After speaking with hundreds of fighters and professionals in the business, from my very first interview with Keith “KO Kid” Berry to Fedor Emelianenko, I’ve come to realize that you can expect the unexpected when first picking up that phone to dial a guy you’ve never talked to before.
Of course there have been some people that make me wonder why they agreed to speak with me in the first place because they seem agitated from the moment they answer the phone, but for the most part the people involved in this business are genuinely good people with big hearts and pint sized egos.
Then, every once in a while you’ll come across a guy like Neil Melanson to conduct what’s supposed to be a standard issue interview with the submission coach over at Xtreme Couture and it turns into one of the most fascinating conversations you have ever engaged in, running well over an hour in length, and opening your eyes on topics you never would have imagined you’d touch on going into what was previously destined to be just another cookie cutter Q/A session.
If you’re not familiar with Melanson and his hybrid Gene Lebell, Gokor Chivichyan and Karo Parisyan influenced submission fighting system, you will be soon. If you happen to be one of the thousands of people that enjoy training in mixed martial arts, and particularly if you have aspirations to be a professional at some point in your life, do yourself a favor and pick up “Triangles From The Guard“, penned by Melanson and published through Victory Belt Publishing.
One of the most technical and respected instructors in the sport of ground fighting, Melanson recently sat down with FiveOuncesofPain.com for what ended up being a memorable conversation with deep themes of hope and perseverance.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I heard your first experience with the sport was practicing at a karate studio in Cincinnati doing shoot fighting on a concrete floor covered with carpet; What was that like?
Neil Melanson: Well, it was crazy really. I basically went down to this one school, it was a Kempo Karate school and there was a guy there that was training shootfighting through Bart Vale. Bart is an old school fighter a lot of people may not have heard of. The kid that owned the gym, his name was Justin Mcelfresh, but he wasn’t the shootfighting teacher. There was someone there teaching for him, but that guy was just some doctor that knew some stuff, but you know, he was just kind of a typical martial arts guy that never really did anything, and talks like he has sort of thing. So mainly me and Justin hooked up and we would learn some things and then just try to figure things out for ourselves. We used to beat the shit out of each other on this concrete floor. Man we were mashed up, it was crazy. Then of course I was travelling a lot because I was an Air Marshall at the time, and everywhere I would go I would find a good coach in that area, and I’d go work with them. When I went out to California I knew there was this Russian-Armenian guy out there named Gokor Chivichyan. He did a lot of leg locks, and I really liked leg locks, so I was like, ‘I’m going to go track this guy down’. I did a private with him and immediately liked him a lot. I really liked the environment. It was very old school. Everyone was very mean looking, but nice to your face. The students there were really tough, so I was like, ‘That’s it’, and I put in for a transfer, transferred to Los Angeles and started training as much as I could. That was when I met Karo Parisyan, and everything changed for me when I met him.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: It made me chuckle a little bit when you were talking about how grungy and old school Gokor’s gym was. I spent a lot of time training with a gentleman by the name of Don Hinzman, who spent time training under Gene Lebell, and that’s still how his gym is. Scary as hell but he’ll teach you what you need to know in no time.
Neil Melanson: Yeah, I love Gene Lebell. He’s my hero. I’m friends with him. He would teach classes on Monday and I would go to it, but honestly, I was kind of always with the pros. The intensity of his gym was always really good. I love the old school environment because guys would get their legs broken and stuff like that all the time at the gym. That’s how I teach too. I’m not mean, but I very much care about the results. If you’re a student that just wants to have fun with it because you have a full-time job and a family, then yeah, there’s no reason for you to get your panties in a bunch. It’s all about having a good time and hopefully learning some stuff. But if you’re like, “Hey, I wanna compete”, or, “I wanna fight”, then it’s a whole different story. I have apprentices that I train in my apprentice program, and I just absolutely torture those people. Actually the reputation I have in the gym is starting to hurt me, where a lot of the fighters don’t want to train with me because they’re just so confused by the submissions and stuff that I do. They’re afraid, so it’s kind of hard because I’m having to convince people that I’m not going to break their legs. The thing about me is that I’m actually a really good fighter off of my back. I do a lot of leg and foot control. I grapevine and side-scissor, there are a lot of different guard systems that I chain together based on what your body position is in my guard. Wherever you’re at in my guard, I use the appropriate system with the higher percentage moves. It’s very scientific how I break it down. When I’m on top I do a lot of neck cranks, face locks and leg locks, so that’s always freaky to people. I went to pro class and I was grappling with guys, and I was doing standing leg locks, like standing compression locks, and they were getting freaked out and angry. They were getting embarrassed, and I was trying to tell them, ‘Look, this is a good submission’. They thought it was all a little too WWE, but they were all getting tapped to it. It’s like they don’t want to get embarrassed, and I try to tell them, ‘Look, just because you’ve never seen guys do it to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t work’. It’s something that’s been working for me for years.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I don’t mean to just dwell on leg locks, but I’ve been a huge fan for years and it just doesn’t seem like you see them anymore during top level competition; Why do you think that is?
Neil Melanson: I can tell you exactly why I think that is. People aren’t learning leg locks properly anymore. What I mean by that is: I’m sure guys are learning how to do a leg lock just fine, but leg locks are not linear, and that’s the best advice I can give anyone. When you drop back for an ankle lock, you’re already thinking about your fourth leg lock. Leg locks chain, they chain so beautifully together. For example, a straight ankle lock can go to a heel hook, a heel hook goes to a knee bar, and a knee bar goes to a compression lock. So it’s a four leg lock submission roll based on the countering of your opponent. I go for this, if you straighten your leg, then I bend your leg and go for the other hip. I’ll go for a heel hook, but if you spin, then you give me the knee bar, and if you try to move away from the knee bar I go for the compression lock. Leg locks work as a chain. So what happens with a lot of these guys is they feel as if they drop for a straight ankle and don’t get it, they’ve just lost position. Where good leg lock players, like the (Masakazu) Imanari’s and guys like that; once they’re on you legs, they just keep on attacking. They’re constantly transitioning, constantly not worrying about what’s happening, and just constantly worrying about how to win the fight. Imanari is one of those weird guys that just says, “All that I’m gonna do is going to be leg locks”, and you know it’s going to be nothing but leg locks. He’ll just leave his hands down at his waist so that you charge in and he’ll just drop down for a leg lock. People say that leg locks aren’t a good idea just because they don’t understand it and they’re not learning from the right person.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Right, and you just mentioned on of my favorite submission fighters in Masakazu Imanari. He’s never going to be one of the best fighters in the world, and you said it: He’s one-dimensional, and he goes out here looking to hurt your leg, you know it’s coming, and there’s not much you can do about it.
Neil Melanson: Absolutely. I mean people think highly of Jorge Gurgel in Jiu-Jitsu, and he broke Jorge’s ACL in fifteen seconds with something absolutely ridiculous.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: It’s a whole different level of leg submissions.
Neil Melanson: It is. It is. I think the other thing that people are missing from training for fighting is the violence. If you watch the Russians, or you watch a lot of the old school guys, even a lot of the Brazilians; they’re very violent. They’re very mean. It’s not out of control violence, it’s what I call intelligent violence. For example, if you match Fedor; Why does Fedor’s ground and pound work so well? It’s not just because he hits hard and this and that; no one can control him. When he’s inside someone’s guard, nobody can control him because his motions are very violent. He’s either all the way out, or he slams in, but he moves quickly, and when he comes after you, he comes after you to hurt you. When he goes for an armbar, he commits. That just comes from that tough mindset. Even with Olympic level Judo; you can’t do a throw without 100% committing to it. That’s why Karo was so violent, because in Olympic level Judo they have to commit so much to everything they do, so when he goes for something, he’s violent. People are used to this sparring mentality where people kind of get into a groove, and they kind of feel each other out, and what happens is the violence disappears. It kind of turns into more of a sport, which is really nice, but if you’re looking at high level competition it’s a whole different mindset. Even Marcelo Garcia. Sweet little Marcelo Garcia. That kid is fucking violent! When he’s looking for submissions, he wants them so bad, he doesn’t care if he kills you. When he choked out Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, he didn’t give a damn; because he’s violent. He has technique, but he’s violent. That’s one major thing that I always preach, that in fighting, people have to be violent. You have to commit. Just watch fighters that are really dominant in the sport, and ask yourself, “Why are they so dominant?”. You’ll always see that they have this certain level of violence about them.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I really think you just nailed it. I try to put it into words all the time, but it’s just so difficult. You see the type all the time. The pretty boys with everything going for them with the big truck and the even bigger TapouT decal on the rear window. They’ll come down to the gym to train for a day so they can tell all of their friends, and especially their lady friends, about how they’re going to fight in the UFC. They’ll come down to the gym for a night and get kicked in the legs a few times, punched in the mouth, have a few ligaments popped and stretched out, and you’ll never see or hear from them again. If you’re not into the violent aspect of the sport; the bruises and the aches and pains that come from beating someone up, and getting beat up; you’re only going to go so far. You just can’t teach someone to truly enjoy the act of fighting. You either like it or you don’t.
Neil Melanson: Exactly. For me, grappling can either be really sad, or it can be really fun. It’s sad for me when I can’t be myself, because if I can break someone, or make them tap from just cross-facing them; I can’t really do what I want to do. There’s only a few people that I feel comfortable rolling with where I can actually be myself, because they won’t quit or break mentally from the pain. I have a student, and I work really hard with him, and he’s so mean to me; he does everything nasty you can think of, and I actually laugh, because I can do whatever I want now. I can finally open up and be myself without having to hold back. I already have a reputation. I don’t need people telling me all of these things about being too rough. I have an apprentice program that’s only for certain athletes that want to learn my program privately, and if they don’t crossface, I lose my damn mind. For example, this one kid I’ve been training, he’s a good grappler but he’s such a nice guy. He’s like the nicest guy on the block. He’s tough as nails, but he’s nice. We were grappling and he was in mount, so I wanted to see what he was doing because I’m constantly evaluating my guys, and he didn’t crossface me. I fucking lost my mind. I reversed him, I got mount on him, and I crossfaced him nonstop. I didn’t tell him, I just did it, for like fifteen minutes. He didn’t tap, and he was trying to give me submissions, but I wouldn’t take them. I just held him, and crossfaced him until he was black and blue. Then I had him do it to me for the same amount of time. I had him do it to me for twenty minutes while I screamed at him. The point I was trying to prove, and my face was all busted up too, was that as mean as he was to me, as rough as he was; he didn’t break anything. I was sore and my face was bruised, but it’s not like he was being a dick. He got the results he wanted. My arms were coming up and he was getting the armbar. It’s funny because I’ll be teaching pro class and I’ll show like a crossface from the mount, and guys will get mad. They’re like, “That’s mean. That’s dirty”. I’m like, ‘You guys kick each other in the head, but you won’t crossface?’. So that’s just an example of the old school mentality. I know Gene Lebell was always an extremely dirty fighter. He was big on doing things like shoving your chin in your opponents eye socket and all of that good stuff.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Oh man, the old chin in the eye socket. A good friend of mine that fights named Marco Brito is a bit bigger than me and he’s a big fan of getting the mount and grinding his chin in my eye socket and all down my jawline. I can hear different bones and random s*** cracking inside of my face. It’s the worst ever!
Neil Melanson: Oh yeah, it can be very painful. The thing about it is that you can break someone mentally with pain. Very easily. They’ll just quit. I don’t want to say who, and it’s not Randy, because Randy does not break, but I’ve worked with top guys that you’ve seen, and they fucking break. It’s very sad for me, because they’re so talented, but when there’s steady pain on them, they quit, and they freeze. It’s very sad because their development will always be held back because of that. They don’t have that instinct of what a really violent fight is. I guess a key example to use would be Randy, because when I push Randy, he gets mad and pushes back. I don’t know what happened to the whole old school method. I think the McDojo thing kind of took over, and it’s been too much of the gentle way. There was a pretty funny story that Randy told me about Matt Lindland, when Matt was doing a wrestling competition in Russia. I think he was competing for a bronze, and they were tied neck and neck. There was almost no time left on the clock and the other guy was in the four points position. Matt had his back and was trying to roll him, and the guy had his hands pointed out, you know, pressed down on the mat, and Matt reached across and grabbed the guy’s thumb, and he broke it! He used that to turn him to win the match. So Matt ended up winning the bronze, but then a couple of Russian guys in suits came down from the stands and chased Matt into the locker rooms, and Matt locked himself in there. Finally some people came and helped him, because they were going to kill him. I mean, it was crazy [laughs]. But yeah, it’s just that old school mentality. That, “What are you willing to do to win?”.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I know you and Karo Parisyan are close friends and longtime training partners; When did you first hook up with him?
Neil Melanson: I met Karo right after the Nick Diaz fight. I actually met him before that, but I never really worked with him, and after the Diaz fight I officially moved down to L.A. and I was training with him. Karo is really abrasive and he’s always quick to cock check everybody, and I was this big white guy with tattoos coming into this Armenian gym, so he was quick to come over and try to put me in check. I didn’t come there to make waves, I came there to learn, so I was always pretty cool about stuff, but Gokor threw me to the dogs really quick. I remember that first day there. There was a handful of guys, that were all just top guys, and I just rolled all day long. I had never rolled like that. I never had that type of competition. And they were so good, it was a tough day for me. I came home and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I have a long way to go. I don’t know if I’m prepared for all of this’, but I kept telling myself, ‘What else would you do with your life?’, so I just kept on going. I trained a lot with Gokor privately, and Gokor taught me a lot of technique, but I started to realize really quickly that my technique wasn’t the problem. It was, ‘How do I get to that position?’. It was almost like Karo got tired of watching me, because he came over to me and said, “If you want to train for real, just fuckin call me, and I’ll fuckin give you a private”, and I was like, ‘………okay’. So I called him up and he gave me a private, and I remember that he chewed my ass. He goes, “You’re a fuckin idiot! Look at your body. You’re 6’4″, and you have these long legs; you should have the best guard in the world and you should have the best triangle chokes”. I was like, ‘What?’. I was always a leg lock guy, I didn’t want to be on my back. He was like, “Look, all I want you to do is work off of your back and do triangle chokes”, and he showed me some basic stuff. Then I remember going back to class, and I was grappling with some guy; I was on top and I went for a toe hold on the guy, and Karo comes up behind me and just fucking whacks upside the back of the head. I was like, ‘What the fuck?!’, and he goes, “Did you think I was fucking kidding?”. That’s kind of one of those positions where you either do what I did, or you just say, “You know what, fuck you. I don’t like this. This is not the way”. I just said, ‘You know what? This guy’s better than me, and I’m going to do whatever he tells me to do’. So after that I just said, ‘Okay’, and I pulled guard from then on. I don’t think I did anything but a triangle for over a year. But before I met Karo. I used to be a powerlifter and I was really into strength and conditioning, and Karo had never really trained for any of his fights. I started helping him out and we became really good friends and sparring partners. I started to develop my own thing because Karo was so amazing and quick on the top, that for a big guy, I actually started getting really fast. From there I started learning different concepts. Karo was really good at teaching concepts, and he was very instrumental in helping me to develop my approach to the game. Then things turn around and now I coach him. He comes to me for the answers and I help him with a lot of the submissions. I give Karo a lot of credit because he was a huge part of my inspiration to do what I’m doing right now. If I hadn’t met him, I don’t know where I’d be at today. I always give Karo his credit. He’s a crazy guy, and he’s up and he’s down, but he’s a really good hearted person.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I’ve been there before man. When my trainer would scold me and basically humiliate me in front of everyone because I was doing something improperly, and it’s either: go home and don’t come back, or check your ego at the door, scoop yourself up and try it again. Everything inside you is telling you to walk out that door, but you know in the back of your mind that if you leave, there’s no coming back.
Neil Melanson: Right, and just think about all of those times that you felt demoralized, or got your ass kicked, or got hurt, and you picked yourself up and said, “It’s worth it. I’m coming back”, and then you work with these guys, that in my case are professional fighters making money, and they quit! All the time, or it gets too hard, or it gets too rough, and you’re like, ‘What the fuck!’. It’s like, ‘Dude, what do you mean, I’m being mean? Where I came from, if you didn’t tap fast enough you got your leg broke! It wasn’t about being mean. They were going to break your leg unless you got your hand up and tapped out in time. And you’re worried about being sore. Are you fucking kidding me?’. It’s just that old school mentality. The reality for me is that I feel like I’m protecting my guys. In the long term, I’m protecting them. You’re learning how to be violent, you’re getting tough, you’re realizing that things aren’t such a big deal and that you can survive. Things are going to be okay, you know, don’t quit. Josh Neer vs. Joe Stevenson: Josh Neer gets his ACL snapped in the first round and comes back to beat him. That’s because Josh Neer is fucking tough! You could probably shoot that guy in the chest, and he’d be like, “I’m okay”. That toughness has gotten him very far.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: You see it all the time. A lot of these guys that train will talk your ear off about how they want to fight, and how they’re going to make their debut soon, but none of them want to train at the gnarly schools with all of the for real deal fighters. Most people would rather train at that gym with the commercial that has all of the hot girls doing cardio kickboxing classes.
Neil Melanson: It’s just a level of commitment, but you’re right, a lot of it is just talk. There’s a lot of people that love the fighter lifestyle, and there are other people that actually like to fight, and you can tell instantly. When I work with guys I can tell right away. It’s crazy because a lot of these guys are literally afraid, because they want the limelight, and they talk the game, but when things don’t go their way, or if it’s going to be a gravel road, then, “Ehhhh”, they don’t want to do it. And that’s fine. Fighting isn’t for everybody, but don’t brag about it if it’s not for you. That’s what I hate, when I hear someone say, “Oh, I just got caught. It’s just because of this or that”, and I’ll be like, ‘Alright, so you going to start training on Monday?’, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m going to take some time off”. Then you don’t seem them forever and they’ll come back and got caught in the same thing again. They’ll get all sad, and it’s like, ‘Because you’re not training, you fucking idiot’.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Most of the people that are going to be reading this probably aren’t aware that you have been dealing with Behcet’s disease. What can you tell me about Behcet’s disease for some of those that aren’t that familiar with it?
Neil Melanson: Basically it’s an immune disease that’s not necessarily hereditary. They can’t find any reason or cause as to why you would get it, but you’re born with it, so it’s not transmittable by any means. It’s kind of like like Lupus in that aspect. Basically you have an overactive immune system, and what your immune system does, is it attacks tissue and blood vessels on your body and starts to destroy them. It’s a very painful disease, and there’s not one pill for everything. You have to treat each individual thing. The tricky thing about Behcet’s is getting diagnosed, because you have to be displaying at least three of the symptoms. There’s different symptoms you can get, but my big thing was the eyes. I’ve had symptoms of it ever since I was a kid, but never enough to actually diagnose it. It usually triggers in your thirties. I’ve always been really active, and I was in the military; I think the last year I was in the military I started getting really sick. I started to see that I was having all of these problems. The doctor’s were like, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you”. When I first started with the Air Marshals, basically my vision started to go. They didn’t really treat it that aggressively at the time because my eyes weren’t really bothering me that much. It wasn’t until I transferred to L.A., when I was doing flights all across the country, and like most Air Marshals, I was sleep deprived, and that exhaustion triggered my illness very rapidly. I started to have massive problems, and my eyes were a big part of that. Basically, my left eye would continuously go blind. They would treat it, and it would just constantly go blind. Eventually it got to the point where it was irreversible. Then it started to happen to my right eye, and once that started to happen I was immediately debilitated because I couldn’t see. I went to like four different doctors and they all said, “I don’t know what else to do for you. I’ve treated you the best way that I know how”. I asked them, ‘Well, what’s going to happen?’, and they said, “You have to prepare yourself because you’re going blind”. I remember I was a complete mess. I would call my brother, and my brother started to build a room in his house for me. I was going blind, and there was a few months that I actually went blind. It was really tough on me. I lost a lot of weight. I lost like forty pounds. I was really depressed, and I was very afraid. I still loved to grapple though, and it was like the one distraction that I had. I remember, I would either catch a ride to the gym, or Karo would pick me up, and we would just grapple. I didn’t need to see. As long as I could touch him, we could roll. He would take me to the UFC, and just kind of kept my spirits up. His family was always very nice to me, and they always fed me. My family was all on the east coast, so at the time I wasn’t very close with any of my family other than my brother. It was pretty much not looking very good for me. I had a friend of mine that was just so committed to finding me the right doctor, and he found one. When I went to that doctor, he did all of the tests on my eyes, and then he recommended this other doctor. I went to that doctor and they started doing all of these experiments. This guy suggested that we try this drug called Remicade, so I did and my right eye came back. It’s damaged a little bit. I have to wear glasses most of the time. So my left eye is 100% blind and all I have is my right eye left. The other problem with the disease is chronic fatigue and chronic pain. That’s the biggest thing that I have to deal with right now, is the pain. I love to grapple, but I got to the point where I’d be lucky if I got on the mat once a week. It got to the point where it was like, ‘If you don’t take care of this pain, I’m going to kill myself. I can’t take this pain anymore. I can’t do this’. So finally they started treating me and they have me on morphine and stuff like that. That was a huge turning point in my life. Now all of a sudden I can be functional, I can grapple, I can train, I can be healthy, and have fun. I just try not to exhaust myself. I try to sleep, and I don’t go out at night. Staying up all night always really triggers my illness. I can still grapple and have fun, and train, I just have to take it easy when I feel myself start to get a little weird. But without the pain medicine, I wouldn’t be able to do any of this. A lot of people will look at me and I look like the picture of health. I’m a big guy, and I’m in shape, and they don’t really understand, but I’ve never been one to bicker or complain. It’s been a hard struggle, and I’m still struggling with it, but it’s definitely made me a kinder person, and a nicer person.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: So, is it a situation where you look at every day as a gift to some extent?
Neil Melanson: I’m very happy with my life right now though. I can’t believe that just a few years ago that I didn’t think that I could live anymore because my life was so terrible. I was so sick and all alone. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was losing my job, and I didn’t even think that I could grapple. I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself. I didn’t want to be some sick kid in the hospital, or be in the VA hospital by myself. I just didn’t want to go through it. Now, looking at where I’m at: I’m doing what I love doing. I have books coming out, I’m working for the best gym in the country, and I have a great relationship with Erin Toughill. I finally feel like I have a great partner in my life, so I feel very lucky. If anyone out there is sick, or is just going through a hard time, the only thing I would tell them is to just be patient, because time heals everything. Just hang in there, because it’s crazy how things can be so terrible one day, and just a short time later it can be so great. I try to always remember that.