar with boxers and have his techniques not so much countered as dismissed. Especially frustrating was his inability to perform standing wristlocks, which involve trapping a puncher’s hand and performing a wristlock that will either submit the opponent or take them to the ground. If you practice this with an aikido instructor, it seems like magic: you snatch the hand out of the air, wrap your fingers around the meaty part under the thumb, wedge your thumb between their knuckles, and twist. It hurts. People will fall over. The problem isn’t with the mechanics but the idea that you might actually snatch a fist out of the air (one way to prevent the lock is to simply make a fist, in fact) It’s about as easy as catching a fly with chopsticks, except that the fly, meanwhile, is punching you in the face.
Marvin was getting punched in the face. And to make it more frustrating, here was this guy, Matt Thornton, founder of something called Straight Blast Gym, who was pissing off the world one seminar, online chat forum, or article at a time (The cover of Black Belt Magazine featured Thornton and the headline “Matt Thornton’s JKD Rocks the Martial Arts World”), saying what should have been obvious: That stuff doesn’t work.
Many did not respond well. Old martial arts are much like religions (and don’t get Thornton started on religion) in that they revolve around a set of unquestionable rules. Put your foot there; do not ask why. It wasn’t a matter of questioning techniques. It was sacrilege. Marvin started emailing Thornton. He was, reluctantly at first, willing to listen. He was ready to entertain the idea, hard as it was, that there might not be a Santa Claus after all.
So Thornton came. We drank beer at the Torch, and woke up the next morning to train. Thornton started the seminar as he did all seminars in those days, with a talk about aliveness.
He gives the talk less now. What aliveness boils down to is training with resisting opponents. There’s more to it than that, but the overall idea is not to fall into the trap of not testing what you’re doing, of not getting too attached to techniques or habits that don’t work just because they look cool or you like them. It might sound obvious, especially in a world in a world where every sportsbar screens UFC fights. There are still plenty of people doing standing wrist locks, but there are fewer. More people get it.
When I called Thornton recently I asked him if the aliveness battle has been won. Yes, he said. And no.
“Even most MMA coaches and people who do functional martial arts still don’t get it because they still equate it with sparring. They say, well, we spar. But alive training doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to damage the brain. In fact all those things are signs of people who don’t know how to train well. The (SBG) coaches have refined what we do, using science and reason for lack of a better term for the process, to develop more functional training methods. … When you sit down and try to explain that to (other coaches), 90 percent will have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Maybe we’re just, as human beings, hard-wired that way. We don’t want evolution; we want answers. We don’t want to learn to fish; we just want to eat. We want results without process. We want how-to books and bibles, trails that have been blazed for us, even if they take us down the wrong path. You can, after all, eat if someone gives you a fish, the same way you can arguably fight if someone gives you a punch. And so long as we can manage to avoid the guy obsessed with evolution and questioning everything, the guy fixated on the how and the why—the guy echoing the voice of our curious and survival-obsessed inner cavemen—we might be content with our delusion that we really know how it all works. But that’s only if you can avoid him, or want to.
The perfect knockout reached its maturity through Conor McGregor and his hard work and his talent. But it was born before McGregor, and even before Matt Thornton.
McGregor’s perfect knockout really began with Bruce Lee.
Bruce Lee is best known for his movies like “Enter the Dragon,” movies that showcase his incredible athleticism but also, for those paying attention, his philosophy toward life and martial arts. There’s a famous scene in Enter the Dragon when an opponent holds a board with one hand, letting go of it while he breaks it, in mid-air, with the other. It is, of course, not an easy feat. Lee responds by regarding him coolly before saying, “Boards don’t hit back.”
The philosophy Lee developed he called Jeet Kune Do, which he wrote an entire book about but can be boiled down to a simple mantra: “absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.” In his book, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, in a section titled “precision,” he writes, “Skill is best acquired by learning accuracy and precision first with speed before the skill is attempted with much power and speed.” Jeet Kune Do is more a way of thinking than a collection of techniques and can apply beyond martial arts. It’s a way of getting good at stuff—anything, really. Ironically, the translation of Jeet Kune Do speaks less to that mantra as it does Lee’s particular attributes. It is a message of efficiency—punching someone after they have already begun to punch you. Literally translated, it means “the way of the intercepting fist.”
When Matt Thornton got out of the military in 1989, he knew he wanted to fight. He did not want to get into fights necessarily, but from a young age, understanding martial arts—or, really, just fighting, if there’s any difference—had fascinated him. It was a thing worth knowing and pursuing, and so he pursued it, first through boxing and then through something he discovered called Jeet Kune Do. He opened a gym in Portland, OR, and began what would be a lifelong process of accepting, rejecting, and adding. One of the first things he added was Brazilian jiu jitsu.
This was four years before the first UFC fight and the world saw Royce Gracie and the family of Brazilians who, through a process much like the one Lee developed, had honed judo and jiu jitsu into something practical and dangerous. It worked, One day, Thornton saw an ad in the paper that a guy named Fabio Santos was looking for training partners.
“I thought, we get beat up every day,” Thronton told me. “We might as well get paid for it.”
Like most people Santos is much smaller than Matt. Thornton got on the mat with Santos and got what he now calls “predictable results.” Santos woud close the distance, get a body lock, take him down, get on top of him, and submit him. He did it again, and then again. To everyone.
“I was amazed,” Thornton said. “I knew right away I had to add that in. So my training started to go a different way.”
If boxing is the sweet science then jiu jitsu is its more bitter, yet equally effective cousin. Boxing looks cool. The fighters dance. Jiu jitsu, even at its best, can look like really weird sex. But it is no less scientific. The jiu jitsu Royce Gracie brought to the first UFC looks outdated to many now. It continues to evolve. At seminar last year Thornton told the story of how a huge athlete came into their gym and started submitting them all with a head-and-arm neck crank, a move that looks like something your older brother would do to you after watching Monday Night Raw. Thornton turned the gym into a laboratory.
They experimented with different ideas, escapes and techniques. Finally they discovered a simple way of bracing one leg against the other that would create a frame against the opponent’s back. It required no muscle. It was bones, structure, minimal effort. It was physics.
Before he taught the move at the seminar he let us try to figure it out ourselves. He broke us off into groups like a science teacher. We reported our findings—all of them with flaws and holes he’d already discovered. He let us fail. Then he showed us how it worked.
After his seminar with Santos, Thornton went back to the gym and started teaching what he’d learned during his Friday class, what would have been called an MMA class if the term MMA had been invented yet. Later he went to a seminar with Rickson Gracie, who would eventually give him his blue belt, and watched as he submitted every judo black belt at the seminar, in a row, without using his hands.
Thornton came back to the gym to tell his partners about it, about this magic he had witnessed, but they weren’t into it. They weren’t sold on the idea of fights going to the ground.
That wasn’t a good enough response. And so he ended up opening his own gym.
The JKD world was already splitting by then. One faction, rather than discover their individual styles, mimicked Bruce Lee. Others used the concepts but never strayed from what Thornton calls “exotic” martial arts.
“Really the way you develop your own style is that … everybody gets very good at the fundamentals of the delivery system of standup, clinch, and ground, and from being good at those fundamentals, which transcend body type and transcends style and geography, so they’re not Japanese or Chinese or Korean. From getting good at those fundamentals they develop their own style and be unique. And that is what I think JKD was supposed to be, or is. But that became the SBG methodology,” Thornton said.
It worked. Other gyms, starting with the Singer brothers at the Hardcore Gym in Athens, Georgia adopted the method. They too were working with some of the JKD guys, and when I spoke with Adam Singer he said he’s still thankful for the time he spent training with them—but he too was becoming frustrated. Then one day found Thronton’s Functional Jeet Kune Do VHS tapes. He learned about the “Fundamental Five” of passing guard or holding top position. It made sense, and he joined up, going on to coach his brother, Rory, and Forrest Griffin in the UFC using those methods. Other gyms followed. People started buying Thornton plane tickets to places all over the world so he could teach them about aliveness and training methods, rather than techniques. A guy named Randy Couture walked into Thornton’s gym and stuck around long enough for Thornton to corner him in a UFC fight. (“I like the way he teaches, he breaks down technique and everything has a philosophy and there’s a meaning behind the things that he shows,” Couture once said.)
In the early 2000s Thornton was in South Africa, cornering a team of MMA fighters, among them Rory Singer and Forrest Griffin and another fighter he can’t quite remember anymore. But he does remember the fighter’s opponent. It was a young man from Ireland, who’d flown halfway around the world by himself to fight. He had no corner man. He carried his own bucket. His name was John Kavanagh.
Thornton was impressed by how Kavanagh fought, but also by how he showed up, alone. Thornton gave him a private lesson. They exchanged information, and not long after Thorton flew out to Kavanagh’s school.
“He was teaching literally out of a shack,” Thornton said. It was a 450-square-foot space that Kavanagh called a garage, with daylight and frigid Irish air coming between the boards on the walls and, on rainy days, water through the ceiling.
Kavanagh had just graduated with a degree in engineering and every day, early in the morning, he would get a phone call from his dad, asking him why he was still asleep and when he was going to get a real job. But in addition to his degree, he also had a dream—not of coaching famous athletes, but of paying the bills doing what he loved (Thornton’s advice to him all the way through, he said, was to simply do what you love). But that dream seemed a long way off when you were teaching out of a shack.
Kavanagh decided he would give it one year.
It worked, but it was tough. He joined SBG, and in 2002 he opened a nicer gym, and later—after a tough few months he spent teaching out of a school hall—a nicer place yet. It wasn’t as centrally located in Dublin as he liked, but his students followed. New recruits joined, including one kid named Conor McGregor who had been jumping gym to gym, looking for a place he felt comfortable.
In 2013 opened his current gym, a sprawling complex that his home to UFC fighters as well as the stories, as Kavanagh puts it, of people who don’t make the headlines. People who learn a new sport, gain some confidence, lose a few pounds.
Adam Singer talks to Kavanagh at least once a week on the phone. They talk about coaching, about the methods they still use that Matt taught them, and the ones they and other coaches are always developing, and writing down like Newtonian laws. But it is still evolution. There are still disagreements, even at the top.
“Precision plus power,” Singer said when we spoke. “Timing plus speed.” He likes Conor’s thoughts but is hesitant to boil them down into something too simple. You can’t deny, he said, that Conor, while he has exceptional precision and timing, is also very fast and very powerful.
“(All my coaches) ran with that in their own way,” Thornton said to me. “In Ireland you have someone like John Kavanagh who did the exact same thing. He focused just on fundamentals and left the athletes alone to develop their own style, and that’s why you have someone after fifteen years, starting with John, like Conor. Because McGregor, in a typical MMA school that’s run even to this day like some of the top MMA schools, as he was coming up through the ranks he would been told, ‘You’re circling the wrong way. Your hands are too low. Your stance is too sideways. He’s a very unorthodox fighter, and every step along the way an MMA coach would have corrected him, and that would have been a mistake, because evolution is always smarter than we are and Conor figured out how to maximize his own human movement. And that’s not something John taught him. … What John Kavanagh did was he provided an environment where Conor was free to do that, and that’s what happens when you have that kind of environment. … everyone’s going to be different, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Every gym I went to, they had that set way,” McGregor said in a 2015 interview with MMA TV. "Every gym had the set way of doing things: Don’t do it that way, do it that way. … You must stand this way, you must kick this way, you must punch this way. But John, when I went to John, I met my coach John Kavanagh at Straight Blast gym, it wasn’t like that. He had a more open mind and he encouraged different movements. And I never experienced that before, I never heard a coach say that to me before.”
The first time I saw McGregor fight I was in Toronto sitting on the couch of Jason Lancucki, who runs the SBG Gym there, while Marvin and Thornton argued about something I’d lost interest in. Then Conor was on the screen, listening to the referee read the rules while he crouched and waved his opponent toward him as though it was his own rendition of a scene from “The Matrix.” It’s the kind of thing that makes the people who love him love him more, and the people who hate him keep paying the $50 pay per view fee praying he’ll lose. But Thornton, who’d known him since he was a kid and had watched him, along with other athletes, coached by his old friend to find their own paths, could only chuckle and say to the rest of us sitting there, “Who does that?
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