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Travis Lutter on Getting Started in MMA

A lingering neck injury has placed UFC veteran and The Ultimate Fighter 4 middleweight winner Travis Lutter's competitive future in jeopardy. Unable to compete, Lutter is branching out from operating his two MMA academies in Fort Worth, Texas to mining his 12-plus years of experience as an MMA fighter to write a book on helping aspiring MMA fighters get started in the business.

In this exclusive interview with the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Lutter talks about his Beginner's Guide to Getting Started in MMA book, the important steps a beginning fighter should take as well as the extent of his neck injury and competitive future.

Ray Hui: How did you come to the decision to write on the topic of getting started in MMA?
Travis Lutter: It's a really common question that I get asked from guys that come into my gym. There's a lot of books on how to do jiu-jitsu, lots of books on how to lose weight. There's not very many books that really deal with the fact of: Okay, now what should I really expect? What kind of gym should I look for? What kind of instructors? I'm just trying to answer all those different kinds of questions.

That's something we get emails about at all the time: How does one become a fighter or how do I get in the UFC. What's your usual response?

Man, as far as people asking me, "Okay, I want to be in the UFC." Well, "A" you need to be special. If you say, "Hey I want to be a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys" and you're 35 years old. That's probably not going to happen. I'm not saying you're not going to. I'm just saying more than likely if you've never trained before, the chances of that happening are just not very good. But if you come in with an All-American wrestler or world champion jiu-jitsu guy, and want to fight in the UFC, now that's very, very possible.
I think the biggest mistake I made was letting friends try to manage me.
-- Travis Lutter

Who is this book geared towards? Those who want to compete in MMA or those who want to make it into the UFC?

More geared towards the guys that want to end up doing something. They want to have their first fight, what should they look for? I want to try to help people not to make the same mistakes that maybe I made or saw other guys make in their training [such as] being messed up in the wrong camp and spending three or four years training with the wrong guys. That's not good for anybody.

What's a mistake you made when you were starting MMA?

I should have gotten an agent. I think the biggest mistake I made was letting friends try to manage me. I let guys who had never done it before. They've done other things. Lawyers tried to do it. I would have been a lot better off longevity wise and money wise if I would have gotten an agent.

At what point should a fighter secure an agent? When money comes into play or even before that?

I don't think you need an agent until you've had a few pro fights. You can have one before then -- it kind of depends. Once it starts to get, when maybe you're 4, 5-0, you probably should have an agent and be thinking about doing this professionally if you can. You don't want to get taken advantage of, basically. You don't want to have somebody who doesn't know what they doing mess up a deal for you because then you'll end up with nothing. An agent is going to help you with sponsors, and that's money.

Do you recommend fighters entering a certain amount of grappling tournaments or kickboxing tournaments before taking his or her first MMA fight?

It really depends on the guy. You have to look at each case individually. If you come up to me and you've never trained before -- you've never done boxing, you've never done wrestling, you've never done jiu-jitsu before, and the guy tells me, "Oh, I want to fight in a month." It's like, "No, not under me." You can go do that, but I'm not going to go corner you. I like to win. And that's not setting yourself up to win. Even at the amateur level, I'm telling guys in a couple years in that situation, but if you're going to me with a college or a good high school wrestler, you can jump in there a lot, lot sooner. And it's the same thing with a good guy at jits, things like that. For every individual it's a little bit different, but being the tough guy? Everybody is tough. Basically any MMA fighter that fights is a tough guy.
I don't tell them they can't fight, they just can't fight under me.
-- Lutter on prospective students taking fights too soon

Coming from a BJJ black belt, do you think one should be of a certain belt level before making his MMA debut? Perhaps at least a blue, or even purple?

It doesn't have to be. To kind of go back to what they've done before. But if they're coming in, and they're just jiu-jitsu. If they're learning the boxing and wrestling right along side it, and all that stuff, I want my guys even at the amateur [level], I want my guys to be at least a blue belt before they get in there. It shouldn't be just a brand new blue belt either.

It's not uncommon to go to smaller shows and see guys with little experience fight. Do you think it's irresponsible for promoters to organize fights between inexperienced competitors?

Yeah, I think it is. That's my personal opinion. I understand they want to fight, they're grown men, they can do whatever they want. I don't tell them they can't fight, they just can't fight under me.

A guy got his white belt and been training for a month-and-a-half and put him in there against another white belt that's a month-and-a-half. Granted, it's gonna be a fight, but it's nothing you or I would want to see and I think it is irresponsible for the sport even. I think guys should actually have some skills if they go out there. If I want to watch that, I could just go to the bar and watch that or turn around and look at the crowd from that amateur event cause there's going to be guys in the audience that's going to put on just as good of a show that night.

What are the telling signs you've found the right gym?

I think they should be either coaching people at an elite level or have fought themselves. There are few guys who have managed to not fight at the elite level, but they're coaching at the elite level, but those guys are few and far between cause our sport hasn't been around that long. But most of the time, I think you need to find a reputable gym in your area. If it's some Joe Blow that fought locally in an amateur fight and he's opening his own school. What are you going to get from that? You're going to fight at an amateur level and that's all he's going to be able to take you to. You're going to have to change gyms because he's not going to have the talent to actually take you to the next level and that's very, very important.

Say you've outgrown a gym or if it's not the best fit, how does one approach changing gyms without feeling disloyal?
You know if you're going to a gym and you've joined this gym and this is your coach, and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, if I'm an athlete and I'm wanting to get to the next level and I realize my coach did not get me to that next level, as far as being fighter, then I have to find a different gym. Look at all the different fighters that have moved. Guys are going to end up jumping around to a degree. It's best if you go and just find the right gym, just right off the bat but sometimes there not that many good gyms in America that you can go to learn and MMA that will take you to the top level.

I've been lucky with the guys I've gotten to work with, but at the end of my career I went out to Greg Jackson's and trained. I wasn't disrespecting my guys, but it was just time to do something else.

When you're looking at fighters coming up, what kind of qualities are you looking for?

The wrestling is a big deal. Go through the weight classes and look at [whose on top]. Being a successful wrestler is an important thing. If I had a kid, I would tell him you need to do jiu-jitsu and you need to go wrestle. Those are the two things that I think are -- and granted, you need to work on your standup. It's like Georges [St-Pierre], none of these guys are one dimensional. I mean Frankie Edgar's boxing has looked great. Georges St-Pierre's standup has looked great. All of these guys, they're all doing it well but the big difference is is that they get to decide where the fight takes place, whether it's on the ground or standing.
I don't really want to be retired, but I may be retired.
-- Travis Lutter

One of the things you point out about fighting for the first time is the sound of the cage door shutting and the importance of visualization.

The first couple of times I fought, I fought in a ring. I don't know, there's something about when the cage shuts, that first time, and you're like, "S--t, there's no way to get out of here." [Laughs.] "This guy is going to try and hurt me!" I think the power of visualizing to make sure those things happen a thousand times because most of us are going to fight an X amount of times in our career, and that's not enough. You need to visualize. See yourself going in there and all the things that could go wrong. The power of visualization is that it doesn't hurt your body, you're seeing what could possibly happen, seeing yourself moving around and getting in trouble. You're hurt, are you going to recover? You're winning and you're giving everything you got and you get tired. How do you keep going? Seeing where you want to be in this world is very, very helpful.

You're in essence distributing this book on your own, through Amazon. Do you plan on seeking publishers?
I'm still just figuring all those different things out. So, no I haven't.

Moving onto yourself, how is your neck?

I got a [cortisone] shot on Monday. I've been trying to put off getting a shot for a while. My neck, I'm eventually going to need to have it fused two different levels. It's fairly high I think, C3, C4. I'm eventually going to have to go and get it fused but I'm hoping to wait about five years and hopefully technology comes along a little bit. Maybe instead of needing it fused, get an artificial disc or something like that.

For years I've been dealing with my neck but right before my last fight I really really messed it up real bad like five days before so I haven't been able to train at the level I would like to. I could go out there and train jiu-jitsu some but I can't train like I was. It makes it very difficult right now. Maybe the shot will help and I could go back to training, but right now I'm just trying to write this book and keep busy running my schools.

Does this mean the door has closed on your competitive career?

No -- I mean, if it's feeling a lot better I'd definitely, I would like to come back. If I can go out there and put together a training camp and get through a training camp and not get injured then I'll come back and I'll fight. That's what I'd like to do, I don't really want to be retired, buy I may be retired.

The book is listed as "Volume One." Does that mean you have more installments planned?

I'm going to write some more stuff. I haven't decided which way I'm going to go from here as far -- Each chapter [of this book] you can break it down into another book if you really wanted to. And there's always other subjects that I can go out there and talk about and put together, and just try to help the people who need the help.

Considering the length of your tenure in the business and your experience running your own academies, I'm sure they'll be plenty of topics for you to explore.

Yeah, it's fun. And it's a different challenge to go out there and try to do that sort of thing and see how it does. Everybody needs a challenge, and right now I'm working on those.

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