UFC 266: Alex Volkanovski, trainer Joe Lopez and the secret ‘Death Touch’ which unites them

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The man who moulded UFC champ Alex Volkanovski and his epic search to find the world’s most mysterious martial arts move.

Joey Lopez reckons it all starts with him seeking the Death Touch.

“That, and enlightenment,” he cackles.

But mainly, the touch.

Which way back in the 1980s, was the most mysterious strike in a martial arts world still overflowing with unknowns.

Dim Mak, the Chinese called it.

While in Japan, it was kyusho-jutsu.

An ancient, almost ethereal touch which, aimed at pressure points, and according to the whispers – plus a small collection of books, articles, even films like Executioners of Shaolin – would cause your rival, within hours, or even days, to drop dead.

UFC 266: Volkanovski v Ortega on September 26,click here to order on Foxtel or Kayo

“Like as fighters, we could harness some kind of mystic power,” Lopez recounts. Indeed, when Bruce Lee died mysteriously in ‘73, Dim Mak was listed among the possible causes. But as for the strike, which allegedly caused a man’s heart to explode, being genuine battery — or just bullshit?

“That,” the old kickboxer says, “is what I needed to know”.

Seated now in an old, converted church where, seven days a week, he trains fighters, Lopez is humbly explaining the rise of this largely anonymous Freestyle Fighting Gym in Windang, some 90 minutes south of Sydney.

Never heard of it?

That’s OK.

Neither has most of the UFC.

Like, somehow, this joint responsible for the world’s greatest featherweight now, and maybe ever, doesn’t exist.

No, when UFC analysts, podcasters, even commentators talk up Australian Alexander Volkanovski, time and again they announce the featherweight champ as hailing from Auckland’s City Kickboxing.

That famed New Zealand fight den where, under the tutelage of bearded guru Eugene Bareman, there has emerged a zombie apocalypse of warriors which, led by Israel Adesanya, also includes the likes of Dan Hooker, Brad Riddell, Shane Young and Kai Kara-France.

But Volkanovski?

Initially invited to CKB three years ago by Riddell, after striking up a friendship while training in Thailand, the Aussie has since crossed the ditch at least twice every camp to immerse in what is arguably now the world’s greatest fight factory.

Even with Covid shutting most of everything down since 2020, the champ has still continued to connect via Zoom with the Kiwis for training sessions, tape revision, everything.

All of which, undoubtedly, makes CKB crucial to this greatest of Australian underdog stories.

But the heartbeat?

It’s Lopez.

That anonymous fight trainer who, even at 58, has always worked best in the shadows.

Growing up the son of a Port Kembla steelworker who migrated from Spain, Lopez toiled initially as a bricklayer before discovering, outside of work hours, that his hands were meant for more than brandishing a trowel.

A truth which quickly saw the young tough progress from worksites to working pub doors, then running his own security firm, before eventually bodyguarding for the likes of Ice T, Deep Purple, even the late Michael Hutchence.

The Ramones, Run DMC, even Rage Against The Machine — all would eventually come to use the services of this minder who, initially, some pubs considered too short to work their door. Same deal Faith No More and Aussie rockers like The Choirboys and Radiators.

“Whose gigs could have a crowd of 200,” he laughs, “and still have most fights”.

Elsewhere, there was also a world champion boxer – name withheld – who Lopez carefully shadowed for weeks, strapped, thanks to the small matter of said client having a bounty on his head.

Which as the coach recounts now, “was a little hairy”.

Same deal the night when, working a door, one ejected patron decided on payback in the most pronounced way – returning down the sidewalk while chopping the tops from letterboxes with a machete.

Yet be it blades, guns, even star pickets, Lopez managed them all.

Which today, goes some way to explaining the mindset of a coach who, while softly spoken, and always smiling, still starts every session by screaming at his students: “You bleed, you clean it up”.

A fella who again next Sunday at UFC 266, will be cornering Volkanovski when the champ looks to once more defend his title, this time against American Brian Ortega.

So again, how is this trainer still so anonymous we aren’t even calling him by the correct name?

“Yeah, it’s actually Jose,” reveals Lopez, who has been coaching fighters for almost 20 years. “I’m named after my uncle, a European boxing champion.

“But when I started primary school, all the kids called me Josie. And of course, I got the shits. So eventually one of the teachers said ‘look, it’s just easier on everyone if we call you Joe”.

Incredibly, it is now almost eight years to the day since ‘Joe’ first took Volkanovski, then a 97kg Warilla Gorilla – a footballer who, initially, wanted only a few weeks conditioning – and morphed him into the UFC featherweight king.

A champion whose latest undefeated run stretches not only eight years and 19 professional fights, but all nine Octagon appearances – including the murderer’s row that is Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and Max Holloway, twice.

All of it too, started by that search for the Death Touch.

“Because that’s how you learned martial arts in the 80s,” says Lopez, who entered his first judo class aged eight and, within a decade, had become hooked on stories about Thai fighters, finding enlightenment in India, even that mysterious strike highlighted since in movies like Bloodsport and Kill Bill: Volume 2.

“But there was no Google back then. So I packed a bag and set off to see what was true.”

Initially, Lopez hitched 4000km to Darwin.

Then from there, disappeared to train Muay Thai outside Bangkok, trekked high into the Himalayas, even lived with monks in a temple on the banks of India’s Ganges River.

“Which actually came about while trying to cure a bout of diarrhoea,” he laughs.

“I was walking the streets, really crook, and met this monk who said he could help. So for a few weeks, I went and lived in their temple by the Ganges, where thousands came every day to deliver the ashes of their dead.”

In Bangkok, it was a Muay Thai camp he called home.

“One of the instructors said ‘you teach me English and I will teach you Muay Thai’,” Lopez recalls.

“So I bought an English-Thai dictionary. Then every day for an hour before practice, we’d go through words — starting with stuff like kick and punch.”

In Egypt, Lopez sailed the Nile. In Spain, learned the native tongue. While during his stay in England, the young fighter even saved a handful of drowning locals while working as a lifeguard.

“For me, it was almost a spiritual journey,” the coach continues. “That, and learning as many martial arts as I could.

“I was into meditation, self-healing; and looking to see if there really was some magical power to be found.”

Even today, Lopez still guides and grows Volkanovski with many of the lessons learned during an odyssey which also passed through France, Malaysia and Singapore.

“And there is nobody,” says the champ, “who understands me better than Joe.”

Yet just as crucially, Volkanovski reveals the journey his coach took at age 20 has since been mirrored again by this pair – or “old married couple” as the fighter puts it.

While starting out on a bedrock of grind, Team Volkanovski has since expanded to include not only nutritionists, exercise physiologists and massage therapists, or links with gyms like CKB and Tiger Muay Thai, but also Wollongong’s BaiMed Performance Centre.

Asked to explain his work with City Kickboxing, Volkanovski says: “The easiest way to explain it is they have a high-level system … which Joe then works into my own.”

So as for the champ continually being hailed a City Kickboxing product?

“Well, it suits the narrative, right?” Lopez grins.

You don’t get upset?

“When you’re a fighter, everything is about you,” he continues. “And when you’re a coach, everything is about your fighter.”

Which is how this partnership has been from day one.

“First time Alex came into my gym, he was just another kid,” Lopez continues. “Was only going to be with us a couple of weeks he said, looking to get fit.”

But then, shortly after, came a sparring session on which everything changed.

As Lopez recalls it, he was hosting a seminar at the gym and, as a courtesy to his fighters, invited anyone wanting extra work to come down afterwards and spar a few rounds with seminar attendees.

So Volkanovski did.

“And there was this local heavyweight,” Lopez says. “Undefeated in five fights, really building a reputation as that Next Big Thing.

“Anyway, I’m over one side of the gym gloving up a fighter when, from the corner of my eye, I notice Alex jumping into the ring with him.

“I couldn’t believe it.

“At that point, he’d only been with me a few weeks. Had never even sparred.

“So immediately I start running across the room, running towards the ring to stop Alex from facing this guy … but I was too late.”

So what happened?

“First round, Alex submitted him three times,” the coach laughs. “Three.

“As soon as the sparring was done, I’ve pulled him aside and said ‘ah, mate, ever thought about jumping into a cage for real?’”

Which is how, within three months, Volkanovski was winning his first amateur fight via first round KO.

Same as the three after that.

“And all of them so quick,” Lopez says, “that combined they didn’t go a round”.

Yet after turning professional in 2012, and dropping only one of 10 fights in the ensuing two years, it would still another two years of Volkanovski campaigning and concreting – while also living broke with wife Emma and their newborn daughter Ariana in a spare room at mum’s – before that call from the UFC finally came.

Yet when it did, so too an undefeated run which apart from gifting this Wollongong father-of-two a UFC belt, new house, Jaguar, clothing range, even a cooking show and children’s book, also sees him now keen to keep building those title defences at UFC 266.

As always too, with Lopez alongside him in the shadows.

That great mate, and mentor, who is building this UFC champion on lessons learned not only in the jungles of Bangkok, or among hidden Himalayan villages, but when he lived, with the runs, in that temple beside India’s most holy of rivers.

Yet as for the mysterious strike which started it all?

“Mate, searched the world for that Death Touch,” Lopez shrugs. “Only to learn it’s all bullshit.”

Originally published as UFC 266: Alex Volkanovski, trainer Joe Lopez and the secret ‘Death Touch’ which unites them

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