After carving out an impressive 22-0 kickboxing career and winning a USKBA gold medal in 2006, John Makdessi turned his focus to MMA where he has since rattled off eight straight victories, including a unanimous decision win over Pat Audinwood in his Octagon debut at UFC 124 in December.
A training partner of UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, Makdessi is a driven fighter who says he isn’t satisfied with a win unless the fans are entertained — a rarity in the sport today that seems filled with fighters who are content with doing “just enough to win.”
The 25-year-old Halifax, Nova Scotia-born Lebanese fighter will put his undefeated record on the line against Kyle Watson next week at UFC 129 in Toronto and says he is planning on making a lot of jaws hit the floor during the bout. We caught up with Makdessi recently to talk about the fight, how he got his start in MMA, his thoughts on the current landscape of the sport and much more.
Check out what “The Bull” had to say below.
You’ve been lucky in that your first two UFC fights have been at home in Canada. Does it make a difference having the home crowd behind you?
It’s always a bonus when you’re fighting in your backyard. I’m a Canadian. I was born in Halifax. Toronto is an English town and I’m hoping I can build a new fan base when I fight there.
How did you get your start in MMA?
My parents are from Lebanon and I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When I was around two we moved back to Lebanon. There was a war going on back home, so when I was five we moved to Montreal. When I was four I was a pest and I was really was hyperactive, so my mother made my older brother take me with him to his Taekwondo classes. That’s how I got into it. Ever since then I’ve been in love with martial arts.
Is MMA popular in Lebanon?
To be honest, it’s not really big there. There are a lot of problems there politically and religion-wise. Right now, I don’t think their main focus is MMA (laughing).
You train at what many people consider to be the best camp in Canada, Tristar and Zahabi MMA. How did you hook up with Firas, Jon Chaimberg and the other coaches you train under?
I was a kickboxer and after high school I found a dojo next to my house. The guy that owned it was a Shotokan karate champion. I was competing in full contact karate and kickboxing matches at the age of 17 and was undefeated and winning titles in Quebec. My goal was always to fight in K-1 because I followed the sport religiously. That’s where I was first introduced to Cro Cop. My sensei was Croation and he reminded me of Jean Claude Van Damme. He had beautiful kicks and he taught me a lot of kicks. After a few years he couldn’t really teach me any more than I already knew, so I moved on. I went to train with a USKBA champion who was a really good kickboxer and boxer. He brought me to a whole other level as a fighter. I was with him for two years and at that time kickboxing was dying out in Quebec. There weren’t a lot of competitions or opportunities here in the sport, so I knew that I had to find a new challenge. Tristar was always in the back of my head. It’s a big commercial gym and there’s always a lot going on, so when I went there the first time I left because I wasn’t comfortable there. I knew I had to go back because it’s the best gym to be at for training competition-wise. All the best fighters train there. After 2006 I went back and started training MMA, but I was still doing kickboxing tournaments the whole time. I decided to focus 100 percent on MMA, so I did a couple amateur fights and I won them all. I told Firas I wanted to go pro and ever since then I’ve been a professional fighter. I met some amazing training partners and coaches throughout my career. I spent a week for this camp in New York training with the Gracies and Phil Nurse. I just want to train with the best guys and to be known as a smart fighter.
You mentioned Cro Cop as being an influence on your career early on. Is he someone that you tried to emulate as far as styles go?
Yeah, of course. Cro Cop, like I said, I knew before I started doing MMA because I followed him back in his K-1 days. He was really the only kickboxer to successfully transition to MMA. He had to start from scratch leaning wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Every fighter knows that no matter how many arts you train in, you have to start from scratch when you learn different disciplines. I had to start from square one. Just because I had a lot of experience in Taekwondo and karate, it didn’t help me in grappling or submissions. When I started doing MMA it was pretty tough. I loved it though, so I pushed through training. Cro Cop was a good example for me to follow. I think he was the best kickboxer in MMA. He had to spend the time to learn how to wrestle and to do jiu-jitsu, but at the end of the day it was in his blood to strike. To say he only has a few kicks and punches is wrong, trust me. I know him better than anyone. I don’t know him personally, but I’ve studied him at length. In his kickboxing days he would throw out these beautiful combinations. It’s amazing what he would do. If you look at GSP, he does the same thing over and over again. He does the jab, double-jab to the takedown because it’s so effective. It doesn’t mean that’s all he knows.
For sure. I think it’s because it’s natural to revert to what you know best that sometimes fighters seem more one-dimensional than they are.
How difficult was it for you to learn the ground aspect of MMA?
Oh, man. I’m still learning it today. It took a lot of adjusting. Jiu-jitsu is like a whole different language. I learned stand-up much quicker. The combinations and the rhythm that are the most difficult to pick up for people I found way easier than learning jiu-jitsu. There’s so much going on that you need to focus and pay attention to even the smallest details on the ground. I train with high-level elite grapplers and I would always get frustrated when I didn’t get something, but they would tell me that a lot of black belts wouldn’t get those moves in a fight. It takes time. It’s a totally different game. It’s the same with wrestling. Every day I practice and try to improve as much as I can. My focus is to have fun and to learn as much as possible about every aspect of the sport.
You’ve come a long way since your first pro fight less than three years ago. Did you think you would be this far in your career at this point when you started focusing on training MMA?
I’m very lucky. I believe that there is a higher power than me who has made me as fortunate as I am and gave me the gifts that I have. Personally, I know I’m not the best fighter and that I have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on, but I have confidence in myself. No matter who is put in front of me, regardless if they have a brown belt in this or a black belt in that, it doesn’t matter to me. They’re humans and I believe that I can win.
You’re facing Kyle Watson at UFC 129. How do you think your skill set matches up with his?
I believe that I have much more discipline than he does. I’ve trained in eight martial art forms since I was six years old. I think that’s what my advantage is over him going into this fight. I know how to handle pressure and how to take the energy of the crowd and make it into something positive. I feed off the crowd.
Do you think part of your mental toughness has anything to do with some of the hardships you witnessed as a child in Lebanon?
I grew up in a tough environment. People think that because I’m a UFC fighter, everything is beautiful. Nothing is beautiful. I work hard every day to the point that fighting consumes my life. I’m always thinking about it. When I’m not training, I’m watching videos of fights. If I’m not watching videos, I’m thinking about what I learned yesterday. It’s a 24-7 thing. I’m always worried about whether I’m doing enough. I want to be the best. I grew up in a tough family for sure, and with the war in Lebanon, just growing up I had to learn how to be tough. I had to earn everything I got my whole life. My parents taught me to work for everything I wanted. That’s something I thank them for. I grew up with good values and a strong work ethic. I believe that hard work pays off. So I train hard, but I also train smart. There are a lot of guys who train stupid, spending eight hours in the gym every day and they don’t improve. I don’t believe in killing yourself for the sake of putting in work. You have to be smart about it as well.
You definitely seem gracious and thankful for what you have, despite having worked hard to attain it.
For sure, man. Like I said, I don’t take any of this for granted. The opportunity I have to make a name for myself and to make a better situation for me and my family, financially is incredible. One day I want to give back to my family for everything they have done to me. I want to be able to travel around the world to fight wherever I can. The best fighters always went wherever they had to to find the best fights. Win or lose, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the fight. Anybody can win a fight. I’ve never believed that you just have to do enough to win no matter how you do it. It’s easy to win a fight, but it’s not easy to put in a performance that makes people open their mouths. For me, my ultimate goal is to get a fan reaction when I fight. I want to win, but I want people’s jaws to drop.
Like when Anderson Silva knocked out Vitor Belfort.
Yeah. Anderson’s another guy I look up to. He’s an amazing guy who’s on a whole other level. Jon Jones is another guy who’s a great guy, who excites people every fight. Those are two perfect examples of the types of fighter I want to be known as.
You’re not happy to just get a decision.
No. Of course I’m happy to win, like in my first UFC fight, but I get frustrated when I want to push the pace and the guy I’m fighting doesn’t want to engage and just wants to shoot and clinch. I’m hoping Kyle Watson doesn’t come out to clinch and play it safe. I’m hoping he engages with me because I think that’s when I fight the best. When I fought Lindsay Hawkes in Winnipeg, it was probably one of my best fights ever because he respected me and didn’t run away. He was there to fight and it made for a great bout.
Some kickboxers like Pat Barry for example maybe have a different mentality when it comes to fighting friends because it’s a common occurrence in the sport. What’s your take on fighting a training partner or a friend?
It’s tough. The average person doesn’t understand what we go through together as teammates in the gym day in and day out. It’s not just a job, it’s your life. It’s not like you go to work and go home and forget about work. Martial arts for me is like a religion. It’s a way of life. Training with the guys at Tristar, they have become my family. You hate them sometimes and you love them other times just like you do with your brothers and sisters. Unfortunately the business of MMA doesn’t care about that stuff. Personally, no matter how much I’m paid, it will never equal out to the amount of training and preparation I have done my whole life, so to say that if the money is right, fighting a teammate wouldn’t be a problem is kind of off, especially when your teammates are a big part of the reason your skill level is where it’s at. I’ve been injured many times. I’ve had eye surgery, and multiple broken bones, but I’ve pushed through them to keep fighting because I had to. I don’t think you have to fight your training partners.
Most of the guys I know in Montreal have a core group of main training partners they regularly work out with. Who are your main training partners on a day-to-day basis?
Personally, I like to learn a lot so I actually spend more time training with my mentors and teachers. I touch John Danaher, Phil Nurse, my muay thai coach Peter, my kickboxing coach Angelo DiBella, Firas of course. I mix things up. I do boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu. I train at the Montreal wrestling club. I’m all over the place. The way I look at it, if I want to be a true mixed martial artist, I need to work with different people as much as I can. To answer your question, I’m my own man. I don’t really follow people. I do my own thing.
I know most fighters don’t looking past their next opponents, but are there any opponents you’ve had your eye on in your weight class who you’d like to face in the near future, maybe even someone you’d like to test yourself against?
I can’t answer that because I don’t think like that. Testing myself, I do that every day in the gym. I spar with guys like Georges St-Pierre, Alex Garcia and Mike Ricci. There’s a whole list of guys at Tristar who test me all the time. Testing is not the question. At the end of the day as a fighter you want to fight. You will never hear me call out someone’s name for a fight. I will never say I’m the best and I will never say I’m going to beat this guy or that guy. It’s not my style and I don’t believe in it. Martial artists know that you can get beaten at any time and that you need to respect your opponents. It’s a sport. We’re there to have fun, we’re notthere to kill each other. Unfortunately there are elbows and other things I don’t believe are good for the sport, but that comes with the territory. My intention is to open up some eyes and to fight for the belt one day. I want to work my way up to be on top.
Speaking of respect, what do you think about guys who do engage in the back-and-forth before a bout?
That’s the thing about humans. Everybody thinks differently. I can look at an apple and you can look at the exact same apple and we will describe it totally differently. I can’t judge a guy like Chael Sonnen for doing what he does. He may be the best guy. We’re not his close friends or family members. Some people make the decision to do things some people would never do. Some people like to play the bad guy and some people try to get in people’s heads by whatever means possible. I don’t waste my energy on stuff like that. My goal is to be as honest as possible in the media and in interviews. I’m very family oriented and I’m not too crazy on the public side of things. Sometimes the media forces people to be the bad guy. Sometimes it isn’t the guy’s decision. A lot of things in life aren’t fair. I try to be the best I can in every area in my life.
Did it take some getting used to having to do as much media as you do now?
I had to teach myself how to do interviews. I express myself the best in the cage. I’m not the best interview. I repeat myself a lot and I get very emotional when it comes to certain topics. I haven’t experienced it yet, but sometimes the media take a story and make it into something it isn’t. An example of that is when the story went around about how Georges St-Pierre doesn’t do conditioning. If people believe that he doesn’t do conditioning they aren’t using common sense. Of course he does it, the same as he does boxing and muay thai and wrestling. I train with him. Look at his physique. He didn’t get that way from sitting around and picking his nose. He doesn’t necessarily do traditional conditioning like running on a treadmill, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do other things to keep in the shape he does. People like drama. A lot of people like to create gossip to make themselves look better and a lot of people like to see people miserable. It’s human nature.
What’s something about you people would be surprised to hear?
That I’m a good wrestler. I haven’t had the chance to show it in most of my fights, but my ground game will probably surprise a lot of people.
Well, man, that’s all I have for you. Thanks for taking the time to talk and good luck with your fight in Toronto. I’m looking forward to watching it live.
I appreciate your time. Thank you very much. I have a fan page on Facebook and fans can check out my website, JohntheBull.com.