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MMA For Real Exclusive Interview: Michigan State wrestling coach Tom Minkel

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Michigan State wrestling coach Tom Minkel has coached two fighters currently in the UFC: Rashad Evans and Gray Maynard. Of course, Evans will look to defend his UFC light-heavyweight championship Saturday against Lyoto Machida. Despite Evans being out of college for several years, Minkel still plays a big role in Evans’ preparation for each fight. In fact, he was on the phone with the champ five minutes before speaking with MMA For Real.

As a coach, Minkel is just the third MSU wrestling coach to record more than 100 dual meet victories and coached 133-pounder Franklin Gomez to a national championship this season. He also was the head coach for the 1992 United States Olympic team. He’ll enter his 19th season in East Lansing this fall. In his wrestling career, he was a member of the 1980 Olympic team and a three-time All-American at Central Michigan.

Minkel spoke with MMA For Real via telephone from Las Vegas-McCarron International Airport on Thursday.

Matt Bishop: For those who don’t know, explain your relationship with Rashad.

Tom Minkel: We recruited Rashad from Niagara Junior College. He was a junior college national champion down in New York and that’s where we first heard about him. We recruited him from junior college and he came to Michigan State. He redshirted his first year and wrestled the subsequent two years. I only had him as a starter for two years.

Rashad came from a pretty humble background. He had a single mom, his dad died when he was pretty young. He had nothing when he came to college. No possessions at all. He’s a bright young man, hard-working and a very good athlete. He had a very successful career with us. I think he would’ve been a lot more successful at the college level if we’d had him long. He’s very coachable, very athletic and very good young man all the way around.

Rashad and I have always been pretty close. Through his UFC career, I don’t coach him per se in the fighting aspect, but we talk regularly and I help him with the psychological and mental side of the preparation, which is really important when you’re (fighting). I just got off the phone with him five minutes ago. I’m just helping him deal with the pressures of fighting in front of a worldwide TV audience, in front of 20,000 people and handling all the distractions and the pressures that come with the whole thing. That might be the most important thing about being successful at this level is being able to manage the pressures and the distractions.

MB: Rashad’s career has really skyrocketed since the Chuck Liddell fight. How is he handling everything?

TM: Now that he’s the champion, here in Las Vegas he’s on billboards, on the back of taxicabs. I was at the MGM yesterday and there were huge, huge banners all over the hotel. Now that he’s the champion, the goal is a little different for him this time. Now he has to deal with the expectations. One thing about Rashad is that he’s a resilient kid and he’s smart, but it’s a learning process. You can’t go to school to learn how to be a celebrity. He’s got a lot on his plate.

MB: Looking at the betting lines, Rashad is a pretty decided underdog. Even with the title, he’s still not getting any respect.

TM: For him, it’s a good thing. He’s been enormously successful as the underdog. He’s always been the underdog. We were just talking about this yesterday with him — you might be the champion, but nobody thinks you can win. For me, I think it’s a good thing for him because being in the underdog role is where he’s really excelled and I think he’s more comfortable there than he is in the champion role. So even though he’s the champ, everybody is betting against him, which is good for him. It happened with Liddell, it happened with Griffin and nobody gave him a chance.

MB: What I’ve noticed about Rashad the most is that no matter what odds he has in a given fight, he always comes out and shows a new wrinkle in his game.

TM: Just look at the way he’s won his different fights. He knocked out Sean Salmon with a kick to the head, Chuck Liddell it was a punch. He’s got a boxing background, he’s got a wrestling background and he’s becoming a very good student of the martial arts. He brings a lot more to the table than what you might’ve seen at first. He’s got a lot of weapons.

MB: Nobody has been able to solve Lyoto Machida yet. Has Rashad talked to you much about a game plan?

TM: It came up early on. There’s two ways to approach an opponent. You can try to figure him out and make adjustments and the other is to just be aware of what he does and make sure you do well what you do well. This is a common thing in sports — sometimes you get away from what you should do. You have to be true to yourself and use the tools you have but not get too wrapped up in what your opponent does. would like to thank Tom Minkel for his time.