Most of the time when I cover MMA events, I see familiar faces. Reporters such as Mike Pendleton and Mike Straus certainly come to mind in Chicago. Members of the Illinois State Athletic Commission have to be there, so you get to know them as well. Coaches and trainers from gyms all over are out and about and most of them have a certain edge to them. It’s an ineffable aura that tells me, “I don’t want to mess with this guy.” It was pretty automatic with me, that was until I met Rick Little, coach and owner of SikJitsu Gym based out of Spokane, Washington.
Initially, Little did not strike me as the kind of person who would train high level fighters such as Julianna Pena, Sam Sicilia or Michael Chiesa. He looked more like a collegiate soccer player with a neatly groomed 5-o’clock shadow (which is mostly a compliment) and had the personality of a collegiate soccer player with a 5-o’clock shadow had that man just been crowned Homecoming King (also mostly a compliment). He didn’t so much smile when he spoke as he did smirk which I first noticed when he introduced me to Pena, who was in attendance of the event. But his love for MMA exuded when Fedor Emelianenko and Frank Mir took the cage at Bellator 198. When I told him he could sit in my seat for the main event, you’d think I just handed him a winning lottery ticket. He was so gracious and thankful, I knew this was someone I’d want to discuss MMA.
Little spent the first half of the interview discussing Sicilia’s loss to Emmanuel Sanchez in the co-main event. I was amazed that Little felt he needed to qualify his training method saying, “It sounds crazy but …” several times during the interview. Sicilia trained for a fast-paced fight to end quickly and had no desire to go into the third round. This method does sound unconventional but if you were to train for a sprint, you wouldn’t, then, want to run a mile. This seemed to be the gameplan for Sicilia who got caught by an arm-triangle choke in the first round.
But a majority of time was spent discussing Michael Chiesa, who is scheduled to fight Anthony Pettis, after their fight was scrapped for UFC 223. Initially Little discussed how Chiesa has not only been training for his upcoming fights, but also being weight-ready in the event that a fighter drops out for a title-contention (something that has happened between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson four times). UFC 209 would be Little’s first attempt at having Chiesa fight ready when Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fell through.
“Show up on weight,” Little insisted.
“You’re on a win streak, I’m telling you something is going to happen and they are going to call and look for someone and your going to be right there in Las Vegas on weight.”
After proving his point to Chiesa, the fighter has been ready to go in the event of a last second withdrawal. UFC 223 would be no exception when the New York State Athletic Commission pulled Max Holloway out against Nurmagomedov. But before the fight went to Al Iaquinta, Chiesa looked to be the front runner.
“We were prepared,” Little stated.
“We were prepared this time. Everything went good, it went just like we thought. We were getting the title fight. Dana pretty much said it was our fight and all that was perfect … and then, of course, Dolly Lama came.”
Last month at UFC 223 Conor McGregor went on a tirade and threw a dolly through a bus full of fighters, after hearing that Nurmagomedov had confronted one of McGregor’s teammates, Artem Lobov. Unfortunately, one fighter that was effected by the attack was Chiesa.
“The foolishness of just randomly attacking a bus,” Little stated.
“You know there are a bunch of fighters there. You know someone is getting hurt. Maybe you’re lucky and it’s Khabib that gets hurt but either way its foolish,” Little continued.
Chiesa and Ray Borg suffered lacerations from broken glass and caused them both to be removed from the fight card. Right behind Chiesa on the bus was womens’ strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.
“It was so close to being Rose, you have no idea Rose was sitting inches behind us,” Little stated.
Based on recent reports, McGregor attempted to reach out to Rose Namajunas on Instagram to apologize for the incident that took place ahead of UFC 223. Namajunas’ response was short and direct. Initially this confused both Little and myself.
“What about Mike?” Little asked.
“The guy that you know is sitting there bleeding on the bus. You didn’t reach out to him … If it’s gonna be Rose, you might as well do the whole bus.”
Shortly after the events, McGregor turned himself in and the presiding Judge issued orders of protection for Chiesa and Borg. Any attempt to contact them would lead to rearrest. Which answered Little’s question about why McGregor didn’t reach out to anyone other than Rose.
“I don’t think he realizes how much damage he did to us,” Little exclaimed.
“He doesn’t realize that we were going to get that title fight.” Little finished
As all trainers, managers and promoters know sometimes the MMA odds are simply not in your favor. Even, sometimes especially, when things seem too good to be true. The young ones get frustrated, the unwise blame others, but the good ones know where to look when things get rough. It wasn’t hard to see a trend in the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson canceled fights, but Little picked up on it. The title fights continued to get closer to fruition, but never saw the light, Little persevered. And absolute worst-case-secenario, the members of SikJitsu are right back where they started: Michael Chiesa is fighting Anthony Pettis as part of a loaded UFC 225 PPV card.
“History and experience tell us that moral progress comes not in comfortable and complacent times, but out of trial and confusion.” – Gerald Ford
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