x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Relaxed and ready

Burt Watson is the man to see when you're a fighter in need, writes Leah Oatway

Burt Watson makes sure UFC fighters have everything they need pre-fight.
Burt Watson makes sure UFC fighters have everything they need pre-fight.

Burt Watson has been in more dressing rooms than he cares to remember. The 61-year-old independent site co-ordinator has spent the past three decades ensuring fighters including Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and Roy Jones Jr are fed, comfortable and able to make weight the week before their bouts. Now working almost exclusively for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), one of America's fastest growing sporting exports, what were meant to be his retirement years have become the busiest of his career.

"I'm working harder now than I've ever worked in my life," he said. "As hard as in the Marine Corps, but they say once a Marine always a Marine." This weekend Watson, who managed Joe Frazier for several years during the 1980s, is in Montreal for UFC 113: Machida v Shogun 2. A close and technical fight at UFC 104 last October led to Lyoto Machida, the UFC light heavyweight champion, retaining his title in a controversial unanimous decision over Shogun Rua.

Fans demanded a rematch and tonight, six months on, their wish will be granted as the two Brazilians meet in the Octagon. With a world title at stake both men are keen to leave fans in no doubt as to who deserves the title. Watson is keen to ensure the fighters are comfortable in the hours before they enter the cage. "When a guy goes in that dressing room he's going to be sitting in there for three or four hours," he said. "His head has to be right. He can't be in the room with someone who beat him two months ago or someone he's going to fight two months from now.

"The dressing room can't be cold at least 75° F, the lighting should be right. You want them to feel energised. " Watson began co-ordinating pre-fight arrangements in the late 1980s, beginning with a fight card headlined by Michael Spinks, the former light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion. "I would collect [everyone] from the airport, work with the hotel, started creating a system for them to get meals, arrange their medicals, do the press conference," Watson said. "One thing led to another and it became a process that started working."

Word travelled along the boxing circuit and Watson was soon in demand. He was introduced to Dana White, the UFC president, while working a Kostya Tszyu fight in 2001. At the time he was not interested in mixed martial arts but said he thought he and the UFC's new owners, Zuffa, had similar attitudes towards the business. "When I came on for UFC 31 there were five or six [staff], now there's 150," he said. "People asked me what I was doing but even then I could see [UFC] had strong legs."

He feels strongly about the importance of taking care of fighters ahead of their fight. "When I first began in 1989 I saw how fighters were brought to an event and left alone," he said. "It didn't sit right for me. So I started doing things for them. He added that there "there was such an imbalance" between the headline fighters and anyone else on the card that he thought both ended up with a beating.

In the past 10 years, he has watched fighters grow up. "I remember BJ Penn, for example, [thin], with hair and a little baby face," he said. "Now he has a man's face and a man's body and he's a real prodigy. Georges St Pierre, Rich Franklin, Chuck Liddell all of them, and it happened so quickly; progression and growth and the level of talent and technical skill. "I have an ultimate amount of respect for these athletes, for what they do and how they have to get it done."

loatway@thenational.ae UFC 113: Machida v Shogun 2, 5.30am on Showsports 4