In the history of combat sports, the combatant has always been the recipient of the glory or the heartbreak of victory or defeat. They are the tip of a sword, a sword wielded by they who guide the blade.
They who guide that blade often are an afterthought to the fight itself, but it is they who guide the blade that make it so dangerous. Without their guiding hands, the blade lays idle, still an instrument of destruction, but without their expertise, the blade will rust and become dull.
They are not unlike historical legendary blacksmiths in the mountains of Japan folding steel to forge the most impressive of Samurai swords.
This article is meant to reference elite MMA training camps that have honed many a deadly warrior under their tutelage. Over a 17 year journey, MMA has grown as an unstoppable mix of talent, leadership, theory, and evolution. In that time, what was once a seemingly individualistic sport has grown to become very much a team effort with regard to talent and how it is honed.
Now almost two decades after MMA's first roots began to take hold, the emergence of many elite high-level training facilities has become the catalyst for athletes to sharpen their blades to a razor's edge.
The days of the single-minded, single-talented, individual-style fighter are over. Now it is a family of fighters that pull together. Fighters now surround themselves with as much diversity, talent, and quality leadership as they can to become the best competitor they can be.
It is with that in mind that these camps are compared to The Ivy Leagues of our nation's finest institutes of education. If Harvard is a prime example of where to master life and prepare oneself for the most elite levels of society, then Greg Jackson's Submission fighting is the Harvard of MMA, where a fighter can learn to master MMA and prepare for the elite levels of this sport.
Looking back, there is an ebb and flow to the dominance that is showcased by any camp. This is evident by the example of the Miletich Fighting Systems under Pat Miletich.
There was a time where Miletich students held titles across the sport; there was a time that when a Miletich student entered the cage, you could assume the fight was already over.
Those days are gone now that many of their great fighters have moved on with their careers or fallen off as new fighters have taken their place.
Another example of dominance passed is Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den. While they are still heavy in the game, they are not today as they once were—one of the most feared teams in the business. Guys like Jerry Bohlander, Guy Mezger, and Shamrock himself used to strike fear into anyone they faced.
Those are just a couple examples of more old school camps that have been impacting the game of MMA for a long time. It is the emergence of dominance that has really put some others on the map in more recent memory.
Team Casa Preta has taken the MMA world by storm with a collection of who's who in the fight game. Black House, as it is known, has chained together one of the most impressive lists of fighters this sport has seen.
Here is the short list: "Minatauro" Nogueira, Anderson Silva, Jr. Dos Santos, Lyoto Machida, and Jose Aldo. Go ahead and catch your breath after you ponder that list of elite talent. All that talent does is clash and improve as it raises the combatants higher through team competition.
On the other side of the equator, Coconut Creek Florida has proven to become a force in the sport. Their roster is far too long to mention but within its confines lie names like Thiago Silva, Thiago Alves, Jeff Monson, Din Thomas, and a small platoon of fighters MMA fans know like the back of their hands.
The people at American Top Team have developed a strong reputation across the sport with facilities spanning the entire nation.
Right smack dab in the middle of the fight capital of the world is the lair of a living legend. Deep inside one of the biggest MMA-driven communities in the world lies Xtreme Couture, home of Randy "The Natural" Couture in Sin City.
When a fighter steps into Randy's world, they enter a gym that has been championship tested for war and success at the absolute highest levels of MMA. Guys like Tyson Griffin, Gray Maynard, Forrest Griffin, and even a lovely lady named Gina Carano have competed under the Xtreme Couture banner, and found success.
What's encouraging to the hardcore fan is the development of some very talented amateur fighters at the XC facility. The future of the sport is being built in names like Latasha Marzolla, Ryan Couture, and Jimmy Jones—all extremely high level amateurs.
When the fight fan looks to the north they will see a beacon of light that has changed the sport forever. That beacon is the shining star of UFC WW champ Georges St. Pierre. Basking in the glow of his success is the gym that helped create the fighter he is today, Tri Star Gym in Montreal with head trainer Firas Zahabi
This is a nest of vipers that proves more than a handful for any opponent squaring off against one of their students. The before mentioned GSP alone is enough to carry this team, but he brings with him the help of fighters like Patrick Cote, Rashad Evans, Nate Marquardt, Kenny Florian and many more.
The leadership coming out of Tri Star is nothing short of amazing, and it shows in the quality of their fighters.
A close cousin, even if not close demographically, to Tri Star is the absolute granddaddy of all fight camps, Jackson's Mixed Martial Arts. Greg Jackson has transformed the idea of the team mentality and utilized his greatest assets—his fighters—to create an unstoppable force of elite warriors.
He has combined his expertise, their talent, and in the process of education and competition, turned Albuquerque New Mexico into an MMA Mecca for fighters. No one anywhere is producing the level of talent in the volume that Jackson's team is doing right now.
Many Tri Star fighters also train under Jackson's tutelage. Brace yourself; GSP, Leonard Garcia, Donald Cerrone, Shane Carwin, Carlos Condit, Joe Stevenson, Rashad Evans, and Johnny Jones are just a few that grace the mats in northwest New Mexico. That is an intimidating line up that spans all weight classes.
Another deep camp producing extremely high level athletes would be American Kickboxing Academy. On the west coast in San Jose California, AKA has long been a contributor of top fighters to this game.
Guys like John Fitch, Mike Swick, and Josh Koscheck have been gracing MMA with their elite talent for many years. More recently they produced a HW fighter that has exploded on the scene going 8-0 while never even losing a round in big Cain Velasquez.
Neither AKA nor the world will be surprised if Velasquez becomes the UFC HW champ within the span of a year.
They seem to always have a big name on some card no matter who the promotion is. AKA is always in the mix, and their fighters rarely disappoint.
There are so many gyms, and so little time, they can't all be referenced here. Suffice to say MMA is on the rise, and through these proving grounds rich with talent, leadership, and competition the sport will continue to blossom into a truly first class, world renowned style of combat competition.
What was once a hand full of brave but one-dimensional, tunnel-vision fighters has now become a competition between elite, cross-trained, and highly conditioned athletes.
That is thanks in large part to the emergence of the Ivy Leagues of MMA training facilities.
Our Princeton, our Harvard, our Yale are found in names like Wand Fight Team, Sityodtong, and Team Quest, as well as the obvious camps mentioned before. It is there that a fighter earns an education that can't be found on their own, or at some johnny-come-lately camp that realized MMA training is a lucrative business.
These camps were honed and built by reputation and respect over many years of trial by fire in this sport. As an MMA enthusiast, advocate, or even adversary, this is a very exciting aspect to MMA.
For the fan it proves the sky is the limit with regard to how high this sport can climb; for the adversary is must be encouraging to see a sport that one doesn't necessarily agree with making a turn towards a more legitimate style of education and effort to create true athletes—not the knuckle dragging bar brawlers they thought made up MMA.
One thing is certain, if these are the institutions in place after less than two decades of MMA, the promise of this sport can never be denied. The potential for both athletes of today and tomorrow is limitless.
That has to put a smile on any MMA enthusiast's face as they watch the history of tomorrow unfold before their very eyes today.