"It was all a dream, I used to read 'Word Up' magazine..."
Brandon Vera starts quoting Notorious B.I.G. and I know that I will be enjoying this interview. As an East Coast native, Biggie Smalls is just part of my DNA so anyone who knows the words to 'Juicy' is a-okay by me.
Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself.
Following UFC 148 I drove out to San Diego with the goal of speaking with Vera and other fighters about the Alliance Training Center. Home to guys such as Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Alex Gufstafsson, and Vera, it's one of the best gyms in the country, yet also one of the least known. I had nothing scheduled in advance, I just hoped that if I gave them a call they would welcome me with opened arms.
So here I am, sitting in on the professional fighter practice, watching Brandon Vera and Phil Davis clinch fight in the cage. To say I feel fortunate would be a massive understatement. Most gyms are very protective about their pro practices, yet Vera is fine with me watching them train.
The gym will never be mistaken for a high society health club. It's a place where fighters come to train and be the best that they can possibly be. Photographs and magazine covers adorn the walls and the entrance is set up so you walk right into TRX stations.
The gym is Vera's brain child.
It all started back in 2002 when he'd jump from gym to gym trying to learn as much as possible to become a great fighter. While that doesn't seem like a huge deal, in Jiu Jitsu circles it is, and he was labeled a "creonte" or traitor.
He was a student of Lloyd Irvin and a plan started to formulate in his head after discussions with his teacher. He envisioned a gym where anyone could come to train without there being drama or hard feelings.
It finally became a reality one day when the Noguiera brothers, Junior Dos Santos, Travis Browne, as well as all the members of the Alliance team were training together. He remembers it vividly as if it were yesterday.
"They were just looking around. We're not all on the same team but everybody was here training together. They said 'damn shorty, you did it. A lot of people talk about their dreams but you made this one happen.' That's how it all happened man, it was all a dream."
Listening and watching him speak, I can tell that he is truly proud of what he was able to put together. Running a business is difficult in itself, but being able to balance it while also being a full-time fighter, it's obvious that Brandon has found his calling.
It works because everyone leaves their egos at the door and everyone is willing to help out. UFC Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz is currently rehabilitating a knee injury, yet he was still at practice giving advice to Jeremy Stephens.
"With my knee, I'm here to coach these guys and make them better. When I fight, all these guys gather around to help me become a better fighter as a team. When you're fighting everyone is helping you. When you're not, you're helping everybody else," Cruz explains. "That's what keeps the team mentality because we're always in here."
Besides the camaraderie, a big reason for their success is head coach Eric Del Fierro. His name may not be as recognizable as Greg Jackson's but he's every bit as important to the development of his fighters and their success.
Jeremy Stephens is one of the newest members of the team and spoke about how much training at Alliance has improved him in such a short period of time.
"The MMA coaching here with Eric Del Fierro and my boxing coach Adrian Melendez, has definitely put a whole different perspective on my game and how I work. I'm just getting started with these guys and now I get time to work with them and get a lot better at what I'm good at."
Stephens isn't the only one with praise for the coaching stylings of Del Fierro. Cruz is one of his oldest students and attributes a lot of his success to his coach.
"Working with Eric, I kind of don't know how it's improved me just because I started making improvements when I started working with Eric and that was four or five years ago. That being said, it's just been progressive between the two of us."
He added, "he's become a better coach I think through the years, learning the process of going through a training camp. Together we made it all the way up to the top."
While the family atmosphere and coaching are both major aspects to the gym's success, it's the opinion of the author that the most unique part of the gym is that everyone is willing to fight anyone for a shot at the gold.
Last week I posted an exclusive interview with Dominick Cruz who explained that he was willing to fight a teammate for a title. Brandon Vera explained in more detail about the gym's mentality of teammates fighting teammates.
"Everybody here understands and knows that there is and can come a day when we will be fighting each other. Everybody is just fine with that sh*t. Every body knows. Me, Phil, Alex, everybody," Vera said. "Everybody knows they could end up fighting each other, we don't care."
"We even go so far as to talk about how long we're gonna train together before the fight," he added. "Are we going to train together all the way to the fight or are we going to train four weeks together and then four weeks apart? Are we going to train all the way to weight cutting? We've gone into detail."
This stuck with me. It's refreshing to hear that not only is a gym's attitude supporting training partners fighting each other, but it's also nice to hear that they all have plans in place in case they are faced with that situation.
Walking around the gym, I couldn't help but feel motivated. Watching such high level fighters work together to improve showed me that MMA can be a team sport. You just need to have the right mindset to do it properly.
Everyone was helping Vera get ready for his fight against Shogun, including Jake Shields, who was in helping him with his Jiu Jitsu. While it may not be the most recognizable gym currently, in the next couple of years it could be home to multiple champions. I can't wait to see what future champions they can develop.