Educating Cody McKenzie

“They (the fans) are gonna see a different fighter. And now that I have some actual coaching, you’re going to see improved technique, but at the same time, what I’ve done for six years is still gonna come out."
“I had one friend in high school and now I’ve got 200 a people a day adding me on Facebook,” chuckles Cody McKenzie. “Come on now, you guys don’t like me; no one likes me.”

It’s a crazy phenomenon, this whole reality television thing. But The Ultimate Fighter season 12’s McKenzie does have one part wrong in the above statement, because after seeing him in their living rooms for the last 12 weeks, the Team GSP member made quite a positive impression on fight fans, whether it’s for his laid-back personality, his deadly guillotine choke, or his feud with the opposing team's coach, Josh Koscheck.

That’s not to say fame has changed him though.

“I always thought I’d get rich and famous, but I guess you get famous, then rich,” he laughs, moments before he pulls himself away from his space heater and steps into the gym in Spokane, Washington for another grueling training session in preparation for his UFC debut this Saturday against cast mate Aaron Wilkinson.

It’s far from the glamorous life many associate with the fight game. Behind the bright lights, autograph seekers, and after parties, it’s often a solitary life filled with tales of sacrifice. A couple weeks before the biggest fight of his young pro career, McKenzie saw his 1987 Ford Ranger broken into, which is bad enough in any circumstance, but it was more than that for the 22-year old, who explains what the beat-up truck means to him.

“I lived in it in front of Urijah Faber’s house, lived in it in front of AKA (American Kickboxing Academy), and in tons of places just training and camping on the road. I even camped out before pro fights, sleeping in the back of my truck.”

McKenzie describes it as an education, one that didn’t come from books and didn’t involve lush green campuses and pretty girls at all-night parties.

“I know I’m gonna make it because I’m not going nowhere,” he said. “I’m gonna make it big or I’m gonna make it broke, and I’m just gonna work my ass off until it happens. You’ve got to spend money to make money, and I’ve pretty much treated it like a school. I put money into this education.”

A commercial fisherman on and off over the past few years, McKenzie admits that he “could have made money and had good seasons there,” but he’s gone all in when it comes to his fighting career, one that has seen him compile an 11-0 record with ten submission victories. It’s been his passion since he saw his first mixed martial arts event in his sophomore year of high school, and he hasn’t looked back yet. The goal? It’s a simple one.

“I just want to be known as the best fighter in the world,” he said. “Right now I know I’m not it and I’ve got a long ways to go. So I’m doing this whole journey to become the best fighter in the world.”

On paper, he’s got a good head start with his unbeaten record, and his stint on The Ultimate Fighter can only help in terms of giving him the opportunity to sink or swim on the big stage. And in the process, he’s developed a modified guillotine he’s dubbed the McKenzietine that is as impressive a maneuver that you’ll see in the modern fight game. And he’s not shy when it comes to talking about its effectiveness.

“Yeah, it’s that good of a move,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve caught almost everybody in the world who I rolled with; there’s probably only ten guys who I haven’t and I can name them all. (Laughs) And a lot of those ten guys that just means that they haven’t rolled with me enough. If they trained with me a little more or sparred me MMA style, that’s when I think I can catch it best.”

He’s caught his last nine opponents with it, and he pulled it off twice during TUF12, submitting Amir Khillah and Marc Stevens. It’s almost like the sweep run by the old Green Bay Packers – you know it’s coming but you still can’t stop it. McKenzie first got an indication that he had something special in his arsenal four years ago when he was learning the sport at the Team Quest gym.

“I choked a lot of people with it, and I hadn’t had any fights yet,” he recalls. “I was still just training and learning MMA and I was down at Team Quest at the time and (head coach) Robert Follis said ‘you can do any move but the guillotine.’ I was like ‘jeez, I must be guillotining too many people.’ Then I rolled and I realized that I was getting a lot of people with it. But it just kinda came naturally, and at Team Quest in 2006 was probably when I realized that it was good.”

Now the world (including his future opponents) knows the same thing, but what people may not have known before TUF was that in addition to a deadly finishing move, McKenzie also has a fighting ticker in his chest, something that was evident in his quarterfinal loss to Nam Phan.

“I’m glad that fight went a little bit longer and that people could see me scrap a little,” said McKenzie, who was stopped via strikes in the second round. “But at the same time, I watch that fight and it eats me up inside. I’m a hundred times better than that and I just felt like crap and my head wasn’t in the right place. I just didn’t fight my fight. I gassed out trying to wrestle and I’m not a wrestler by any means. You won’t see much of that from me anymore – I’m in there to entertain the fans.”

Luckily for the sake of appearances, the bout with Phan, which was scheduled for two rounds, won’t go on McKenzie’s permanent fight record. But like a true fighter, it doesn’t matter what it says on his perfect slate; inside, he knows he lost, and he’ll do anything to make sure he doesn’t have that feeling ever again.

“In my head, I’ve lost,” he said. “I’ve beaten up everyone I’ve ever fought under the lights and in front of a crowd, and Nam Phan, he beat me up. I don’t care that only ten people were watching it, but when it comes down to it, millions of people will see it. More people will see that then will look at my MMA record or even know what my record it. It eats me up and I can’t wait to fight him again. But one thing I was glad about with that loss was I lost to an experienced veteran and a tough guy, and he definitely bested me that night.”

That’s part of the education process though. You can’t get 100 on all your tests, and Cody McKenzie knows that in mixed martial arts, the greatest lessons are delivered in forms that you don’t necessarily want them in – a left hook to the liver, a high kick to the head, or maybe, just maybe, a guillotine choke. And while he has some new tricks to show off at The Pearl at The Palms in Las Vegas this weekend, he’s not about to abandon what has gotten him to this point.

“They (the fans) are gonna see a different fighter,” he said. “And now that I have some actual coaching, you’re going to see improved technique, but at the same time, what I’ve done for six years is still gonna come out. I have an unorthodox style, but at least I’m understanding the proper mechanics of boxing and hitting harder now.”

And what about that McKenzietine?  

“My game’s a tricky style where I go in there and beat people up on my feet and then sooner or later they shoot in and I’ve got their neck.”

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