By: Albert Miller – To be a fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a much easier life than it was to be a fan in 2007. In 2007, fight fans in states all over the nation were fighting for MMA to be regulated; in 2017, I can watch every season of “the Ultimate Fighter” on my cellphone. It’s easy to see where I’m coming for, right?
I was experiencing a fierce bit of nostalgia today, I was comparing how accessible MMA gyms are today vs. how rare they were back in the day. That line of thinking reminded me of the old school “Super Gyms” and how many elite fighters came from those gyms. In fact, being associated with one of those gyms brought a prestige to the cage that was almost as important as your own reputation. The Super Gym was that extra advantage that you might need to get to the higher profile fights. You trained with Fighter A, and Fighter B needs an opponent? Being associated with Fighter A might be your foot in the door.
This week on the Friday 5ive, we’re counting down five of the best of those Super Gyms. These are the schools the produced the first league of legends in Mixed Martial Arts, and this week’s list is our way of thanking those gyms for their additions to our legacy.
Note: “Old School” is defined as the time before the first season of “the Ultimate Fighter.” This list is based on my opinion, and represents no official ranking.
No. 5: American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) – AKA has the benefit of longevity (founded in the mid-1980’s) and still having the reputation of being a young gun gym in the days of Old School Super Gyms. I struggled with where to place AKA, whether it be fourth or fifth place. The dilemma presented itself with the following facts: 1. AKA has been around longer than the gym in the number 4 spot, but 2. The number 4 gym produced more old school champions. Ultimately, I had to surrender AKA to the number 5 spot because the number 4 gym did produce more Old School champions. I also need to make serious mention that AKA was instrumental in the emergence and sustainability to a lot of the West Coast promotions that were established post-Ultimate Fighter 1. Much like the Strikeforce Promotion, AKA was founded on servicing kickboxing athletes. With MMA’s popularity exploding, AKA was able to train the athletes who migrated to their gym to championship status. In fact, a lot of fighters came from all across the country to train at AKA: Daniel Cormier (Louisianna), Takanori Gomi (Japan), Josh Koshcheck (Pennsylvania), just to name a few. As the days go on, it seems that AKA keeps churning out champions.
- Daniel “DC” Cormier
- Andrei “The Pitbull” Arlovski
- “The Legend” Frank Shamrock
- “The New York Bad Ass” Phil Baroni
No. 4: Team Punishment / Punishment Athletics – Team Punishment is probably the most New School of the Old School Super Gyms …if that makes any sense at all. The perspective that I’m trying to convey is that Team Punishment was the first generation of “new breed” fighters (Good Lord, I am talking in circles). The gym was formed by former Light Heavyweight champion and UFC Hall of Famer “The Huntingdon Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz. Ortiz will always be known as one of the most vocal athletes to step into the Octagon, and those fighters who trained with him at Team Punishment really followed suit. While Ortiz was one of the most visible Team Punishment fighters in the UFC, he was partnered with former UFC Heavyweight champion Ricco “Suave” Rodriguez; at one point, the duo was the Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champions of the world. Not a whole lot has been heard of from Team Punishment lately. The most visible of their fighters is Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, and she’s been experiencing a whole host of issues with the UFC as of late, and Tito Ortiz has stepped down as her manager.
- “The Huntingdon Beach Bad Boy” Tito Ortiz
- Ricco “Suave” Rodriguez
- Cris Cyborg
- “Razor” Rob McCullough
No. 3: The Lion’s Den – The legends of how grueling the try-outs for the Lion’s Den are epic. It was an all-day work out that equated to “Ken Shamrock knocked the crap out of me for hours.” “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” had a philosophy that his work would weed out weakness, that the cream of the crop would render and he had warriors to train and sharpen his own competition skills. The Lion’s Den was founded by Ken Shamrock because no gyms existed for mixed fights; no gym in town would prepare him for the specialized combat like he’d find in Pancrase. What started as a collection of Shamrock training partners became a class of men who would compete in the world’s toughest mixed fight promotions in the world and began claiming gold for their own. The Lion’s Den captured gold in Pancrase, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and proved to be fierce competition in the PRIDE Fighting Championship. When Ken Shamrock went to the WWF(E), brother Frank managed the Lion’s Den for Ken; in fact, it was the idea that all Frank was good for was to be his manager lead to Frank’s departure. To date, the Lion’s Den is still kinda in operation, but not as glorious as they were.
- “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” Ken Shamrock
- “The Legend” Frank Shamrock
- Guy Mezger
- Jerry Bohlander
No. 2: Team Quest – I firmly believe that the American North West was one of the incubators that kept MMA alive during the dark ages of the UFC. “The Natural” Randy Couture and Matt “The Law” Lindland were two pillars of the UFC when things seemed the most bleak, and they built a fight camp that produced fighters to help usher in much brighter days. What makes Team Quest such a great gym (especially when MMA needed it the most) was how much they all put emphasis on the word “Team.” Team Quest actually produced the Light Heavyweight champion (Randy Couture) and Middleweight champion (Evan Tanner) when the Zuffa was courting buyers in the early 2000’s, two titles that kept the promotion afloat. The UFC often thinks of the Ultimate Fighter as the saving grace for the company; Team Quest supplied major players for the reality series for the first few seasons: “The Crippler” Chris Leben, Nate “The Rock” Quarry, “The People’s Champion” Josh Burkman, and Ed “Short Fuse” Herman. The Gresham, Oregon team was even popular overseas with PRIDE FC standouts “Hollywood” Dan Henderson and Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou. Team Quest still exists in a much smaller capacity, especially after Randy Couture broke off to form Xtreme Couture.
- “The Natural” Randy Couture
- Matt “The Law” Lindland
- Evan Tanner
- Chael Sonnen
No. 1: Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) – The number one team on this list is one that has held roots in early MMA, through the dark ages, and whose impact is still being felt in modern MMA today. “The Croatian Sensation” Pat Miletich was one of the most complete fighters to step into the Octagon; at the time, fighters understood that they had to be proficient in everything, but few were actually getting there. Miletich started in the UFC at a time when tournaments were still being held, but rules were being developed and modified every day. As MMA was evolving, so was Miletich, bringing on guys who could sharpen him, and would sharpen with him. After Miletich lost the UFC Welterweight championship, protege Matt Hughes picked up the title and became one of the greatest Welterweight champion in UFC history. The reason why MFS is ranked the best among all of the Super Gyms is because of their longevity; they arrived in the time of the Lion’s Den, they bred the champions that the UFC needed like Team Quest, they had personalities like Team Punishment, and had a significant presence in the west like the American Kickboxing Academy. MFS have also contributed a significant number of personalities to the UFC’s “Ultimate Fighter,” including Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver as coaches, Sam Hoger, Brad Imes, and Mike Whitehead as contestants. Pat Miletich and MFS were also one of the International Fight League’s most dominant teams as the Quad City Silverbacks.
- Matt Hughes
- “The Maine-Iac” Tim Sylvia
- “Ruthless” Robby Lawler
- “Lil’ Evil” Jens Pulver
There is no doubt that the sport of MMA is carried on the backs of the fighters and athletes. These fighters and athletes need the support of their coaches and training partners. With these facts understood, it was these five Super Gyms that made MMA what it is today and for that I am grateful.
Until next time: Fights, Cameron, Action!