Maynard heads into bout with new move
LAS VEGAS -- Sean Spangler let loose with obscenities as he stormed out of the Cobra Kai Jiu Jitsu gym. He wasn't necessarily angry with Gray Maynard for catching him in a front headlock that knocked loose a tooth. Spangler could deal with that. It was the timing that bothered the former collegiate wrestler and Brazilian jiu-jitsu convert so much.
"Gray thought I was mad at him. I was just mad because I was going on a cruise in two days. I didn't care that he knocked a tooth out," said Spangler, one of three trainers working Maynard's corner Saturday night in Las Vegas when the unbeaten lightweight challenges for the UFC title.
A dentist made Spangler's smile nice and he has photos from the cruise to prove it. Five years after the fact, the laugh-inducing anecdote has turned footnote to how Spangler became the "headlock guy." And it may lead to a far greater story if Maynard pulls the patented move off this weekend.
Spangler's mind churned and innovated and invented after Maynard nailed him with that front headlock.
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"He applied this front headlock in a very manipulative way, almost like a chiropractor cracking your neck," Spangler said. "The problem with that control your spinal cord, once you lock the chin all the way over, the rest of your body is going to go. You can't fight it."
Many moons after a grappler with a dodgy back was reminded how wrestling done right can control and maim, Spangler believes he's in the midst of returning the favor with something called "The Pressure Cooker."
"Gray opened that [headlock idea] up for me," Spangler said. "So I had the pleasure and honor of taking it back to him in a different form and allowing him to use it on people."
First up for a demonstration: Frankie Edgar, the UFC lightweight champion whose lone professional defeat was delivered by Maynard in April 2008.
Maynard stopped by the Cobra Kai gym after wrestling for as long as he could remember. He was a standout as a three-time All-American at Michigan State University but fell short of Olympic aspirations in 2004, and by his own estimation, he fattened up as he figured out what he wanted to do with his life.
Maynard knew nothing of submissions or the guard, and he didn't appreciate the laid-back attitude around the gym. Training felt like a hobby. But he understood leverage and pressure, and he knew Spangler, an assistant wrestling coach of Maynard's during his sophomore year of high school in Las Vegas.
He was home again. Returned from two years of wrestling in Ohio, where Maynard had moved for his last two years of high school. Back after graduating from college as a Big-10 wrestler. Once again in a room full of guys in Vegas who weren't afraid to work.
As Maynard ventured into MMA and connected with B.J. Penn, Randy Couture and others, he rounded out his game. Maynard broadened his striking game with the help of gurus Gil Martinez and Ron Frazier. He gained exposure on "The Ultimate Fighter." And he learned how to be a pro while on the job and in the cage.
Spangler, meanwhile, tinkered with front headlocks and worked toward his black belt. He eventually created a headlock series that is "more of what I can do and what I like to do," Maynard said.
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"I had to figure out how do I do this in a way that I'm not doing the same old front headlock and getting sucker-dragged," Spangler said. "I developed a way to use my body, my arms and my legs to attack the head -- kind of like an arm bar."
Maynard reunited with Spangler after a recommendation from Martin Kampmann, a welterweight training out of Xtreme Couture who troubled Jake Shields with a poorly executed version of the submission in October -- done correctly, it provides up to five finishing options, via blood choke or severe pressure on the neck.
Maynard visited his old coach's home. They drilled the move in a garage. The fighter hired Spangler on the spot to coach him alongside Martinez and a conditioning trainer, Luke Richesson, for his 12-week camp to prepare for Edgar.
Martinez is the only member of the group who was around when Maynard fought Edgar three years ago.
"Frankie has definitely improved since the first match," said the boxing trainer. "I think he's gotten away with a lot of things he does well. He's not a person that commits to his punches. He's a combination puncher and will move.
"When you fight B.J. Penn, pretty much a flat-footed person, it will be easy to hit him and move in and out. But Gray is not flat-footed. Frankie is not going to do what he did to B.J. to Gray Maynard."
Still, though Martinez sees an advantage on the feet for his man, the thing that makes their arrangement work is the understanding that Maynard is always comfortable on the ground and, if he has to go there, well, that's just fine.
There was more wrestling than striking in the first Maynard-Edgar bout -- a clean sweep for Maynard on the judges' cards. Both fighters have said that their initial encounter means nothing in the rematch.
"I'm hoping it's a different fight," Edgar said. "And I'm hoping to have a different outcome."
Much as Edgar confidently walked into his rematch with Penn, Maynard promised he will not be the fighter that breaks down on Saturday.
If the champion is "preparing for that, then he's got something else coming," said Maynard -- who's walking around during fight week at 165 pounds, a stone less than his last bout against Kenny Florian in August.
"Our goal with Gray this time," Spangler said, "was not to have him in controlling position, where he's literally holding a guy down, but to put him in a position to attack. The cat's going to come out of the bag and he's going to use it again. It's not like I'm going to teach him once and then it's over. This is Gray's game."
If Maynard manages to pull off "The Pressure Cooker," Spangler will undoubtedly be yelling again.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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