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Interview: Knoxville Martial Arts Academy Head Instructor Eric Turner

Coach Eric Turner with his fighter Ovince Saint Preux between rounds. Photo by Jack Bratcher for ProMMAnow.com

Eric Turner is the Head Coach and Owner of Knoxville Martial Arts Academy (KMAA) in Knoxville, Tenn. The gym houses such well-known fighters as Strikeforce light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux and UFC lightweight Rafaello “Tractor” Oliveira, among others.

With Saint Preux coming off his first Strikeforce loss and with Oliveira having to pull out of next month’s UFC on FX card in Nashville, combined with the fact the UFC and the XFC are returning to Tennessee in early 2012, ProMMAnow.com (www.prommanow.com) felt it was the perfect time to talk with Turner.

We learned about Coach Turner’s background in sports and MMA and the origins of KMAA. Coach Turner talked to us about the progression of Saint Preux, as well as his thoughts on the loss to Gegard Mousasi. He discussed Oliveira’s injury, how “Tractor” ended up training and teaching at KMAA and much more.

PRO MMA NOW: Hi Eric, thanks for talking with us today at ProMMAnow.com. Tell us about Knoxville Martial Arts Academy, how long have you been open and how did you come to be a gym owner and MMA trainer?

ERIC TURNER: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you. My background was in Wrestling, Boxing Tae Kwon Do, Judo and a Filipino martial art called Eskrima, so before I opened a school I had almost 7 years of “traditional” martial arts instruction. However, calling the first incarnation of KMAA a “school” would be too generous to my garage. We started off in my garage over 10 years ago, a little 10′ x 10′ matted area, no heater, no AC. The first two years were pretty brutal as it was more like fight-club than a respectable, professional gym. Then we moved out to West Knoxville, and have stayed there ever since. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to a woman named Lisa Kashif for helping me get my foot in the West Knoxville area.

From left to right: Knoxville Martial Arts Academy's Ovince Saint Preux, Chris Wright, Coach Eric Turner, Rafaello Oliveira, Coach Joey Zonar

PRO MMA NOW: Are you originally from the Knoxville area; where did you grow up?

ERIC TURNER: I was born in Charlotte, N.C. but I consider East Tennessee my home. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else. As I’ve been blessed enough to travel all over the world with MMA I’ve come to realize that East Tennessee is where I always want to be.

PRO MMA NOW: What is your background in sports, martial arts and fighting?

ERIC TURNER: My parents were big into sports so I’ve played just about every sport under the sun: soccer, baseball, football, basketball, etc. Inevitably this led me to combat arts like boxing, wrestling and Oriental arts like Tae Kwon Do, Judo, Hapkido and I was very blessed to find a great Eskrima teacher right here in East Tennessee. At some point I realized that while every art has it’s own strengths, MMA fighting requires very different things. So I created my own style. It’s not very pretty, but it’s very effective – as our success demonstrates. I tried my hand at MMA way, way back in the day before there were really any rules or time limits or any of those things which we consider “safe” – I fought on the first MMA show in Tennessee, it was Gene Click’s Kaizen Extreme Challenge and was crazy. My last fight was at Ovince’s last amateur fight, we fought in Mississippi at King of the Cage. I won my fight and he won both of his and I figured this fighting thing was too much work if I also wanted to be a good coach. I was never a very good fighter, so it’s not like I gave up a promising career fighting. *laugh*

PRO MMA NOW: Talk to me about the development and progression of Ovince Saint Preux as a fighter, from when he first walked through the gym doors to what he is doing now. And what has it been like to witness that progression first-hand?

ERIC TURNER: Vince was one of the last guys to come to the garage school so he remembers what it was like back when we just beat the crap out of each other. When he came through the door he was shy and polite – pretty much the way he is now. He’s a tremendous physical specimen though and I’m very glad that he stuck with it. He’s great to work with. I can show him something once or twice and he can start adding it to his arsenal almost immediately. Better than that though, is that he’s humble enough to ask questions – it’s one of the best things about working with him; there’s no ego with Vince, he just wants to be better – he just wants to be the best.

PRO MMA NOW: As we know, Vince just had the biggest fight of his career against what I would say was his first real top tier opponent. Some sites still had Gegard Mousasi ranked in the top 10. Talk to me about that fight a little bit. Did you feel Vince was ready for that jump up in competition, how was his camp, how was he looking in the days leading up to the fight and what do you think went wrong?

ERIC TURNER: Vince had a good camp, maybe not his best ever but it was really good. We flew Virgil Zwicker out to help him with the sparring and Virgil did a dead-on impression of Mousasi. Vince hurt his wrist two weeks before the fight and he was having a really hard time throwing his left hand. He flew out to Cali early to get ready for the fight and got a couple good days in with Team Quest and Coach Billy (striking coach to Junior Dos Santos, Dominick Cruz, etc). Vince was absolutely ready for that step up in competition, the 3rd round proved it. Also keep in mind that Mousasi didn’t beat Vince with his stand-up – after Vince landed a couple of his left kicks Mousasi was the one pressing the range to avoid standing with Vince. If I would have told you that almost the whole fight would’ve been spent wrestling most people believe that the edge would’ve gone to Vince.

PRO MMA NOW: From my perspective it just seemed like he couldn’t pull that trigger. He’s got heavy hands too – why do you think he was just not letting them go? And what exactly was the game plan for that fight?

ERIC TURNER: Yep, just couldn’t pull the trigger. As soon as you get done with the doctor check up after the fight, you have to do a short interview with Strikeforce/Showtime and Vince immediately diagnosed the problem. “My coach said don’t think, don’t think, don’t think and all I was doing out there was thinking, thinking, thinking!” were his words. The problem wasn’t his skills or his technique, the problem was his mind. If you go back and listen to GSP talk about his first fight with Hughes you’ll hear a similar problem and see a similar result – GSP getting handled at things he’s now considered a master at. Same thing with OSP. I tell my guys all the time you can’t fight two people at once – the guy in front of you and the guy in your head. Vince spent the first round and a ½ fighting the Mousasi in his head and the result is that the Mousasi in front of him had an easy time picking Vince apart.

PRO MMA NOW: It had been a long time since Vince lost. He had an incredible, just a really remarkable 2010, and then he wasn’t as active this year but was still winning. Do you think not fighting as much as he did last year maybe caused him to freeze up a little bit and not be as loose and willing to exchange in the Mousasi fight?

ERIC TURNER: I’m sure ring rust played a part in it, we’d ideally like to fight 4-5 times a year but it’s just not possible most of the time. Especially with the takeover of Strikeforce by Zuffa, the in-limbo nature of Strikeforce and Showtime and the numerous behind-the-scenes negotiating that comes from fighting on the bigger shows.

Coach Eric Turner taking care of one of his female fighters after a fight.

PRO MMA NOW: How did Vince take the loss – some guys like Forrest Griffin, we’ve seen him cry in the Octagon, other guys it just seems to roll off their back. How has he been taking it? And also, do you see him as the type of fighter and person that will learn from this?

ERIC TURNER: Vince hates losing. He hates it a lot. While he takes it very personally, he also uses it as fuel. Vince’s last loss before Mousasi was to Zwicker – who is now one of Ovince’s best friends. The Vince that fought Virgil was good, but the Vince that came out of that fight was
GREAT. The Vince that started the first round with Mousasi was great, but the Vince that ended the 3rd round with Mousasi will be AMAZING. He now knows that he can stand with a world champ kickboxer and that just because a guy is famous doesn’t mean he’s invincible. He’s very motivated to get back into the cage.

PRO MMA NOW: What kind of fight would you like to see him in next – I know he called out Mousasi and Babalu. Would you like to see a fight with Babalu, what do you think would be a good next fight for him?

ERIC TURNER: Anyone. We want anyone. Would we love a Babalu fight? Absolutely, Babalu is a legend and we’d be honored to have that fight. Mike Kyle is a little banged up and so is Feijao, but anyone else in the division would be our pleasure to fight. We’re petitioning pretty hard to get on the Feb/March card of Strikeforce and we’d like to get right back on the horse. Maybe your readers can send Strikeforce an e-mail and help us with the petition. *laugh*

PRO MMA NOW: Now, another one of your fighters, Rafaello “Tractor” Oliveira we just found out he had to pull out of his fight next month against Reza Madadi at UFC on FX 1 in Nashville due to a hand injury. This was a big fight for him, getting to fight inside the UFC Octagon in his home state. Now he had actually broke his hand earlier this year when he fought Yves Edwards — was it just a matter of him not letting it heal fully before he started sparring again, or what happened exactly? Have you heard if they found a replacement for “Tractor” and did they reach out to see if you had anyone that could possibly replace him?

ERIC TURNER: We did what the doctors told us to do and accidents just happens sometimes. I haven’t heard of a replacement and as far as reaching out to us, I let Rafa’s manager Mike Constantino of AMA deal with all that stuff. My job is just to make sure Rafa is ready to fight.

PRO MMA NOW: Rafaello is actually at a point with back-to-back losses where he really needs a win in the Octagon. Can you talk a little about what this second go-round in the UFC has been like for him, why you think he has been struggling and what does he need to work on to keep him on the roster?

ERIC TURNER: Well, the fight with [Gleison] Tibau was on one week’s notice and we came in very game with that fight doing extremely well in the first round – one the judges gave that round to Rafa. The fight with Yves went pretty much the same way – with two of the judges giving the round to Rafa. I think Yves’ comments post-fight were dead on: “Rafa comes out like a cannon and fades a bit in the second. He just needs to pace himself better and stick with the game plan.” Both things we’re spending a lot of time working on.

PRO MMA NOW: How long has Rafaello been with you guys at Knoxville Martial Arts and how did this Brazilian BJJ black belt end up in Tennessee?

ERIC TURNER: Rafa has been with us a little over a year. After he got cut from the UFC he came to work with us and we were with him through all of his post-UFC wins and now when he’s in the UFC. As far as how he ended up here, he moved from Brazil to Florida where he met Hermes Franca. From Florida to Hawaii to help BJ Penn. From Hawaii to Tennessee to help Hermes at a local martial arts school. From Tennessee to New Jersey to train with AMA for his UFC fights. After his UFC fights though, he returned to Knoxville and decided that training/teaching at KMAA would be the best thing for his career. We’re very blessed to have him as he’s a great fighting but also a great coach and adds a ton of personality to the school. Also, his children take our kids classes, and give her 10 years or so and his daughter Noah will be WRECKING chicks on the world stage. *laugh*

PRO MMA NOW: Alright, tell us about some of your other guys (and gals) at KMAA, I know you got Chris Wright up there, how’s he doing and who else is doing big things that we should be on the lookout for?

ERIC TURNER: Chris Wright is in negotiations with XFC to fight on the February 10th card here in Knoxville, we’d *LOVE* to have the opportunity. He’s doing great and he’s a work-horse for sure. We also have Justin Fisher, a pro 185’er who is also a school teacher here in town. He’s coming off his professional debut with a W and is looking to get more active. We also have pro 205′er Dean Hamilton who is looking to make his long-awaited return to cage fighting in 2012. Dean had to take some time off to take care of his daughter who was in-and-out of the hospital alot but he’s training and is as dedicated as ever right now! Then there’s Donnie Mashburn who is fighting for the 3FC 205 title in January and that guy is a BEAST! As far as our amateurs go, we’ve got Taylor Miller a 135 girl who is 3-0 in her amateur career and is looking to get one more amateur fight or go pro with the right opportunity. We also have Chris Wolff, Yvgene Zotov, Nick Gehrts and James Adcock – all of which have made ENORMOUS gains in the last year and you should keep an eye out for these guys in the future.

PRO MMA NOW: What can we expect out of Eric Turner and the Knoxville Martial Arts family in 2012?

Coach Eric Turner helping take care of banner duties for OSP at Strikeforce. Photo by Jack Bratcher for ProMMAnow.com

ERIC TURNER: Expect huge things. I expect Chris Wright to be in the UFC by the end of the year, he’s on Joe Silva’s radar and he’s keeping an eye on him. I also expect to have two or three people turn pro by the end of the year. On top of that, a number of people have asked me to be part of their training camps, with either them flying me to them or them flying to me for a few weeks of each of their camps. I’m very honored, but expect Knoxville to become the new Albuquerque. *laugh*

PRO MMA NOW: Eric, thanks for taking time to talk with us. You guys have a Merry Christmas, and let our readers know how they can learn more about Knoxville Martial Arts and find you if they want to come check out the gym.

ERIC TURNER: Thanks, you guys have a Merry Christmas as well! You can check us out on the web at www.knox-mma.com, call us at (865) 771-9775 or “Like” us on Facebook by searching for “Knoxville Martial Arts Academy”.

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