Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

Neil Melanson is widely respected.

Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts grappling coach Neil Melanson has been on the mat with some of the best in the world.

A student of Gene LeBell and Gokor Chivichyan, he received his black belt from Karo Parisyan and has trained fighters such as Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort and Gray Maynard. In August, he joined the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Rewind” show to discuss his background, his philosophy as a trainer and much more.

Melanson on catch wrestling: “I consider myself a catch guy, but when I really look at what catch guys really are, I’m probably a poor representation of one. I think I care about catch, but guys like Billy [Robinson], of that generation, they’re fading away. Billy told me that when he was training at the Snake Pit, you weren’t allowed to tap until your instructor told you to. If you think of that mentality of being caught in an armbar or a leg lock and if you tap you’re kicked out of the gym -- you had to wait until your coach told you it was OK to tap -- think of that mentality and what kind of animals these guys were, how great they must have been to be in that kind of environment and succeed and be the best. [Compare that] to a lot of our gym mentalities now, where some guys tap at things before they’re even gone because they’re just accepting defeat. It’s just a total different mindset. It’s really dwindled, and it’s unfortunate because it’s a nice piece of history.”

On why he ended up training with Gokor: “I’d go to jiu-jitsu gyms with the best attitude in the world to try to go there and learn. But when it came down to sparring, all I knew was these leg locks and neck locks, and people were kicking me out of the gym. They just didn’t want me around. They thought I was trying to be hurtful by going for leg locks. It was considered very dirty. I remember that’s what pushed me to Gokor and Hayastan because there wasn’t a lot of places I could go that fit that style of grappling. Gokor, he is the king of leg locks. You can say what you want about him, but when it comes to leg locks, no one’s even close.

“Now I’m starting to see how much leg locks are taking off in the grappling world. The Brazilians have gotten a hold of it, and they’re finally coming to terms with it. They’re taking it and doing good things with it. I go to tournaments here with my team and I see a lot of leg locks. It’s kind of a cool thing, but I can’t help but kind of grunt a little bit at how I used to try to do leg locks at these places and all these people told me to go to hell.”

On using operant and classical conditioning principles to train fighters: “I trained Vitor Belfort for about a year and I spent a lot of time on his guard. I just kind of figured because his striking’s so good, that if someone took him down, that I wanted him to be able to submit, sweep or take the back pretty aggressively and be able to mix all three of them up, a nice chain wrestling-type style of grappling. He picked it up. He was easy to teach because he has so much talent and ability, but after about a year or so of training -- I used to make him spar with me and I know he didn’t really like it because I had to condition him to respond. Sometimes I would stick him and sometimes I would back off. It just depended on if he was doing what I needed him to do.

“After a year or so he went back to Brazil and he came back. I said, ‘Are we going to train?’ He said, ‘You know, Neil. I really liked training with you. I learned a lot, but your style is too aggressive for me.’ I understood what he was saying. It was criticism, but it wasn’t being mean or anything like that. It was constructive. I understood that he didn’t like the fact that during the sparring sessions, I would kind of make things very physical. I’d make him hit me hard or I’d stick him sometimes and put some pressure on him. It just didn’t work for him. Mentally, he just didn’t like it. I realized my style is not going to work for all athletes. …

“Guys like Randy that are just dirty, tough mentality, where they’re not afraid to go in dark waters, I can really kind of train those guys very easily. I have it down to a science. But there’s these other guys, guys like Vitor, these very clean fighters. They’re very perfect-type fighters that I had to learn how to eventually back off a little bit because I realized that even though I wasn’t trying to -- I was trying to build them up -- I was actually probably breaking some of them. … But the reality is that it was all via science. There was a method to the madness.”

On changing speeds as a teaching tool: “When [sparring with a student], I’m giving a little back and they’re giving a little back, and all of a sudden they make that mistake and I change speeds. Instead of giving a little back, I just go, whether I slap on a triangle real aggressive or if I go to a kimura, I might grab it aggressively, but I would never do any damage and I never have. I have no reputation for that whatsoever. … That would be a failure on my side. But I think it’s because I’m a big guy and I am strong and when I do that, I’m sure it feels a little weird. I remember when I first started the sport when guys were changing speeds on me and stuff, it was a little scary. It took some getting used to, and a lot of these pro fighters, believe it or not, there’s a lot of pro fighters that are just prima donnas. I’m not insulting -- I’m not saying Vitor is, but I’m saying there are. There’s some athletes out there that believe that it’s all about confidence and you’ve just got to train and you should have a bunch of knuckleheads you beat the crap out of, and as long as you’re beating them up, you feel good about yourself, and you go fight.”

On having Behcet’s, a rare disease: “I went blind in both eyes for a little bit of time, but I’m permanently blind in my left eye. Even a couple of years ago it triggered pretty bad and I’m now deaf in my right ear. … It gives me a lot of problems. I think the hardest part is that I try to hide it as much as I can because I love what I do and I don’t want to be treated too different. And I’m a big, strong guy, so when people look at me, they don’t think ‘sick,’ but anyone that knows me personally realizes that when I’m not at the gym, I’m home in bed. I’m resting. I’m taking it easy. I don’t go out at night. I’m a real simple person because for me grappling is everything. If I’m going to be healthy, I want to be on the mat grappling.”

On having the second toe on his left foot amputated: “To me it was a no-brainer. It was broken badly. They told me that I would have to have surgery to have it corrected and that I would probably be off the mat for about six months to let it heal properly because they’d have to fuse it with all these pins in it. Six months off the mat to me is like torture. I’d hate to have to do that. I love training and I have a lot of people that count on me, from students to professional athletes. That would affect a lot of people besides just myself. So it was a no-brainer. I just had it removed.”

Listen to the full interview (beginning at 50:33).

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