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A fighter’s guide to choosing an MMA gym

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UFC flyweight Roxanne Modafferi gives her thoughts, experiences, and a few helpful pointers on finding the right MMA gym.

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Roxanne Modafferi training with coach John Wood.

Choosing an MMA gym or team is way more complicated than fans might think. Professional fighting is a ‘job,’ but unlike trudging to an office to put in dutiful hours no matter how you feel about it, emotions can have a huge impact on a fighter’s career and immediate earnings. If a fighter isn’t happy and content in the gym, they will most likely perform poorly – and very possibly lose their fight – in the cage.

Several factors go into a good training environment: Instructors, teammates, location, gym features, your body type and learning style — all these play a part, but how much depends on the individual.

Here are some of the experiences that have led me to my current home at Syndicate MMA.


What time is practice?

Roxalepsy standing in a train in Japan.
Julianna Peña

From my teenage years through my early twenties, I used to be a night person. I could wake up at 7 AM or later, train in the evening, and go to bed at midnight or 1 AM. Starting in my late twenties, my body clock switched to where I would shut down, and couldn’t function well the later it got. Night-time classes became a struggle. And nowadays, I literally pass out in my seat at 9 PM on cue. I term it ‘Roxalepsy’ (like Roxy’s narcolepsy — although I don’t clinically have narcolepsy).

I’ve fallen asleep in restaurants talking to people, at UFC events, on the floor of friend’s houses, movie theaters, standing up on trains, just before fights, Cirque Du Soleil shows, on the road, etc.

If I’m competing, caffeine is my only saving grace or my career would be over.

Roxalepsy at Quintet with Serena.
Mike Pyle

When I lived in Japan, I trained at the AACC — famous for female fighting stars Megumi Fujii, Ayaka Hamasaki, Hitomi Akano, and coach Hiroyuki Abe. I loved it there; great facility, high-level technique, and the biggest group of professional female fighters. I worked at my English-teaching job during the day and went there at night, taking Abe-san’s jiujitsu class from 7 to 9 PM. Then the fighters rolled in and MMA class started… at 10 PM.

That’s normal in Japan, because lots of Japanese company employees are overworked and really do get out of work that late. I remember multiple times finishing up jiujitsu rounds and going up to Megumi at 9:30 asking her if she wanted to roll. She always told me that she had just gotten there, wanted to stretch out, and wait for the other girls to come. I wanted to go home at 10 and sleep! I found I literally could not make it through practice and had to go look for another gym.

It was so sad to me. I think I only trained with Megumi a handful of times despite training there for two years — and she is the highest level female grappler in Japan. I learned nothing from her. Such a shame. I loved her as a person, though, and I treasure our friendship.

Roxy and Megumi in Asakusa

Who do you train with?

Training partners are so important — in both their skill, and their level of control. It’s of paramount importance to have training partners who can control their power and not try to kill you every day. “Never use anger to fight” is the Jedi way. I always tell my kids jiujitsu class this. Injuries happen more in the gym than during competition. Fighters have been forced to retire due to concussions from sparring too hard. It’s totally possible to hit somebody in the head with speed and precision but pull the power so it doesn’t damage your partner’s gray matter.

Asking someone to hit lighter is not about being a wimp, it’s caring about the longevity of your career. I like to quote Ronda when she said, “My body is my business.” Like a car, I fuel it, I give it regular tune-ups. So, why would I crash it into walls for fun? We have to make conscious decisions as to when we put our bodies on the line or don’t.

Additionally, it’s never good to be the best person at the gym. Fighters should always train with both people better than, and not as good as, they are. They need to be pushed and challenged, but also need other people to try out new techniques they’re unfamiliar with, and have a chance of succeeding in them. It’s best to feel positive about training. I want to look forward to going to the gym and having friendly conversations with my training partners.

I loved my training partners at the AACC, but my body couldn’t handle the schedule, so I switched to Groundslam Yokohama around 2011. The morning classes were amazing! I got to train with the legendary Caol Uno — who fought in one of the first UFC events I ever watched, UFC 41. Also, Hideo Tokoro, Michinori Tanaka, Michihiro Tanaka, and Masanori Kanehara among others.

Ground Slam 2013

I loved waking up early and going to the gym for top level sparring. Most of the time, we warmed up for five minutes and just went right into sparring. Some guys went pretty hard. The talent of training partners was amazing, but my body couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t the gym’s fault, though. My body was just so beat up from years of fighting that sometimes I only got in two or three five-minute rounds before I was too hurt to continue practice and had to go home.

Tokoro-san and Uno-san were my favorites to spar with because they had the most control. I felt bad always asking Uno-san to spar because I couldn’t challenge him at all. He was so much better than me and outweighed me — and I think Tokoro-san was going a little too easy on me. I loved my team at Groundslam and every day I cursed my body for being so weak and broken.

At that time, I hadn’t met a massage therapist or physical trainer who suited me. Every day, I was dealing with bicipital tendinitis, a damaged rotator cuff, a bulging disk in my lower back, and a herniated disk in my neck — not to mention every other minor thing that popped up. I was considering retiring from MMA.

Now I have Teri Wallace, who is a miracle-worker in massage therapy. And my strength & conditioning trainer Lorenzo Pavlica has made me stronger, so I wake up in the morning free from back, shoulder, and neck pains!


Who are you learning from?

I saved the best for last: instruction and instructors. Are the instructors invested in my success personally, or do they only show up, teach, and go home right away? Do they watch me spar and make mental notes of what I need to learn next time? Do they come over and coach me in the middle of sparring? Will they sacrifice their time to support me by going to my competitions, or make time for giving me private lessons if I ask? Can they communicate in an effective way depending on if I’m an audio, visual, or kinetic learner?

I hadn’t realized I was a verbal learner until I returned from Japan to America for TUF 18 and my rate of technique absorption increased exponentially. It made sense, though, since I’m a linguist and can speak four languages (with varying degrees of fluency). At Groundslam, Katsumura-san was an amazing instructor, but only taught technique in the evening classes, not the pro classes. BJ Kojima-san used to teach once a week. There was a slight language barrier because I did speak Japanese, but it wasn’t perfect, and I couldn’t always articulate my questions.

I remember asking questions to my various Japanese coaches about specific balance points or strategy or whatnot, but couldn’t really get the knack of what they were trying to teach me. I thought it was because I sucked (Well, I did. But I couldn’t get my striking not sucky). It could have been their style of explanation didn’t match my understanding in any language, or the fact I missed a few words here and there.

To that end, Syndicate MMA head coach John Wood is the best coach I’ve ever had.

Coach John Wood describing technique.

For some magical reason, he has the ability to speak the words that register understanding of kickboxing inside my frustrated, detail-oriented brain. I can’t just “see it and do it.” I need someone to verbally explain every detail to me, and he’s the only striking coach in my LIFE who has been able to do that. Even other English-speaking coaches haven’t been able to explain technique the way I need it.

A good MMA coach can build on a fighter’s tendencies and natural abilities, rather than try to change their style completely (unless the fighter has incorrect habits, of course). John has always told me that I have awkward movement, so he’s going to keep it, but add more tools to my tool box.

An excellent MMA coach will be able to instruct every fighter differently, depending on their ability and learning style. My private mitt session is different than my teammates’ sessions. I’m a speed and finesse fighter, not a power fighter who’s going to stand in the pocket, plant, and try to KO someone.

My trainer Lorenzo has years of experience with all kinds of sports, and also has the ability to tailor workouts to not only my body type, but my needs (for example, build explosive power). He can work around my injuries, and he knows how to motivate me. My jiujitsu trainer, former UFC fighter Mike Pyle’s ability to explain jiujitsu technique is suited perfectly to my learning style.

Nobody has ever mistreated me at any gym I’ve visited. Problems always arose due to issues with me, my learning style, my schedule, and other things that caused me to switch gyms or wander. It doesn’t mean the gyms I went to were bad or there was something wrong with them — they just weren’t suited to me.

I used to feel so lost and lacking in some regard, but I finally found my home at Syndicate MMA because it has everything I need: morning classes, teachers who fit my learning style who are invested in me, and great training partners who don’t go too hard and injure me. My coaches care about my career. The gym itself has the facilities that I need: jiujitsu & Muay Thai classes, a cage & matted walls, and a strength & conditioning area. It’s fifteen minutes away from my apartment. It’s so hard to find a perfect balance, and after fifteen years of fighting and 42 fights, I think I’ve earned it.

Newer fighters who haven’t had my experiences need to know what to keep their eyes open for. But first, they need to know themselves and what kind of person and fighter they are. To quote the Disney movie “The Princess and the Frog,” “When you find out who you are, you find out what you need.”