Interview With the Best Serbian Mma Coach – Mark Lajhner

Mark is my close friend and my MMA coach from Belgrade, Serbia. He is truly one of a kind – he is the best MMA coach Serbia has to offer, he is philosophically inclined and skeptic, entrepreneur and genuinely nice guy. He is interested in world history and politics, monetary system and everything else that should be of interest of every educated citizen of the world.

Mark recently published a book on Mental training for MMA which represent concise and concrete combination of Stoic philosophy and his experiences as a fighter and as a coach. Hence great time to interview him and pick his brain and also introduce him and his work to my readers.


Mark on the left holding pads

Mladen: Mark, as it always goes with all the interviews; please share some information about who you are, and what you do, for the readers.

Mark: Hi Mladen, thank you for the kind words. In a nutshell, I’m an ex-Judo competitor who has switched to MMA, fought professionally and retired undefeated because of injuries and ethical issues (we can talk about that later). Then I switched to full time coaching and have generally dedicated a large chunk of my life to improving my knowledge of martial arts and how it fits in with the world. I’ve trained with some of the best coaches and fighters in the world.

My views on martial arts and sports in general are not what you would usually find in someone in my line of work.

Mladen: And that’s exactly why I wanted to interview you. I like to start with hardest questions first – since you like philosophy and you are critic of modern economic system (and system in general), how do you reconcile your philosophic and thoughtful nature with the work you do? MMA (and fighting in general, or even sport) is one of the most aggressive sports, attracting a lot of “shady characters” and exploitation of different kinds. How do you manage it?

Mark: Sometimes it is very hard for me to reconcile my humanistic values and philosophical outlook with MMA. But I think I have found a way.

At the heart of MMA lies social Darwinism. Sports in general is like that, but MMA is its purest form. Dog eat dog, the survival of the fittest. Although nature works exactly like that, I don’t think it’s a good idea to base our society upon those values, nor to have that kind of atmosphere in your academy.

I have become disillusioned with sport in general and MMA in particular a long time ago. If you look at modern Olympic games history, you will find that the founder of International Olympic Committee – Pierre de Coubertin emphasized the importance of sports as a part of education of French youth not because it brings people together and promotes friendship between nations, but for its military usefulness. He envied British colonial power and found that rugby, as a part of the education of British young men in collages, was excellent for creating a combative mentality that would later prove useful for the Empire’s soldiers. So he wanted the same kind of sports education for France.

I used to think that life was all about competition and struggle, but after seeing what that mindset in the form of capitalism has done to the environment, I started rethinking the whole issue. The chase for profit is not compatible with Earth and its flora and fauna. The corporations try to maximize the profit in every way without paying attention to the extinction of species, pollution, deforestation and changing of ecosystems. As if those things are happening somewhere else and not on Earth that we all share.

Capitalism has got to go, or at least it’s neo-liberal form, or we will not survive as a species. Some scientists have estimated that we have around 100 more years until we destroy ourselves. Although depressing, I think this is a correct assessment.

Besides its environmental impact, neo-liberal capitalism is destroying many countries’ economies and people are dying because of it.

Instead of using our knowledge and technology to clean up Earth and build a different and more fair society, the wars are being waged because of oil, land, influence and profit.

And what does all of this have to do with sport? Everything.

Nowadays sports are an extension of capitalism. To quote Coubertain: “Sport the cheapest spiritual food for the (working) masses and keeps them under control”.

Instead of thinking about (and acting on) other more important issues, our minds are occupied by this game, that match, the latest UFC…etc.

We are also being bombarded by the images of athletes and the products they promote in the media. So it’s not just about distraction away from the important issues, but about the money as well. And the same rules don’t apply for everyone.

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the only basketball team that was not tested for PEDs was the US “Dream Team.” No “Dream Team” in the Olympics and the ratings would suffer. Hence less money for the organizers. So the rules didn’t apply to them.

I could go on about the dehumanizing effects of sport but then the interview would become very long.

To wrap this answer up, I reconciled my humanistic values and sport by cherry picking what I believe is best in martial arts, and disregarding the rest.

This means that the sick hyper-competitive atmosphere is not supported in my academy, competition is not the primary goal and we place value on many other positive lessons that martial arts can provide.

Mladen: You academy is called Kaizen MMA. What does Kaizen stands for and what is your coaching philosophy in short lines?

Mark: Kaizen is a Japanese term for “constant improvement” which is my academy’s philosophy as well as my personal one. So I strive to get better in every aspect of MMA, and never settle for what I already know.

There are certainly better ways to train than those I already know, so I need to keep an open mind at all times in order to improve.

It is very important for me to create a friendly and inspiring environment for my students. Meatheads are not allowed in Kaizen. Student’s age, sex, experience or fitness level doesn’t matter to me. My job is to introduce them to MMA in the best possible way and to make the experience fun and pleasurable.

I’ve seen so many clubs only interested in training fighters which I believe is very wrong on many levels. One of my students told me that he was denied membership in one of Belgrade’s boxing clubs. They told him it was because he was too fat, too old and that he should have started training much earlier. I could not believe what I was hearing.

Not only did they lose a customer and possible future advertisement through word of mouth, but also more importantly they denied him a life altering experience through training. Very shortsighted.

As a coach, I try to assess the person I’m training and I conform my expectations towards the abilities and goals of my student. So if I’m training a fighter, he will of course go through many ordeals in order to get to a fighting shape. But if I’m training a recreational person, then the training would not be as hard nor technically demanding, but it will still be challenging and fun. I’ve had students that drastically reduced their excess weight and started using their bodies in ways that were previously unimaginable for them and that made me proud.

Even though I sometimes help fighters prepare for competitions, it is not my goal to reach UFC one day or to emphasize the competitive aspect. Even though I devoted most of my career to competitions, I realized that this is not the best way to practice MMA.

Mladen: You said that you retired because of injuries and ethical issues. Can you give us a more detailed explanation?

Mark: Yes. The first reason was that injuries were piling up because I have been training hard for a long time. Even when I was 14 I trained two times a day. So each year I lost some function of my body and I didn’t like that. Like most young people, I thought I was indestructible despite several serious injuries and surgeries I had. It just didn’t bother me. But that changed around my 29th birthday and I started contemplating my mortality more seriously.

I started questioning the whole point of being an MMA competitor and striving to get to the top. I just didn’t like hurting people so I stopped competing. This doesn’t mean that I think MMA fighters are bad people because they fight. Not at all. But that kind of lifestyle does take its toll both physically and mentally. I felt that it was stupifying me. When you train 2-3 times a day not much time is left for other activities. And I realized that life is much more that hard training and competing. So I called it quits and started coaching.

Mladen: How are other systems affected your coaching philosophy, like work by Rodney King (Crazy Monkey Defense), Matt Thornton (Straight Blast Gym) or Russian Systema? How does one properly train combat sports (e.g. using aliveness principles) without giving too much of emphasis on technical drilling (without opponent) or sparring? Who do you listen and learn from?

Mark: Many people influenced my coaching philosophy, and for easier reference I will divide them into two groups, philosophical and technical. But they do overlap.

Philosophical influences

My most important philosophical influence when it comes to martial arts is without a doubt the founder of Judo – Jigoro Kano. His goal was not just to create an exciting sport, but a educational system and a philosophy of life. According to Kano, the highest expression of Judo was to become a more useful member of society. One of Judo’s principles clearly articulates this philosophy: Jita Kyoei (meaning: Mutual Welfare And Benefit).

Kano considered the lowest form of Judo to be randori (sparring) and competition. He even expressed a mild concern regarding Judo becoming an Olympic sport:

Olympic Games are so strongly flavored with nationalism that it is possible to be influenced by it and to develop Contest Judo as a retrograde form as Jujitsu was before the Kodokan was founded. Judo should be as free as art and science from external influences – political, national, racial, and financial or any other organized interest. And all things connected with it should be directed to its ultimate object, the benefit of humanity.” – Jigoro Kano

Rodney King also influenced me through both his fighting system and more importantly through his outlook on martial arts. He is the only one talking about the adverse psychological effects of full contact combat sports, how violence makes you more afraid and not less, and the role modern martial arts play in today’s society as a substitute for initiation rites for young men. I’ve had the pleasure to attend one of his seminars and spend a few days with him training and discussing various issues. I can highly recommend his articles.

Technical influences

As I said before, my philosophical and technical influences overlap. I started with Judo and that is my base art. I also use parts (elbow covers) of Rodney King’s Crazy Monkey Defense system in my curriculum – mostly for beginners, although it is applicable for more advanced fighters as well.

My biggest influence when it comes to technique is August Wallen – a Swedish MMA pioneer, an ex IMMAF (International MMA Federation) president, a pro MMA fighter and head coach of Shooters MMA which is the biggest MMA team in the world. I trained for many years under his guidance and he basically made me MMA and Grappling literate. His instructor courses are masterpieces of structure and logic applied to fighting and I highly recommend them.

Mladen: What are your thoughts on self-defense systems out there? What about systems that don’t train with much of a contact (or aliveness as Matt Thornton would say)? What are your thoughts on systems such as Kali, Russian Systema?

Mark: To make a long story short – stick to combat sports if you want proficiency in fighting. No sparring – no development. Martial arts like Aikido are so far removed from the reality of combat that the only benefit you’ll get from them is social, the knowledge of break falls and a few spent calories.
Many of the practitioners of the traditional martial arts like Aikido claim that their techniques are too deadly to be used in sparring or competition so they don’t do it. That puts them in a non-falsifiable situation. Meaning their arts can never be tested because it’s “too dangerous”.

There is something called “the paradox of randori (sparring)”. It means that people sparring with non-lethal techniques become much better fighters than those in the “lethal” camp. The non-lethalness of the techniques being practiced allows them to do them over and over again, and in sparring situations, without serious injury. In time they become very good at them and also develop the physical attributes needed for a fight.

The same cannot be said about the traditionalists who basically live in a fantasy world when it comes to their fighting ability.

I believe that in a fight, the combat athlete would win over a traditionalist 9.9 times out of 10, even if the traditionalist were allowed to use “lethal” techniques.

I cannot comment on Kali since I never practiced it but I did practice a little bit of Russian Systema. I find that its biomechanical exercises to be very good not only for health, but also for educating the body on how to move efficiently. Some of my students practiced Systema before MMA and in general, they absorb techniques very easily. Although I cannot prove it, I believe it happens because of the biomechanical exercises that prepare the body for all sorts of movements.

What Systema lacks is practical application of what is being thought. Their soft work needs to graduate to harder drills with specific goals.

One of my friends, Alex Kostic, whose fighting method called Homo Ludens, incorporates a lot of Systema in his teachings, and often goes way beyond the soft work. His art is multi-faceted and includes the use of body psychotherapy methods in his seminars, but also how to fight with multiple opponents. His method is the best I’ve seen against multiple opponents and it includes a lot of elements from Systema.

Mladen: When it comes to physical preparation in MMA you tend to favor doing things in more specific way, while a lot of other coaches seems to favor “cross-fit” style of conditioning. Can you expand on this?

Mark: Good strength & conditioning plan is beneficial and should be done in preseason. The nearer the competition gets, the more fighting training you’ll need and less S&C. In fact, if you didn’t have time to do all of it, I would ditch the conditioning altogether.

I’ve seen so many fighters gas out in fights and in sparring sessions even though they were fit judging by their gym and track parameters. The problem is that fighting is chaotic and the more efficient you are the less energy you expend. And this efficiency can only be achieved by putting in some serious time on the mat drilling and sparring in all the necessary arts that MMA is made up of. Then you will know when to tense up, and when to relax.

Another big part of fighting conditioning is breathing control and it is intimately tied to technical efficiency.

Man fears the unknown. So let’s say you are not very good at wrestling and you and up in the clinch with someone who is. Not only will you expend a lot of energy fighting there but also you will stop breathing from time to time because of stress (unknown situation) and as a result of that you will gas out more quickly.

Let’s say we have two identical people who are in the same shape, but one has a lot more technique than the other. And we make them do MMA sparring with their training partners. Who do you think will last longer in terms of conditioning? The technical guy of course. The less technical would be dead tired in 2 minutes because of inefficiency and poor breathing control.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t lift weights or run. If you have time for it in the preseason – go for it. It will do you good if you’re working with a professional. Drilling and sparring will offer biggest bang for the buck (time invested). In fact, I was most physically fit when I did little to no conditioning. What got me in shape were things like hard 5 minute Muay Thai pad drills and GNP drills where I would punch with 100 % during the entire round. Also many other drills but I’m using those two as an example. Do 5 x 5minute Muay Thai drills with “all in” punches and tell me you’re not fit.

A word of advice for young fighters, ditch the tire flipping and hammering. It can be good to do those things sometimes but more often than not, fighters tend to just imitate what they’ve seen big stars doing and over-train themselves. If you want to work on your conditioning hire a professional.

Mladen: What is MMA for you and what are its most important benefits?

Mark: MMA can be many things to many people, and there is no one and only answer. For me MMA is much more that just being tough fighter. I think these are the most important benefits:

– It places your consciousness back inside the body. As my friend Alex Kostic says, we live in an information age where most of us have jobs that involve sitting in front of the computer all day long and our awareness is “out there somewhere”. Facebook, emails, excel tables….online. So when we step on the mat we are get to use our bodies again. And since MMA involves a wide variety of moves, it is really enjoyable and interesting to be able to use your body in many different ways.

– Body “hygiene”. This means that we keep ourselves fit, lean, strong and flexible and not succumb to being a blob.

– I think that MMA is the most usable combat sport/martial art for self defense, so it always good to know how to defend yourself if the need arises. This is probably the least important aspect of MMA for adults since the probability of getting into a violent altercation is very low.

– It is a great tool for introspection. During just one training, a person is confronted with many different scenarios that can inflate or deflate your ego and that doesn’t happen that often in life. So you can for example tap out 3 people in training and start thinking you’re really good. How do you deal with that after training? Or you might get crushed in all your sparring sessions. Or you can’t get the technique you’ve been practicing to work. How do you deal with that? Do you let it get to you? Do you then start thinking of yourself in negative terms? Or do you analyze the situation, find what can be improved upon and diligently work on it?

You can also observe your reactions to different situations. Does it happen that you skip the sparring with the guy you know is going to give you a hard time, and invent a reason/excuse? Or do you actively ask him to spar thus conquering the discomfort and fear you might have?

Sparring can have a very healthy effect on the psyche because it’s a reality check. And that is painfully absent from the fantasy martial arts I mentioned previously.

– And finally, it is a metaphor for life. This “angle” comes from Judo and since MMA is a combination of many different martial arts, why should we only choose the techniques from them? So I included the philosophy behind Judo to “power” the way I do MMA.

All lessons from MMA/Judo are directly transferable to life if one chooses to look at them that way. I believe it is the highest form of martial arts.

Mladen: Is there anything you don’t like in MMA besides what you’ve already told us?

Mark: First of all I don’t like how it’s being marketed. UFC has done a great job of popularizing MMA, and to be fair they are the reason why I have this job, but no matter how much they try to convince people that MMA is nice, the marketing is sometimes vulgar, and the most aggressive aspects are emphasized. I liked Pride’s approach much more and it seemed noble at times. Maybe it’s because it was held in Japan.

Then we have fight bonuses. Here we also have a paradox. MMA is thought to be very safe and that referees take care of the fighters, but at the same time the brass is giving bonuses for fight of the night, knockout of the night and submission of the night. Thus stimulating aggression and injuries. And they don’t sign some top level fighters who are not considered to be “exciting”. Maybe I shouldn’t be combining MMA and safe in the same sentence, but this paradox is very interesting.

Marine Corps use to sponsor UFC because it is mostly watched by their target group. UFC also portrayed people like Brian Stann and Tim Kennedy as war heros which is ridiculous. Going to war for big business interest doesn’t make you a hero.

Young people only see the glamorous life of a champion lifting the belt up and giving interviews. But very few fighters get to that level and their life is littered with injuries, rehabilitation, head trauma, hard training and pain. In fact, very few fighters get to the level that they can live off of fighting professionally. Think twice before you dedicate your life to competitive MMA.

Mladen: What do you think how will sport of MMA evolve? How will your academy evolve?

Mark: I think MMA will evolve mostly in terms of training sophistication. It’s already happening. Many pro MMA fighters were sparring really hard trying to knock each other in training, but right now that trend is not so prominent anymore. Sure, there are still teams that do it, but more and more are coming to their senses. And I have been an advocate of not striking with 100% of power in sparring for years, and was surprised that many coaches and fighters were still going “balls to the wall”. Sparring can be very intensive and hard without actually trying to take your partner’s head off.

There will be more and more athletes taking a more scientific approach to training, not just sparring. A good example of the “prototype” of that approach is George St. Pierre. He probably had the most sophisticated training regimen of all.

As for my academy, the goal is to grow it as much as possible and to expose the way we do MMA to as much people as we can. For that purpose was created, and through it I want to reach people that don’t live in Serbia using videos, courses, articles, summer camps and instructional products. I believe our brand of MMA is the healthiest way of practicing this art, not just physically but also mentally.

Mladen: You have created couple of products for MMA fighters and coaches. Can you give a summary for the readers and where can they find more info about them and your academy?

Mark: There are 3 products currently available for purchase and more still to come in the future:

1 Mental Training For MMA 2.0 – A Fighter’s Guide To Mental Toughness

This product deals with the mental aspects of combat. It features how to best prepare for competition mentally, how to maximize your training, get rid of the jitters and similar topics.

2 MMA Essential Techniques – 8 Video Set

This is a general MMA instructional covering some of the most commonly used techniques in all areas. It features Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, Grappling and Ground & Pound techniques.

3 Total Ground & Pound Blueprint

This is my flagship product and it features over 9 hours of GNP instruction. Both attack and defense. No stone was left unturned and I believe this is the most comprehensive GNP instructional in the world.

To find out more about me and learn some techniques, please visit:

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