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How Greg Jackson and Brandon Gibson Prepared Landon Vannata for the UFC

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystJuly 22, 2016

Vannata put on a stunning performance against a top contender in Ferguson.
Vannata put on a stunning performance against a top contender in Ferguson.Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

"This man got mad squabbles," said Rashad Evans during the post-fight show following the UFC's Fight Night card in Sioux Falls on July 13.

The former light heavyweight champion was referring to UFC debutant and total unknown Landon Vannata, who had come in on two weeks' notice and put a serious scare into presumptive top contender and 7-1 favorite Tony Ferguson. Vannata had knocked Ferguson down with a head kick and a series of punches in the first round, putting the iron-chinned contender on rubber legs and very nearly finishing the fight.

Vannata's angles, footwork, unorthodox strikes and sheer speed gave Ferguson fits, and only a superhuman performance from the contender allowed him to battle back from the cusp of defeat.

It took every bit of Ferguson's experience, creativity, power, durability and endless aggression to finally overwhelm Vannata, who succumbed to the older fighter's signature d'Arce choke in the second round.

The combination of the short time to prepare, the emotional dump after coming so close to getting the finish and Ferguson's own commitment to attrition finally wore on Vannata, but not before the 24-year-old had put himself on the map with one of the all-time great opening performances.

A short-notice debut is never easy under any circumstances, but taking on Bleacher Report's fourth-ranked lightweight, a man riding a seven-fight winning streak against the division's elite, with just a few specific training sessions borders on madness. That's a good kind of of madness to be sure, but it's madness nonetheless.

What were Vannata and his coaches thinking, and how did they go about preparing their fighter for such an immense challenge with so little time to spare? What have they taken from his performance? 

To get some answers to these questions, I spoke to Vannata, his striking coach Brandon Gibson and Albuquerque's mad scientist of the pugilistic sciences himself, Greg Jackson.

Jackson knew the fight was a risk, but it was a calculated one.

"I believe in the kid and think he's very impressive and mostly, he really wanted to do it. He was super gung-ho about it and ready to rock and roll. I had a lot of confidence in him and still do. If you believe in him and you know he has the skills to do it, why not roll the dice?"

Vannata might have been an unknown quantity coming into the fight with Ferguson, but he has spent his entire amateur and professional career under the watchful eye of some of MMA's finest coaches. His training partners have always been established, elite fighters.

Donald Cerrone has been a training partner of Vannata's for years.
Donald Cerrone has been a training partner of Vannata's for years.John Locher/Associated Press

Being in that environment helped acclimate Vannata to the UFC before he ever stepped foot in the Octagon.

"Training with these guys, training with Cowboy [Cerrone], training with Cub [Swanson], training with these top fighters is pretty good at preparing you," he said.

"It's been pretty awesome the whole time," Vannata said of his experience coming up at one of the world's best training camps. "For me, it's like going to any other gym. I became friends with everybody real quick and they took me under their wing. We became family. It's pretty cool to come up around these dudes and get to see what the UFC is like, be in corners, experience everything beforehand."

According to Gibson, Vannata's success in sessions with fighters like Cerrone and Swanson was key to the decision to put him in the fight.

"Gym sparring is obviously different, but I was confident that he could compete with the elite of the division."

Despite the massive disparity in experience and divisional ranking between Vannata and Ferguson, both Gibson and Jackson thought that Vannata's particular skill sets posed a serious problem for the contender. "You can't stand in front of Ferguson," Gibson said, "and Lando's command of angles and movement equipped him not to do that."

Vannata's kicks forced Ferguson to stay on the outside in the first round.
Vannata's kicks forced Ferguson to stay on the outside in the first round.Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For the first round of the fight, that's exactly how it played out. Despite being the shorter fighter, Vannata used the combination of rangy kicks—side kicks to Ferguson's thighs and torso, front kicks to the body and spinning back kicks to the breadbasket—to take Ferguson's jab and slashing round kicks out of the equation.

Rather than getting stuck precisely at the end of Ferguson's reach, Vannata forced Ferguson to step backward and give him space, which allowed Vannata to circle and move at will through the cage. The combination of distance and a distinct speed advantage gave Vannata opportunities to cut angles and leap in with punches and kicks or, alternatively, to sidestep when Ferguson attacked and then to counter.

The culmination of Vannata's success with this strategy came when he caught a kick from Ferguson and countered by grabbing Ferguson's head and pulling it downward into the path of his own kick. Stunned, Ferguson tumbled to the mat on rubber legs, and Vannata spent the last minute of the round pouring it on and trying to finish the contender.

Vannata came close to finishing Ferguson.
Vannata came close to finishing Ferguson.Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Ferguson's experience shone through, however, and he survived by forcing Vannata to defend a kneebar. Already visibly tired when he scored the knockdown, Vannata blew through whatever energy he had left trying to end the fight.

By the time the bell sounded to begin the second round, Vannata was exhausted, and Ferguson landed jab after jab and combination after combination. Finally, the contender grabbed a front headlock, snaked his long arms around Vannata's neck and locked in the fight-ending choke.

"The first round went pretty much how I expected," Vannata said. "I figured I'd move a lot, make him miss a lot, find some good counters, his legs would be open, he'd be easy to hit. Second round, I was exhausted, and it didn't go as I expected. Well, actually, I got what I expected if I stood in front of him, and you saw for yourself."

The fight came down to cardio and experience, and the two interact in distinct ways. The kind of game that Vannata wanted to play, with its constant circular movement and leaping in and out of range, is energy-intensive. Without a full camp to prepare, Vannata's gas tank was always going to be limited.

"The underlying structure of Landon's game, what held up the edifice [of his early success in that fight] is footwork. He had the cardio to put those feet in the right place at the right time," Jackson said.

"Once your cardio goes, your footwork deteriorates rapidly. Knowing that he had the right footwork to allow his head to move, to allow him to attack on angles was key, but that's the risk we took. Working at that kind of pace with that footwork is very tiring, and we knew he might run out of gas."

The basic cardio needs of the game plan he needed to beat Ferguson were already high, and Vannata was already working too fast even when he scored the knockdown, but he still might have been able to last into the second if not for the extra energy he expended trying to finish Ferguson at the end of the first.

It wasn't just the knockdown and what followed, Vannata said, but letting his emotions come into play.

"I wouldn't say it was an adrenaline dump and I wouldn't say it was from a short camp. It was lack of experience, to be honest. I hurt him early in the fight, I caught him with a few good punches, and from that point forward everything I threw was with 100 percent power. I never took the chill pill after that. I missed a lot of punches and ended up blowing my wad, and at that point I pretty much f***ed myself."

If the first round was difficult enough already, the knockdown might have actually hurt even more.

"I do think sitting there on that stool between the first and second rounds, when he came so close to finishing him, there's an emotional dump that comes along with that. So even if you're physically prepared, that emotional dump took a physical toll on him," Gibson said.

That's something that can only be overcome with experience, and sometimes not even then. Gibson compared Vannata's emotional dump to Carlos Condit in the third round against Georges St-Pierre, when Condit landed a head kick and expended all his energy trying to finish. Few fighters in MMA have Condit's deep well of knowledge and in-cage maturity, but even he is vulnerable to the allure of the finish.

Still, experience helps in those situations.

"You can teach the hows and the whys," Jackson said, "but to actually do it requires experience. 'Okay, I've been here before, just breathe and relax, and everything's going to work out.'

"He had the skills, but because of his short camp we weren't able to get him physically where he needed to be. He got tired, and when you get tired, your experience should take over. You have to know when and where to rest."

Emotion, all three agreed, was the enemy of cardio in that scenario.

"It's about rhythm control. You're still going to kick it up a notch, but if you do it right, it should just be a rhythm change, not emotional," Jackson said. "When you make it emotional, that's how you gas yourself out. You get on the emotional roller coaster, thinking, 'I'm going to finish him, I'm going to finish him,' but that up also has a down. 'Oh, man, I'm tired, and now my arms are burning.' The important thing is to take that emotional roller coaster out of it. When you realize you're not going to get the finish, pulling back to the original rhythm is very important." 

Learning to control that emotional response is a matter of repeated exposure. Gibson said, "We can do training simulations where we can teach that [how to pull back], but a lot of it does come from experience, from sitting in there on fight night on that stool under the big lights and staring across at a ranked guy, one of the top contenders, and saying, 'Here we go, let's do this again.'"

In the future, Vannata said, "I'll be more efficient and more aware of what I'm doing and not letting my emotions get the better of me. Next time I hurt somebody I have to relax, make sure I don't go wild looking for the finish or trying to hurt them more. That's all it is."

Ferguson has been in the cage with fighters like Edson Barboza.
Ferguson has been in the cage with fighters like Edson Barboza.John Locher/Associated Press

Ferguson, by contrast, has that experience. He's been under the bright lights before and stared across the cage at other contenders. While known for his endless gas tank, he could have gotten frustrated or panicked when Vannata hit him repeatedly and then knocked him down.

Ferguson didn't panic, though, and recovered from both the emotional roller coaster and the damage by cleverly rolling for a kneebar and tying Vannata up and the end of he first round. That was a veteran move that gave him the time he needed.

This fight was a learning experience for Vannata, and his coaches are fully confident that he'll bounce back. Vannata was already thinking about how he could improve immediately following the fight.

"I shared a room with Landon that night," Gibson said, "and we probably watched it seven times and broke it down technically and set some goals for this next camp. That's a continuing, developing process. He texted me that next Sunday night and said, 'Here's some bag work I did tonight, here's what we can improve on, what do you think of that?'"

That kind of dedication to self-improvement bodes well for Vannata's future as a contender in a stacked division, where the margin for error in fights with talented and dedicated opposition is razor-thin.

Despite losing the fight, it's hard to view his war with Ferguson as anything other than a positive for the 24-year-old's career. "I think I gained more fans coming off a loss than anybody ever has. I've got nothing but love from this fight," Vannata said. "I already knew I could hang with the top guys in the world, but to actually go out there and do it gave me more confidence as well."

Gibson and Jackson have no regrets about putting their young fighter in with a contender at the top of his game. "Obviously, we wanted to win, but...this is still a win-win situation for Lando. A lot of people know about him now, he's in the UFC, he's a little more financially secure and stable now, and he'll continue to invest in himself and become a better fighter," Gibson said.

Confidence certainly isn't an issue for Vannata, and neither are skills. His fight with Ferguson went a long way toward providing him with the experience that only time in the cage against the best in the world can impart.

"By the end of next year, I plan on running this division," Vannata said. If he continues to showcase the kind of swagger and talent he did against Ferguson, there's no reason to doubt him.

Being surrounded by coaches like Gibson and Jackson and sparring on a daily basis with some of the best fighters in the world went a long way toward preparing him for the rigors of the UFC before he stepped foot in the Octagon. If he sticks with them and continues to evolve, the sky is the limit.

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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