Drive up to most MMA gyms and you’ll park in the shadows of a colossal warehouse: Blackhouse, Reign, Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness.
But not Kings MMA, owned by master trainer Rafael Cordeiro. Nested miles from the sand in Huntington Beach, California, this nondescript academy occupies the corner of an 80s-era strip mall. And the place is small. No more than a few thousand feet.
Despite the modest locale, Kings is home to Rafael Dos Anjos, this weekend’s challenger to Anthony Pettis’ UFC Lightweight belt.
I’m personally stoked on the event, because, No question, Dos Anjos represents the champion’s toughest challenge to date. Riding a three-fight win streak, including decisive wins over Nate Diaz (unanimous decision), Benson Henderson (first round KO), and Jason High (second round KO), Dos Anjos is more than ready for a fight he’s dreamed and prepared for more than a decade.
However, walking into the academy, which features a small front desk near the entry, a row of aluminum benches for parents to watch their children, and wall-to-wall mats punctuated by a small cage—seeing the modest set-up, I wondered, With all the success, why does Cordeiro, who was voted 2012 MMA coach of the year, keep it so simple?
“We’re a family,” Cordeiro told me, “and the gym is our home. We have everything we need here: jiu jitsu, wrestling, muay thai. I think it's bad for fighters, once they get big, to isolate themselves in [private] gyms, because when you hire people to train with, they never tell you the truth.”
I unloaded my camera gear, then followed Cordeiro through the gym, shooting as he wound a path through the twenty-or-so fighters sparring on the mat—issuing instructions to both amateur and pros, such as UFC Lightweight Beneil Dariush, who is fighting Daron Cruickshank on this weekend’s card.
“Our fighters don't just fight for themselves, they fight for our family—that’s what we are, a family. When one fighter rises it brings the team up, they rise to that level with him. For instance, Beneil rolls and fights with [Dos Anjos] everyday, so he is getting much better than if he was just fighting normal teammates.
Was it always like this? I ask, knowing Cordeiro’s long history in the sport.
“Back in the days of Chute Boxe and Pride we had Wanderlei [Silva], Anderson [Silva], and Shogun Rua on the mats everyday, and they lifted each other to become big stars, because they’d look at each other and say, If he can do this then I can do this—that’s almost more important than techniques.”
After leaving Cordeiro I wandered to the cage and watched a Dos Anjos sparring under the tutelage of his long-time jiu jitsu coach, Roberto “Gordo” Correa. The challenger for the belt looked good, sharp and determined. Five minute rounds passed in a flurry of brutal kicks and punches, and when it was done I ducked into the cage while Dos Anjos doused himself with water.
This family metaphor, I wanted to know if he embraced the same ethos.
“Yes, of course,” he tells me, “a tree you cannot grow without roots, so I stay where I grow. Many fighters just train for [a specific fight] camp, hire a bunch of guys, then they’re gone. But here we come to help newer fighters even when we don't have a fight, we’re brothers that way.”
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that jiu jitsu and MMA gyms differ greatly from those in Brazil. For instance, gyms in the U.S. are more structured, with less random all-day scrapping. More specific times for classes.
“In Brazil we didn't we didn't have older fighters around us like this,” he saiys, “so, how I started training—” for a moment he chuckles, then gazes out the window and continues “—I never told this story, but when I was ten years old and training jiu jitsu, I went to Blockbuster and found this old VHS tape of Rickson Gracie fighting in an early Vale Tudo tournament [Vale Tudo Japan 1994]. That night he won three fights in a row, and it was so cool that after returning the tape, the next weekend I went back and rented it again, then again the next weekend, and the next. I rented the tape so many times the guy at the counter said why don't you just buy the stupid thing—probably I was the only person who ever rented it. So I bought it and me and my brother watched it every single day.
Do you still own it?
Again, he laughs. “No, one day I was watching it with my friends and we started fighting in the living room, trying to do all Rickson’s positions and we broke all the furniture and totally messed the place up. Then my mom came home and saw the mess. She ripped the tape out of the machine and broke it. I was so sad, it was like she broke my dreams.”
Now we both laugh, until Cordeiro calls for the team to join in a last prayer before Dos Anjos and Dariush depart for Dallas, Texas, host of this weekend’s event.
Win or lose, it’s clear, they will always have each other.
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