The Fighting Life: The Team Mentality of John Crouch and the MMA Lab

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The Fighting Life: The Team Mentality of John Crouch and the MMA Lab
Credit: The MMA Lab

A long day is to coming to an end, but John Crouch looks no worse for wear.

The head coach of Glendale, Arizona's MMA Lab is a physically imposing man, with broad shoulders and the kind of facial stubble that indicates more than a few things are resting on those shoulders, but something about his approach puts those in his presence instantly at ease.

His immediate eye contact and effortless ability to hold it shows his professorial card before a single word ever comes out of his mouth, and that too offers a strange comfort in the generally awkward phase of an opening introduction.

The original intention of walking through the gym doors on the evening was to find Benson Henderson, but "Smooth" is nowhere to be found. Crouch believes the former WEC and UFC lightweight champion has gone home for the evening—and despite him having full confidence in that piece of information—even the coach can't be sure his fighter has actually made his way out the door for good.

Crouch strolls through the facility to take one final look, and as he does, he oversees the odds and ends that are taking place on the mats and heavy bags as fighters attempt to get in their final bit of work before the shop closes up.

"I'm surprised he isn't here to be honest," Crouch says about Henderson with a smile. "Some guys fight for a living but it's different with him. If Ben isn't here training...he's coaching or helping someone out on the mats. He's always here."

Gregory Payan/Associated Press

While Henderson was ultimately missed on the evening and would be rescheduled, the chance to sit down and pick Crouch's brain uninterrupted was a golden opportunity for the taking. The original layout for the story had the fighter going first with the coach to follow, but they keep things moving at The Lab and seats for the ride have to be claimed when they open in order to keep up.

The energy and camaraderie that pulse throughout the place could be what are illuminating the light fixtures. Then again, it could be electricity, but it's enough to make one think.

From the outside, The Lab looks like another version of the typical strip-mall fitness center/martial arts studio with some MMA advertising to draw in that particular crowd. But once the threshold is crossed into the lobby, the notion that the place is anything but a fight gym quickly vanishes. The lobby is lined with pictures, world titles and a host of faces, both recognizable and unfamiliar. 

We walk past a run of displays from Henderson's time as the UFC lightweight champion and then take a sharp left turn into the main office. Crouch settles into his chair and leans back slightly in a manner that suggests he is satisfied with he has accomplished thus far, but there is still so far to go.

"For us it is based on family and team," Crouch says. "We have an environment where we are all working together and the guys give back to each other. We all take care of one another. For me, this sport is too hard to be an individual. The highs and lows are too extreme to handle alone. Especially the lows...they can be horrible. You need your guys and the people that care about and support you there. It's never been an issue for us.

"We've never had a fight break out in this gym, and I hope we never have to deal with it because we are all here to get better. If you have someone good working next to you, then they are going to help in that process."

Credit: Duane Finley

While the team at the MMA Lab has grown over the past few years to include resurgent veterans like Joe Riggs and Efrain Escudero, the foundation has always been the relationship between Crouch and his star student.

Although the former champion and current contender is now recognized as one of the elite fighters in the 155-pound ranks, Henderson spent years running just below the radar and short of getting his due. Whereas those circumstances would have created frustration for most fighters on the rise, it wasn't the case for Henderson, and Crouch has never been concerned the issue would ever take hold with his fighter.

Worrying and focusing on the elements beyond one's personal control goes against The Lab's philosophy. If you are willing to put in the hard work and keep your focus on the next step, everything else will fall into place. This is something Crouch firmly believes, and the fighters have settled into this mindset as well.

"Even going back to when we started out, my focus has always been on that next moment and handling that next thing," he says. "We would talk about things—money for certain fights—but I would always keep the focus on the next thing and winning the next fight. That is always our goal. Just win the next fight and everything will take care of itself. The money and the matchups will come if you win your next fight.

"Guys get to thinking, 'Oh wow...maybe I'll get to fight for the belt if this happens,' but you can't control that. What I can control is my effort in the next fight. That is something we've talked about since Day 1 and it still applies. 

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

"Benson has a tremendous level of confidence and belief in himself. He's the best 155-pound fighter in the world. He is that to himself and he knows he is. He's going to work hard to make sure he can get back that title, but I don't think anyone's opinion matters to him. Obviously the thoughts of his coaches and teammates matter to him, but you can't tell Benson he's the best because it won't matter to him. You can tell him he's the worst and it won't matter to him.

"The only thing he knows is what is in his heart. He's not really motivated by outside opinions and you can't be. That kind of work ethic can only come from inside your heart and he has it in spades. You can't pretend to love to work hard. You can't pretend to have that fire and Ben has it."

In addition to the method of focus that Crouch brings to his fighters, he also advocates a communal system at The MMA Lab. It doesn't matter if one fighter is a UFC superstar and the next one is an up-and-coming amateur—the ideology that everyone helps the next person is at the very core of how the gym operates.

Other gyms around the country run things differently, but teamwork is how things get done at The Lab.

That said, Crouch understands there are variables that can and will come into play. A fighter could suffer an injury or be coming off a tough fight where damage was taken, and when this happens, a lack of presence in the gym is valid in his eyes. Yet, once those injuries heal, he wants to see his fighters walking back through his doors because even though they may not be physically ready to roll on the mats or take sparring rounds, their support and experience are still important to the team.

He believes being present makes all the difference and it has been a part of The MMA Lab's success.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

"Different gyms run different ways, but ours is about helping one another out," Crouch says. "If you don't invest in each other, you are not doing it right. There is a lot of pressure fighting in the UFC and it's tough, so after their fights, they should take some time off and relax. But then when you're rested, get your ass back in the gym and help the next kid because somebody helped you. Help him the way you were helped.

"I say it all the time and my guys are probably sick of hearing it, but I'm going to keep saying it because that is what makes us go here. If we don't do it like that, then I don't want to do it. I'll retire and do something else.

"If guys are tired or have just been through a fight, then come in and hold pads for another guy. Talk to them and tell them what you've been through. Share that experience you have with a guy who is working hard to make their way up. Be part of the growth of this family. Be there and help somebody because that kid you are helping is going to be you someday. I really feel that is important and I can't emphasize it enough.

"I don't really know how things are done in other gyms and I don't really care, to be honest. I have tremendous respect for so many coaches and there are so many good coaches in MMA it is kind of irritating. All we can control is what we do. That's what we are doing in this gym...what we do...and we are working to do it the best we can."

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. 

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