B/R Exclusive Interview with Jacob 'Stitch' Duran: The Legendary Cutman
Bleacher Report's Gregory Chase spoke with legendary cutman Jacob Duran, better known as "Stitch."
Being one of the most prominent figures in MMA outside of the fighters themselves, Stitch has established himself in the combat sports world as the best in the business. Stitch talks about his background, his work, and some memorable moments in our exclusive interview.
Chase: You are one of the most recognizable figures in MMA, especially outside of the fighters. Tell us how you came to be a cutman and eventually came to work for the UFC.
Stitch: I started off as a cutman in kickboxing, and I started my own kickboxing school in the early 80’s. I moved to Vegas like 16 years ago because I was doing kickboxing and boxing and I figured I’d come to Vegas because that’s where everyone was at; the best trainers, the best cutmen and fighters and all that. I knew Dana [White], we were all training fighters trying to make a living. I didn’t see him for about a year but then ran into him at a K-1 Kickboxing fight at the Bellagio where I was working. I gave him my card, and the next day he calls and says they bought the UFC and wanted to know if I wanted to be a cutman to work for Leon Tabbs. I said “Yeah” and here I am now talking to you!
Chase: Your image is recognizable, but maybe even moreso the name. How did the nickname “Stitch” come about?
Stitch: [Laughs] Pretty awesome name! People forget my real name, which is Jacob Duran, and people forget it all the time. But “Stitch” came along with one of my kick-boxers, Dave Rooney. This was years and years ago…I was a coach and a manager, but I was learning how to be a cutman. I remember Dave got a small cut on his eyebrow.
Knowing what I know now, it wasn’t a big cut. I decided to apply some direct pressure on it with a towel, stopped the bleeding, and he ended up winning the fight. At the end of the fight, I had seen other cutmen cut up little pieces of tape and use them as butterflies, so I did the same thing with Dave Rooney.
At that point he said “Hey, you saved me some stitches! I’m going to call you “Stitch”!” That was it right there and it stuck with me ever since.
Chase: A lot of people don’t know about your own martial arts background. Could you go into detail about your history and has made you a better cutman?
Stitch: Oh yeah. People ask me all the time what it takes to be a cutman. Everybody sees what we do, and they think that it is easy to do. But I tell them you have to spend days and weeks and months and years in the gym learning how to be a fighter and working with fighters and trainers.
But I was very fortunate in 1974, you know, I grew up as a farm worker in the San Joaquin Valley of California and after high school I walked into college to play some baseball. I couldn’t afford to go to school. I just kinda went to Spring training, but I didn’t even have a car! [laughs] So I joined the Air Force and they sent me to Thailand.
They sent me to Thailand, and as a young kid, I didn’t even know what Thailand was! I get there and I see my first Muay Thai fight, and I walked onto the base gym and they had Tae kwon Do. The Tae Kwon Do there was taught by Thais. It started out with Korean instructors and they left and the Thais took over. They kind of worked it into…still Tae Kwon Do, but it was a lot of the Muay Thai stuff. So I studied that for the whole year, got back, and I got into boxing to improve my hands back in Oakland, Calif.
From there I moved to Fairfield, Calif., and saw a naked building and I swear to God, I opened it up with a credit card that I had just had. They guy gave me a deal with the credit card; I bought the carpets, the bags, the mirrors, I painted up the walls and I opened up my school. Right off the bat it became a real success because I was training world champions…at that point, in kickboxing. That’s how I started, man, here I am now!
Chase: You mentioned that people need to be around gyms, fighters and trainers to gain that knowledge. Are there any particular skills you need to possess in order to be a good cutman?
Stitch: Yeah, composure. Composure is the number one thing. I get doctors and nurses and EMT’s and paramedics…I get emails every week from people wanting to do what I do. Like one doctor told me “I’m really good at what I do, but I’m not really good at what YOU do.” He understood that. We have 50-55 seconds to work wonders and change careers of fighters, and really the No. 1 ally outside of the tools that you use; the No. 1 ally that anyone being a cutman needs to have, is composure.
Chase: Are you technically employed by ZUFFA or the UFC? Or is your job like the referees where they are part of another company that the UFC hires?
Stitch: Yeah we’re the same way. We all freelance. We work with the UFC. One of the greatest things Dana ever did was to hire a professional cutman and have one inside of the Octagon.
Because nobody had ever done that, and he knew in such a new sport, that if he brought in professional cutman from the boxing industry to help these fighters, it would give these fighters the opportunity to win a fight, protect their hands…wrap their hands.
It’s such a new sport, it really was one of Dana’s greatest moments when he became President of the UFC. But yeah, they hire us. I get first choice. They understand if we have a boxing event, like I’m working with Wladimir Klitschko on July 7, they understand when we’re not there and doing boxing.
Chase: So do you get assigned fights when it comes to MMA events?
Stitch: That’s a good question, I mean, usually I’m in the red corner. A lot of guys want me to work their corners, and to be fair, I’m just in the red corner and Leon Tabbs is in the blue corner. But when it comes to wrapping hands, there’s a ton of guys who want me to wrap their hands; and it gets to the point where now Burt Watson, the coordinator, he designates who wraps whose hands.
Usually I’ll wrap the top guys, you know, like Jon Jones. Rory MacDonald, I wrapped his hands. Burt, when he gives us the list, he goes like “I gave you these guys” and I think I had like seven guys. But there was a lot more guys that wanted me to wrap their hands. There’s a lot of times where even though the guy is not assigned to me, I’ll go and I’ll wrap his hands because I know it makes a big difference.
Chase: Before each MMA fight, we see fighters walk out to the prep point, while a cutman helps them get ready to step into the cage. What are the different things you do and check for?
Stitch: Well I don’t check for anything, the only thing we do is apply the Vaseline on the eyebrows and cheek area. Herb Dean or one of the referees…when they rub the body down, they make sure there’s no grease outside of the eyebrow and cheek area. That’s the only place Vaseline is allowed. They make sure they have their mouthpiece in, they check for the cup and all that. Once we do that, once we apply the Vaseline, we’re not allowed to touch their corner people any more. All that started because of the Georges St. Pierre and BJ Penn controversy.
Chase: Take us through the mentality of what happens between rounds in an MMA fight. What mental steps do you take, and do you have a specific process?
Stitch: Absolutely, every young cutman that asks me the same question I tell them; from the start of the bell, you always prepare for the worst-case scenario. You already have your swabs which are already loaded up with the Adrenaline Chloride 1:1000, which is the medication we use to close up the blood vessels.
So know where your ice pack is at, know where your Enswell is at, and get ready. When guys are banging on each other, the chances of us getting some work are pretty high! So always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Chase: You just mentioned about the swabs, which I think people might mistake for just plain cotton. Tell us a little more about the medication on those swabs.
Stitch: Yeah, the medication that we use is Adrenaline Chloride 1:1000. It’s also known as Epinephrine. We can only get it through prescription. But the medical background and physics behind it, is once you apply it to an open wound, it closes up the blood vessels. Doctor Watson, one of the physicians in Nevada says “it’s like squeezing a rubber hose.” You don’t let that blood go out.
So that’s one of the medications that we use. But now I’m introducing a new gauze pad called Quick-Aid that doesn’t require a prescription and it’s made out of a seaweed base and it’s 100% natural. When you apply that gauze pad on the open wound, what it does is it literally dehydrates the blood…and blood has the tendency to coagulate itself.
In doing that, it opens up a lot of avenues for a lot of cutmen who can’t get a prescription for the Adrenaline chloride. Or even trainers that are in the gym or anybody. If you got that Quick-Aid, just keep it with you, and if someone gets cut, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to stop the bleeding. All you do if apply direct pressure on it and in that 50-55 second period, it works wonders.
Chase: As a cutman, you have different tools at your disposal. If you had to pick one that you thought was the most important, which would it be?
Stitch: Obviously it is the Adrenaline Chloride 1:1000. With that you do a whole lot of wonders. There’s three medications that are authorized by the commissions in the United States, and the other two are Avitene and Thrombin. Avitene and Thrombin are coagulants. But 99.9% of the time we use the Adrenaline Chloride because that is just so effective.
If somebody has swelling, just apply direct pressure. An Enswell and an icepack would work great, or even direct pressure with the palm of your hand. Because what happens when you get swelling, is you bust the blood vessels underneath the skin tissue, and the blood accumulates and that’s what creating the swelling.
So if you put direct pressure on it, you’re hoping the blood with coagulate itself. It might not get any smaller, but it shouldn’t get any bigger.
Chase: We see the frantic work you do, and aside from the swabs and Vaseline, you use the Enswell as you mentioned. How is that properly used for swelling?
Stitch: The Enswells that we have, those are the iron bars that we keep in ice, which stops the swelling from getting any bigger. There’s an old myth; a lot of boxing people still use cutmen with the Enswells and they think they can get that Enswell and push down it and move that blood clot out of the way so that they could have vision.
But in doing that, what you’re doing is you’re moving that blood into tissue that is not affected or damaged, and you’re damaging that tissue. So eventually, throughout the duration of the fight, that blood will get back to its point A where it started, and now you have it in the areas that weren’t damaged before and you damaged them by moving it out there.
If you look at boxing, you see a lot of guys that are wiping the hell out of that swelling with the Enswell, and that’s not the right way to do it. Cold, direct pressure on swelling is what you need.
Chase: Is there any one specific place/type of damage that a fighter can receive that is more difficult than others to work with?
Stitch: Oh yeah! There’s that big vein we all have between our eyes. When it gets popped…it’s a pretty big vein to get to stop bleeding [laughs]. That becomes very hard. Another concern is if a fighter is taking any kind of anti-inflammatory or aspirin or something….anything like that which goes into the blood, makes it a little bit difficult for us to work and control.
Chase: What was the worst injury you have ever had to attend to?
Stitch: The worst one, the ugliest one was probably Corey Hill when he fought Dale Hartt when he broke his leg. Just to hold Corey by the shoulders and hear him scream in agony and asking me what happened…I had to tell Corey, “Corey, your leg is broken big time, scream all you want”. That was a real ugly injury…and a side note to that is…Corey was in such big pain, and once the doctors administered a little bit of morphine into him, he starts calming down and the pain recedes a little bit, they start carrying him out and Corey looks at me and says “Stitch, I almost had him!” And to me, I laughed because that’s just a sign of these gladiators; these guys are there to win, they overcome pain and the bottom line is victory.
Chase: Typically, what does a cutman make monetarily? What would someone in your profession make at the UFC level and lower levels?
Stitch: Well in the lower levels…another thing I tell guys is if you want to be a cutman is don’t do it for the money, because there’s not a lot of money in what we do at the lower levels. I’ve been fortunate enough to say that I can do this full-time now with the money the UFC pays me.
Not only that but the sponsorships that I get…to the point where this is what I do and my wife doesn’t have to work, either. So in that aspect I’m blessed doing what I’m doing. But I’m the only one I know of that can say he can do this full-time.
Chase: Now MMA is a growing and evolving sport. Where have you seen changes in your job, and how has your position grown?
Stitch: My job has gotten better through experience. I think I’ve helped revolutionize the game by bringing a lot more safety and knowledge and education to the game. You see a lot of these young cutmen in other organizations that are kind of mimicking what WE do.
And what we do is the program I set up with these guys…on how to properly clean the cut and how to properly apply the medications at the right time. I don’t handle that, there’s a step-by-step program that we use; but to see these other cutmen doing that, to me is pretty awesome, and I feel really proud in saying I had a lot to do with that.
Chase: Have you ever made a mistake that you went back and said to yourself? Why didn’t I do this? Or Should I have done that?
Stitch: You know, maybe a long, long time ago. There was probably a moment where I could have applied a little more pressure on a cut or a little bit more direct pressure on some swelling. But I’ve been very fortunate to say that I think I’ve given every fighter that I have worked with, every opportunity to win a fight through my techniques.
Sometimes you feel bad….when I wrap a fighters hands, there’s no guarantee that the fighter isn’t going to break their hands. In wrapping their hands, the chances…we minimize the possibility of you breaking your hands. But I’ve had fighters whose hands have been broken, and I had wrapped them. I felt bad in doing that, but now that I understand the mechanics and physics of what we do and what they do…we’re there to minimize and not actually get rid of everything.
For a while, the fighters in MMA were breaking their hands. Then you evaluate WHY they’re doing it and it’s not so much of the wrap…it’s more on how they’re punching. A lot of these fighters if you check with them, they break their hands when they hit guys on the top of their heads with hooks.
When you do hooks, there’s no support on your wrists or hands or anything, because your hand is coming in at an angle. There are a lot of fighters that have realized that and have started to do a lot more straight punching.
Chase: Was there a particular time where you were especially proud of the work you had done during a fight?
Stitch: Oh yeah, there were a lot of great moments. I think the fight with Forrest Griffin when he fought Shogun was a real signature fight for me where I could say; I did my best, my best worked.
Forrest ended up tapping out Shogun, and Forrest had appreciated what I had done, and he made that known by giving me a nice bonus. That was a big, big moment…but seeing guys win and knowing I have something to do with it…that means a lot to me.
Chase: When you are watching a fight, are you thinking about what you’ll have to do in between rounds or do you watch the fights from more of a fan perspective?
Stitch: No, everything is business for me. I’m always focused on the face, looking to see what’s going on different angles and seeing what different kinds of technique these guys are using. I’m always a fan…I couldn’t be judging a fight because I don’t look at the fight as a judge would, I look at it as a cutman.
What I’m looking for…there has been many times when fighters have been cut and I go tell the trainers I’m going in, and the trainer is not aware that the fighter has been cut. Because they aren’t looking for those moments, I am…and that’s how we work together as a team.
Chase: Is there any move in MMA, like 12-6 elbows, that you think shouldn’t be allowed, that is?
Stitch: I think the rules that are implemented in the UFC or in the basic MMA, there’s moves everybody uses and everybody has trained at. I know when they started kneeing guys to the head when they got him in a hold…those are some pretty strong shots.
So when those situations come up, I have my Enswell and swabs ready because the chances of them creating some kind of damage is pretty high on that. And with the elbows, I’ve never seen anyone get knocked out with an elbow shot. I know they almost guarantee the cutmen some work!
Chase: Prior to Jon Jones walking out for his fight at UFC 145, you were wrapping his hands and he was taking a video of you. What was the deal with that?
Stitch: I guess that was considered one of my great moments! It happened, but I didn’t realize how important it was or how it was streamlined on TV until I got home and watched it. My daughter texted me and thought it was pretty awesome. Jon Jones, man, I’ll tell you what…I’ve wrapped a whole bunch of hands and seen a lot of fighters nervous.
Randy Couture was probably the coolest guy I’ve ever wrapped, he was just so cool in the dressing room. But Jon Jones was so cool, calm and collected that he decided to do that…I don’t know if he was blogging or tweeting or whatever it was, but he got his camera out and he starts going “Here I am, getting ready for my bout, getting wrapped by the best cutman in the world, the legendary Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran…it’s an honor!”
You know, he’s giving me all these accolades and then he turns the phone toward me where I’m at, and I gotta look at him and cue in so I was like “Alright well, do I give you the knockout wrap, or the tap out wrap?” And he asked for the knockout wrap. But yeah, he goes back to doing what he did…Jon Jones is just real cool, calm and collected in the dressing room!
Chase: Now you have a book out, called “From the Fields To The Garden.” Tell us more about it and what inspired you to do this book?
Stitch: It’s funny how things happen in my life. The proudest moments of my life…everything that has happened to me; I mean I’ve been in 3-4 movies, I’ve done 16 reality shows, and things have happened to me…but there was a moment where 3-4 guys who came up to me and said they would like to write a book on my life. I’m the kind of guy that if you have a challenge and you want to be involved in it, go for it.
Zac Robinson sent me an email…and I didn’t know who Zac Robinson was. He told me he does books, and he’s been reading up on me and noticed I was in MMA and wanted to know if I’d be interested in doing a book. Turns out he lives in Germany, he’s a teacher for the Department of Defense over there with the military guys. I just happened to be going to Germany two weeks later with Wladimir Klitschko. So I put it on him, I was like “If you want to, let’s meet!”
So he came down and spent three days together and I got to meet him. His dream was to write a book and that’s what he does, he authors books. We shook hands and I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. Zac Robinson ended up doing a tremendous job on writing the story of my life from the beginning to I think UFC 100 where we ended it.
People have been asking for a second book, but today they have great movies but the sequels are never as good as the first one, so we decided to not go with a second one. But the book is doing really well. It’s on Amazon.com or you can go to Kindle and get it, and you order it through BlackMesabooks.com, which is the publisher.
Chase: Lastly, what’s one thing about you that people don’t know about you that you would like them to know? Any hobbies or interests, or just something about you that isn’t well-known?
Stitch: I’m a pretty average guy man! I’m just an average guy like you and the fans. I’m just real good at what I do. I appreciate everything that has been brought to me and just the gratitude that these fans have and giving me all these accolades…to add words like icon and legendary and all that, it blows my mind!
Because I grew up poor as a farm worker, I grew up in a very small town…and I’m still that guy who grew up in the small town. I don’t forget my friends I grew up with. To me, I’m still very foreign, I’m still very humble. But I’m very happy to be in the position I’m at, and to me it is mind-blowing to be out traveling the world and doing what I love doing and getting paid for it.
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