After hours and hours spent transcribing, here is the grand finale of the three part Jeff Monson interview series. He'd previously talked about present time issues in part two and his upcoming fight in part one. Here, "The Snowman" goes way back, talking about everything from the beginning of his fight career to Pride, the Impact FC fiasco as well as taking a stand for his beliefs.
It's quite a read, but I assure you, it's worth it.
Brian Hemminger: Let's go back to where it all began. You took your first pro fight at age 26 in 1997. What was it that made you start fighting and change careers?
Jeff Monson: I’d finished grad school at Minnesota and I was still assistant coach of the wrestling team there. I was trying to train and go to the US Open and place in the top six to make the Olympic trials or World Championship trials depending on what year it was.
I went back to Seattle and got work in the counseling field and there was just no one there to train with. I was working out with high school kids twice a week. These guys I was competing against were at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado or working out with the Iowa college team or something like that so when I would go I’d be at a massive disadvantage. I’d do well some years but I’d fall one match short of qualifying for the US team or the top six.
I was searching for something to do and I thought "What about Judo?" so I was going to Seattle Judo and by chance I ran into this guy from AMC and I started training there and doing grappling matches. I just had this revelation that not only am I pretty good at submissions and learning passes well but with my wrestling I could take everybody down. It was just one of those things where I had to challenge myself.
I didn’t like fighting at all. I didn’t like being hit, I didn’t really like hitting people and it was one of those things where it was a challenge that you can’t walk away from. It was kind of a blessing and a curse at the same time. I didn’t like that kind of violence. I liked taking people down and grinding them out on the mat but striking and kicking were really foreign to me. It was the biggest challenge of my life. I can’t ever remember being in a physical fight ever since as far back as first or second grade.
It’s like being afraid of heights and it was your chance to climb up something and nobody’s looking but you have to challenge yourself. I had a lot of ups and downs early. I was at one time seven wins and five losses in my first twelve professional fights. It was tough but eventually I got the hang of it. I used to say, in grappling I could go against anybody in the world and I’d put money on myself in a jiu jitsu tournament or anything else. Even if I wasn’t the best guy, just because I could figure out how to win during the match. In MMA, I didn’t have that, I couldn’t figure out how to win. I didn’t know what to do when shit hit the fan. It takes a lot of fights to get to that point.
BH: How have you grown as a fighter since that point in your career?
JM: I’ve grown a lot and I’m a lot more relaxed about getting punched in the face now (laughs), but it’s still hard. You win a fight and you feel good for a very short time and by the next morning you’re already thinking "well, I could have done this" or "I could have done that" and if you lose, it’s devastating. Especially if you get beat and you don’t figure out why right away.
Like when I fought Tim Sylvia, I was like "man he kicked my ass" and my eyes were all bloodied and swollen shut and I couldn’t figure out why I lost that match. I trained harder than him, I knew it. There was not one time in training for that match where I took a day off or went easy on something. Not one time. I went as hard as I could go for 3 ½ months before the fight.
It took me forever to just realize, "hey, I didn’t get inside on him. I didn’t try to get inside" and it could have made the match better if I had. I was just thinking "man, that guy’s better and he kicked my ass and he’d kick my ass again if I fought him." That’s a very, very hard thing to swallow for me when you think you got beat and there’s no way you can beat the other guy. When I kinda figured out "hey, that could have made the match a lot different if I had done this or gone at this angle," it made me feel a lot better. It’s tough, it’s kind of like a curse.
You’ve kinda got to keep winning just to keep your head above water emotionally. We talked earlier about the toll that it takes on a fighter’s psyche. That’s the scary thing about quitting because "what are you gonna do?" To me, it’s no big deal to be a fighter, that’s just what I do but to not do that, that would be a rough thing emotionally. That’s why I talk about having something else out there to fall back on.
BH: Do you think that's why some athletes can't walk away from the sport when their bodies begin to fail them?
JM: You see athletes all the time retire and come back two years later. It's never the same. The one thing I do know is I'm never gonna fight for a paycheck and I'm not gonna do it when I can't be the best that I can possibly be. My body's deteriorated a lot. Just walking around, I can feel it. My daughter, if I drop a spoon on the floor, I just look at her because she knows that I'm gonna ask her to pick it up for me.
At the same point, when I warm up and stretch and make the adjustment, when I compete, I'm at 100%. It's the same as when I was 25. I know this. If any days comes where I can't, I'll be done. If I'm in a situation where I'm thinking, "I can still beat this guy maybe," if I don't think I can be the best then I'll get out of it. I wouldn't be happy just winning fights or taking easy fights just to get a win here or there.
More on Jeff's Abu Dhabi debut, his fights in Pride, Impact FC and his convictions after the jump.
BH: You earned your nickname "The Snowman" for coming out of nowhere and dominating the 1999 Abu Dhami Combat Club tournament. Can you talk about that experience?
JM: I was a wrestler and I’d done some amateur MMA events and maybe two or three professional MMA events. At the time I was training up in Seattle at AMC with Josh Barnett, Ivan Salavary, Dennis Hallman, those guys. I really had no business going to Abu Dhabi but Matt Hume was a personal friend of the Sheikh who was putting it on, Sheikh Tahnoun. He said to put a team together, one in each of the weight classes. Josh was a heavyweight and I was light heavyweight, and Ivan was below me.
I went there and I didn’t know what to expect.
In the state wrestling tournament, I hadn’t placed and I didn’t place in the NCAA tournament. It was kind of a monkey on my back. I went to the US open trials to kinda get on the Olympic ladder and I was always one match short of my goal. Now we were going to the world championships.
I’d kind of taken well to the submissions, it was more of my style. Going in hard spurts, relax, and then go in another hard spurt. Hume had said he expected me to win the tournament. He said "just take them down, nobody submits you and try to work on these passes we’ve been showing you and you’ll be fine."
We went in there expecting to win and I remember after the first day, beating two Brazilian guys and then I was supposed to fight Rigan Machado. He was supposed to win the tournament. Of all the weight classes there, people said they put the most money on him to win. I watched him in his quarterfinal match and I felt, "I can actually go with this guy" and I ended up beating him. In the final I was just constantly going and going and going. I had a lot of confidence.
It was amazing. It was one of those things where I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to win and I didn’t know who Saulo Ribeiro or Machado was. When I got done, it took me probably two years before I realized the significance of it.
BH: You made the North-South choke famous and some even call it the "Monson Choke." Did you actually originate the choke or did you make it famous for using it so often?
JM: To give credit where credit is due, Matt Hume is the guy who actually showed me the choke. I think over the years I’ve played with it and got it a little more detailed-specific to my body and the position of my opponent. I’ve tweaked it over the years and I do it now sometimes with the arm, without the arm and I think the version he showed me was with the arm. Matt Hume was the originator of that as far as I know and I’ve just kinda perfected it over the years. I know Marcello Garcia uses a version of that really well.
It’s really cool that people call it the Monson choke and I’ve probably finished more fights with that move than anything else.
BH: You fought in the first ever MMA event in Isreal. What was the reception like over there?
JM: It was really good. They were expecting 3-4000 people. We had 7800 and they turned away 3-4000 at the door because they didn’t open up the full arena not expecting that many people to show up. It was a massive reception. It was really cool. The hospitality, the way they treated us. Not only the fighters but everybody else was fantastic. I was there a half hour waiting for my ride at the airport, I used the bathroom and I was walking around and this man and his child come up to me and go "are you Jeff Monson?" I go "yeah" thinking they were fans or something and they go "ahh, we have your passport!"
I checked my pocket and I didn’t have it. They’d found it in the bathroom on the sink and instead of turning it in they actually walked around the airport and found me because of my picture. They gave it to me and said "you’re in Isreal, we’re all friends here." I was really thankful for that. The whole trip they were extremely friendly and outgoing. You hear about all these derogatory things and censors but I didn’t see any of that. I was able to go past the west bank and see Jerusalem and see people of different faiths getting along. You don’t hear about that, only the ugly things. I saw Arab kids walking to school alongside Jewish kids next to a Christian church. It was pretty amazing.
BH: For Impact FC in Australia, you were expecting to fight three times in a month. What went wrong over there? There were a lot of mixed reports.
JM: The promoters of the Australia event, I’m not gonna pull any punches. They lied to everybody. I was supposed to fight for Monte Cox on his event in Detroit the week before and the Australian people switched the date I was supposed to fight because they had three events, although it ended up being two events. They switched the date I was coming over, they switched my opponent. Actually I didn’t even know literally until the day of weigh-ins that they switched opponents. They didn’t even tell me. I was going to weigh in and they told me "don’t worry about it, he’s easier" but he ended up being much tougher.
The whole event, they didn’t pay up. I think only 2-3 fighters actually got their full pay and the two promoters blamed it on each other. I’m pretty optimistic, I’m an easy going fella and although they treated us well over there, after we left it was all "oh, the money’s been transferred to your account" and I heard from some of the other fighters and it was all the same story.
It was pretty sad and unfortunately the promoters would put on an event and expect the ticket sales to make the salaries for the fighters. If they don’t go well they have to pay the arena and pay for other things and they won’t pay the fighters. That was kind of the case. Other than maybe two or three guys, the fighters didn’t get paid. You had an amazing event, Pedro Rizzo, Josh Barnett, Karo Parisyan, Paul Daley and they just didn’t pay the guys. I still can’t believe it in a way. It was a good fight. The experience was alright. The people were really nice and it was cool to see some of the fighters that I hadn’t seen in a while. As far as the promotion itself, it was a black eye for MMA in general when that happened.
BH: You fought in the final Pride show against Kazuyuki Fujita. I know you didn’t have a big history with the promotion but what was the atmosphere like?
JM: It was great. I’d been trying to get in Pride and I’d actually gone over to fight in Pride before but my opponent got hurt. I’d gone over and cornered Din Thomas before. I’d been over with guys from ATT to promote myself before so it was nice to finally fight for them. It was kinda sad because it was the very last fight of the very last show but I’ve got a little history there.
The Japanese are fantastic fight fans. They appreciate not only the striking but the jiu jitsu and not just the finish but passing the guard and all the little intricacies of the match, the stuff that kinda gets lost to the general fan in the United States. You could pass the guard in Japan and it could go from really quiet to "WHOOOOOOOAAAAAH!!!!" You could literally hear a pin drop until something cool happens.
Here or in the UK, people are just yelling the whole time, kinda constant and there they just really appreciate it. They camp outside your hotel room and are very respectful coming up with pictures they designed and whatever. They’re definitely true fans and I’m always thankful for the experiences of going over there.
It's a history thing and I really enjoyed being on the very last card in the very last fight and it's something I'll always have.
BH: You're very public about your anarchistic beliefs. Have your political views ever affected your sponsorships?
JM: I don't think they've ever affected me getting fights but as far as sponsorships, I've lost nutrition sponsorships. The big one that I had just because the CEO of the company signed this big deal and he just happened to youtube this anarchy interview I had and I've lost a couple sponsorships because of my views. The whole spray-painting stuff cost me fights because I just wasn't available for a while being in jail for 90 days.
It's stuff like that, it really tests your conviction. Do you really believe what you're saying or are you just trying to stir things up? Most people don't know what anarchy means. There are a lot of people protesting just to protest. It has cost me a lot but I have no regrets. I can live with myself as far as what I've done. I wish I could be more active with it but with three children, fighting full time, traveling and training, it takes up a lot of my time. When I'm done fighting I'd love to go around and talk to people about what I believe in and in the meantime I'll just do what I can.
BH: Do you have any last words before we wrap things up? How can fans stay up to date with you?
JM: My management team got me back on twittering and facebooking. I've always been good at keeping in touch with fans I see but not on the internet and stuff like that. Now I have a facebook at SnowmanMonson and check me out on twitter @JeffMonson. I've got a website too JeffMonson.com. I really do read and respond to e-mails and twitters. If people want to keep in touch, I'm always interested in talking.
I love to travel and learn new things, meet new people and expand my business of doing seminars so I've increased that as well. I roll with the guys and I get stuff out of it as well. I teach stuff that I know works because I know the little intricacies. It's something I really love to do.
I'd like to thank Jeff for speaking with me for well over an hour. It was an honor. Also big shoutout to Frail and PittPol from the InStrength.com message boards for contributing to questions.