From a family of coaches, Eric Nicksick becomes an elite MMA coach after a fateful chat with fighter

By | September 12, 2023

Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick (L) celebrates with Sean Strickland and the rest of the coaching staff after Strickland defeated Israel Adesanya on Saturday.  (Courtesy of Eric Nicksick)

Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick (L) celebrates with Sean Strickland and the rest of the coaching staff after Strickland defeated Israel Adesanya on Saturday. (Courtesy of Eric Nicksick)

It was late 2006 and Eric Nicksick, a 1997 all-state wide receiver from Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, was looking to change things in his life. He was a bartender and wasn’t happy with where his life was headed. He went to Nevada-Reno to play football, but was kicked off the team. He played two years at Dixie State in St. George, Utah, but suffered a series of concussions and decided to abandon the game that had been a big part of his life.

His father, Jim Nicksick, was an assistant coach at Green Valley and became the first assistant to be inducted into the Southern Nevada Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His uncle, Dave Castro, was an assistant at Green Valley. Another uncle, Gary Wheeler, was a successful longtime high school basketball coach in Southern Nevada.

And yet another uncle, Mike Nixon, was a head coach for three years and an assistant for decades in the NFL. Coaching, clearly, is in Eric Nicksick’s blood.

But in 2006, he wasn’t sure he wanted to become a trainer when he came across the yet-to-open Xtreme Couture Gym in Las Vegas. The gym was not open to the public, but its founder/owner, Randy Couture, was using it to prepare for a heavyweight title bout on March 3, 2007, at UFC 68 against Tim Sylvia.

Nicksick showed up and began training with veteran fighters such as Couture, Mike Pyle, Jay Hieron and Martin Kampmann. He didn’t intend to become a fighter or a trainer, but he needed something different in his life.

He and a friend tried to find the gym. One of the main east-west roads in Las Vegas that now make it easy to get to the gym wasn’t all traveled at that point, so they struggled to locate it. But they were persistent, and persevering changed Nicksick’s life.

“We basically ran into that place and when we did, there was a practice going on,” Nicksick told Yahoo Sports. “Mike Pyle asked me in and invited me to practice, which was basically like code for beating the shit out of me. But he told me after that day, come back if you want and so I did. I would help and help set up the gym and things like that.

“At that point I just needed a different direction. I didn’t know what I was going to get, but I needed a sense of community. I didn’t like the direction my life was going and that I was taking.” lazy and complacent.”

He kept coming back so often that a few months later, when the gym opened, he was the No. 1 member. And now he continues to make his daily trips there, but he does so as the general manager and head coach of the Xtreme Couture fight team. .

He helped Sean Strickland capture the middleweight title with a unanimous decision win over Israel Adesanya in the main event of UFC 293 on Saturday, cementing his presence among the game’s elite trainers.

MMA Junkie named him Coach of the Year in 2020 and Yahoo Sports named him Coach of the Year 2022. But Nicksick truly came into his own in guiding the mercurial Strickland to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.

“Eric is just a phenomenal coach and I feel like he could coach any sport and be successful,” said Dan Ige, a UFC featherweight coached by Nicksick. “If we were to pick up a pickle ball, he would study it and teach you how to play pickle ball. If it was badminton or whatever, he has that ability to explain things and break them down. He has a really good eye for the sport.”

Part of his job is to get his fighters into shape. Another part is improving their fundamentals. Game planning is key and these are all areas in which he excels. But he is exceptional in that minute between rounds and can have a significant impact on the fight.

Those moments are tense and pressure-filled and a coach must not only convey the right message, but say it in the right way. Understanding the correct message is not always easy. Kenny Florian, a former UFC fighter who now does TV analysis for PFL on ESPN and co-hosts a popular podcast with Jon Anik, gives Nicksick top marks.

“I can’t remember a time when he was working the corner and giving advice and I thought to myself, ‘Oh wow, I’m not sure I agree,’” Florian told Yahoo Sports. “He seems to have a great ability to communicate and relate to his fighters, and he has that talent of seemingly always saying the right thing. I haven’t been there during his training sessions to listen to him, but when he breaks down he fights, when he talks about it that his fighters have to do, when you feel it in the corner, it seems like it’s almost always pretty right.”

Nicksick pays close attention to the body language of his fighter’s opponent, so much so that he always makes sure one of his trainers keeps an eye on the opposite corner. Nicksick said he believes his best trait as a coach is the advice he is able to give between rounds. His idea to assign a coach to the opposite corner paid huge dividends for Strickland on Saturday.

Trainer Eric Nicksick lifts Sean Strickland into the air at UFC 293 on Saturday after Strickland defeated Israel Adesanya to win the middleweight title.  (Courtesy of Eric Nicksick)

Trainer Eric Nicksick lifts Sean Strickland into the air at UFC 293 on Saturday after Strickland defeated Israel Adesanya to win the middleweight title. (Courtesy of Eric Nicksick)

Strickland clearly led at least 3-1 after four rounds Saturday. But MMA judging is unpredictable and Adesanya was fighting in front of a raucous home crowd, which can impact things.

Adesanya appeared to be a defeated man as he trudged to his corner after the fourth round. It seemed clear to the most casual observer that Strickland simply needed to finish on his feet and, however unlikely, would become the new champion.

Nicksick is astute enough to realize that no matter how badly Adesanya was performing relative to expectations, he became one of the greatest fighters in UFC history by rising up in the biggest moments. He needed Strickland to keep his foot on the accelerator.

“I am big [observing] body language,” Nicksick said.

And so when he heard that Adesanya looked defeated, he came to the corner and knew what he had to say: He told Strickland that he thought it was probably two rounds apiece.

“I said 2-2 in five for two reasons,” Nicksick said. “In my heart, we were up 3-1. In my mind, I wanted to make sure we kept the same amount of pressure. I didn’t want Sean to feel like we could take a walk and take our foot off the gas because that makes us bad. service in terms of distance. And now, if we are not fighting at the distance that I want, we are in the firing range where Izzy is most dangerous. I didn’t want to put my fighter in a situation where now, we “Fight against our foot rear or Izzy starts to gain momentum, struggling downhill. I wanted Sean to stay that way.

“No. 2, we were in his hometown and I didn’t know how the judges would evaluate and I wanted to err on the side of caution. And finally, I wanted [Sean] put his damn foot [Adesanya’s] throat. I wanted it to make a statement. If we had lost in those five minutes with that theory, I would have agreed.”

Strickland did so and got the win, the biggest of his career and clearly the biggest of Nicksick’s. He couldn’t help but think back to a conversation with Hieron after only being in the gym for a few months.

Hieron recognized his talent.

“I’ll never forget it, but Jay asked me why I was doing it,” Nicksick said. “I told him I didn’t know, but that I wasn’t trying to fight but that I really loved this sport. And he told me, ‘I think you have a path to becoming a great coach, the way you carry yourself, the way you talk to the team, how you are willing to learn and you don’t have a big ego.’ I’ll never forget it. And one of the main reasons I’m here today is because of that conversation I had with Jay.”

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