Mentor, coach … fighter
VERGENNES — Few, if any, employees of Vergennes Union High School other than Nate Kittredge have ever earned the nickname “The Animal.”
But no one who has seen Kittredge, the VUHS wrestling coach and for the past three years the school’s prevention coordinator, in any of his dozen professional Mixed Martial Arts bouts would debate whether he deserves his billing.
Former VUHS wrestler and state champion Bobby Worley, about to enter his junior year at the University of Vermont, said when Kittredge fights, Kittredge is just practicing what he preaches as a coach.
“He has a saying,” Worley said, “‘Technique takes a back seat to brutality.’”
At the same time, those who know Kittredge, a 32-year-old VUHS graduate and former state champion wrestler, say he is one of the kindest people they know.
VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley said Kittredge — who will move this fall into a different job at the school, but one in which he will still help kids who need it most — has been effective in his grant-funded role these past three years.
Webbley said students see clearly that Kittredge cares about them.
“Kids love him. He’s absolutely sincere. He’s got this real ethic of giving back to the community,” Webbley said. “It’s really remarkable.”
MMA, as its name suggests, allows competitors to use elements of any fighting discipline — wrestling, kick-boxing, tae kwon do, judo and boxing, to name just a few — inside the ropes. Unlike a boxing ring, which has four sides and four posts, MMA rings have eight sides and eight posts; they are known as octagons. Rules are typically few — no blows to the groin, no bending fingers, no eye gouging, and no kicking a downed opponent above the waist.
In the octagon, Kittredge has compiled a 10-2 record. Fights end when the winner forces a foe to submit, knocks him out, or convinces the referee to stop a one-sided bout.
And at VUHS?
“He’s as gentle and kind a guy as I’ve ever been around,” Webbley said. “I’d give my grandkids to him.”
Kittredge followed up his 104-win wrestling career at VUHS by winning 105 matches at New Hampshire’s Plymouth State College and becoming a New England champion. He agrees he changes when the bell rings.
“I’ll say I black out and come to at the end of a fight, and say, ‘What happened? Oh, hi everybody.’” Kittredge said. “I focus. I’m going to do what I need to do, and then I go back to my life after.”
The person who knows him best also agrees — Amy Yandow, his fiancé and the mother of their 10-month-old daughter; they will be married on Sept. 10. Yandow, another former VUHS student and accomplished athlete — she holds the Castleton State women’s soccer scoring record — describes the transformation when Kittredge steps through the ropes.
“It’s like when he fights a different switch comes on,” she said. “Because he is the most caring (person). Even now, seeing him as a dad, there’s a whole different side of him.”
DECIDING TO FIGHT
After Kittredge graduated from Plymouth State in 2004, he taught physical education at a New Hampshire high school and assisted the Plymouth State wrestling program. Some of his former teammates dabbled in MMA and nagged him to try it.
“I would wrestle with them while they were getting ready for their fights. So I got to see a couple of their fights. Never did I think I was going to fight, because I didn’t grow up fighting. It wasn’t anything I knew much about. But they after a while convinced me,” Kittredge said.
Truthfully, they didn’t have to twist his arm. Kittredge began wrestling when his dad took him to varsity practices when he was in 2nd grade. Then came youth and middle school wrestling, and then championship high school and college careers.
And then he was just coaching, which he loves. But something was missing.
“I went from being a competitive wrestler and doing pretty well in the Northeast to nothing. To coaching, to watching kids. And I wanted to be competitive and I wanted to still fight and not just give up,” Kittredge said. “I wanted the competition. And it came right to me.”
He skipped the amateur bouts many of his friends fought in. Kittredge went pro. And won.
“I didn’t know the difference other than that I wanted to be at the higher level,” he said.
First, he relied on his wrestling background, not a bad idea. At MMA’s highest levels, Ultimate Fighting Championships bouts, practitioners of ju jitsu, a form of wrestling that emphasizes submission holds, have frequently won. Gradually, Kittredge learned to throw punches, and he has also worked on mastering ju jitsu — he now holds a purple belt, one notch below a black belt.
Kittredge, who since has headlined MMA cards in New England, New Jersey and Ohio and made up to $5,000 for a bout, said he was raw at the start.
“I just trained for wrestling. I knew I could get hit, but I knew that when he threw a punch, that was my opportunity to take him down. And that’s pretty much what I did,” Kittredge said. “I think my first two fights were just submissions, and then I started using my hands (punching) more.”
Despite the general lack of rules, one of Kittredge’s two losses was a disqualification because of a quirk in one state’s regulations — vertically delivered elbows were illegal, which he did not know, and a beaten foe was awarded a decision.
Kittredge, who is not tall but has a barrel chest and sturdy legs, now has a fuller arsenal and a direct style. His fights — many can be found on Youtube by searching his name — tend to be against opponents with more chiseled physiques. They quickly find themselves being pushed around the mat.
Yandow said Kittredge takes some lumps with his approach.
“He’s got a hard head, and he just goes in head first,” she said. “So he’s bound to come back with a couple bruises.”
In part because of her own athletic background, she appreciates what Kittredge does.
“I really just love seeing him out there. I can tell how much he loves fighting … and competing,” Yandow said. “And just watching him kicking butt is fun. Maybe it’s easier because he is kicking butt. He is for the most part on top.”
AT THE SCHOOL
Kittredge doesn’t believe his MMA sideline detracts from his VUHS work, although he was worried at first about how it would be perceived.
“I knew whatever I did I could portray a good picture to the kids,” he said. “But my worry was the administration, how are they going to feel? How’s a parent going to feel? What’s this guy working with my kid who’s a fighter? But I have yet to have a problem with any of it. And as a matter of fact, Ed and Peter (Reynolds), the principals, they back me.”
Webbley — a former wrestling coach — confirmed that point of view. He said he sees MMA’s required discipline as a positive.
“Peter and I both feel the same way about him,” Webbley said, adding, “The kids absolutely respect it. They respect the sport … Kids can see pretty quickly how demanding it is.”
Webbley also praised what Kittredge — who was honored by his peers as Vermont’s wrestling coach of the year early in his career — for what he did in helping the VUHS team become one of the state’s most competitive.
“He’ll step down into youth wrestling and help with youth and middle school wrestlers. He’ll be on the mat with a 12-year-old,” he said.
Webbley said Kittredge also looks at the big picture for his wrestlers.
“He holds them really accountable,” he said. “You stick your head in a wrestling practice and you see two of your outstanding wrestlers are sitting at a cafeteria table doing homework because they’re behind … and they’re not even ineligible.”
Kittredge touched on his philosophy in coaching wrestling, ju jitsu and MMA.
“You’re training yourself for life. One day you’re going to be in a situation on the job, and it’s going to come down to you or somebody else, and I want you to be the go-getter,” Kittredge said. “I think you can learn a lot from it.”
Worley said Kittredge and coaching assistant Scott Bissonette worked wonders with him and many of his teammates by demanding discipline and instilling a winning attitude as well as teaching technique. As a sophomore, Worley said, he had trouble winning. As a junior, he reached the state tournament podium. As a senior, he won the state title.
“In three years he changed me from the guy everyone knew they could beat to a state champ,” Worley said. “I can’t say enough about Nate.”
Worley also volunteered for prevention efforts and saw that side of Kittredge.
“Graduating from the high school and coming into the high school, he was just really good with kids,” Worley said. “He put in a ton of time and effort.”
Kittredge said in some cases his MMA background helps him reach kids, but the key is to find any way to relate to students.
“In the beginning, I think it’s a draw for kids. ‘This guy’s a fighter,’ whatever. It gets them in the door. But … I can’t treat everybody the same, because my mentality is work hard and good things will come to you,” he said. “So it really depends on what they like and what they’re into. But for me it’s to get to know them and to be an open door for them, so if they want to talk they can feel like they’re safe.”
Because of the wedding plans, Kittredge took a break from fighting this summer. But he plans to return to action even though he suffered what he considers his first real loss in May. Kittredge said he failed to maintain weight properly, had to drop too many pounds too fast, and lost to an opponent with UFC experience; he insists he would win a rematch.
And he said he is still in demand, and cheering crowds in videos seem to agree.
“These promoters still want me to fight, even though I just had a loss, because I fight hard and I bring people there. I do believe I have a fan base that’s not just local people,” Kittredge said. “Typically, when I’m fighting it’s a good crowd, and it’s the last fight of the night.”
At the same time, Yandow said she can tell his competition has gotten better.
“I think the last two he’s gotten really beat up, just his face, lots of bruises and cuts,” Yandow said.
She was particularly concerned after his last victory, but Kittredge told her not to worry.
“I won. Of course I was fine,” he said. “But as I progress and win, of course the fights are going to be harder. My next fight, even though I’m coming off a loss, will probably be my toughest fight.”
That’s why, Yandow said, the man quietly counseling students at VUHS might still show up with a lump or two.
“There’s this caring, just gentle giant of a man. He loves being with kids and working with kids and helping people,” she said. “And he gets in that ring, and he’s just an animal. It’s crazy.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.