Over the past several years Team Bombsquad has established itself as one of the top professional mixed martial arts camps in the entire northeast. Most famous as the original launching pad for current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, the Bombsquad roster has been consistently placing fighters on UFC, Bellator, Strikeforce, WEC and top-level regional cards for over half a decade.
All of this has been accomplished while based in the sleepy college town of Ithaca, N.Y., in the heart of a state that has still yet to sanction professional mixed martial arts. Fighting for the Bombsquad by definition means being a road warrior.
Head trainer Ryan Ciotoli once estimated to me that he travels 30-35 weekends a year with his fighters.
The Ithaca team will be on the road once more this Friday, August 24, when Bombsquad members and highly ranked prospects Evan Velez and Aljamain Sterling head to Atlantic City, N.J., to fight for the Caged Fury Fighting Championship flyweight and bantamweight titles, respectively.
For Sterling (6-0), it will be the second defense of a belt he won last October when he beat New Jersey native Sean Santella by unanimous decision.
Santella (10-3-1) promptly dropped to flyweight and captured the CFFC title at 125. In a funny twist of fate, his challenger this Friday will be Sterling's teammate, Velez (5-1, 1 NC).
Further thickening the plot is the fact that Santella holds a victory over Sterling's opponent on Friday, Brazilian native and Pennsylvania resident Sedico Honorio (8-2).
But in the tough Northeastern regional circuit, familiarity breeds respect, rather than contempt.
"I actually saw them fight each other at my pro debut," Sterling told me. "They're both tough. Very good on the ground."
Sterling turned pro in April 2011, following a standout wrestling career at SUNY Cortland, where he twice earned All-American honors. Success has come quickly in the professional ranks. The 2012 Bloody Elbow world bantamweight scouting report ranked Sterling as their No. 2 prospect.
Sterling's mental intensity and focus is exemplified in the slogan emblazoned on his t-shirts: "When I dream, I work. Reality." When asked to elaborate on this idea he commented:
I really believe, anything you want, you can achieve. So when you say it, you start to channel yourself towards it. Because you've focused your awareness on it, you start to do things in your life to make it happen. I see myself in the UFC, eventually becoming the champion.
It's a mental outlook characteristic of the team. In a similar manner, Velez told me: "With the UFC adding the flyweight division, I really see things opening up for me."
A Bronx native, Velez wrestled at Hunter College in the city. His journey into martial arts has been a lifetime commitment. At four years of age, his father and Shihan Ervin Velez started him in World Oyama Karate.
"It's a full contact Japanese style," Velez explained. "So the big thing it helped me with for MMA is that I've been used to seeing punches and kicks coming at me since a very young age."
Velez made his professional debut just a month before Sterling. "That's about when we started up with the Young Gunz," he said. "We just had a bunch of young guys breaking into the sport, hungry for opportunities."
Indeed, I work out at the Bombsquad's home gym of Ultimate Athletics in Ithaca, and it can be tough to even begin to keep track of the amount of talent continually coming through the doors. Sterling and Velez will be joined in Atlantic City by lightweight teammate Desmond Green, another blue-chip prospect and a former star wrestler for the University of Buffalo.
The steady influx of talented, hungry athletes ensures that team practices are always intense and competitive.
"That's the Bombsquad culture," Velez says. "Always training. We always want to be ready to take a fight on short notice, whenever the big break comes along."
For a rising prospect like Velez, this is an essential attitude, as he learned firsthand recently, when UFC matchmakers contacted the camp about using him as a possible last second replacement for a recent FX card.
Ultimately, the opportunity didn't materialize. But just getting that close left Velez hungrier than ever and further convinced that the "Bombsquad culture" is the way to go.
"When the UFC calls, you have to take the fight, whether you're ready or not. So you had better make sure you are ready all the time."