The mixed martial arts super camp is nothing new. From the earliest days of the UFC, the world's top fighters tended to congregate, joining together their knowledge, their resources and their precious time on the mat, each fighter looking to become the world's best. There was strength in numbers— and an assurance that no one was getting too far ahead of the game.
Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den was the first, spawning multiple champions and a slew of top contenders. Others soon followed, most notably Pat Miletich's team in Iowa that produced four world champions, including Miletich himself.
Each top team possesses a collective swagger, a confidence bred under fire, a confidence that comes from knowing you've survived a training camp with the world's best, savages that can leave lesser men broken and battered.
Fighters that emerge from these camps have certain expectations. There is a pedigree that is both a blessing and a curse for a fighter looking to make his way in the cutthroat world of MMA.
Of course, there is a certain amount of danger that comes with that success. Few of the sport's leading training camps have passed the test of time.
Those that reach certain heights tend to topple as they get top-heavy. Egos emerge. The sport moves forward. New techniques and strategies come to the forefront while tradition-happy camps continue to pretend the world will always be as it was when they were at their peak.
Ken Shamrock, inadvertently, articulated the challenge of these withered and dying fight factories. "I'm a brawler and a leglock man," he told the world during The Ultimate Fighter's third season, oblivious to the fact that the sport had changed. A leglock man was something to be feared when Shamrock was dominating the sport in the early days. It wouldn't cut it in the modern UFC.
Ken Shamrock was trapped in time. To him, it would always be 1996. In that moment, there was no question Shamrock would never again produce champions. His day was done.
That's what makes the lasting success of the American Kickboxing Academy so remarkable. The school, based out of San Jose, California, has been producing some of the sport's top fighters since 1996, bridging the gap between old-school UFC veterans Brian Johnson and Frank Shamrock and today's top stars like Cain Velasquez and Jon Fitch.
Its success bucked the odds, going against everything we know about the life cycle of your typical MMA super camp. Veterans of the MMA media nodded our heads knowingly when AKA standout Josh Koscheck made an abrupt departure from the team, blasting trainer Javier Mendez on his way out the door:
"There's one reason I'm leaving San Jose AKA and that's because of Javier Mendez," Koscheck told MMA Weekly. "He's the only reason I'm leaving that gym...I started to notice after all my teammates lost, it was the same thing. They didn't listen to the game plan, that he deferred it away from himself, and he threw us under the bus basically saying that we didn't listen to him and he tries to make himself look good, so it doesn't reflect on him us losing."
It was the kind of ugly scene that could have been the beginning of the end—a modern version of Frank Shamrock's disastrous confrontation with his brother Ken that killed the Lion's Den, or Randy Couture's decision to abandon Team Quest for a new home in Las Vegas.
Instead, the gym has been business as usual.
"Bob (Cook), DeWayne (Zinkin) and Jav (Mendez) are top-flight guys," former Olympian and AKA wrestling coach Daniel Cormier said. "Good guys. And they will get things back in order. It played out in the media, so you know what was going on. Everything's back on track and it shows. You're going to see us have some really big success in some really big fights...we're as big as we've ever been. You're going to see it....In your darkest times, the sun will always shine."
"As far as how the gym feels now, it feels great," former UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez said. "There are always little things here or there that disrupt training, but us as a team, we stayed strong together and moved forward. We all have the same goal. To train. To help each other out. And go out there and fight and win."
Koscheck wasn't the only longtime AKA stalwart to leave the gym. Jiu-jitsu coach Dave Camarillo also said his goodbyes, albeit in a less dramatic style. Camarillo's absence left a hole that Cook and Mendez smartly filled with a world-class jiu-jitsu player named Leandro Vieira, a no-gi standout who is working wonders with the squad.
"Leandro has been a great jiu-jitsu instructor," Velasquez said. "Some of the stuff we're learning...it's high level jiu-jitsu. You can tell because the guys in the gym are picking it up quickly. We'll learn something one day and the next day guys are already using it. And being successful with it."
Daniel Cormier co-signs that assessment.
"Leandro Vieira is the best jiu-jitsu coach I've ever had," the Olympian said. "His mind is just unbelievable, and he has access to all these guys. He brought his brother (Leonardo Vieira) in, who's a 10-time world champion. He's a world champion. He brought us a heavyweight world champion to grapple with."
World-class wrestler "King" Mo Lawal has also joined the team in recent months, but for all that's changed, the key components remain the same—Cook supervising the entire operation and Mendez guiding training and strategy sessions.
"Javier has been my coach since I first started. As far as standup, game plan, I'm always looking to him," Velasquez said. "He's really been a great friend to me also. I think he's one of the best coaches out there."
Pushing Each Other
As Cormier and Velasquez both prepare to fight (Cormier in the finals of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix this weekend in Strikeforce and Velasquez at UFC 146 the following Saturday), the two men have become the most important figures in each other's lives, if only for eight weeks.
Family, even for a new father like Velasquez, has to be put aside. For fighters, there is only each other, grinding every day in the gym, together becoming very dangerous human beings.
"Training with him gives me great confidence. He's recognized as one of the top-three heavyweights in the world, universally," Cormier said. "Having a guy like that in the gym? Every single day? It's great. I look across the cage and know I've put the work in, every time I see my opponent. I know I've trained hard, because if you don't, Cain's going to kill you. You have no choice but to work your butt off."
As an NCAA All-American, Velasquez has few equals on the mat. A wrestler of Cormier's skill is a precious gift, both as a coach and as a teammate who can pressure him like few others can.
"He's definitely the real deal... I'm blessed," Velasquez said. "To find somebody like that, who can push you...watching yourselves just grow and grow. And he picks things up quicker than most people. Look at where he started and where he is now."
On Saturday, Cormier faces his stiffest challenge. Josh Barnett is a legend in the sport on two continents for good reason—the former UFC champion is an amazing fighter.
More to the point, the last time he stepped into the cage with an undersized Olympic-class wrestler, he wiped the mat with him. That wrestler's name was Randy Couture. But Cormier's cheering section is undaunted.
"He knows what to do. He's been in this situation a bunch of times competing in wrestling," Velasquez said. "All that experience in wrestling, it definitely comes over to what we are doing now. He knows what to do."
Velasquez seems pretty excited to see his friend in action. His own fight, now against Brazilian Antonio Silva, doesn't appear to have him quite as stoked. His original opponent, Frank Mir, was moved into a main event title shot versus Junior dos Santos. Against the unheralded Silva, who was last seen in a losing effort against Cormier, Velasquez has everything to lose and very little to gain.
"We're expecting a guy even better than we saw (against Cormier last September)," Velasquez said. "We're not expecting the same Antonio Silva. We're expecting the best Antonio Silva that's ever come out. We're expecting a fight."
Jonathan Snowden is the MMA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
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