“The Titan” Lew Polley (10-4) is a name that, up until just a couple of months ago, may not have been particularly well known among many MMA fans. The ability to fly under the radar certainly changed for Polley once he accepted the role as wrestling coach for Team Dos Santos on the most recent installment of Spike TV and Zuffa’s hit reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. An otherwise relatively mellow season has been a roller coaster ride of highs and lows for “The Titan”, whose own experience on TUF 13 left much to be desired; ultimately, after several weeks of back-and-forth conflict and escalating tension levels between Polley and “Cigano” Junior Dos Santos (12-1), Polley was asked by the Black House fighter to leave the show. It was a first for The Ultimate Fighter.
Following the controversial dismissal, MMA Gospel Editor-in-Chief Mallory Mejia spent 120 minutes talking to Lew and getting his take on The Ultimate Fighter 13. This two-part interview explores Polley’s own credentials in respect to MMA, his favorite previous seasons and coaches of The Ultimate Fighter, changes he would make to the TUF program, who he found to be the most viable contenders among the Season 13 fighters, his response to both the shit talkers and the supporters, and of course, a whole lot about the highly publicized feud between himself and his friend, TUF 13 head coach opposite Brock Lesnar (5-2), Junior Dos Santos.
For anyone who may not be as familiar with you, can you talk a bit about your background in wrestling and the martial arts?
I wrestled pretty much my whole life. I wrestled in college and a little bit after. I had dreams of being on the Olympic team then got sidetracked by my friend asking me to take a fight while I was training for a tournament. It just fell in place after that. I trained with Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman and guys like that and I had seen them fighting and they were doing well. I’ve met Mark Kerr a few times and I was thinking, “These guys are the kind of caliber wrestler that I am”, so I would train for a wrestling match and just go fight for money on the side and pretty soon my friend said to just stop trying to wrestle and fight full-time. Then I went to American Top Team and they asked me to come out and start training with them. Now here I am, 14 fights deep.
So that was the most pivotal event that turned your focus more towards MMA, but what was it that made you want to try it once he proposed the idea? Is it something you had thought of before?
No, not really. It was just another athletic competition. You don’t make a whole lot of money wrestling – now the guys are starting to make a bit more but I think it’s only the top two or three guys that actually get paid, and to be the top two or three is a hell of a climb. Dennis Hall was a construction worker and trained out of his house in his spare time and still made the Olympic team. It’s a grind, it’s not easy at all to do it. It was a natural progression to keep doing it. I loved it and it just felt natural to me. I was good at it, so I did it.
Was that your ultimate goal in respect to wrestling, to get on the Olympic team and do it for a living?
I wanted to but it just faded. Once you fight, everything else just fades away. You get tunnel vision: “This is it. This is what I want”.
Before you were asked to go on The Ultimate Fighter, did you follow the show?
A little bit. I saw the first season with Forrest [Griffin] and Stephan [Bonnar] and [Josh] Koscheck – that season was pretty awesome. I also liked Season 2 with Rashad [Evans]. I kinda stopped paying attention after that because it became like The Real World on MTV. The first couple of seasons were legit because people were themselves and it was about the fighting and taking young guys and giving them a shot for one prize and letting them go at it. Then it just morphed into everybody playing these characters like the drunk guy, the crazy guy, the bad ass guy…I just stopped paying attention. The last season I think I saw was Krzysztof’s [Soszynski - Season 8].
Do you have a favorite TUF season or coach?
My favorite season by far was Season 1 because everyone was just being real. They were who they were and they just wanted to fight and you could see they had talent and they just really wanted it. Everybody across the board in that house wanted it. And when they lost, they were pissed. They were angry and upset, and felt their dreams were shattered. As far as a favorite coach? I like the way [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira ran his season. Him and [Georges St. Pierre] were probably my favorite coaches on the show.
If you could make any changes to the TUF program or show, would you? What changes would you make?
I would find better fighters. I’m not saying that the guys on the show now are bad! There are guys in M-1, like the guy that Jorge Santiago fought, he’s like 20-4 or 20-2 or something ridiculous and on like an 18-fight win streak – guys like that. There’s a guy in Sweden right now that looks exactly like Alexander Gustafsson that’s like 13-1 – guys like that. World beaters like that, they want to be in the UFC. They’re content where they are, but if you gave them a shot, they would perform! I would make the show more geared toward those guys. There are 22-year-olds on the show that have their whole career ahead of them. Then there are guys that are 28, 30, 32-years-old with 30 fights and great records that have been around and just never got the exposure. Look at how long it took Brian Ebersole to get to the UFC. If he had a show like TUF where he could showcase everything, he would have gotten in a lot earlier and people would have known who he was. I would change that premise of the show – make it really hardcore fighters who are right on the cusp of everyone knowing their name. Jorge Santiago was killin’ people in Japan and no one even knew about it. Get people like him on TUF and other guys of his caliber. People complain about the fights [on The Ultimate Fighter] now – imagine if you had guys of that caliber fighting on there. Now on the show you’re seeing a guy who’s had two fights that’s 23-years-old getting an opportunity that, in a year, you know he’s going to piss away. Not saying that he’s not talented enough, but with The Ultimate Fighter, the pressure, having to do things on your own, the media, doing press all the time, traveling, being on the road – that’s something that really has to be taken into consideration. That shakes even some veterans. When Rampage [Quinton Jackson] came back to the UFC to fight Marvin Eastman said, “Man, I was so nervous coming in here”. That dude had about 30 fights already. He did big shows in Japan and he was nervous. Then, these kids have to work three times as hard to get back to the UFC once they cut. They could have just saved all that and made it, and prolonged it.
How did you initially become acquainted with Junior Dos Santos and ultimately land on The Ultimate Fighter 13 as his team’s wrestling coach?
We cross trained in San Diego. At the time I was with Alliance Training Center and Junior with Team Nogueira. Everybody was really cool. They let me coach wrestling and help with their training camps. Junior [Dos Santos] would come in and I would help out him, Nogueira, “Lil’ Nog” [Antonio Rogerio Nogueira] – whoever came in, I would help all the guys. They would ask questions, I would put them through workouts, the whole nine. That’s how Junior and I became acquainted. I’ve known [Antonio Rodrigo] Nogueira since I was at American Top Team.
Did you and Junior have a somewhat well-established relationship pre-TUF?
Yeah, I thought so. He hadn’t spent a large amount of personal time with me. It was a decent amount through training, but you can only really know somebody so much through training alone. At the time, he wasn’t in charge of anything – he was working out and training, so it was a totally different dynamic. He knew what my coaching style was; I’ve been using it for years now. Everybody who has ever worked with me can tell you what it’s like being in my workout. Even the high school kids – I don’t push them as hard, but still hard for their level. When I coach baseball, soccer, everything. They all know and they’ve all said it. They said the same thing when they saw the show, “Oh, I remember those days”. So it wasn’t a surprise to Junior.
What do you think you brought to the table as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter?
I’ve coached a lot of big name fighters in the sport already. I’ve coached wrestling since high school. Through coaching wrestling I’ve also put people through physical conditioning and functional conditioning. I’ve trained in sports myself and I’m in there: I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve also helped train people for “World’s Strongest Man” competitions. All types of different sports – different dynamics, different functions, I’ve done them. I know how to train people. I’ve been around champions and high-performing athletes and they’ll all tell you the same thing: You have to work hard to be the best. With my MMA experience I’ve been on different teams, I’ve coached on different teams, and I’ve done training camps for several athletes. Everything being as it was, I was like, “This is what I’m bringing [to The Ultimate Fighter]. All this experience, all my years of wrestling, all my years of coaching other high level athletes, working with high level athletes, being in the trenches, doing it myself can translate very well to this situation”.
Coming into The Ultimate Fighter, what were your hopes for yourself, your fellow coaches, and the fighters?
[Laughs] I didn’t want to do the show. I’m a private person and I really don’t like people in my business. I was set on training for the fight I had in Florida and working everything out. My manager at the time was pushing me to do it, but I was still on the fence. Then I talked to Joe Mullings, the owner of the gym I was training at – The Armory – and he pushed me over the edge to do it. He said, “You need to do it. Just suck it up and do it. Whatever happens, happens. You can never be on the TUF show again but you can always find a fight.” He had a good point, so I finally agreed to do the show. Once I decided to do it, my hopes were that we could turn these men into UFC competitors. I wanted everyone to be in the second round. That was my plan: bring my style of coaching that I’ve used with so many different guys in the UFC already that like it. I know that what I’m talking about works; it’s been proven. I made that clear to Junior and Ed Soares before I even signed on to do the show. I said, “Look, you guys know how I am. You know how I coach and how I’m going to be”. They said, “It’s okay. We like it. It’s great”. So then I booked the plane ticket for Vegas.
Once you got on the show, was there anybody from either team that really stood out to you as being the potential top dog of the season?
A few. I knew four or five of the guys already. I trained with a few, and a few I knew in passing. I’ve seen Ryan McGillivray fight live, I trained with Chris Cope like three years ago, I’ve seen Myles Jury fight and train, Shamar [Bailey] I knew in passing and from fights, and Javier [Torres], as well. I already knew a lot of the guys when I got there. It was pretty cool. I think Shamar, Miles, and Ryan were the guys that I really liked that I thought that, with the proper training, could do well and take the whole season.
How did you feel about the fighters that Junior chose for his team? Did you feel like they were a good fit for his coaching style as well as yours?
Yeah, everybody we picked was great. I wish we could have had a healthy Myles on our team, but things happen. All in all, I was very happy with the guys we got, but hindsight is 20/20.
How do you think you interacted with the fighters? Were they mostly receptive, or did you experience any resistance?
Pretty good. Everybody knew what to expect after the first practice. I was joking and playing around with everybody before we started and keeping it loose, but when it was time to work, we worked. I told them that this was the mentality they would need to push through the UFC. I said, “I’m not preparing you for this show. This show is just a stepping stone. What’s important is the next thing”. I told all the guys that and they were cool with it. They were very receptive. A few guys here and there weren’t buying into it but [laughs] they didn’t do so well. Now that the show is over and airing, it’s different. People had no complaints on the show whatsoever. They never voiced their concern. Everybody was happy…I would always ask them what they thought of training and if there was anything they wanted to go over or anything they wanted to do. Funny how things change after the show.
Check back tomorrow for the second installment of “120 Minutes with ‘TUF 13′ Wrestling Coach Lew Polley”!