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



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

Joey Lopez believes that it all starts with him searching for the Death Touch.

“That, and enlightenment,” he sneers.

But above all, touch it.

What a path, in the 1980s, was the most mysterious strike in a martial arts world still teeming with unknowns.

Dim Mak, the Chinese called him.

In Japan, it was kyusho-jutsu.

An old, almost ethereal touch that, aimed at pressure points, and whispers – plus a small collection of books, articles, even movies like The executioners of Shaolin – would kill your rival in a few hours, or even a few days.

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

“Like as fighters, we could harness some sort of mystical power,†Lopez says. Indeed, when Bruce Lee mysteriously died in 1973, Dim Mak was among the possible causes. But as for the strike, who would have made a man’s heart explode, being a real drums – or just bullshit?

“It’s,” said the old kickboxer, “that’s what I needed to know.”

Now housed in an old converted church where, seven days a week, he trains fighters, Lopez humbly explains the rise of this largely anonymous Freestyle Fighting Gym in Windang, about 90 minutes south of Sydney.

Never heard of it?

Its good.

Neither has most of the UFC.

Like, somehow, that joint responsible for the world’s greatest featherweight now, and maybe never, doesn’t exist.

No, when UFC analysts, podcasters and even commentators talk about Australian Alexander Volkanovski, they repeatedly report that the featherweight champion is from Auckland City Kickboxing.

This famous New Zealand fighting lair where, under the tutelage of bearded guru Eugene Bareman, has emerged a zombie apocalypse of warriors which, led by Israel Adesanya, also includes Dan Hooker, Brad Riddell, Shane Young and Kai Kara-France.

But Volkanovski?

Originally invited to CKB three years ago by Riddell, after forming a friendship during training in Thailand, the Australian has since crossed the divide at least twice at each camp to immerse himself in what is arguably today the largest combat factory in the world.

Even with Covid shutting down almost everything since 2020, the Champion has still continued to connect via Zoom with the Kiwis for workouts, tapes review, everything.

All of this, without a doubt, makes CKB crucial to this greater Australian outsider story.

But the heartbeat?

It’s Lopez.

This anonymous combat trainer who, even at 58, has always worked better in the shadows.

Growing up the son of a Port Kembla metallurgist who migrated from Spain, Lopez first worked as a bricklayer before discovering, outside of working hours, that his hands were meant for more than wielding a trowel.

A truth that quickly saw the young tough go from building sites to pub doors, then running his own security company, before finally keeping body for people like Ice T, Deep Purple, even the late Michael Hutchence.

The Ramones, Run DMC, even Rage Against The Machine – all would end up using the services of this warden that some pubs initially considered too small to work on their doorstep. Same deal as Faith No More and Australian rockers like The Choirboys and Radiators.

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

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

Which, as the coach now says, “was a bit hairyâ€.

Same thing the night when, opening a door, an ejected customer decided to get revenge in the most pronounced way – by walking back down the sidewalk while cutting the tops of mailboxes with a machete.

Yet, whether it was blades, guns, and even starring stakes, Lopez has handled them all.

Which, today, partly explains the state of mind of a coach who, while speaking softly and always smiling, always begins each session by shouting to his students: “You bleed, you clean”.

A guy who, again next Sunday at UFC 266, will corner Volkanovski when the champion looks to defend his title once again, this time against American Brian Ortega.

Again, how is this coach still so anonymous that we don’t even call him by the right name?

“Yeah, that’s actually Jose,” reveals Lopez, who has been coaching fighters for nearly 20 years. “I am named after my uncle, European boxing champion.

“But when I started elementary school, all the kids called me Josie. And of course I got the shits. So finally one of the teachers said, “Look, it’s just easier for everyone if we call you Joe.”

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

A champion whose last unbeaten run spans not only eight years and 19 pro fights, but all nine appearances in the Octagon – including the murderous row of Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and Max Holloway, two times.

All this too, started with this search for Death Touch.

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

“But there was no Google back then. So I packed up and went to see what was true.

Initially, Lopez hitchhiked 4000 km to Darwin.

Then from there he disappeared to train Muay Thai outside of Bangkok, hiked the Himalayas, even lived with monks in a temple on the banks of the Ganges in India.

“What happened when trying to cure a bout of diarrhea,†he laughs.

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

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

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

“So I bought an English-Thai dictionary. Then each day for an hour before training we would talk about words, starting with things like kicking and punching.

In Egypt, Lopez sailed on the Nile. In Spain, learned the mother tongue. While in England, the young fighter even rescued a handful of local drowned while working as a rescuer.

“For me, it was almost a spiritual journey,†continues the coach. “That, and learn as many martial arts as possible.

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

Even today, Lopez guides and nurtures Volkanovski with many lessons learned during an odyssey that has also crossed France, Malaysia and Singapore.

“And there’s no one,” said the champion, “who understands me better than Joe.”

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

While starting out on a grind base, the Volkanovski team has since expanded to include not only nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and massage therapists, or ties to gyms like CKB and Tiger Muay Thai, but also the BaiMed Performance Center in Wollongong.

When asked to explain his work with City Kickboxing, Volkanovski said, “The easiest way to explain it is that they have a high level system… which Joe then works on in mine.”

So what about the champion endlessly hailed as a City Kickboxing product?

“Well, that suits the narrative, doesn’t it?” Lopez smiles.

Aren’t you getting upset?

“When you are a fighter, everything revolves around you,†he continues. “And when you’re a coach, it’s all about your fighter.”

This is how this partnership has been going since day one.

“The first time Alex walked into my gym, he was just another kid,†Lopez continues. “I was only going to be with us for a few weeks,” he said, trying to get back into shape.

But then, soon after, came a sparring session that changed everything.

As Lopez remembers, he was hosting a seminar at the gym and, out of courtesy to his fighters, invited anyone who wanted some extra work to come next and practice a few laps with the seminar attendees.

So Volkanovsky did it.

“And there was this local heavyweight,†Lopez says. “Undefeated in five fights, really building the reputation of Next Big Thing.

“Either way, I’m on one side of the gym gloving a fighter when, out of the corner of my eye, I notice Alex jumping into the ring with him.”

” I could not believe it.

“At that point, he had only been with me for a few weeks. Had never even fought.

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

So what happened?

“In the first round, Alex submitted it three times,†laughs the coach. “Three.

“As soon as the fight was over I took him aside and said ‘ah, mate, ever thought about jumping in a cage for real?’”

So in three months, Volkanovski won his first amateur fight by knockout in the first round.

Same as the three after that.

“And all of them so fast,” Lopez said, “that together they didn’t go around.”

Yet after turning pro in 2012 and only giving up on one of 10 fights over the next two years, it would take another two years of campaigning and concreting for Volkanovsky – while still living with his wife Emma and their newborn daughter Ariana in a spare bedroom at mom’s house. – before that UFC call finally arrives.

Yet when he did, an unbeaten run that, in addition to giving this father-of-two from Wollongong a UFC belt, a new home, a Jaguar, a range of clothing, even a cooking show and a children’s book, also sees him eager to continue building them. title defenses at UFC 266.

As always too, with Lopez by his side in the shadows.

This great companion and mentor, who builds this UFC champion on the lessons learned not only in the jungles of Bangkok, or among the hidden Himalayan villages, but when he lived, along with the races, in this temple next to the holiest of rivers from India.

But what about the mysterious strike that started it all?

“Mate, I searched the world for that death touch,” Lopez shrugs. “Only to learn that this is all bullshit.”



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