It was late 2006 and Eric Nicksick, a 1997 all-state wide receiver at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada, wanted to change things in his life. He was a bartender and wasn’t happy about where his life was headed. He had gone to Nevada-Reno to play football but was kicked off the team. He played two years at Dixie State in St. George, Utah, but suffered a series of concussions and decided to give up the sport that had been a large part of his life.
His father, Jim Nicksick, was an assistant coach at Green Valley and became the first assistant 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 in the NFL for decades. Coaching is clearly in Eric Nicksick’s blood.
But in 2006, he wasn’t sure he wanted to become a trainer when he stumbled upon the yet-to-open Xtreme Couture Gym in Las Vegas. The gym was not open to the public, but its founder/owner Randy Couture used it to prepare for a heavyweight title fight on March 3, 2007 at UFC 68 against Tim Sylvia.
Nicksick showed up and began training there with experienced fighters like Couture, Mike Pyle, Jay Hieron and Martin Kampmann. He had no intention of becoming a fighter or a trainer, but he needed something different in his life.
He and a friend were trying to find the gym. A major east-west street in Las Vegas that now provides easy access to the gym was not fully traversed at the time, so they had difficulty finding it. But they were persistent, and their perseverance changed Nicksick’s life.
“We basically stumbled upon 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 to beat me up. But he told me after that day, come back if you want, and I did. I I pitched in and helped set up the gym and things like that.
“At that point I just needed a different direction. I didn’t know what I would accomplish there, but I needed a sense of community. I didn’t like the direction my life was going and the direction I was taking. Lazy and complacent.
He came 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, albeit as general manager and head coach of the Xtreme Couture fighting team.
He helped lead Sean Strickland to the middleweight title on Saturday by winning a largely unanimous decision over Israel Adesanya in the main event of UFC 293, confirming his presence among the game’s elite trainers.
MMA Junkie named him the 2020 Coach of the Year and Yahoo Sports named him the 2022 Coach of the Year. But Nicksick really showed his skills by leading the mercurial Strickland to one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.
“Eric is just a phenomenal coach and I feel like he could coach any sport and be successful,” said Dan Ige, a UFC featherweight trained by Nicksick. “If we picked up pickle ball, he would study it and teach you how to play pickle ball. If it was badminton or something, he has the ability to explain things and break them down. He has a really good eye for sports.”
One of his tasks is to get his fighters in shape. Another part is improving their fundamentals. Game planning is key and he excels in all of these areas. But he excels in the minute between rounds and can have a significant impact on the fight.
These moments are tense and pressured, and a coach must not only convey the right message, but also say it in the right way. It’s not always easy to get the message across correctly. Kenny Florian, a former UFC fighter who now does TV analysis for PFL on ESPN and co-hosts a popular podcast with Jon Anik, gives Nicksick high marks.
“I can’t remember a time where he was working on a corner and giving advice and I was like, ‘Oh wow, I’m not sure I agree with that,'” Florian told Yahoo Sports . “He seems to have a really good ability to communicate and relate to his fighters, and he has a talent for always seeming to say the right thing. I haven’t been at his coaching meetings to hear him, but when he breaks down fights, when he talks about what his fighters need to do, when you hear him in the corner, it almost always seems pretty on point.”
Nicksick pays close attention to the body language of his fighter’s opponent, so much so that he always makes sure one of his trainers is keeping an eye on the opposite corner. Nicksick said he believes his best quality as a coach is the advice he can give between rounds. His idea of putting a trainer in the opposite corner paid off for Strickland on Saturday.
Strickland was clearly ahead at least 3-1 after four rounds on Saturday. But MMA standings are unpredictable and Adesanya was fighting in front of a loud home crowd, which can have an impact.
Adesanya appeared a defeated man as he stalked to his corner after the fourth round. To the most casual observer it seemed clear that Strickland simply had to bounce back and, as unlikely as it might be, he would become the new champion.
Nicksick is smart enough to realize that no matter how bad Adesanya was compared to expectations, he became one of the greatest fighters in UFC history by excelling in the most important moments. He needed Strickland to keep his foot on the accelerator.
“I’m big on it [observing] Body language,” Nicksick said.
And when he heard that Adesanya looked defeated, he came to the corner and knew what he had to say: He told Strickland that he thought it was probably two rounds apiece.
“I said 2-2 before the five-pointer for two reasons,” said Nicksick. “In my heart I had a 3-1 lead. In my head I wanted to make sure we kept the same pressure. I didn’t want Sean to feel like we were going to take our foot off the gas because of that. It doesn’t do us any favors at a distance. And now if we don’t fight at the distance I want, we’ll be within kicking range, where Izzy is most dangerous. I didn’t want to put my fighter in a situation where we were either fighting off our back foot or Izzy was getting going and fighting downhill. I wanted Sean to stick with it.
“No. 2, we were in his hometown and I didn’t know how the judges would rate it and I wanted to be safe. And finally I wanted to.” [Sean] to put his damn foot on it [Adesanya’s] Throat. I wanted him to make a statement. If we had lost in those five minutes with that theory, I would have been okay with it.
Strickland made it and got the win, the biggest of his career and clearly Nicksick’s biggest. He thought back to a conversation he had with Hieron after he had only been at the gym for a few months.
Hieron recognized his talent.
“I’ll never forget it, but Jay asked me why I was doing it,” Nicksick said. “I told him that I didn’t know, but that I didn’t want to fight, that I really loved the sport. And he said to me, ‘I think you have a way of becoming a very good coach, the way you go about it.’ You, the way you talk to the team, your willingness to learn and you don’t have a big ego.” I’ll never forget that. And a big reason I’m here today is because of the conversation I had with Jay.”