Every so often it is worth looking at current trends and thinking about future consequences.
The sport of MMA continues to evolve and grow, and one of the major trends involves the world's top competitors consolidating into just a handful of premier fight camps. While the movement is obvious, the outcome may be a bit opaque.
If you had the opportunity to watch UFC: Primetime, a three-part series showcasing B.J. Penn and George St. Pierre leading up to their UFC 94 fight, then you saw first-hand the benefit of an elite team training camp. You also saw the discrepancy between the two fighters’ regimes.
St. Pierre trains with some the best. His training partners include light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans along Keith Jardine and Nate Marquardt. These fighters, along with other top competitors, make up the training camp known as Jackson's Submission Fighting.
During his training, prior to UFC 94, St. Pierre was pushed to the brink by these men in his regimen. In contrast, Penn appeared to train at a relaxed pace with, what some people have referred to as, “yes” men. The saying goes, “you’re only as good as the company you keep."
Jackson's Submission Fighting (better known as "Team Jackson") was recently crowned the best training camp in an online poll conducted by MMA Junkie. It received 35 percent of the vote. In addition to the previously mentioned fighters, the Albuquerque, N.M. based roster includes WEC featherweight Leonard Garcia and former Elite-XC light heavyweight Joey Villasenor.
But “Team Jackson” is not the only notable training camp.
Right behind, with 28 percent of the vote, is Randy Couture's Las Vegas based team. Xtreme Couture is home to a who's who of established veterans and top prospects, including Forrest Griffin, Tyson Griffin, Jay Hieron, Martin Kampmann, Gray Maynard, Frank Trigg, and an ever-revolving cast of visiting fighters, including Wanderlei Silva.
Ranking third, with 13 percent of the vote, was American Top Team, a stacked Florida-based camp that's continually produced top fighters while resurrecting the careers of others. New WEC featherweight champ Mike Brown calls ATT home, as does No. 1 welterweight contender Thiago Alves, Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, Thiago Silva, Denis Kang, Jorge Santiago, and Wilson Gouveia.
Chuck Liddell has recently spent time training at ATT to help reinvigorate his career.
Coming in fourth, with nine percent of the vote, was the newly opened Team Nogueira, the Florida based home to former interim UFC heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira,and brother and fellow PRIDE veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Other fighters affiliated with the Nogueira Brothers include Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and heavyweight phenom Junior Dos Santos.
A longtime MMA staple, Miletich Fighting Systems, registered four percent of the vote. The Iowa based team is an institution in the sport and has produced past champions such as namesake Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, and Robbie Lawler. The camp has a stable of fighters that populate MMA, from regional organizations up to the UFC.
The San Jose based American Kickboxing Academy registered just three percent of the vote despite housing top welterweights, Jon Fitch, Mike Swick, and Josh Koscheck. Other AKA notables include Josh Thomson, Cung Le, and heavyweight phenom Cain Velasquez.
Team Quest, which includes established stars such as Dan Henderson, Matt Lindland, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, Jason Miller, Chael Sonnen, Ed Herman, and Matt Horwich also received three percent of the vote.
Looking at the list, it is evident that some of the best fighters in MMA are concentrated in just a few of the top MMA camps.
It looks to be a trend that will continue to escalate with each passing year. While this is certainly beneficial to fighters on a number of levels, it does pose some strategic problems for the UFC and matchmaker Joe Silva.
Most MMA fans are painfully aware of one “training camp” related problem. It involves two former training partners—current middleweight champion Anderson Silva and current light heavyweight No. 1 contender Lyoto Machida.
Silva has stated that he feels Machida is the rightful heir to the 205 pound title and therefore will not interfere with Machida’s rise to the top of the mountain. Because of this, Silva seems to have conceded competing in the light heavyweight division.
Are fans being denied the opportunity to see Silva, one of the sport’s pound-for-pound best, truly test his MMA supremacy and affect his legacy because of training camp ties?
Another problem, which has yet to cause issue, is between training partners and fellow light heavyweight fighters Rashad Evans and Keith Jardine. Evans is the current champion and Jardine is set to take on Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 96.
If Jardine were to upset Jackson it would likely leave him one win away from a title shot. But Jardine has confirmed that, while his friend and training partner Rashad Evans holds the light heavyweight title belt, his own title aspirations are on hold.
One last example worth looking at involves the three AKA boys—Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Mike Swick. Before Koscheck’s stunning defeat at UFC 95, the three were seen by most as the third, fourth, and fifth ranked fighters in the stacked welterweight division.
This could be the first major strain that team training camps put on a division’s integrity. If Kos, Swick, and Fitch all refuse to fight each other, how can the division effectively operate? Silva needs every fighter available for match-ups that make the most sense to both the division’s landscape and title picture.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Wanderlei Silva and Forrest Griffin. They train together at Xtreme Couture and there was a real possibility of the two facing each other before Silva dropped down to 185 pounds.
Wanderlei had said that fighting Forrest would be a “sad situation,” but they are both professionals and inside the Octagon it’s a business, a job.
While it is a nice sentiment, actions speak louder than words. Fortunately for the two, it doesn’t seem that a fight between the training partners is likely anytime soon.
So what are the future repercussions to MMA since the issue of team training camps will only continue to rear its proverbial head? Could there be a day when a champion and a No. 1 contender refuse to fight for the belt?
While it seems unlikely, it may not be as far fetched as it sounds.
Beyond issues centered on individual fighters, there are possible implications to how MMA is structured.
One thing is for sure—MMA is becoming a “team” sport in a very real sense. How the UFC deals with this trend will dictate its success as an organization. While the UFC currently dominates the landscape of MMA, the rise of team training camps has the ability to level the playing field.
Imagine if a training camp like Xtreme Couture or American Top Team decided to boycott the UFC. Now imagine if a few training camps unified and decided to boycott the UFC. They could have a power akin to, or even greater than, the players unions of the NFL, MLB, or NBA.
Beyond that, the actual system used to determine champions and No. 1 contenders could change. Dana White and Silva may no longer be all-powerful in scheduling fights as they see fit. A more structured and unified system may be put into place for quality assurance.
How might the “team” aspect be more interwoven into the sport of MMA? Could we see a day when Team Jackson is competing against American Top Team? Perhaps the IFL was ahead of the curve in how they structured their organization.
While some purist MMA fans may balk at the idea, ultimately power and money will determine how we watch our MMA in the future. The long term affect of team training camps leaves more questions than answers at this point.
One thing is for certain: Mixed marital arts is an evolving sport and will look much different in 10 or 20 years. Team training camps will be the major part of the changing landscape.