Wrestling practice ends for the day with an impassioned speech from practice leader and two-time U.S. Olympian Daniel Cormier.
"Drilling is important. That's how Oklahoma State became the top wrestling program in the country. We would drill three and four hours a day sometimes. Just technique," Cormier preaches. "The importance of drilling... you'll take something away. Just one or two things away, you'll make them yours."
The gym nods collectively, Bettega included. Cormier continues to rhapsodize on the cruciality of wrestling in the current climate of MMA.
"You have to be able to wrestle. And not just the basics, advanced stuff too," he continued. "If you just know the fundamentals, you can't do that against Mo Lawal, or Jon Jones, or Rashad [Evans]. Those guys know how to take it to the next level. You've got to be able to do more than just sprawl."
"There's 10 NCAA champions every single year. There's D-II champions. World champions and Olympic wrestlers," Cormier says, chopping his hand into his palm for emphasis. "They're coming."
Cormier talks to AKA as if it’s an army, set to march into a battle against a brigade of faceless monsters in singlets. Bettega purses his lips and nods with authority. He actually seems like he's a part of this battalion.
Training partners are curious. There's no telling who you will meet in an MMA gym and what their story is. Case in point: inside the walls of AKA, Fernando Bettaga got to roll with Kyle Doss.
I know you just asked yourself, "Kyle Doss? Who the hell is Kyle Doss?" Some of you have already googled the name.
Doss was one of the patrons at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood on Nov. 17, 2006, when comedian Michael Richards -- better known as Cosmo Kramer on the sitcom "Seinfeld" -- unleashed a tirade of racial epithets toward some unruly crowd members, most notably Doss and his friend Frank McBride. Doss even demanded monetary compensation from Richards. It's as classic of a case of the Warholian 15 minutes of fame as you’ll find.
It's a small, weird world. Then again, given the popularity of MMA and the bizarre panoply of personalities it attracts, perhaps it shouldn't be a major shock. We can only hope the Star Wars Kid or the "I Like Turtles" child end up at American Top Team some day.
From the moment wrestling practice begins at American Kickboxing Academy, it's clear that Fernando Bettega is in for something new.
It's not exactly a secret that, despite their general track record of success in MMA, the wrestling department is still where most Brazilian fighters lack. Even the greatest Brazilian fighters of all-time -- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Anderson Silva and Wanderlei Silva -- were and are weaker wrestlers than their fellow elite contemporaries.
"Fernando, he's good. His kicks, his ground, his condition," Bettega’s Sherdog Fighter Exchange mentor Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza told me on Monday. "But, his wrestling, his takedown defense, needs work."
As two-time U.S. Olympian and unbeaten prospect Daniel Cormier leads the group of amateur and pro fighters through some clinch and pummeling drills up against the wall, Bettega's lack of wrestling fundamentals is obvious. It's an issue that's reared its head repeatedly in his fights. As he works with French import Cyril Asker -- a solid 30-40 pounds heavier than himself -- Bettega’s lack of sureness about the position of his head, hips, hand and feet is clear.
"I am really happy to get to work on my wrestling," Bettega told me as he warmed up for the day.
As Cormier comes to Bettega and shows him how to replace his knee after getting an underhook, and how to switch to a double-leg takedown against the fence, it seems Bettega starts to visualize the MMA applicability. He nods and smiles, as if a light has gone on. The rest of the drill is seamless for the Brazilian.
As the intensive wrestling practice wore on, Fernando Bettega found himself paired up with UFC contender Mike Swick for a variety of drills.
The pair worked on hand fighting and clinch work, as well as the iffy-but-highly-beneficial drill in which partners put their hands behind their back, and put their foreheads on their opponent's shoulders, and jockey for position.
"F.Y.I., this drill is how you get cut!" yelled standout lightweight Josh Thomson from the sideline. "I love it, but just watching these guys makes my stitches hurt."
As the session wound down for the day, each fighter spent 60 seconds leapfrogging their partner, then shooting their body, in double-leg position, through their legs, and repeating.
"Man, you've got a lot of grip strength," Swick told Bettega as they rested briefly after the drill.
The exhaustion wasn't over: after that, fighters were forced to do sit-ups and push-ups for another 60 seconds.
Incredibly, it was the little-known Bettega who showed the most remarkable physical fitness at this point, in a gym filled with notable MMA fighters. Even after two hours of tough wrestling -- and frankly, being a bit out of his depth -- Bettega drove through full, chest-on-the-mat push-ups on his knuckles, and then gutted through sit-ups at a pace and proficiency not present elsewhere in the gym, much to the quiet surprise of many of those standing on the sidelines.
|The Start Of Something|
The comfort of the trio of Fernando Bettega, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and trainer Josuel Distak has definitely grown over their days together.
Despite the outgoing and gregarious personalities of “Jacare” and Distak, Bettega is a quiet, contemplative type who clearly prizes comfort. When he talks about the pros and cons of training in new and unfamiliar places, the word “comfort” rolls off his tongue liberally. Though Bettega is excited by being able to train with new and uniquely talented individuals, it's obvious he enjoys the familiarity and camaraderie he built with fellow Rafael Cordeiro students at Chute Boxe over the years.
The morning car rides to the gym have now become filled with raucous Portuguese, as the trio rap about everything from the calibre of training in different parts of Brazil to shopping. Bettega has also become far more outgoing in English, initiating conversation in his second language.
Any time spent in the car shuttling around San Jose has also been marked by one other specific trait: Michael Jackson.
The first day we were in Jeff Sherwood's truck, I thumbed through a stack of CDs, verbally indexing them. As I approached a greatest hits collection of “The King of Pop,” Distak, from the backseat, roared, “MICHAEL JACKSON!”
So far, the “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” tally is at 11 listens in three days.
The most intense training session of the day belonged to UFC heavyweight title challenger Cain Velasquez, who sparred live with the likes of Daniel Cormier and Mike Kyle in preparation for his UFC 121 clash with Brock Lesnar. But, outside the ring at AKA, the most competitive session of the day was between Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and UFC middleweight Aaron Simpson.
Three rotations deep into live sparring, the compete level throughout the gym had elevated considerably. The pair of Souza and Simpson threw with the sort of thudding power that had casual observers looking around, as if to say "Is it cool that they're going this hard?", nervous something is about to pop off.
Souza's boxing was superior on the feet, landing multiple series of quick pops on Simpson. “Jacare” landed the best lick of all between the two, with a crunching body shot that doubled Simpson over for a moment.
However, neither man could gain an advantage as they ferociously battled for takedowns. Early, Souza looked for a hip throw from the clinch, which Simpson blocked as they collided into the wall, roughing up an existing turf toe injury that Simpson had.
After a brief respite, the pair went right at one another again. Eventually, Simpson gained the takedown advantage, finishing a double leg against the wall that roughed Souza up a bit, as “Jacare's” left foot folded awkwardly underneath him, forcing him to walk it off.
Predictably, the foot injury didn't slow Souza down. He went right on training, and even after sparring had finished up for the day, saw fit to do some extra mittwork with coach Josuel Distak.