It was late 2006 and Eric Nicksick, in 1997 an all-state wide receiver from Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, was looking to change things in his life. He was a bartender and was not happy where his life was headed. He’d gone to Nevada-Reno to play football, but had gotten kicked off the team. He played two years at Dixie State in St. George, Utah, but suffered a series of concussions and decided to walk away from the game that had been a big part of his life.
His father, Jim Nicksick, was an assistant coach at Green Valley and became the first assistant to be inducted into the Southern Nevada Coaches Association Hall of Fame. His uncle, Dave Castro, was an assistant at Green Valley. Another uncle, Gary Wheeler, was a long-time successful high school basketball coach in Southern Nevada.
And yet another uncle, Mike Nixon, was a head coach for three years and an assistant for decades in the NFL. Coaching, clearly, is in Eric Nicksick’s blood.
But in 2006, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be a coach when he stumbled upon the yet-to-be opened Xtreme Couture Gym in Las Vegas. The gym wasn’t open to the public, but its founder/owner, Randy Couture, was using it to prepare for a heavyweight title fight on March 3, 2007, at UFC 68 against Tim Sylvia.
Nicksick showed up and began to train with veteran fighters there like Couture, Mike Pyle, Jay Hieron and Martin Kampmann. He had no intention of becoming a fighter, or a coach, but he needed something different in his life.
He and a friend tried to find the gym. A major east-west road in Las Vegas that now makes it easy to get to the gym didn’t go all the way through at that point, so they struggled to locate it. But they were persistent and sticking with it changed Nicksick’s life.
“We basically stumbled across the place and when we did, there was a practice going on,” Nicksick told Yahoo Sports. “Mike Pyle asked me to come in and invited me to practice, which was basically like code for beating the s*** out of me. But he told me after that day, come back if you want to and so I did. I was helping out and helping set the gym up and things like that.
“I was just in need of a different direction at that point. I didn’t know what I was going to get there, but I needed a sense of community. I didn’t like the direction my life was going and I was getting lazy and complacent.”
He kept coming back so often that a few months later when the gym opened, he was member No. 1. And now, he still makes his daily treks there, but does so as its general manager and head coach of the Xtreme Couture fight team.
He helped guide Sean Strickland to the middleweight title Saturday by winning a wide unanimous decision over Israel Adesanya in the main event of UFC 293, confirming his presence among the game’s elite coaches.
MMA Junkie named him its coach of the year in 2020 and Yahoo Sports tabbed him as 2022 coach of the year. But Nicksick truly came into his own by guiding the mercurial Strickland to one of the biggest upsets in the sport‘s history.
“Eric’s just a phenomenal coach and I feel like he could coach any sport and be successful,” said Dan Ige, a UFC featherweight who is coached by Nicksick. “If we were to pick up pickle ball, he would study it and teach you how to play pickle ball. If it were badminton or anything, he has that ability to explain things and break it down. He has a really good eye for the sport.”
Part of his job is getting his fighters in shape. Another part is improving their fundamentals. Game planning is key, and all of those are areas where he excels. But he’s outstanding in that minute between rounds and can make a significant impact on the fight.
Those moments are tense and pressure-packed and a coach needs to not only deliver the right message, but needs to say it the right way. Getting the message correct isn’t always easy. Kenny Florian, a former UFC fighter who now does TV analysis for the PFL on ESPN and co-hosts a popular podcast with Jon Anik, gives Nicksick high marks.
“I can’t recall a time where he was working a corner and giving advice and I thought to myself, ‘Oh wow, I’m not sure I agree with that,'” Florian told Yahoo Sports. “He seems to have a really good ability to communicate with and relate to his fighters, and he has that knack for seemingly always saying the right thing. I haven’t been there in his coaching sessions to hear him, but when he’s breaking down fights, when he’s talking about what his fighters need to do, when you hear him in the corner, it seems like it’s almost always pretty on point.”
Nicksick pays a great deal of attention to the body language of his fighter’s opponent, so much so that he always makes sure to have one of his coaches keeping an eye on the opposite corner. Nicksick said he believes his best attribute as a coach is the advice he’s able to deliver between rounds. His idea to assign a coach to the opposite corner paid huge dividends for Strickland on Saturday.
Strickland was clearly up at least 3-1 after four rounds Saturday. But MMA judging is unpredictable and Adesanya was fighting in front of a raucous home crowd, which can impact things.
Adesanya appeared to be a beaten man when he trudged to his corner after the fourth round. It seemed plain to the most casual observer that Strickland simply needed to finish on his feet and he would, however improbably, become the new champion.
Nicksick is shrewd enough to realize that no matter how poorly Adesanya was performing relative to expectations, he became one of the greatest fighters in UFC history by rising up at the most important moments. He needed Strickland to keep the foot on the accelerator.
“I’m big on [observing] body language,” Nicksick said.
And so when he heard that Adesanya looked defeated, he got to the corner and knew what he had to say: He told Strickland he thought it was probably two rounds apiece.
“I said 2-2 going into five for two reasons,” Nicksick said. “In my heart, I had us up 3-1. In my mind, I wanted to make sure we kept the same amount of pressure. I didn’t want Sean to feel we could cakewalk and take our foot off the gas because that does us a disservice in distance. And now, if we’re not fighting at the distance I want, we’re in kick range where Izzy is most dangerous. I didn’t want to put my fighter in a situation where now, we’re fighting off our back foot or Izzy starts getting momentum, fighting downhill. I wanted Sean to stay on it.
“No. 2, we were in his hometown and I didn’t know how the judges would score it and I wanted to err on the side of caution. And lastly, I wanted [Sean] to put his f***ing foot on [Adesanya’s] throat. I wanted him to make a statement. If we would have lost in those five minutes with that theory, I’d have been OK with it.”
Strickland did and he got the win, the biggest of his career and clearly the biggest of Nicksick’s. He couldn’t help but think back to a conversation with Hieron after he had only been at the gym a few months.
Hieron recognized his talent.
“I’ll never forget this, but Jay asked me why I was doing this,” Nicksick said. “I told him I didn’t know but that I wasn’t trying to fight but that I really loved the sport. And he said to me, ‘I think you have a path to being a very good coach, the way you carry yourself, the way you speak to the team, how you’re willing to learn and you don’t have a huge ego.’ I’ll never forget that. And a big reason why I’m here today is because of that talk I had with Jay.”