Mixed martial artists may ply their craft in the cage, but talent is bought and paid for through hard work in the gym. Some fighters have been training all their lives, such as Lyoto Machida, who once famously said his only toy growing up was his karate ‘gi’. Others wait until much later in life to jump into martial arts training. Travis Browne only started training martial arts around his 26th birthday, and now at 31 he’s the 3rd ranked heavyweight in the UFC and only one fight away from a title shot. Ultimately what this says is that if you’re willing to put in the time in the gym, anything is possible.
MMA training is very, very different from a standard exercise regimen that most people go through at their local gym. Professional fighters at the highest level turn their training time into their day job, spending weeks on end with the same people, inside the same facility sharpening their skills and pushing their limitations to drive forward their own progress and the progress of martial arts as a whole. Most modern MMA training incorporates elements of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and wrestling for grappling, boxing and muay thai for striking, and any other martial arts that one would like to specialize in. Over the years certain gyms have developed their own approach to MMA, and younger fighters have grown into the game by training MMA as opposed to training separate martial arts individually (although many still have a stronger base in one particular discipline).
As with many things in life, it isn’t all about the time you put into training, but also about whom you’re training with. Generally speaking, if you’re the top dog at the gym you attend, you may want to start looking for a new gym. The truly elite fighters in MMA seem to gravitate to one another and train at certain gyms, training under coaches who are capable of fine-tuning excellent fighters into near-perfect machines. Over the past decade, thousands of MMA gyms have opened up around the world, but only a few of them are home to a legion of high-level fighters. These next 5 gyms are some of the ones that do.
5. Tristar Gym – Montreal, Canada
Anyone familiar with Georges St-Pierre has at least heard the name Tristar in passing at some point. Originally a kickboxing gym in Montreal, it was founded around 25 years ago by ISKA world kickboxing champion Conrad Pla. Pla would later sell the gym, but it still functioned as mainly a kickboxing school until the involvement of one man – Firas Zahabi. Zahabi and his friends – a group that included Georges St-Pierre – had been using Tristar to train Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling in addition to the kickboxing.
2007 was a big year for Tristar. Zahabi made the leap and purchased the gym, becoming the official owner, and his friend GSP lost the UFC welterweight championships to Matt Serra. After the loss GSP asked Zahabi to become his full-time head MMA coach, an offer that Zahabi accepted. GSP never lost again under Zahabi’s guidance. Zahabi’s stock rose with each passing GSP victory, and now Tristar is considered to be the hub of Canadian MMA. Besides GSP, Tristar has helped train Kenny Florian, Patrick Côté, David Loiseau, Ivan Menjivar, Francis Carmont, Rory MacDonald, and Mike Ricci.
4. Nova União – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Brazil, the homeland of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the birthplace of more elite-tier MMA fighters than perhaps any other nation, is home to many MMA gyms. Certain gyms stand head and shoulders above the rest, and one of those is Nova União. Although it’s now a larger organization with facilities across the United States and Canada, Rio de Janeiro is still the HQ which the main members of the team gravitate towards. Founded by André Pederneiras, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt who studied under grandmaster Carlson Gracie, Nova União has since become one of the destinations for elite Brazilian fighters, and some non-Brazilians. American-born Lightweight legend BJ Penn moved to Brazil and began training there in 2000, and soon after became the first non-Brazilian to win the black belt division of the World Jiu-Jitsu Championship in Rio de Janeiro. He trains at Nova União to this day, along with current UFC Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo, current UFC Bantamweight Champion Renan Barão, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior Dos Santos, and a host of other fighters.
3. American Kickboxing Academy – San Jose, USA
Despite the name, American Kickboxing Academy is a pioneer of MMA, and does not focus strictly one any one martial arts discipline. Founded in the 1980s by Javier Mendez – initially as a kickboxing gym – over the years they’ve expanded into various other martial arts, including muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and boxing. Despite many of its members competing in the UFC, they haven’t always had the best relationship with the organization. All AKA members were cut from the UFC for 24hs in 2008, over a dispute regarding image rights for a UFC video game. The issue was quickly resolved and all AKA fighters were back on the roster the next day, which is fortunate, because many AKA members have gone on to be champions and contenders in the UFC. Their MMA training has attracted top fighters from across the United States and beyond, including current UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier (an Olympic wrestler with an undefeated record in MMA), Gray Maynard, Jon Fitch, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Luke Rockhold.
2. Black House – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
We return to Rio to profile the home of all-time MMA great Anderson Silva, Black House. Black House was founded in 2006 by Ed Soares, an influential MMA manager with over 20 high-profile clients, among them Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. Many of Soares’ clients train at Black House, such as the aforementioned Silva and Machida, but also Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera and his twin brother Antonio Rogério Nogueira (renowned for their mastery of Brazilian jiu-jitsu throughout the martial arts world), Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza, along with many international fighters who spent stints in Brazil specifically to train at Black House, such as Satoshi Ishii, Uriah Hall, Glover Texeira, and Cat Zingano. Black House also operates two American facilities, one in Los Angeles and another in San Diego.
1. Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts – Albuquerque, USA
Down in the deserts of New Mexico, there’s a school run by a man named Greg Jackson that’s been producing MMA champions for years. Greg Jackson was exploring MMA before Royce Gracie shocked the world at UFC 1; he founded his own martial art in 1992, Gaidojutsu, which combined elements of wrestling, judo and kickboxing. By 2000 he had founded a school that was one of the first to approach MMA as a new discipline combining the best aspects of various martial arts. Jackson would later team up with striking coach Mike Winkeljohn to form Team Jackson/Winkeljohn, the top MMA team in the United States and arguably one of the best in the world. Jackson’s pupils have seen unparalleled success in the modern MMA game. UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones, Carlos Condit, Keith Jardine, Travis Browne, Erek Perez, Donald Cerrone, Cub Swanson, among many others. Former champions Georges St-Pierre and Rashad Evans have also been among Jackson’s pupils at one point or another.
Greg Jackson’s fight camps seem to possess the perfect storm of intelligent, rigorous training in a harsh desert environment that pushes the athletes harder in and outside the gym. Perhaps most importantly, many of Jackson’s fighters speak of the sense of community and family they feel with fellow members of the team, and Jackson’s fighters are (in)famous for choosing not to accept fights against each other. It’s these little anecdotes that trickle down from the fighters to the fans that really emphasize the fact that although MMA is an individual sport, behind every fighter there’s a coach, teammates, and training partners who all helped build that warrior in the cage, and who all have a vested interest in seeing him/her succeed.
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