Where I look at major MMA camps, and how they performed in 2013. Part 1 is here
Camp taxonomy and sundry disclaimers
What comprises an MMA "camp"? Frankly, I’ll be damned if I know. Much like biological taxonomy, distinguishing lines are blurry and ultimately a little subjective if you’re trying to get some kind of overarching visualization of the landscape.
For example: Black House is a management team under which a variety of other camps or gyms operate. These include:
- APAM Machida Academy
- Team Nogueira (Itself a parent for the Pitbull Brothers gyms and several others if I am correct)
- Occasional claims of Nova Uniao(?)
As far as I am aware, X-gym is no longer a part of the Black House umbrella, but many individual fighters retain strong ties with Team Nogueira.
The question becomes- how to divide these up? The most scientamifically accurate way would be to take the granular approach, and analyze individual gyms. However, this serves to chop up a lot of camps (particularly Brazilian ones) into pretty small and statistically unwieldy chunks. In addition, there are some camps like American Top Team, which has multiple separate gyms- to cut up ATT similarly makes for smaller data sets... and is just a lot of work, involving researching separate fighters, and I’m too lazy for that.
So, I have generally taken the approach of putting gyms under "umbrellas" of larger camps, where possible. This unfortunately will have the effects of reducing the effects of individual gyms and trainers (sorry The Pit / Elevated et al). The exception will be Black House because they've made claims to practically every Brazilian under the sun at some point.
I have also prioritized "major" camps at the cost of little ones- if we have someone like Alexander Gustafsson who splits his time, I’m going to count him as coming from Alliance, despite the fact that he’s probably more likely to actually be "from" Allstars Training Center (which isn’t even a small or under-represented gym at all). Apologies, less famous guys and gals. I need big chunks of data, and thus you must be sacrificed to the God of Fudged Stats.
Finally, fighters jump around camps a lot. Sometimes camps go out of business. I mostly took my information from Fight Finder or wikipedia, so there’s a good chance that the inevitable errors of pure approximation may be compounded by just being plain wrong.
So all this to say- don’t take any of this seriously. This is the result of a great deal of sketchiness, on stats which are not really significant, and can be heavily influenced by a single fighter, or referee, or any number of factors.
Finally, the influence of a camp is highly debatable in the first place- it’s one of those elements (along with weight class changes) which is often touted as a panacea for struggling fighters, but it’s best to remember that mentality and sheer talent will always be the primary factors dictating the success of any individual. Camps help, but they can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
How the major camps performed:
|wins||losses||total fights||win by tko||win by sub||win by decision||loss by tko||loss by sub||loss by decision|
|Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu||5||5||10||1||0||4||1||0||4|
|Allstars Training Centre||5||2||7||0||4||1||1||0||1|
For the purposes of the analysis, I threw out any camps which had anything less than 7 fights, because then it's just getting ridiculous.
How many fights?
I made some kind of attempt to colour code this so that it's easier to see at a glance- darker / redder is the heavier weight classes. Catchweight and Women's 135 were given "weird" colours to distinguish them. I apologize for how tiny the names are.
Flying under the radar (as it has an odd tendency to do), Nova Uniao is the winningest major camp of 2013 in the UFC. At the bottom end, Team Quest didn't do so well, but has started off 2014 with a fairly convincing win for Tarec Saffiedine.
Breaking the above down into pure finishing percentages, which camps managed to finish their fights the most?
Losing / getting finished
On the other side of the equation, when fighters from camps did lose, did they get finished a lot, or was it by decision?
This is a somewhat underrated element, in my opinion. There's something to be said for trying to finish and going out on your shield if you're about to lose a decision, but it's also important to teach fighters fundamentals and control, and it's interesting that Tristar and AMC Pankration, which are thought of as very "technical" camps, both haven't had a single fighter who was finished last year in the UFC.
For their fights, which camp picked up the most percentage of bonuses?
BEHOLD THE MIGHTY AMC PANKRATION, the most exciting fight camp of 2013 (by these admittedly very arbitrary standards).
At one point, Jackson's was actually leading the pack. It would have been great, if only for the 2010-era hater irony. I believe that Jacksons did get the most bonuses in total throughout the year.
Personal thoughts on camps
Some thoughts which came to me while researching this (this is where you can probably stop reading if you just cared about the stats).
American Top Team
ATT is just a big, big camp, full of big fighters. It’s difficult to really categorize, because it’s so large and has so many gyms dotted around the US. ATT products tend to be fairly well-trained, and aggressive. If they have any weaknesses, it’s that they're also fairly hittable. The most notable ATT strength is probably cutting weight, fielding titans like Gleison Tibau.
Fun game- ask people who don’t know much about MMA to pick which one of Tibau (155), Alves (170) and Poirier (145) is at which weight class.
ATT also serves as a bit of a sponge to sop up the dispossessed, the Todd Duffees and the Melvin Guillards and suchlike. It had a little surge in late 2013, with Dustin Poirier notching a couple of nice wins over Erik Koch and Diego Brandao, the Silva-Hunt war, and Robbie Lawler poised to fight for the WW belt in 2014. I believe this may be the first time an ATT product has been in a major title fight since Mike Thomas Brown lost the 145 WEC strap? This depends on whether Bigfoot was with ATT when he fought Cain.
Jackson's and Winkeljohn's MMA
Probably the most famous of all the MMA camps, the interesting thing about Jackson’s is the steady sea-change in perception, as the concept of "Jackson’s Boring Gameplanners", is fairly definitively proving to be incorrect. Back in ‘09 and ‘10 in particular, there was a widespread idea that the camp was this dreadful Clive Barker meat machine which took entertaining mixed martial artists and somehow squoze them into monotonous cookie-cutter wrestle-boxers.
This seemed far from the truth then. It seems further now. Fighters like Cerrone, Condit and Swanson have been held up as exceptions, but it’s increasingly clear that they’re closer to the rule. Jackson’s fighters tend to have wild, undisciplined, aggressive stand-up. When was the last time you saw a product of the Albuquerque gym throw a jab? That’s right.
Jon Jones, their flagship fighter, pushed further than ever before, his spinning elbows and lead head kicks failing to deter Gustafsson as they had so many other foes, bit down on the mouthpiece and battled his way back into the fight with, er, more spinning elbows and lead head kicks?
RIP Jackson's Boring Gameplanners.
Long live Jackson's Wacky Flailers.
Imperial Athletics is overcoming its growing pains and attempting to reinvent itself. When it was first formed, it came under a lot of (undue) criticism for a string of losses. It was a good example of how people can overrate the strength or weakness of a camp: those early losses were essentially unavoidable.
Evans and Belfort lost to Jones and Silva not because of their camp, but because Anderson Silva and Jon Jones are (or were) much better fighters than Vitor Belfort and Jon Jones, and there isn’t a camp in the world that can really change that.
That said, the Blackzilians did go on to lay a few notable eggs (Bigfoot-Overeem, Evans-Nogueira, Johnson-Madadi). They are gaining their feet and some momentum now, with Vitor’s steroid-fuelled run, and their first major belt win with Eddie Alvarez’ triumph over Michael Chandler in Bellator.
Michael Johnson himself is interesting to me (he was actually the inspiration for a fan post I wrote on mma evolution, which sadly seems to have disappeared), as he represents a fighter who has genuinely transformed under the Blackzilians, a real "product" of the gym.
One of the major success stories of 2013, particularly early on. The success of Alpha Male partially speaks to the other half of the camp equation- raw material, the innate talent of the fighters who train there. Uriah Faber worked tirelessly to ensure that the Sacramento camp scooped up a who’s who of gifted lighter weight American prospects, instilling excellent grappling, a terrifying work ethic, and a raw physicality which carried them to many of their wins. The only real weakness was in predictable stand-up offense.
The hiring of Bang Ludwig has been the final piece of the puzzle, and the spark which lit the Alpha Male gunpowder. Their success in 2013 has been astonishing, rocketing them from their position as the #2 lighter weight camp (behind Nova Uniao) to… well, OK, they’re still the #2 lighter weight camp. But they won a lot of fights this year.
The most impressive improvements have been from Chad Mendes. Long hailed as the gym’s best athlete, he clearly clicks astonishingly well with Ludwig, and has looked like an absolute terror, a 3-dimensional brutalizer miles away from his control-based WEC incarnation.
The main problem with Alpha Male is that they are focused on overpowering their opponents (unsurprisingly when they normally own such a physical advantage) and stress kill-shots over feints and setups. Even if they are getting more diverse under Ludwig, it’s still HEAD KICKS! and FULL POWER BODY SHOTS. By extension their favoured sub is the high-risk, positionally-sacrificial guillotine.
Thus when they come up against the other elite camps, the constant emphasis on hitting the home run can lead to their fighters getting worn down and losing wars of attrition. Notably we haven’t had any Nova Uniao vs Alpha Male at the elite level this year, but it’ll be interesting to see how they do. The emphasis on the kill-shot was also a debatable contributing factor to Joseph Benavidez getting pineboxed in his last title fight against Mighty Mouse, leading the camp to a frustrating 0-8 in total title shots since Faber lost his belt to Mike Brown. ouch.
Another camp predicated on precision and risk mitigation, and we’re starting to see something of the backlash that Jackson’s picked up. Firas Zahabi has an extremely strong emphasis on fundamentals in his camp, particularly the jab, and numerous Tristar fights have been won primarily based around this strike (Stout-Makdessi, Macdonald-Ellenberger, GSP-Koscheck).
"Everybody kind of thinks they know how to jab, but they really don’t. A lot of times you show them the real jabbing mechanics, different types of jabs for different types of situations, and I haven’t come across many MMA fighters that are familiar with the system of jabbing. … It’s very complex. It’s not that simple. When to jab, how to jab, the context. When can you jab without paying for it? Without getting clipped? Without getting countered?"
The focus on conservatism extends to the ground game, as Tristar fighters have yet to notch up a single submission win in 2013. Regardless of the growing chorus of whining about the Montreal camp, I do find the emphasis on building a sound base to be admirable.
My personal thoughts are that in the combination of yesteryears "boring camp" (Jackson’s) and its focus on interpretive dance, and this year’s "boring camp" with its disciplined fundamentals, there potentially lies something quite special. A fight like Lawler-Macdonald could have been won by Rory with a little more emphasis on variegated pressure, and on the other side of the equation the lack of boxing fundamentals very nearly cost Jon Jones his belt.
American Kickboxing Academy
Velasquez has consolidated his stranglehold on the heavyweight title in 2013, and AKA is another camp which could be poised for big things (this phrase is ruined for me) in 2014. Daniel Cormier is fighting Rashad Evans in what probably amounts to one of Zuffa's odd, one-sided title eliminators. Luke Rockhold is still an interesting dark horse to keep an eye out for in 2014. Despite being a dangerously slow starter, I actually think he's a decent style matchup for Chris Weidman.
2014 sees the San Diego fighters at something of a cusp. Gustafsson (who splits his time between this and All Stars) is attempting to work his way back to Jon Jones after their closely contested fight. Michael Chandler will attempt to regain his belt from Eddie Alvarez in Bellator. Dominic Cruz, the gym’s signature fighter, has been pulled from his fight with Renan Barao and vacated the 135-pound belt. Ross Pearson will be rematching Melvin Guillard, in a fight which he was soundly losing before Guillard threw an illegal knee.
Cruz is rarely looked at as much of an innovator, but the movement-heavy style he premiered has been often mimicked but never equalled, using full body feints and shifts in balance to disguise jump knees, combination punches, and his knee-tap takedown.
This is debatably the most successful high-level camp in the world at the moment, and no-one cares because much of that success comes at the smaller weight classes, and because it’s full of Brazilians. Renan Barao and Jose Aldo are, respectively, quite possibly the greatest bantamweight and featherweight that the young sport has ever seen. Add in Eduardo "Dudu" Dantas, the Bellator Bantamweight champ, and you have a pretty unparalleled record of top level excellence.
What is the core of Nova Uniao success? Like many of the upper-tier camps, it’s a focus on fundamentals. Aggressive muai thai and submission games are part of the traditional "Brazilian" style, but what Nova Uniao has over most other Brazilian gyms is extremely good MMA wrestling. Even a lesser-known fighter like Ronny Markes was able to outwrestle Aaron Simpson, and compete with Yoel Romero in the grappling. Secondly, Pederneiras’ camp seems to teach an excellent control of distance, as complemented and exemplified by Aldo and Barao’s powerful leg kicks.
As champions, they have a great overall style centered around "patience with opportunistic finishing"- they won't take much risks, but if they see that an opponent is hurt, then that guy is most likely toast. It will be interesting to see what happens if either one has to make a comeback- Pat Curran, who shares those traits, notably struggles to step it up a gear when he's down on the cards.
The other major Brazilian camp. This is an exemplar of a fairly noticeable trend in Brazilian camps: fighter named and/or owned gyms.
I think that Brazil is undergoing a popular culture MMA boom in the same way that the US did a few years back, and so a lot of fighters are trying to carve out their own slice of the pie. I can't help but feel that this is generally a terrible idea, and looking at someone like Fabio Maldonado and seeing that he trains out of "Fabio Maldonado Team" doesn't generally give me a powerful sense of optimism for his UFC fate.
Consolidation of talent, talented fighters training with similar talented fighters, iron sharpening iron etc. are big parts of the success of Nova Uniao and the major US camps.
Team Nogueira is thankfully something of an exception to this with an obviously superb stable of fighters. However, it has fallen a little with the loss of the prestigious heavyweight and middleweight belts, which have now passed to Velasquez and Weidman respectively.
Definitely a camp which has come up in the world, particularly with Anthony Pettis’ championship win over Ben Henderson. With Ben Askren and Pettis in the camp, they have both top-level wrestling and striking represented.
However, this may also be at the root of Roufusport’s weakness- the area that blends striking and grappling. There’s a tendency towards "Wrestling Mode" and "Striking Mode" - often the strikers like Pettis and Koch are adept at defending takedowns, but not specifically punishing them, which allowed determined grapplers like Brookins and Guida to spam takedown attempts. Askren for his part flashes hints of stand-up which could charitably be called "Aoki-esque".
Similarly, back when Pettis fought Jeremy Stephens, between the first and second rounds Pettis could be seen shouting: "Showtime Transform! Roufusport Offensive Wrestler Mode: Goooo!"
Wrestler mode doesn't actually quite look like this
In conclusion, it seems like Roufusport may need more Russians
Chuck Liddell's erstwhile camp, John Hackleman tends to produce gritty, hard-nosed, fighter's fighters. I always thought that it was ironic that Tony Ferguson didn't end up on Team Liddell in his stint on The Ultimate Fighter, as he's the closest thing I think I've ever seen to a lightweight Chuck, complete with the takedown defense, the rangy, powerful boxing, and even Liddell's hunched stance.
I'm impressed with what Hackleman et al have done with Court McGee, as he has maximized his best traits (toughness, cardio) and minimized his weaknesses (power, speed) with a high-volume kicking assault. He's a very different fighter from the plodding brawler who first stepped into the UFC cage.
Cesar Gracie Jiu Jitsu
While the Skrap Pack have often been outgunned athletically, their focus on hard sparring means that their technique may not be pretty, but it's almost always effective. Jake Shields's standup has often been mocked, but the more he drags elite competitors down into mud-fights, the more obvious it becomes that his pawing boxing is not as easy to get around as it looks.
Melendez and Shields both had their backs taken by Sanchez and Maia respectively. Those are two grapplers which you do not want getting a dominant position on you, yet they were shucked off and reversed with relative ease. Getting out of bad spots, effectiveness over aesthetics, grit over athletic power.
Still doing fairly well despite the departure of key figures like Nate Marquardt for High Altitude MMA, Trevor Wittman’s Grudge clutches a solid winning percentage like a cornerstone.
Matt Hume heads up AMC Pankration. He defines the words "student of the game", and as a cornerman, you’d often see him explaining to confused fighters exactly what they should do in the next round of a fight, in bafflingly granular detail.
Demetrious Johnson is a perfect fit with Hume. His improvements outside the cage have been impressive, but he is near-unparalleled in his ability to make technical and strategic adjustments mid-fight (Tomas Rios has a rather great piece on him here). In between rounds you can see Hume explaining to Johnson exactly what he should be doing, and Mighty Mouse looking up at him, completely processing the constant stream of information.
The other interesting strength of AMC Pankration is in their use of the Thai clinch. Possibly the most famous Matt Hume-trained fighter remains Rich Franklin, and he will unfortunately never be known for anything as much as his blow-out losses to Anderson Silva where he was battered from the double collar tie. So, it’s fascinating to see that the camp now has such a reputation for scientific and technical control of the clinch, from Mighty Mouse’s barrage of knees against John Dodson, to Matt Brown’s variegated assault with elbows and knees. "Learn from your losses" is apparently the mantra of The Borg of MMA camps.
Founded as a wrestler-centric camp by Matt Lindland, Dan Henderson and Randy Couture in 2000, It seems strange that Team Quest is still rocking and rolling after all the disputes and lawsuits. Henderson and Sonnen have met with mixed success of late, but Tarec Saffiediene has finally begun to make waves in the UFC's welterweight division. I won't consider him a real Team Quest fighter until he knocks someone down and then dive-bombs them with flying ground and pound, though.
Allstars Training Center
I don't really know all that much about the Swedish gym, but they did great numbers. Admittedly, apart from Gustafsson, the vast majority of the fights were against TUF alum. Regardless, they posted an excellent finish rate, and did it by submission to boot, which is fairly rare in this day and age. Gustafsson really proved that the Swedes are nothing to mess with, and hopefully we can see more from this camp in the future
Ben Henderson is the face of the Arizona Gym, but I find the most interesting fighter to be the perennially-underrated Alex Caceres, who has quietly improved (much like his fellow TUF 12 contestant Michael Johnson in the Blackzilians) into a solid fighter. He shares Henderson's pace, toughness, eerie calm, and willingness to take the fight anywhere. And big hair.
Other brief thoughts
Team Takedown and Serra Longo
Smaller camps which produced amazing fighters last year. Team Takedown in particular was probably known more for great wrestling prospects which would then bust (Rosholt, Roller), but Hendricks has turned that perception around, and then some.
Their fighters came into championship bouts not only physically well-prepared, but with what appeared to be gameplans tailor-made for their legendary opponents.
Vegas-based camps really didn’t do so good this year for whatever reason. Xtreme Couture, Syndicate (including the two King Mo losses), etc. It might be telling that Team Takedown moved out of Vegas a few years back. But probably not.