Nobody puts John in the corner?
This statement is so true.
Life as a cornerman is a massive learning curve just as learning to be a fighter is, but it is a massively underrated part of the martial arts sports scene. I never even thought of being a cornerman because when I was younger I was fighting.
As part of my ninjutsu training we regularly sparred both upright and on the ground so I never thought anything of it. In the olden days because there was not the abundance of interclub or fight shows where people could try out their skill against one another we fought on courses or special weekends and kicked the living shit out of each other thinking it was normal. It was just part of the training; with no gloves, sometimes no gumshield and no cornering help apart from the odd shout of “kill him” from well-meaning bystanders. Back in the day, you could only fight in sport by going to an aba approved boxing club, Thai- boxing club or judo to fight and they never would mix the arts and fight each other. Everyone stayed in their own lane and never ventured out as it had never been done before, some people saying you could not get the insurance for such fights (but I think the truth was they did not want to) so they could keep on saying their art is the best.
In the art of ninjutsu we got to go to different countries and “spar” with anyone and everyone they put in front of you. Me being just about 10 stone had to learn to fight every different shape size and skill level not unlike the kykoshin karate type fighting, but we allowed hand strikes to the head as well as kicks to show your all-around skill set.
I remember standing in front of 25 people to be told by my chief instructor that If I lost one fight I would have to take my black belt off and leave, this was after a blackbelt training course the previous day were we just fought each other for 3 hours just changing every 10 minutes; nothing like a little pep talk to make you feel better. That day I fought like a demon and won every fight but the next few weeks I still bore the scars of the day. I had never even thought how to do the corner apart from like millions of others watching sporting events telling the professional how he should do his job, just watch the Mayweather/McGregor for best illustration of armchair cornermen.
Little shows started to pop up in working men’s clubs in the early years of mma where you would have a ring set up (as there was very few mma cages) people would wear gloves similar size as they do today as amateur fighters, but back then they were known as semi-professional then that changed to smaller gloves but no head shots on the ground. Semi-professional would be the word I would use for the shows never mind the fighters. I have seen glitterballs in the middle of ring that people have been lifted and thrown into during these early fights because I think they forgot people were going to be lifted in the air not just boxed like the aba rules of boxing. Being in the corner in these early events you felt that there could be huge fight at any moment as the referees were just getting used to the rules, the fighters and corners were also getting used to the things you can and can’t do. For example, taping of the hands is an art within its self, as every hand fighting sport taped their hands differently, sometimes the knuckles would be “loaded” meaning the cornerman would twirl tape into 6-inch lengths and then place them in between the knuckles to form one solid hand which would be very strong and potentially very damaging to the poor person that received it via a punch. Lucky this has changed in the sport of mma (it still happens in other arts) but I have witnessed some mma hand wrapping that Iron Mike Tyson would have approved of in his fighting prime. When I go to shows it is not uncommon for me to wrap the hands of perfect strangers when they have no one else to do it. One time I had wrapped my fighter’s hands and put war on his knuckles to cheer him up as the nerves were kicking in and told him to go and show them to his friends so when they asked him how he was feeling he would be able to point to his knuckles and proudly tell them he was ready for war; you pick up strange little tips and ways of making your fighters clam and ready (even when they don’t feel that ready).
I also make the one-pound bet with my fighter; If they finish the fight with the strike or submission I give them a whole pound. This seems such a strange thing to do (due to the financial high stakes) when we have a walk-through talk about the fight, focusing on what they have been working on, it stops the mind acting like a kid in a sweet shop, when they get there they have too much to choose from; then their mam says “one”!
One time I was asked to wrap a young lad’s hands so I did trying to make him feel better as it was his first fight so after calming him down he thanked me and said his hands feel like the Hulks (smash) praise indeed because the Hulk can punch for fun! So, after doing my good deed another coach asked if I could wrap his fighter’s hands, “no problem” I said and found the lad in question sitting on the floor looking into space or as I call it the ‘thousand-yard stare’ were the person is look inside them self not at the view.
As I started to wrap his hands I noticed he was shaking, this is a by-product of adrenaline, it needs to be harnessed not let run wild around your body, so I calmed him down telling him he would be fine and I will make his hand wrap super hard so that he could punch really well. As we chatted I asked him who he was fighting, to my surprise he said it was the lad who’s hands I had just wrapped, I did not tell him I had just given his opponent hulk hands! Watching the fight, it was a great exchange and went to points but they both punched each other like superheroes.
Looking after my fighter is my number one priority in my eyes; nothing else matters whether it is picking them up and getting them to the venue, calming them down when their adrenaline has spiked even down to getting them through the crowd of well wishes after a fight; these things you must do to look after your fighter. One funny incident occurred at a fight show when Micky 3rd Degree was defending his European Middleweight Title. It had been a long night of waiting as he was headlining so we would be on last, we always mess around making jokes and taking the piss out of people as it lightens the mood when we spied his opponent at the burger van getting a pulled pork burger standing in Thai shorts a hoodie and Ugg Boots! Mostly girls wear Ugg boots even though they originally were worn by sheep shearing Australians and now mma fighters; As I pointed this out to Micky he said he deserved to get hit just for his dress sense. As the dressing room got quieter we started to warm up on the pads. Just then two lads burst in to square off with Micky and Mal, but Mal having had a great time the previous evening was sitting on the floor nursing an energy drink due to his hangover hoping it would help. As the lads burst in they shouted something but they did not expect me to tell them in no uncertain terms to “fuck off” we had waited for hours and they come in now wanting to kick off. So, this stopped them in their tracks and they left so we could get on this the business in hand. I turned out they had a discussion with Micky and Mal a few months before and it got heated so they thought it would be the perfect opportunity to chat with them, wrong time wrong place. Micky won his fight, Mr Ugg boots went home empty handed and the two would be fighters were told off by their gang leader and calm was restored.
Calm is not the way we sometimes corner, sometimes it gets quite heated but we always try to have fun. One night we were back stage buckets in hand and some of the corner team were checking out the ring girls, one being on the + size for the average wafer-thin ring girl. Some of the lads were saying that they would not like to have ‘relationships’ with her when a little voice from behind me said “I would” this cracked everyone up and when we all came out when the music came on you can see we are all still trying to compose ourselves. I am a professional cornerman but the learning curve has been steep but very enjoyable I would not change it for the world, so next time give a thought about the corner team that is their looking after their fighter mostly unpaid and doing it for the team, the sport, and the love of their teammates. I have spent many hours sitting waiting in training areas just watching people doing the ‘3 hour warm up’ and watch the nerves kick in , I have watched the highs and lows of a fighter and their team from euphoria winning a fight or belt with loads of people patting the champ on the back to an empty room with a fighter crying into his bloodstained towel with no-one but his corner team not knowing how to stop the hurt and pain for him; but still they stand with their fighter comforting them when they need it most.
I have been to places all over this fair land from a social club in Jarrow town centre with a boxing ring with a glitterball in the middle of it, to the bonus arena in Hull with loads of fighters and a 30-strong support crowd that all ended up with their tops off (lads only) in Hull’s famous Gay scene that turned into one of the funniest after show nights out ever! I have stood in a chemical plant hanger in Cambois near Ashington to the Metro arena and every social club and night club in between, every one of them gave me an experience; some good, some bad and some ugly (and that was just the crowd) After it was all over I would drive people to continue their night out get home and settle down with my curry (and naan bread) and a can of lager or two and reflect on the night spent in the corner. I hope you liked this trip into the life of a cornerman and next time you see your favourite fighter check out his corner team because they are doing a difficult job!
Until next time,
Big love from the AFC