DENVER -- Trevor Wittman starts off every morning reciting five things for which he's grateful. Then he repeats the mantra "externalize the internal champion," a saying he lives by and aims to instill in others. Wittman encourages those in his life to embrace their inner being and passions.
Wittman has had many big nights as one of the top MMA coaches in the world. Saturday at UFC 268 will be another special night for him -- and a unique one, as three of his fighters are competing in the three biggest fights on the main card. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and strawweight champ Rose Namajunas will defend their belts in the main event and co-main, and before those fights, opening the main card, Justin Gaethje will step into the Octagon for a lightweight bout that could lead to a title shot. All three will have Wittman in their corner.
That might sound complicated for Wittman, but his goal is simple: Bring out the best from each fighter.
"To me winning is a part of life, it is not life," Wittman says. "If we focus just on winning, we're missing the whole picture. Some of our losses have set us up for our greatest accomplishments, and this Saturday we're facing the best in the world."
Leading into this card, Wittman has had to overcome challenges that are always hidden behind his constant positivity and dad jokes. He was recently diagnosed with Dupuytren's contracture, a condition that creates a thickening and tightening of tissue under the skin of the hand. It has progressed over the past few months, limiting mobility in his arms. He's also dealt with a case of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which creates episodes of dizziness with certain head movements and has occasionally impacted Wittman's work in the gym.
Yet he continues each day to put aside what could set him back and instead work with his fighters with a smile on his face because he is doing what he loves. Wittman rarely takes credit for his accomplishments, preferring to ride the waves with those who stand by his side.
"This is all about the fighter, it's not about me," Wittman says. "You get so much out of life when you give to life, when you give to people and your environment."
Wittman is focused on innovation. Former NASA engineers have worked with him at ONX to integrate sensors into a combat dummy he's developing. He has created gloves that better protect the hands of fighters during training. Despite his own health challenges, he believes that with his roster at the top of the sport, this isn't the time to slow down.
"Expecting a war and facing the best opponents that we can all face in that division -- to me, that is the coolest part," he says. "You get to go out there and we get to do it together as a family and support each other. Win, lose or draw, it's a good time to be present. And it's something that we'll all remember for the rest of our lives."
ESPN spent multiple days with Wittman, Usman, Namajunas and Gaethje ahead of UFC 268 to find out how the four worked together ahead of one of the biggest nights of their careers.
Trevor Wittman created ONX Sports, an equipment company that is known for their high-level MMA gear. With training injuries being ubiquitous in the industry, he noticed a need for MMA training gear due to the lack of proper fit, support and function. The sport of MMA does not have tested equipment with standards or guidelines like most professional sports. In fact, the gear worn is typically for boxing or kickboxing.
"The biggest issue is people not wearing the correct gear and our goal is to create MMA gear that is functional for training," Wittman said.
Wittman, suffered a fracture commonly known as the "boxer break" three times as a boxer, which halted his career. As a coach enduring constant hand strains from holding coaching mitts, Wittman started adjusting gear where he would add and move inside padding to decrease bone-on-bone shock from repeated impact.
A trip to JoAnn Fabrics and his mom's sewing machine led to the creation of his very first pair of makeshift coaching mitts in 2015. "They were so ugly and not sewn right but they felt better," Wittman said.
What makes the MMA gloves so unique is not only the rounded design to help avoid eye pokes, but more importantly the internal strapping system. Internal strapping not only eliminates lace exposure, but also promotes better hand and metacarpal support from the deep straps between padding. The company finalized patents for competition four-ounce MMA gloves that will be brought to market. A proposal has recently been presented to the UFC for the use of these gloves in competition.
Wittman stands arms crossed watching Usman. In the majority of photos, Wittman stands in this position, or he'll be holding his hands almost in a clinch grip. If he doesn't do this, his arms will have the tendency to pull and lock in.
Wittman turned down Usman when he was first asked to train him. At that time, Wittman was only training Gaethje and Namajunas and wanted to spend more time with his family and on ONX development. After a deep conversation with Usman the next day, Wittman spoke with his wife about the opportunity and changed his mind.
"The way he asked me, it was hard for me to say no -- he forced me into the relationship in a great way," he said.
Pat Barry, Rose's fiancé and head coach, stretches her hand before warming up at ONX. He often wears different shirts with Rose's face on them, always supporting and representing.
In the beginning of Gaethje's career with WSOF, Gaethje told Wittman, "I want to be the most entertaining fighter. The blue-collar people who are paying for these tickets, there's not going to be one person that's ever going to leave my fight and say that wasn't the best fight of their life."
"When he fought, that's how we went out there," Wittman said. "His game plan was cause chaos, cause car collisions and take that person to the realm of where you love to play -- he did that better than anybody."
After being known as a violent striker and pure entertainer, one day Gaethje changed his tune. He told Wittman he wanted to be UFC champion.
"When he said that, I told him we're switching a lot of things up," Wittman said. "We're going to be super fundamental, very dialed in and logical when it comes to striking."
Gaethje is part of athlete relations with ONX. Outside of training, the team sends custom-sized equipment to different athletes, looking for honest feedback from fighters to see what works and what doesn't.
Weekly chiropractor visits are vital during camp. Namajunas complimented the way Gaethje can perform at an optimal level with such a simple recovery and diet. "He's built different," she said.
Wittman praised his chiropractor who he visits weekly and helps with his new diagnoses along with lower back pain. He undergoes different methods such as dry needling, electro needling and shock wave therapy.
"At 46 years old right now, I limp around, and I tell people it's a gangster lean," Wittman joked.
This is the first camp Gaethje hired a chef to focus on his intake and what foods give him maximize potential. "I've never eaten so many greens in my life," Gaethje laughed.
His meals on this day: A superfood green smoothie for breakfast, an almond butter overnight oats with an apple for snack, a dairy free pesto chicken wrap for lunch and a seared steak with sauteed mushrooms, kale, blistered cherry tomatoes, roasted sweet potatoes and red wine reduction for dinner.
Man's best friend, Raider, loves leftovers. He was named after the Las Vegas Raiders, Gaethje's favorite NFL team.
Gaethje trains with UFC lightweight contender Rafa Garcia. Wittman implements the strategy of "planting seeds" into his fighters and not necessarily focusing on "how" to beat opponents.
"I'm not a big fan of trying to put the visual of the opponent in their head," he said. "Then they end up sleeping with their opponent, meaning their opponent is always in their vision. [I asked them] how would you beat yourself? I look at them and say, if I were to coach against my athlete this is how I would beat them."
Usman's mindset is focused, to the point where no one would recognize all the things that are happening in his life outside of fighting. "He's a true leader," Wittman said. "He would be a champion without any coaches -- I believe it."
Usman punches a dummy to exhaustion alongside Wittman and Jorge Santiago. Santiago is Usman's jiu-jitsu coach from Florida who traveled to Denver to train both Usman and Gaethje.
Namajunas exchanges some kicks and punches with UFC's strawweight contender, Mallory Martin.
Wittman has been through a lot with Namajunas. In April, Namajunas defeated Weili Zhang with a first-round knockout to win the strawweight title. Wittman quickly walked back to Usman's locker room moments before he was fighting in the main event. Wittman looked up on the screen and saw Namajunas being interviewed, holding her belt in tears.
"She's got the Monster can in her hand and she's got the little pouty face. Right as I seen that -- just the true joy and emotion from Rose -- I instantly started to tear up," Wittman said. "I kept telling myself to shake this s---, focus on Kamaru and that was really hard for me. I looked over at Francis [Ngannou] and I didn't know if he was seeing the tears but man -- I was fighting them back."
Wittman compared Namajunas's level of martial arts to watching Picasso paint a picture after being blown away by how spot on and fluid she was during a practice. "There's something so unique about [her] that I get from no one else and it's just from watching," he said. "The way she moves and just gets out of the way of punches -- it's just beautiful."
Ice baths are common after sparring sessions. Namajunas prepares for her time in the freezing water by doing a series of breathing exercises.
Namajunas does 10 minutes in the ice bath before fully dunking her head to finish. A hot shower immediately follows.
Usman also hit the ice bath after sparring. Usman shadowboxes in Namajunas' home gym before stepping into the tub. He lasts 20 minutes in the 32-degree water.
Namajunas is bundled from head to toe in a robe passed down from her mom. Pat makes her hot tea.
After the ice bath, both teammates hangout. Usman uses NormaTec Compression Boots which inflate, squeezing different areas to enhance blood flow and speed up the recovery process.
Gaethje wraps up this week of training with a hill run at Red Rocks Park where the higher altitude improves endurance. Wittman begins the timer then drives up to the top of the mountain, waiting for Gaethje to finish.
There's no denying the special bond between Gaethje and Wittman, but beyond the fighting, you'll see them let loose. Wittman recalled a time him and Gaethje were snowboarding down a mountain at about 60 mph when Gaethje jumped and broke his board in half.
"I thought he was dead," said Wittman. "I was thinking to myself -- how will I explain this to his mom."
Gaethje popped up from the snow laughing at what just happened.