By Kaitlin Young
What are the basic rules for cornering a fighter? Well, that depends on the athlete in question. I’ve had a number of wonderful, average, and terrible corners in my time in combat sports. If I’m honest, I’ve likely been all three at some point as well. Sitting ringside as a matchmaker, and in the locker room in every capacity, has given me a good look at all varieties. I am well-aware that this list will be skewed toward my preferences and from my experiences. Trust between a fighter and corner is very important, and once lost, it’s not easy to grow back. Though fighters and combat sports may vary, there are some somewhat universal truths followed by rockstar corners.
1. Thou shall coach for effect.
This one may seem obvious, but it is somehow consistently overlooked. Cornering is about helping a fighter to perform at their best. It doesn’t matter if the advice we give them is technically correct if it isn’t resulting in the athlete hearing, understanding, and then being able to capitalize. We may as well be telling them the sky is blue. Sometimes we need to try alternative phrasing, or ask them to do something else, in order to get the desired effect. A fighter and corner with good history will have this bit down, and hence, make a hell of a team. The corner already knows this fighter’s strengths and the style of communication that is most effective when guiding them.
Some people will have the habit of saying “Don’t XYZ”, which really doesn’t help anybody. In fact, it becomes a distraction to the fighter. “Don’t let him take you down anymore!” Well, no shit. While, yes, it would be good if the fighter didn’t give up any more takedowns, saying that to the fighter is more of an annoyance than anything. The same goes for other statements like, “You are giving her this round!” While the observation may be accurate, it most certainly will not have the desired effect (not to mention having a negative influence on the judges). Rather than telling a fighter what NOT to do, tell them what TO do. Give them technical reminders like “heavy hips” or “high volume”. Help them focus on what they can do to win the fight from this point on, rather than mistakes they’ve made in previous rounds.
2. Thou shall coach to the fighter’s strengths.
The man, woman, or child in the ring in front of you is not you, nor any other fighter on your team. They are their own person with a different temperament, level of durability, and most likely a different A game. When assessing a situation, consider what strengths he or she has that could apply to this fight – not how you would do it, or how someone with different strengths would do it. There will definitely be times where a fighter will need to use their B and C game to overtake an opponent, but let’s be sure that this is due to the match up, and not because we are unable to see the fighter as they are.
3. Thou shall consider context.
The advice we give someone will not only be dependent on who they are and their current mental and physical state. Your advice should also consider the circumstances of each fight.
Is this fight going to be 3 or 5 rounds? It might change the pace we request.
Did my fighter have a hard weight cut? Are they sick or injured? Was the fight taken on short notice? Maybe we will need to steer them to ration their energy or go harder in select rounds.
Is the opponent favoring one leg? Do they only have one dangerous weapon or range? We may ask our fighter to concentrate specifically on one area.
How old is our fighter? Things we asked him to do at 32 may not be possible at 37. That doesn’t mean he can’t fight! We just need to be aware of what’s in our toolbox.
Sometimes corners lose sight of the context of a fight and either miss opportunities or unwittingly steer their athlete into deep water. Context is one of the most difficult things to learn without simply putting in the time. Even when we watch fights on television, we rarely get to hear the entirety of what the corners are saying, and we almost never know all the circumstances affecting the fighters in question. You won’t learn about navigating context outside of a gym, locker room, and corner. This is where a truly well-versed corner, one who has learned context via proximity to thousands of fights, becomes a massive advantage.
4. Thou shall keep thy anxiety to thyself.
Unloading your anxiety onto the person about to fight is obnoxious to say the least. Are you nervous that the opponent isn’t going to make weight? Keep that to yourself. Are you afraid your fighter is going to be matched up with the most experienced woman in her bracket? Keep that to yourself, too. Are you concerned that fresh cut on his eyebrow could split open early in the fight? Keep it to yourself. See the pattern here? Sharing these concerns with the fighter isn’t going to help them focus on what they need to do. It may encourage them to be concerned about something they weren’t even thinking about. If any of your dreaded situations happen, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it. While it might be helpful for you to think about what you’ll do should a situation arise, discuss it with another coach if you must. Help the fighter to keep their thoughts aimed toward what will go right.
We are social creatures. That fighter in front of you can tell how you feel about her, and how she is going to do in this fight, whether you say it or not. If you have doubts and cannot hide them very well, do not corner the person. They can feel it.
5. Thou shalt refrain from teaching on fight night.
If you were to sit in the locker room of any local show on a Saturday night, inevitably you would see someone trying to teach their fighter as he’s warming up for his fight. Now is not the time for technical correction. That should have been done in the weeks and months prior. Whatever abilities the fighter had at the start of fight week are the ones he’ll carry with him into the fight. While he won’t be adding anything to his arsenal in the days or hours leading up to the event, he could probably be convinced that some of the tools he’s about to use aren’t that great. It may be true – maybe his cross does suck, but if he thinks that it certainly won’t work. We’ve seen far more knockouts via shitty crosses powered by self-belief than beautiful crosses thrown with a lack of confidence. Sometimes the best thing a corner can do is to know when to shut the hell up.
6. Thou shalt not make it about thyself.
This can mean a lot of different things. You may not feel like getting up early to help them cut weight. You may not want to have to watch Vision Quest in the hotel room with them 3 times. That’s fine! Stay home then. Send someone else to go with them. You don’t need to be a slave, but let’s remember why we are there. Fanboying on other fighters in the locker room (especially the opponent *cringe*), bringing your disruptive jealous girlfriend, handing out unrelated business cards, ripping the fighter a new asshole because YOU are somehow embarrassed she didn’t win – are all ways corners manage to make fight night about themselves rather than the person they are there to help. A good corner doesn’t have to be the most knowledgeable person in the gym, but it should be someone able to step back and play a supporting role when needed.
7. Thou shalt not insert one’s self or others.
Unless you are that person’s head coach and have worked closely with them every day in preparation for the fight, don’t assume you are going to be in someone’s corner. Wait to be invited. Similarly, don’t invite someone else for the person. Yes, even if you are this person’s significant other or parent. They may not want you there. Don’t put them in a position to either deal with a person they don’t want in the corner OR deal with a conflict immediately before fighting. Most of the time, they’ll just let it slide and be annoyed. They’ve got bigger fish to fry. You can offer the extra help, and they’ll take you up on it if they’d like to, but don’t force it. There is nothing more irritating than not being able to hear a wonderful coach you’ve paid to fly in because someone else hopped in your corner and has decided to yell over him.
8. Thou shall be reliable.
Don’t bail on them at the last minute. Make your flight. Show up on time. Don’t be so late to the event that your fighters have to find someone else to wrap their hands. Do your best not to be drunk come fight time. This is all pretty basic. Don’t make the fighter have to worry about taking care of you…until the afterparty at least. ????
9. Thou shalt not be a liability.
This one is closely tied to #6, but deserves a commandment of it’s own. Coaches and corners can be the reason a fighter loses points in a fight, money out of their paycheck, opportunities in general, or is even cut from an organization. A corner who cannot keep his or her emotions in check is a liability. If you cannot control your feelings, you will not be a clear-headed corner.
The ref may very well be blind, but it isn’t your job to tell him that. Chances are, he’s doing his best to keep your fighter safe. Take it up with the commission in a calm and respectful manner. Appeal the fight, if need be. A temper tantrum doesn’t help anyone, and, once again, makes it about YOU rather than the best outcome for your fighter. The same goes for trashing the promotion online. If you’ve both agreed that you’d like to burn that bridge, have at it! If not, you’ll need to control your emotions and censor yourself.
Emotional outbursts during a fight are certainly not the only ways in which a corner can be a liability and hurt their fighter as much as they help. Have a Nazi tattoo? You may want to have it removed, or at the very least, not flaunt it on television while you are in someone’s corner. Want to go out, get drunk, and get arrested? You probably shouldn’t do that while out of town cornering someone else’s fight. Collect calls from jail are no fun on fight day. Want to drink a beer? Maybe don’t steal it from the concession stand at the event. These examples may seem extreme, but they have all been witnessed.
10. Thou shall know thy limits.
Human beings have a hard time with this one. It’s difficult for us not to think we know more than we do. On a rare occasion, you’ll end up in the corner of someone who is far more experienced than you. You can still help them, but probably not by telling them what to do. Tell them what you see, and then let them decide what to do. They’ll have a better idea. Everyone can use a spotter, after all.
Don’t exaggerate your experience. Be honest with yourself. Ten years of teaching regular classes and cornering a handful of fights is not the same as ten years of experience primarily coaching serious fighters. You are experienced, but not in this area. That’s ok! Experience in all areas comes with time and exposure. The waters are deep out there, especially on the international scene. Not only are there athletes with hundreds of fights, but coaches who trained and cornered them through those fights. They are people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who have done nothing but develop high level professionals for decades. You need to develop as much as your fighter does if you’d like to have any hope of not being grossly overmatched when the time comes to compete against them. If you are unwilling or unable to do that, kindly step aside and help that fighter find someone who can.
This concludes the commandments of cornering. Do you have some of your own commandments you’d like to add? Or stories that support one of the above? Please leave a comment. I look forward to reading them.