In some ways, Trevor Wittman
is to a UFC pay-per-view as a great character actor is to a Hollywood blockbuster. Even if you don't know his name, you recognize him as soon as you see him on screen.
That's because the 36-year-old Wittman -- trainer to fighters like Shane Carwin
, Rashad Evans
, Nate Marquardt
, and several others-- has a trademark. While other trainers and coaches are scowling their way to the cage, Wittman is the slightly goofy guy who's grinning like a golden retriever with his head stuck out the car window.
"Brock [Lesnar] told me, 'Man, you've got the most intimidating smile in the game,' Wittman laughs. "You look across the cage at the other guys and you usually see that tough guy look. Me, I'm just happy to be there and excited to see my guy perform."
Judging by looks alone, Wittman is easily the happiest man you'll see on any UFC broadcast, and he takes no small measure of pride in it. Let other trainers glare from over their fighters' shoulders. Wittman thinks he can accomplish just as much with an off-putting smile, even if the opposing fighters don't always like it so much.
"I was in there with Rashad and we were fighting "Rampage," [Jackson]," Wittman recalls. "I was smiling at him and "Rampage" gave me that little growl he does. He didn't look at Rashad the whole time during the introductions. He just looked at me. I remember thinking to myself, keep the smile. Don't break it. I felt like I was shaking trying to keep smiling."
You'd never know it from his enthusiasm for his job, but when he first started out in the fight game this was the last place Wittman thought he'd end up. After a childhood spent aspiring to become a ninja, Wittman got involved in karate. Then one day he decided to check out a local boxing gym to see how his striking skills measured up.
"I got my ass kicked," he says. "I remember walking home, crying, and I did that thing where, whenever a car would come close I'd straighten up and try to act like I wasn't crying."
A month later Wittman worked up the courage to go back, and before long boxing had become his life. He felt sure that he had a future as a professional fighter. Until, that is, he was diagnosed with hyperinflation of the lung – a consequence of years of asthma that could become serious if he was to get hit with the right body shot – and he was forced to retire.
"It was really hard to deal with. I was seeing a really good counselor at the time, and she helped me through it. She said, 'What do you like to do?' I said, 'Boxing, but I can't do it anymore.'"
The counselor suggested Wittman try his hand at something associated with boxing – managing or training, perhaps. Neither sounded all that appealing at first, but after he'd had his fill of feeling sorry for himself, he says, he finally went back to the gym to hold mitts for his fellow fighters.
"I honestly fell in love with it," says Wittman. "It's the mental game. I feel like I've accomplished a lot as a trainer just because of the mental game. I understand the mental game and I know how to talk to people."
Part of understanding the mental side of fighting, according to Wittman, is knowing when to pump a guy up and when to break him down. Case in point, before a recent fight he started to notice a troubling attitude from Brendan Schaub
, his up-and-coming UFC heavyweight. Schaub was talking disparagingly about his next opponent's skills, and Wittman began to worry that he wasn't approaching the bout with the proper mix of fear and aggression.
"He said something about the guy like, 'Oh, he's just a wrestler. I'm not worried about him.' I didn't like what I was hearing, so I told Shane [Carwin], 'The next time you come in I want you to pick him up and slam him, then pick him up and slam him some more.' After that training session, Brendan got up like a dog with his tail between his legs. I pulled him aside and told him, 'This is you not respecting the sport of wrestling.' From that point on, he had a different attitude."
This, says Wittman, is part of why it's so important to him to work with a select few fighters, rather than trying to maintain a large stable. He has to understand each man's personality well enough that he knows when and how to bring him up or down.
"That's really what my job is, is controlling that fire. Sometimes you've got to light a fire and sometimes you've got to put out a fire," he says. "I want to have five world champions, not thirty gatekeepers. And if I were to take on thirty guys, that's where I'd be, is training them at a gatekeeper level."
The hardest part about his job, Wittman says, is "the continuous adrenaline shot." With fighters on almost every major fight card, and sometimes even more than one on the same night, all the extreme emotional highs and lows take their toll.
For instance, at UFC 116 he got to smile his way up and down the aisle as Schaub scored a first-round knockout victory over Chris Tuchscherer. But later that night he had to watch as Carwin lost via second-round submission against Lesnar in a fight that seemed like it was almost over in the first round.
"I was happy as hell, relaxed, then boom, the fight totally turned," Wittman says. "It's such an up-and-down rollercoaster ride. It wears on you."
But even with the emotional strain, the almost constant travel, and the time spent away from his family, Wittman admits that he can't think of anything else he'd rather be doing right now.
For anyone who's seen him grinning on fight night, that shouldn't come as a surprise. When he hits the cage with his fighter on a Saturday night is about as happy as Wittman gets, and he isn't ashamed to show it.
"It's just that the moment has arrived," he says. "We've trained so hard in training camp, that when we get to the fight that's the moment where I'm the most confident. I love it."