At first glance, Jeff Monson is a pretty intimidating guy. If you look past the many anarchist tattoos, one discovers a well educated, soft-spoken former family counselor who earned the nickname "The Snowman" for barreling through the 1999 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships.
The 40 year old former UFC heavyweight title challenger is one of the most active fighters in the sport today, having fought nine times in 2010 alone. Monson holds significant career victories over Roy Nelson, Sergei Kharitonov and Ricco Rodriguez. He'll be stepping into the cage with former King of the Cage heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Tony Lopez this Friday, April 1st in Fort Lauderdale for Fight Time Promotion's fourth event.
Jeff was kind enough to speak with me for well over an hour and this is part one of an exclusive three part interview series.
Brian Hemminger: You're competing at Fight Time Promotions and you've now headlined three out of their four events. What's your relationship like with their promoter and what makes you keep coming back?
Jeff Monson: Howard (Davis Jr.) and I go back a long ways. I met him in 2003 and he helped me out. I was really just a grappler back then and he really got me on my way with the stand up. He helped me book some boxing matches. He’s got a friend who helped me get into American Top Team back when it was young. He runs a good promotion and it really kinda features our fighters on our team which is kinda cool.
It’s in our hometown. I’ve got to say it’s nice. I fight all over the world and the United States and it’s nice to fight in your backyard. You wake up in your bed on fight morning and go to bed in your bed that night and all your friends are there. It’s cool.
BH: You've really been outgrappling opponents lately with a nice five fight submission streak. How is the gameplan going to shift against a guy like Tony Lopez who’s a strong striker and submission fighter?
JM: He doesn’t really have any weaknesses. He’s got really good cardio. He’s a pretty good striker. He’s tall and he’s a good submission guy. He’s not a guy that you can just assume you’ll get down on the ground and submit them. I’ve been training hard and I expect this fight to go five rounds. Hopefully my conditioning and the stuff we’ve been working on will come into play in this fight. I go into every fight expecting to win and to do the best that I can do. If that happens, I like my odds.
BH: At 5’9, you've been giving up height throughout your career. After 51 fights, you’ve got to be used to it by now. What’s the key to defeat these taller fighters with the big reach advantages?
JM: The key is to take the fight where I have the advantage. If we’re in tight and I’m in there dirty boxing or we’re on the mat then there is not a height advantage. The height advantage only comes into play if they’re keeping their distance and kicking me and hitting me. If he’s a few feet out and he can use his reach then obviously he’s at an advantage.
I’m a bit of a slow learner sometimes. I have the height disadvantage every time I fight. Probably out of 51 fights I’d bet 48 or 49 of them I’ve had the height disadvantage. Really I’ve got to take it inside and work a lot of the clinch and Muay Thai stuff I’ve been working on to eliminate as much of the height advantage as I can.
After the jump, Jeff talks about staying active, traveling the world and the psychology behind the sport.
BH: As most fighters age, they slow down but you’ve been more active than ever with this upcoming match being your sixteenth fight in two years. What’s your secret?
JM: I think it’s just experience and not just experience fighting but experience training. I’ve got really good trainers, good training partners. I’ve been working at the Institute of Human Performance on my conditioning and I think the fact that I train right is definitely prolonging my career and in many cases making it more productive than otherwise. If I hadn’t been with these guys I’d probably have been injured or broken down by now. What I’m doing now, I want to do it as long as I’m enjoying it and I’m getting better.
I think there’s a lot of things I can still learn. The training and all these things, it’s such a brand new sport that all these things are new and I’m just kinda learning some of them and getting the grasp of the concepts. It’s definitely making a difference in recovery and keeping injury free and keeping my body in good shape. If I can do that and enjoy what I’m doing then I don’t see any reason to stop.
BH: In the last two years, you’ve fought all over the world, from Japan, to Mexico, France, Abu Dhabi, Israel, England, Northern Ireland and Australia. Did you make a conscious decision to travel or were you just taking whatever fight was available to you at the time?
JM: That right there, they’re just available at the time. Some of the fights like Israel I really jumped at that one. I’ve always wanted to go there and it was a really great experience seeing the sights. I’m actually going back there to do a seminar and I’m bringing my son with me. The travel is great, I’ve always loved the UK so I went to Ireland and England. I’ve got friends and people everywhere.
That’s one of the benefits of this work. You get to go to all these places and meet all kinds of different people. It’s kinda cool to go back to these places and meet these people you hadn’t seen in 4-5 years and catch up. It’s definitely one of the things I love about what I do.
BH: You’ve got a masters degree in psychology, I was wondering, could you discuss the psychological benefits (and costs) of fighting?
JM: To be sure, there’s psychology to training and what I did in college has no bearing, good or bad, on my fighting. I counseled people, worked with the mentally ill and with families, working with people’s cognitive issues and mental health issues. It has no bearing on mental preparation for fighting.
That being said, the mental part of the game is everything. Confidence, the ability to go in there and adapt to things. I’ve lost fights where I’ve gone in there and I had it set in my head that this was the way the fight was gonna go and I was unable to make changes if the fight wasn’t going as I expected.
Later on, months later I’d think "Aww man, if I’d just gone this direction, gone this way, the fight would have been different." Not necessarily that I would have won but the fight would have had a different outcome. It’s really hard.
You have to have a certain amount of nervousness and fear to help you compete with that "fight or flight" response. If you have too much fear, then you’re not going to put forth the effort you’re capable of because you let the nerves sap your energy. It’s a delicate balance and it seems like the more active I stay, the better I’m able to control how much anxiety and confidence I have to make sure and get the right balance. That’s one of the reasons that I'm so busy.
BH: You have experience working with child and family counseling. What are your thoughts on the debate regarding kids training MMA?
JM: I don’t think it’s a debate at all. You’re putting kids in a monitored activity where they’re able to do something constructive and have a purpose. The one thing I got out of the counseling is that I truly, truly believe that no matter what you do in your life, you’ve got to have something for yourself. You can have a big family and be in a great school in a great situation and have money or whatever but you have to have something for yourself. Whether you really like cats, or you really like MMA, you train in it or wrestle, you have to have something for yourself, music or whatever. You have to have something to fall back on just to maybe set yourself apart, make you special.
My daughter is 14 years old. She was struggling and struggling. She was a smart kid, did great in school but she just had nothing for herself. She kinda made up her mind one day like "I’m gonna do something" and she picked softball. Now she’s out of her shell, she’s confident, she feels good about herself because she’s training in athletics and it’s not just that case but over and over and over I’ve seen that kids need something.
MMA? Why not? It’s a discipline. You have to have discipline. You’ve got to punch. You’ve got to kick. You’ve got to protect yourself. You’ve got to take down and learn jiu jitsu and it takes a lot of control. Body control, mind control, hard work. There’s nothing that makes you feel better than helping someone else or having finished a tough training session. Maybe you had a job, like I remember when I’d have a good counseling session. If you did something and you can walk away from it, and think "I did that," everybody needs something like that.
With MMA, it’s something kids can look up to. With MMA fighters, it’s not boxing or the NFL. These guys are at your local MMA gym. Almost every town has a local MMA gym. In almost every city you can find somebody who’s fought an MMA fight and they’re at these gyms and they’re accessible. You can walk up to them at the gym and introduce yourself. At ATT, we’ve got 20-25 MMA fighters in there and we’ve got kids and parents and people walking off the street taking classes and stuff and taking pictures with us, training alongside us. Where else can you get that? With the way it’s getting blown up right now, I think it’s a fantastic time to get involved.