Gym of the Month: CSW

Story by Joe Wilhelm
Photos by Primo Catalano and courtesy of Erik Paulson

Step into Combat Submission Wrestling and you step into Erik Paulson’s world. This is a truth that slowly unfolds when making the rounds through CSW. Some clues are more apparent than others, like the pictures of a younger Paulson that line the walls of the gym, photos that his students will eagerly point-out to anyone unfamiliar with the career of their beloved coach.

Erik Paulson during his Shooto championship days.

Erik Paulson during his Shooto championship days. (Photo courtesy of Erik Paulson)

In the front entrance you’ll find a picture of a chiseled Paulson holding the Shooto light heavyweight belt. Frozen in time, the 30-year-old fighter’s piercing blue gaze is fierce and proud, a fitting expression for the first American to take the belt from the Japanese.

As Tuesday morning’s training session comes to a close, the lobby of CSW becomes slowly crowded with fighters, a melting pot of eye-catching people; heavily-muscled, tattooed, and boisterous men that would stick out like a sore thumb on a crowded street.

But in Paulson’s world, he is the one that stands out; the man the boisterous crowd defers to when strangers step foot in their gym.

“I’ve surrounded myself with good people,” Paulson said, “I make sure that they’re here to help, that they’re not all takers, and that everyone grows together. I don’t want one guy shooting to the top and everyone else chasing him.”

It’s been nearly two decades since his heyday in Japan, but at 48, Paulson’s gaze remains every bit as piercing. The shredded champion on the wall has slightly gone to seed, natural products of age, fatherhood, and coaching. But this is fine. Paulson no longer dreams of world championships. In the year 2014, he’s focused on molding a new age of martial artists.

“The guys I’m going to be really working with are all our amateurs,” Paulson said. “They are our future. All my energy has to go into the amateurs, which is fun because they are excited. They don’t know it all. I like to see excitement in a kid’s eyes. I like to see that they are excited the way I was excited and that they can learn a martial art.”

Walk through CSW and you will find a second clue that you are in Paulson’s world. Surrounded by professional and amateur competitors alike, Paulson is the undisputed leader of the gym. The retired fighter holds a commanding presence and is unafraid of setting strict boundaries.

Coach Paulson holds court among his students.

Coach Paulson holds court among his students. (Photo courtesy of Erik Paulson)

“We’re not just a local gym where you come in and beat people up,” Paulson said. “I hold everyone accountable for their time. If you want to be a part of my team, train with my pros and get really good fast. You need to be accountable for your time.”

“I hold people to a standard, and have actually stepped it up because things have gone slack. I’ve been testing the waters to see who is serous and who’s not.”

Paulson places great emphasis on the relationship between fighter and coach. Having begun his MMA career when the sport was just gaining international recognition, Paulson has the unique perspective of both learning from and mentoring some of recent history’s premier martial artists.

Among his mentors, Paulson credits Royce Gracie, Rob Kaman, and Dan Inosanto, among others, for the development of his skills.

Ask him to name his notable pupils and he will rattle off names like Ken Shamrock and former UFC champions like Brock Lesnar, Josh Barnett, and Sean Sherk.

An education in Paulson’s pedigree justifies his expectations for the conduct of his fight team. When Paulson complains about fighters texting during breaks, forgetting to bring gear, or missing practice time, he sounds less like a stickler and more like a former champion.

“I used to spar with the guys and get in there and beat them up,” Paulson said. “Because after awhile, guys will start to get cocky and you need to put them in their place.”

Sure, Paulson gripes about fighters covering their bodies in tattoos or making boneheaded posts over social media. Maybe he is a bit old school. But knowledge is power. And Paulson is an open source of knowledge for fighters looking to make the leap.

“What are you aspiring to do? Fight amateur your whole life? I want our guys to walk through the amateur field with all wins, possibly a loss, just so you know what it’s like to lose, to see if you can learn from it. I want them to go to the big leagues.”

Two of CSW’s amateur competitors, Shohei Yamamoto (4-0) and University of MMA featherweight champion Jacob Rosales (6-0), have yet to experience the kind of educational loss to which Paulson refers.

Yamamoto, in particular, has been remarkably dominant. All four of his opponents have been finished in the first round, including a 28-second knockout of title contender former Dean Bo Moskowitz at the University of MMA’s Fight Night 6.

Yamamoto, who grew up competing in international kyokushin karate tournaments, came to amateur MMA having already won a junior world championship. Now old enough to compete in MMA, the 24-year-old fighter feels he is in an ideal environment to grow as a martial artist.

Fast-rising CSW amateur fighter Shohei Yamamoto lands on his opponent. (Photo by ../University of MMA)

Fast-rising CSW amateur fighter Shohei Yamamoto lands on his opponent. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

“CSW definitely has a different aura than a kyokushin dojo,” Yamamoto said. “But one similarity is that everyone here genuinely loves martial arts. Seeing the guys that have trained here for a long time is very inspiring.”

“The bond that you create beating each other up for four years is the kind of bond that you can’t create anywhere else.”

When most amateurs utter words like “professional,” “champion,” or “UFC,” a glossy look passes through their eyes. But Yamamoto speaks these words matter-of-factly, as though success is the only logical option.

“My goal isn’t to become just the U of MMA champion,” Yamamoto said. “It’s more than that. I want to fight the best. I want to fight in the UFC. I want to show people striking that they have never seen before. There’s never really been a kyokushin karate striker at the top level of MMA who has been successful.”

Ask Paulson about the future of the soft-spoken fighter and it becomes clear why he is so willing to work with amateurs.

“I see talent. I know when someone has talent and when they don’t,” Paulson said. “The guy’s a caged tiger. He just goes after people, it’s perfect. The guys who are really good are the nicest quietest guys, who never tell you how good they really are.”

Yes, he sees talent. But it’s Paulson’s last statement that lends insight to his vision of the ideal martial artist. Talk to him for five minute’s and you’ll be left with the impression that you’re talking to the consummate tough guy, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

But beyond that, you’ll find a man that’s profoundly religious, a man constantly preoccupied with the well-being of others and his impact on their life. Walk around CSW and you will see an assortment of talismans that Paulson has built to ward off evil spirits. In addition to his crucifix, His neck is adorned with medallions of Saint Benedict and King Solomon, accessories to protect him from demons and poisoning. Believe in such things or don’t. Just know when you walk into his gym, Erik Paulson is going to have all of your bases covered.

“I think your morals and your values when you’re not in the cage are very important,” Paulson said. “Do you help other people? What do you do? Is it all about you? Are you taker or a giver? I think people need to learn how to give more. Martial arts are a segway to becoming a better person.”

Sometimes giving takes its toll. Sit down with Paulson and he will tell you the story of how, in Italy, he broke both of his elbows demonstrating moves on a concrete floor. And at times, the hardship extends beyond the physical. For as a coach, one must tow the line between best friend and worst enemy.

“I can go to Edinborough, Scotland and have 100-150 people show-up for a seminar,” Paulson said.” “Then I come back here to fight practice with ten guys, and I’m back to yelling at a bunch of fighters again. And I think, ‘is it worth it?’ In the end, it’s worth it, because doing a good deed for one person outshines everything else.”

Erik Paulson’s Combat Submission Wrestling (CSW) is located at 4080 N. Palm Street, Unit 801 in Fullerton. For more information, visit or call (714) 726-0134.

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