One of the main goals of fightmedicine.net is promoting education and fighter safety. One of the men that shares this goal with us is non other than the legendary UFC MMA cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran. Stitch spoke with fightmedicine.net about his experiences and expertise as a cutman. Here is Part 1 of the two-part interview:
FightMedicine.NET: You recently published an autobiography. Could you give us a summary of your path: how you got into MMA, how you became a cutman in boxing and then eventually to the UFC?
Stitch: Well, it started off with me joining the Air Force and getting stationed in a place called Thailand in 1974. And I didn’t even know what the hell that was. I knew the Vietnam War, but they sent me to Thailand.
So I think like three days after I got to Thailand I went to see my first Muay Thai and I got hooked up on it and I started training in taekwondo. They had taekwondo on the base for the G.I.’s. Eventually, Master Toddy, who is pretty world-renowned right now, took over. But then he left and placed some Thai instructors in charge. We stayed with the taekwondo system, but incorporated a lot of the Muay Thai style into that.
So for a whole year I did that and got back to the States and I got into boxing so I could improve my hands and polish up. And from there I opened up my own school of street boxing. And I was pretty good at training and had a lot of good fighters and traveled the world. But that’s where I learned to be a cutman and I was good at what I did. And I was working with kickboxing and boxing and I figure I’d move to Vegas and challenge the world of boxing and try to hang with the big boys.
So 17 years ago I made the move to Vegas and actually, at that point it was only boxing. And then Dana White, I’d known Dana for years. We were all trying to make a buck as trainers in the gyms and getting the old ladies pissed off at us. I hadn’t seen Dana in about a year and I was working the K1 at the Bellagio and Dana was in the audience. He asked for my card and called me the next day, said, “Look, man, we bought the UFC. You want to come onboard?” And that totally changed my whole life.
So you and Dana White were trainers at a gym together?
We were at different gyms. We’re all trainers and we’re blue-collar guys trying to make a buck. And trainers in this industry, you really don’t make a living. So we were all trying and yeah, exactly, I’d run into Dana all the time. And I used to sell boxing equipment from Mexico, the brand M&M. And I used to sell Dana equipment for his guys and other guys. And Dana never forgot what I did. My main thing was being a cutman. I was a trainer, and a good trainer in boxing, but my whole goal was to be a cutman. And he remembered that, and the first thing he did is give me a call.
How did you start doing what you do? Were you an apprentice or did you just figure out along the way how to do it?
Unfortunately, there was no apprenticeships as I was coming up. The old boxing cutmen, even now, the old boxing cutmen will not divulge any of their “secrets.” Juan Guarilito, when I asked him what he was doing and how he did it, he literally said, “I’m taking this to my grave.” And I said, “Well, that boy right there changed my whole life because I’m never going to be like this guy.”
So I looked and I studied guys wrapping hands and guys doing what they did. And unfortunately, at that time that was the only way we could really learn to be a cutman. And a lot of guys still do that, and that’s why a lot of guys still make a lot of mistakes. But I read books, and I had – and still do have – a pretty good relationship with a lot of the ringside doctors. And I ask them a lot of questions and I eliminated a lot of the stuff that a lot of these guys did. Now, knowing what I know now, there are wrong techniques and I kind of got it better now. It’s been pretty successful and this is the one that I teach other guys with. When guys ask me a question about what it takes to be a cutman or what it takes to wrap hands, and I think back about that time that I got blown off, so I don’t mind passing information on.
What are some of those mistakes that you made along the way that you think you could teach other people so they don’t have to make the same mistakes?
Number one, the first thing I always tell guys is those swabs that we use that you apply the epinephrine on the cut with, you’ll see these cutmen, they put them in their mouths and they put them in their ears. And first thing I tell them is not to do this. Keep them sanitized and keep them actually cleaned. Also wear gloves. A lot of these guys don’t even wear gloves. Even though they check all the fighters for HIV and Hepatitis and all that, it’s just if you’re going to work with an open wound, at least pretend that you’re clean. And even with the end-swells, a lot of the guys work to move the clot. And I was told as I was coming up is that you get that clot and you try to move it to the side. But talking with the ringside doctors now that know the business, what you’re doing is just moving that blood into tissues that otherwise has not damaged. And it eventually comes right back. It’s the direct pressure with the cold compress that closes up most blood vessels and that’s really the basic principle.
Like I saw last night, I saw a fight on HBO and the guy put the swab in the guy’s nose and tried to clean it out and puts it right back into his mouth. They’ve got all of that in his mouth and that’s pretty disgusting.
How well do you work with the ringside physicians and how well do they work with you? Do you feed off each other a little bit, teach each other some stuff?
Oh, absolutely. I make it point about 30 minutes before a fight to go to ringside and introduce myself to the new doctors I don’t know. And I let them know, I say, “Look, man, here’s what we do and we’re very good at what we do. We understand that your decision is the final decision, but give us the opportunity to work on the cuts”. And these guys, especially with the UFC, they know what we do as cutmen and they’re very good at letting us do our stuff. But the bottom line is they do have the final decision on whether a fight can continue or whether it can’t continue. And doctors have been very good with us in giving us the opportunity to work on a cut and give that fighter the opportunity to win a fight.
Do you have any advice to people that want to become a cutman? What makes a good cutman, what they can do to move up through the ranks or even what they should do to prepare to become a good cutman?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I get calls or emails and Facebook. Everybody’s got somebody who wants to be a cutman. They see what we do in the UFC and in all fairness I got the best job in the world, but it wasn’t an easy road to get here. I get paramedics, I get EMTs, I get nurses. I get your layman person that wants to be a cutman and the first thing I tell them is, “Look, man, you’ve got to spend hours and days and weeks and months and years in the gym learning to be a fighter and learning what these fighters go through. And as you’re going through that process, you’re learning how to wrap hands and you’re learning the nature of swelling and working on cuts and you learn as you go. There’s not a remedy or a solution where you push a button and go straight to the top and be a cutman.”
And that’s a lot of misconceptions that a lot of guys have. It’s just not that easy. One doctor said, “You know, Stitch, I’m very good at what I do, but I wouldn’t be very good at what you do.” And I think that was a very fair analogy because for the most part we’ve got 50, 55 seconds maximum to do what we need to do.
Besides just trying to stop the bleeding or working on cuts, what are you guys doing in the ring between rounds that we can’t appreciate watching from home?
Well, I think one of the things that we’re doing while we’re working on the cuts is we’re also cleaning the guy’s body up. And these guys have blood from their front to their back, on their shoulders and arms, and the legs sometimes. And as we’re applying direct pressure and the epine (epinephrine) on the cut with one hand we’re also wiping them down with the other one. And I always say, “It doesn’t look good on TV when the guy goes back with blood all over his body.” On the same token I always say, “I know your mother or your father or your wife or your brother or anybody wouldn’t want to see all this blood on you.” So that’s kind of the big stuff. You’re doing everything at once and there’s even a confidence builder where we throw in a little word of encouragement that they’re okay and go out there and give it your best shot. We do those. And those are things that the average fan never really gets to see.
How do you keep the guys calm during that? You just talk to them? You reassure them? How do you make it so you can do your job?
Another thing about what would be a good cutman is having a lot of confidence in yourself and keeping your composure. And when you go on there and you – you don’t make it seem like it’s something real big like, “Damn, that’s a big cut.” You can do that after the fight, but during the fight you get to work on them and you make that eye contact and you let him know that he’s okay and that I’ll be taking care of you.
Do you find that you ever get in the way of the guy’s corner or his trainers? Or you guys work pretty well together so that they can talk to him and get their game plan done while you do your work?
Yeah. That’s a good question. That’s a great key element. There’s been times where the guy is cut on the left side of the eyebrow and the trainer’s on the right side, I’ll have them switch sides with me. I’ll say, “Let’s go ahead and we’ll switch,” and we’ll switch. And especially at the UFC level when these fighters are the top of the line and everybody’s at the elite level, there are guys that go in there that weren’t there to work and we always try to take the primary position.
What have you picked up in general as far as what a corner can do to get a guy back out there? Whether it’s mentally, physically, what seems to be the best thing to get a guy back to the best shape possible between rounds?
Well, I think the part of trainer is to give him the proper advice. And just like in boxing, if the trainer’s – and there’s been some trainers I’ve had to tell, “Just slow down there, relax a little bit.” And if you give the fighter two or three good instructions and keep calm and give them some water and tell them to take a brief breath, it’s in that one minute he has to regroup. Especially if he got his bell rung and he’s walking in already hurt.
So on the side of the trainers, he has to keep his composure and give a few instructions, not a whole essay on what you got to do. Can’t give him 45 minutes of instruction in 45 seconds. You go in there and you get them to calm down, give them some water and tell him what he’s doing right, tell him what he’s doing wrong.
And the same thing with the cutman. And our job, our primary job, is not to speak. We just go in there and do the maintenance on the guy. And at the end when the trainer’s finished giving his instructions, I always try to give a guy some encouragement. “You’re looking handsome,” or, “You’re looking great, go out there and bust his head,” and little things like that.
What equipment do you use? Is there a standard equipment amongst all cutmen or do you have specific tools that use that you think everybody should use?
Well, you have your basic stuff. You have your Vaseline and you have your ice pack. And a lot of these guys use these rubberized ice packs, which, to me, I think are terrible because the cold just doesn’t penetrate. We use sandwich bags which works great for us because you’re, for the most part, applying cold direct pressure with that.
And now we have face towels that we use, that we keep wet. And that’s what we use to wipe down the cut and clean it. And you’ve got the swabs and the adrenaline chloride, the 1:1000. And now the United States let us use Avitene and Thrombin, but those are medications from the past and we really don’t even need them. And if you do the right job with epinephrine, then that’s really all you need. The end-swells, the basic end-swells that they have are kind of a flat stainless steel apparatus that you would apply on the cut, right? Or on the swelling. But as I used to look at this, I said, “Wait a minute, it doesn’t make sense,” because the cheekbones and the eyebrows and all those are pretty much contoured, right?
So I created one that is curved on one side and flat on the other side so when you’re applying pressure on the cheek or on the eyebrow, then it contours with that, with the foundation of those areas. And if you got swelling on the temple, then you could use the flat side. So instead of having just one tool to work with, now you have two.
To get things like epinephrine, the adrenaline chloride, do you need a prescription or do you get that from the ringside physicians? How does that work?
Yeah, those are all by prescription, unfortunately. And that’s what makes it very difficult for a lot of the guys now that are up and coming. People ask me, “What do I do to get one?” And I say, “Good luck.” But they’re by prescription. But now I’m endorsing a new product called Qwick-AID that is hemostatic gauze that doesn’t require a prescription. It’s 100% natural and it stops bleeding 45 to 50 seconds. And now Nevada has already improved it and I’m working on other states approving it because now the layman cutman or the layman trainer or even somebody at home that gets cut, all you have to do is just very simple. Just put that gauze on the wound and give it 45 to 50 seconds and it does a good job of stopping cut.
What’s in that? What’s the active ingredient? Is it epinephrine?
No, no, no. It’s all 100% natural. It’s made out of a seaweed and coral based. But the matrix that is created with the gauze draws the blood into the matrix and then just with that natural hemostatic compound that the seaweed and the coral creates, it clots the blood up and it looks great, man.
What are some of the biggest injuries that you’ve seen and what did you do to treat them?
Well, they’re all pretty much the same. A gash is a gash. And head wounds are pretty solid and cuts around the eyebrows are pretty constant. But it’s the same application. I clean up the cut and put the epi on it and direct pressure and then just – we always mix a little bit of epinephrine with Vaseline and just kind of coat it after that and hope that it controls the bleeding. The thing with the doctor stopping the fight is, the key element is, if fighter is ever at a disadvantage and if we can’t control the bleeding and the bleeding gets into the eye. If that doesn’t happen, then I think we did a pretty good job.
Some fighters seem to bleed easier or more than others. How you noticed a difference in what constitutes a fighter’s ability to withstand being cut or bleed a lot?
Well, that’s one of the things that I always ask the guys: what kind of medications they’re on, and are they taking any anti-inflammatories. Because they all get banged up, and a lot of these guys do take anti-inflammatories, Advil or anything like that. Some might even take aspirin. I know that makes my job a little bit harder. But whenever they pop a vein or something, that big vein that we all have between our eyes, when they pop that one, I know that I’ve got my job cut out. But it’s more of what he’s taking before the fight.
Have you noticed whether certain moves cause more damage than others in terms of getting guys cut?
They come from everything. And I was doing the Ultimate Fighter reality show two weeks ago, and these guys are fighting, and I don’t see a whole lot of punches being thrown around. And the next thing I know the guy comes out with two cuts. And I’m asking the guy how he got cut. And he says, “I don’t know.” So everything depends on contact and angles and everything, but you get them from elbows and knees and fists. And I know the time B.J. Penn kicked, who was it, Diego Sanchez in the forehead, as soon as that foot recoiled back, you could see the blood already pouring. So yeah, cuts come from everywhere.
Are there any tricks that guys can do to help prevent cuts? Obviously Vaseline is one thing most people talk about. Do you have any tricks of the trade that you can give guys to prevent getting cut?
No. And if you know of any, let me know. I think that would be the information that guys would need to know. I remember in boxing, Julio Cesar Chavez would get a thumb-full of vaseline and just get some on his face. The old boxing guys would use brine, I guess, is what it’s called. And they would supply that and pickle juice. These are the old-school types of things. But I don’t really how that stuff work. And I always taught or explained that the more pliable that the tissue is, the skin, then the least likely you are to get cut, as opposed to having dry skin. They said it was theory of the dry branch and the branch that is still green. The green branch is gonna bend and fold. And when it’s dry, it’s gonna be break.
Have you noticed any differences between promotions as far as how you guys are able to do what you do? Is there a big difference between a smaller show versus something like UFC?
Well, we do the Invicta shows right now and Shannon Knapp was smart enough to give me a call and see if she could hire us to help her run her show. So I got Don House and we went in and we built two shows with them. And basically we put them on the same format as the UFC. And people have to give Dana a lot of credit, and a lot of people don’t really realize that when Dana first hired me to come onboard to be a cutman with Leon Tabbs – now Leon Tabbs is the original cutman from UFC 1 and he was the only cutman. So when I came onboard, there was two of us, but that was really one of Dana’s first ingenious moves is that you have professional cutmen, at least out of the Octagon.
So I’ve done the Invicta fights. And they brought us onboard to basically do the same thing. I really haven’t been in any other organizations. I’m always booked on the weekends. I either go get the fights or see how these guys operate. When I do see them on TV it’s funny because I see these guys copying what we do and follow the same thing. So I’ve got to think due to what we do on TV, these guys pick up on it and try to follow what we do.
Do you ever see something on TV and just know a guy is doing wrong and you just wished you could tell him how to do it right?
Well, more in boxing. I see it all the time with boxing, and the guys that are transplanted as top-of-the-line cutmen, knowing now what I know, these guys make so many mistakes. And if they were to get what we call a UFC cut where it’s a big one or either multiple cuts, I don’t think these guys would be able to handle it. In fact, I know ‘cause some guys have screwed up when they get a big old cut or they get a couple cuts. Keep in mind in boxing they’re not used to working on cuts all the time. And like I say, we at the UFC, you’re only gonna get better by doing it. And we do a ton of them in the UFC. So we’ve seen just about every cut.
And with some of these guys in boxing, I kind of cringe. Even my kids, they grew up in the game and they know the game as well as I do and my daughter, she’ll text me or my son will text me, even my wife. We’re watching TV, I said, “How gross that this guy is doing that and actually putting a swab into his nose and back into the mouth and using the end-swell and just try to rip the guy’s skin off?” Yeah, so I’ve seen a lot of mistakes, no doubt. And in all fairness, it’s not that these guys aren’t trying, it’s just that nobody has taught them
Do you think that there should be a standardized school or a standardization of practice for cutmen so everybody’s trained at the same basic level?
It’d be nice. It would be nice to get everybody on the same page. That’s why people ask me, “Do you do seminars?” And I have and I’d like to do even more, but because of time restraints or I’m always traveling and this and that, it becomes quite difficult. And unfortunately, like in boxing or even MMA, the only that’s required to be a cutman, to be a trainer is to apply for a license to whatever state you’re gonna be working at. And there’s no qualification that a commission will ask you what are your qualifications for being a cutman, what are your qualifications for being the chief second of a trainer or of a fighter or what are your qualifications of wrapping a hand.
And I’ve talked to a lot of commissions and they’ve, especially when it comes to wrapping – I know there’s so many guys that just don’t know how to wrap hands. And once again, I can’t fault them because nobody’s ever sat there and taught them. But I did a video called “Giving the Fighter One More Round” and it deals with wrapping hands, etc.
I used to go co-host a radio show, a boxing show called The 13th Round. And when it came to working on cuts and the medications and all that, because I know I’m not a doctor and I’m not qualified to tell you how to use a medication that is by prescription, so I had Dr. Davidson and Dr. Watson which are the top two doctors here in Nevada that came onboard. And they explained it. Dr. Davidson is now the head doctor for the UFC. So I brought in some heavy hitters and they explained that in laymen’s terms what these medications do and what’s the proper way to apply them.
A big thank-you to Stitch for talking to us and helping spread education to make MMA safer! Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview.
Jonathan Gelber, M.D. is licensed to practice medicine in the State of California
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