For most people, the thought of being hit with a clean shot from UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou is basically nightmare fuel.
But for Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick, that’s just a regular weekday.
Nicksick and striking coach Dewey Cooper are the men tasked with getting their limbs and midsections battered by Ngannou during pad sessions ahead of events like UFC 270. They may be wearing enough protection to prevent the worst of it, but it’s still a 265-pound behemoth causing miniature car crashes on their bodies multiple times a week.
So what does the experience actually feel like? Nicksick explained ahead of Saturday’s title unification bout between Ngannou and interim UFC champion Ciryl Gane.
“I’ve been hit in the back with a baseball bat before, and literally the bat, it broke. It was a wooden bat, it broke across my back, and it didn’t bother me one bit,” Nicksick said with a laugh Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “And then I’ve been kicked by Francis to the point where I couldn’t walk for two weeks, man. Like, it’s bad. It hurts, man. It hurts bad. And with leg pads on, I’ll have the Fairtex pads on, and he’ll start kicking that pad — and the pad, all of a sudden, feels like it starts to get scared, and the pad starts to move apart. You’re like, ‘Oh man, this thing’s going to land hard. This thing’s going to land flush.’
“It’s a different type of power, man, the way that this man can kick and punch and throw and generate power. It’s ungodly. There’s nothing that you can train to be like, that type of power. I think it’s just our job as coaches to be able to understand what’s next — how do you add on to that power? How do you not fall over that power? And then what what attributes or what strikes can you do to go off of that. ... So those are the things that I think we’ve worked on a lot. But dude, I’ll tell you what, man — poor Dewey [Cooper]. Dewey’s elbows, my legs, my body, it’s just getting beat up constantly.”
For Nicksick, there has been plenty of time for those bruises to accumulate ahead of UFC 270.
Ngannou has been stuck on the sidelines since capturing his UFC heavyweight strap in March 2021, in large part because of the UFC’s decision to move forward with an interim title bout less than five months after Ngannou’s title-winning knockout of Stipe Miocic.
The questions and uncertainty that followed Ngannou’s crowning moment were a roller-coaster, with the champion first being tied to fights against Jon Jones and Derrick Lewis before ultimately having Gane enter the picture. But rather than worry about issues outside of their control, Nicksick is confident the team used the extra time to their advantage.
“You can either start trying to game plan for those specific fighters, or you can go out and just work on your growth, and get better in areas that you feel like you can add to your game and your skill set,” Nicksick said. “And that’s kind of what we did. It was nice, because in a lot of ways, too, we had a camp with Derrick Lewis already going. And then the fight, remember it was set for September and then it got switched and everything else, so he went home for a month and then came right back, and then we were right back to work.
“So I just think his all-around skill set — you know, we try to blend everything in. He’s obviously been wrestling a lot more. He’s obviously working on his ground game and things like that. But it’s great when you do that, but how do you blend it together? Right? I think it’s important to make sure that you set up your striking with your wrestling, and show the level changes when you have both attributes that you’re able to use. So really, the blending the combination of the MMA skills is I think what we worked on the most.”
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that the road to Saturday hasn’t exactly been smooth. Ngannou’s rocky relationships with the UFC and his former trainer — Gane’s head coach Fernand Lopez — have taken center stage in the lead-up to UFC 270, but Nicksick said he feels confident with where Ngannou’s head is ahead of the big night.
Most athletes would be distracted by the outside noise swirling around the champion, however Nicksick believes Ngannou is the rare fighter who can block it all out.
“That’s something, I think inherently, that you would come to that conclusion — like, OK, is this getting a little out of hand?” Nicksick said. “But then my communication with him and stuff that I talk to him about, I don’t get that vibe from him at all. Like, this is very much that Jerry Maguire Rod Tidwell moment, you know? It’s like, ‘I’m betting on myself, and I think I’m going to win. I think I can do this.’ And we went over some of the scenarios and what the possibilities were, win, lose, or draw, what happens — and he’s at peace with everything. Like, he’s comfortable. He’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to be fine. I feel good about my situation I’m in, no matter what.’
“It gave me a sense of peace, man, because yes, inherently I’m like, ‘Oh, what are we doing?’ Like, this is giving me anxiety. And dude, he’s just so calm and cool, and he doesn’t bring a lot of added energy or bad energy or anything to the training sessions. He comes home for dinner and he’s just a bro. So I’m like, OK, if you feel good about everything, and you’re happy and you’re content with everything, my job is to help you further those goals and achieve that mission.
“So I’m all-in whatever you decide on, no matter what. But yeah, man, I felt like that for a little while, I was losing some sleep. But he feels good about it, so I feel good about it.”