Here I am, driving to a Starbucks 45 minutes away to meet up with a man who has become an icon for Bellator MMA. No, it’s not Tito Ortiz, Kimbo Slice, Will Brooks or Liam McGeary. I’m driving to meet up with Bellator MMA cutman Matt “The Beard” Marsden.
What is the definition of a cutman?
What does a cutman do?
Why do fighters need a seasoned cutman?
These are questions that will need to be answered now that one of the sport’s longest tenured cutmen, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, has been released from the UFC as the result of comments he made regarding the new Reebok uniform policy. With the recent light shed on the profession, the question still remains as to what exactly a cutman does inside and outside the cage. To help clear up some of the confusion, Combat Press was able to sit down with Marsden, Bellator’s lead cutman.
“You know, the part I want to focus on is how will it affect the upcoming fights,” Marsden told Combat Press. “Stitch has been around since 2001. He’s not the original UFC cutman [that] I’ve been seeing a little bit — Leon Tabbs was — but Stitch is definitely the most well known.
“If you’re a fighter that’s been in the UFC since 2001, there’s a chance that Stitch is the only cutman that you have ever worked with; the only cutman that has ever wrapped your hands; the only cutman that has ever worked your corner. And for a lot of these guys, there’s like a certain amount of psychology that is going to go into play, and I’ve seen it myself. When I wrap guys, my hand wraps don’t suck. But I wrap guys that have normally been wrapped by someone else for the last four years. Then, when I do it, it’s not that I didn’t do a good job, but just psychologically, from the get-go, you’re changing their routine. You’re changing their habit. And that could be the difference between him going out there [or] her going out there, and maybe not throwing as hard or maybe not having as much confidence in themselves.
“I have one fighter in Bellator that needs the same cutman to grease him every time or he throws a fit. Like, I have to sometimes go get him just to bring him out to grease this one person and then send him back to whatever he was doing. But that’s the psychology. That’s the routine. And so that right there is going to create an impact. The other cutmen in the UFC are great, but Stitch has been around for so long that he was an institution. [Departed UFC event coordinator] Burt Watson, same thing. A lot of fighters were just lost [when Watson left], and I think that we are going to see some of that with Stitch.”
The outrage has been seen across the board. Many people, from fans to fighters, have expressed their frustration with the situation on Facebook and Twitter. Even UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman weighed in with his feelings publicly, a bold move on the champion’s part. Furthermore, if it weren’t for Stitch, then one of the “Fight of the Year” candidates would not have played out the way that it did.
“I think it’s interesting, because Stitch put on a world-class performance, then basically didn’t do anything wrong as far as I’m concerned, just told the truth of the situation,” Marsden said. “He didn’t slam anybody. He was just like, ‘This is the way it is. This is what we were told and I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that’s the way it’s going to be.’ So he comes off basically one of the best performances of his life and gets fired.”
Sponsors are barely present in the UFC these days with the new Reebok deal coming into effect over the past month. Sponsors had contributed a significant monetary benefit to fighters, and with the new deal, losses are at an all-time high. Take a moment to think about those affected outside the cage, such as Stitch. How much of a factor is it when it comes to the cutmen?
“I could not do what I do full-time if it were not for sponsors,” Marsden admitted. “I make more money on sponsors than I do with salary, and I would say that is probably true for every A-level cutman. If you’re up at the senior level with me, Dean Lassiter, Rob Monroe, Brad Tate, Don House, [then] you’re making more money off sponsors than you are in salary. The people that don’t have that are the new people trying to come up, and they’ll get there. They’ll eventually realize, but they’re not doing it full-time.”
“People like Swayze [Valentine]. She works probably 10 to 15 shows a year for the UFC right now compared to Stitch’s like 35 to 40 probably, so he’s making a lot more money in salary than she is. But she is not working enough shows for this to be her only income — yet. But when she gets to the point where she’s starting to work more and more shows, just like I did, I had to make a choice. Did I want to keep working in the outpatient surgery center where I was, or do I want to take the leap and do this full-time? The leap to doing it full-time depended entirely on ‘could I get enough sponsors to do that?’
“When you look at sponsorships, Stitch said this and he was 100 percent correct, even though some MMA cutman would not want to admit it. In the sponsorship landscape, in general in MMA, if you’re Jon Jones, Nike is sponsoring Jon Jones. If you’re the undercard fighter on [UFC] Fight Pass, you’re getting sponsored not because you’re fighter A from Denver, Colorado; you’re getting sponsored because the company wants to blanket their image all over the UFC, like Dynamic Fastener did. They just want to be out there as much as possible on anybody and then everybody will talk about Dynamic Fastener. They just blanket the whole thing. The cutmen are the biggest blanket out there.
“We’re in there every fight. We’re basically walking billboards at this point in time. So I know that whenever I pick up some sponsors, that they are not necessarily sponsoring me but they’re just trying to get their product, name and image out there. I understand that. I sleep just fine at night. That doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t take a hit to my ego. It is what it is. And they help me out and it’s still symbiotic as far as I’m concerned. That’s the truth of the matter. The cutmen are out there so much.
“I mean, you could be Dynamic Fastener and pay a guy $10,000 and then he gets knocked out in 11 seconds. What did you pay? About a thousand dollars a second there for your exposure? Or you could sponsor a cutman and he’ll be in there probably, if you’re an A-level guy like Rob Monroe, you’re going to be on TV for eight to 10 solid minutes every single show. You make a year deal with that guy and you get way more coverage. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t sponsor fighters, but I think they should do both. Sponsor fighters and cutmen. But that’s essentially what it is. You’re buying almost guaranteed heavy exposure.
“I’m wearing this watch right now from Azad. Azad didn’t give me this watch because they like me. Maybe they do. They’re cool guys out of New York and a boutique brand. I like them. They gave me this watch because this watch is often on TV as I’m greasing somebody up or I’m cornering a fight, and [the viewers are] staring right at the watch. That’s why I have these watches from Azad. It’s good marketing, and the cutmen are just the most obvious one. At the end of the night, a fan isn’t going to be like, ‘I saw Matt wearing Training Mask all night.’ They’re just thinking, ‘Man, Training Mask was all over the cage tonight,’ and that’s what a sponsor really wants — to get a return on their investment.”
The sponsorship conversation really comes full circle back to what it actually is that a cutman does for the fighters and for the fight itself. Most fans just see them inside the cage tending to a literal cut, cleaning blood off a fighter or trying to reduce the swelling on a massive hematoma. But there is so much more that goes on right in front of the fans’ eyes.
“The most important thing that I think a cutman does is the hand wrapping.” Marsden explained. “Hand wrapping is the most important thing because, first of all, it’s the hardest thing to do, by far. There are some people that have been wrapping hands for a long time that suck still. It’s not even a practice makes perfect sort of thing. You really have to go through your paces. I do about seven different wraps and I really tailor them. Some people don’t have that many. Some people have a lot more. Hand wrapping is definitely the most important thing because it’s also one of the first things… a fighter can throw the first punch of the night and break his hand, and not only is there a good chance he’s going to lose that fight, but there’s a good chance that he’s not going to fight again for another six months to a year because of the broken hand.
“Amongst cutmen, we kind of have a joke that you’re either a cutman or a face wiper. A face wiper is just somebody that goes out there and wants to work the cage and can’t wrap hands. ‘Oh, so you’re just going to go wipe blood off somebody’s face? You’re just a face wiper. You don’t want to learn how to wrap hands? That’s cool. You’re never going to make it though.’
“I could teach you right now. You give me an hour and I could teach you the basics of what to do for a cut, a split lip [or] a nose. I could tell you what to use. I could tell you how to make your own swabs, how to use an enswell and keep it from sticking to their face like a Christmas Story when you walk away. I could tell you those things in about an hour. But what I can’t tell you — what only comes from experience — is, can you do that cut above his left eye that I told you how to fix but can you also do one above his right eye and take care of his nose and his big split lip? No.
“Now you’re getting better and you’re working amateur shows and you can do all of those things. Fast-forward. Can you do it knowing in the back of your mind that there is millions of people watching and you’re in a crowd of 10,000 people screaming and you’re trying to fend off the doctor from stopping your fight?
“That’s the part that can’t be taught. That’s the most important thing about a cutman. A cutman not only takes care of a fighter in an efficient way, but they do it in a steady and predictable way. That’s a big part of it. There’s a lot more personality involved with being a cutman than just technical skill.”
Knowing how to properly be a cutman obviously carries quite the heavy weight in the outcome of a fight as well.
“I would say that in the world, there’s probably 30 or less top-level cutmen, but there are a lot of face wipers out there,” said Marsden. “And part of that — and he didn’t do it on purpose — is Stitch’s fault because he did become a personality. So there are a lot of people out there who never had a background in training and don’t have a love for the fight game. They have a love for being on camera. There [were] a lot of people when I got into Bellator full-time and they were like, ‘Holy shit! Matt’s on TV all the time. On Spike TV.’ People that, in all the years working [amateur] shows not getting paid a dime, were never interested before — I worked for free for about 10 years — and they’re like, ‘Can I start doing this?’ And I was like, “Oh yeah. That’s how you do it. You just follow me around for a month and you’ll get right on TV.’ There’s an up-and-coming generation right now that’s sole purpose is to get on TV. Their purpose isn’t to take care of the fighters. Their purpose isn’t a love for the sport or to prolong the fight and make sure that they do everything they can to get that fighter a win bonus. That’s not where their thoughts are. It’s, ‘How much camera time can I get?’ And that’s really disappointing.
“When you’re getting started, if you’re doing it right and you’re paying your dues, you’ll come up to the big show with an appreciation for being there. If you get there the wrong way and you’ve only been doing it for two years and you know a guy who knows a guy or something like that and your whole purpose is to try and get famous like Stitch is, then you’re not going to do a good job. You’re going to be shit.”
When it comes to Stitch, what’s done is done. That cannot be changed. The esteemed cutman has already found a new home, though, and while many fans and fighters thought he should have ended up at Bellator, it was ultimately the World Series of Fighting that would become Stitch’s new home organization.
“I think that World Series is a good home for him because they don’t do as many events a year and I know that he’s said publicly several times that he wants to focus more on boxing,” Marsden said. “I think that World Series keeps him relevant in MMA and keeps him out there in a major organization, while at the same time not giving him the UFC travel schedule that keeps him from what he loves.
“I would have loved to have him [with Bellator]. I would have absolutely loved to have Stitch. Part of my problem was I didn’t necessarily have room for him and I didn’t want to [let down] someone who’s been loyal to me and say, ‘Stitch is available. You’re out.’ If I could have brought him over, I would have in a heartbeat, you know, because not only is he a great cutman, one of the best in the world, he’s a nice guy.
“Stitch is legitimately a nice guy. If I needed to right now, I could call him for anything I wanted and he would do his best to help me out. It could be something ridiculous and he would still do his best to help me out. I’ve leaned on him several times when I’m going to places like, especially in the Bjorn [Rebney] days of Bellator where we really went to some goofy spots. I think we all know about those. To call up Stitch and ask, ‘Has anybody contacted you from this area that says that they need work and can you vouch for anybody?’ And he’s been like yeah or no. ‘Yeah people have contacted me, but no I don’t vouch for them.’ Because that’s important too — to know the truth. So on top of just how good he is at his job and beloved by the fighters, he’s just in general a nice guy.
“For all of [UFC President] Dana [White] talking about how he and Stitch weren’t friends and that he could just fire him at will, that’s great I guess. But is he part of your brand or not? Because if you want to say he’s not important, he’s not a part of the UFC brand, then A) why does he have a trading card in that first UFC set?; and B) why is he in your video game? He’s either a part of your brand and somebody to be taken care of and given Reebok money, or he’s not and he’s free to go do what he wants. You can’t have it both ways. There’s enough money to pay everyone what they are worth.”
With a statement as bold as that, the next topic that comes to mind is that of a fighter’s union. With recent legal action being taken against the UFC by former fighters and the introduction of the new Reebok deal, it seems the talk of developing a fighter’s union is coming closer and closer to becoming less talk and more action.
“I think if there’s going to be a fighter’s union, it’s going to have to be across borders,” Marsden said. “I think it’s going to have to involve WSOF, Bellator, UFC, Titan FC [and] RFA, you know. All the major and bigger organizations are going to have to come together and do something about it. I think that that will only be positive for the sport. One of my biggest problems with this sport right now is the lack of standard protocols between organizations — things like drug testing, the uniform policy and sponsorship policies, all of that kind of stuff. I would love to see all of that standardized so that when it comes down to it, the fighter is negotiating for money and to fight where he wants to fight. I don’t want a fighter coming to Bellator just because he can have sponsors, but he doesn’t want to be here. I don’t want that. So if we kind of standardize all of that, then that goes away and he can go fight where he wants to fight. Maybe there’s a minimum pay on the table or something.”
The concept is groundbreaking. Previous talk of a fighter’s union was specifically relegated only to the UFC, not any other organizations. But with Scott Coker at the helm of Bellator, maybe things will change for the better for everyone.
“Scott’s a genius. When Dana was boxercising, Scott was running promotions,” Marsden joked. “Scott has forgotten more about martial arts and fighting than Dana White has ever known. So when Scott says we’re going to do this and this is how things are going to go and this is who we’re going to put on a card [and] we’re signing people for this reason or that reason, I trust him implicitly. I know he’s not perfect and I’m sure he’s going to make some mistakes, and I’m sure he’s made some mistakes, but in general he’s going to take me in the right direction. I don’t personally have that feeling about Dana and the UFC. I think that they care about their own pockets more than they do about fighting or the sport. And I’m sure he can call me ugly or something on Twitter for saying that, which is how the president of a billion-dollar organization should totally act.”
While White’s recent actions have come under media scrutiny, it is not something new for the UFC head. Back at UFC 181, the company announced that Phil “CM Punk” Brooks had been signed by the UFC with a professional record of 0-0. The bold move still produces doubters, but the obvious reasoning behind it was no surprise to anyone.
“I don’t think CM Punk should have been signed by the UFC,” Marsden explained. “That’s my personal opinion, but I think [he should] have an amateur fight [or] have a pro fight somewhere else. Like when Brock [Lesnar] came up. Brock’s first pro fight wasn’t in the UFC. He had to get one outside. So I think that that was a silly signing. I understand why he did it. I understand the marketing behind it. Oh my god, whoever he fights…
“Back to the marketing thing. I mean, we [Bellator] do it. Kimbo and Ken Shamrock. But what I really, really liked about Scott was the way that he handled that. With Kimbo and Ken, Scott came out in a couple of interviews and said, ‘Listen. I think it’ll be a good fight and it’s a fight I still want to see, but I’m using it to get eyeballs on my younger fighters.’ And I like that he admitted that. He was like, ‘This isn’t the best fight in the world, but it’s a fight that will shine a light on some up-and-comers that really need it.’ And it worked. I think with the DVR-Plus-Threes, the average was over a million for Patricio [Freire]’s fight. That’s the most people he’s ever had watch him before. It worked. But had they switched that, after the Kimbo/Ken thing, people would have tuned out and missed Patricio’s fight.”
Speaking of innovative ideas, Bellator pulled a fantastic one when it announced Bellator 142 headlined by Liam McGeary and Tito Ortiz for the Bellator light heavyweight title. The promotion didn’t stop there. Not only did they add a one-night, four-man, light heavyweight tournament, but Bellator surprised many by announcing that there would be a cage and a ring inside the arena — GLORY Kickboxing and Bellator MMA side-by-side for one night. Joe Schilling was to be a part of this historical event, but he was pulled due to his suspension from his most previous MMA loss to Hisaki Kato back at Bellator 139. When his suspension was reduced, many fans thought he may end up on the card after all.
“It was Scott who ultimately made that call, like immediately,” Marsden revealed. “He was like, ‘No, Joe needs time off. I’m not going to push this. It’s not right.’ And that’s why Scott is Scott. Because he made a call that hurt him in the pocketbook on that Dynamite show in order to do what was best for the fighter, and not all promoters would do that.”
One thing’s for sure. It is quite refreshing to sit down and get a different perspective on the inner workings of an organization that doesn’t just have three letters. As I sit here and finish my grande chai latte and Marsden finished what I can only assume is liquid gasoline, his story has just begun.
“I love MMA. I love boxing. Combat sports is my bread and butter.”
We’ll be back with part two of our discussion with Matt Marsden in the upcoming weeks.