I started writing this blog about the gym you choose, as a fighter, and what a crucial role it plays in your development as a fighter, a while ago but never finished it, “why” ? Well, I felt like I was stating the obvious, like I might as well have been writing a blog about how important it is to eat and drink (which I’m proud to say I have successfully mastered).

After some time, I came back to my half-finished scribbling and really thought about the experiences I’ve personally had with all the different fighting establishments I’ve called home over the years and wondered if it was so easy, then why have I and so many of my friends had so much trouble finding a gym to settle at?

So I decided to write about it from a different angle, rather than why you need sparring partners, decent instructors and other such head shatteringly obvious things, I thought I would write about some of the mistakes and pitfalls that I and others have made, so that some of the fighters out there can have a better chance of avoiding some of these situations or maybe even make them ask questions about the gym they train at. I have broken them down in to handy, digestible; bite size chunks of tasty Mma knowledge.

What is your goal?

Before I go into the trials and tribulations of a professional fighter finding the right place to train at, I just want to give a brief mention about what you might need from your gym, if you’re thinking about joining one? First off, you have to know what your training goals are. Is it to keep fit and know some self-defence? Etc. If it is, you don’t need the best gym around, you just need a half decent gym with facilities and space available, to do whatever you want to do, and the people teaching you there have to have the right knowledge to get you to where you want to go.

If you suspect you’re not being taught the right things, then stop wasting your time and money learning the wrong techniques as you’ll only have to go back and unlearn what you’ve been taught. You’ll then have to start from scratch, which is much harder than just learning the correct technique from the start.

I wanted to do this blog about finding the right gym, for those that are serious about being a fighter and are considering doing Mma for a living, and I wanted to recount some of the trail and tribulations that I, and other fighters that I know, have experienced. A lot of the things you need in a good gym go without saying, but I’ll say them anyway. You need good instructors, good sparring partners, decent facilities and trainers that have your best interests at heart. I don’t want to spend much more time on this, as it’s pretty obvious why these things are very important and if you need someone else to tell you this, you’re going to run into problems.

Sparring and misguided loyalty

Now, being a heavy weight, it has always been a struggle to find guys to spar with. I remember nearly killing the smaller guys by sprawling on them. These same guys would say they “were fine” and struggle on, trying to do their best to help me out and get ready for an upcoming fight, which was so good of them, even if it wasn’t great for their health. What I noticed that started to happen was that I started holding back on everything, from leg kicks to take downs. I adapted my technique and force for the smaller guys and, after time, it stuck.

I remember re-watching my fight with Butterbean and what hit me, apart from Butterbean and the terrible decision, was that when I threw a leg kick at Mr Bean, I ‘pulled it’ massively and why wouldn’t I? I’d been training that way for months. Seeing this, I decided things had to change. So, I packed my bags and headed off to train at various other Mma clubs in the U.S like Team Quest, American Top Team, Eric Paulson and Extreme Couture.

As much as it was what I needed to do at the time, going off to the States to train was an expensive hobby. Sometimes I’d have to borrow money to get there, on the proviso that I’d pay the monies back once I’d fought and got my pay check. All the while I was also paying to train at my old gym, here in the UK.

It meant that, after a fight, I would get paid. I’d then pay my agent who, at that time, was also my trainer (more on that later) and then pay back the money I’d borrowed to travel to the US, where I lived and trained for two months at a time- which wasn’t cheap- and so by the end of the fight, I would hardly have anything left!!

Now, the reason I’m bringing this up is because this is what I see an awful lot of fighters doing. I don’t mean the travelling abroad part whilst still paying their old gym (that’s purely a Colossus fuck up), but I definitely see other fighters stay with an old gym that they’ve outgrown, not because they’re stupid but because they’re stupidly loyal!

It’s just my own example of me being at a gym, outgrowing it, training elsewhere and out of loyalty to the gym, and not wanting it to close for my team mates who had, literally, risked life and limb helping me train.

The moral in this is, if the gym you’re at can’t give you what you need (in my case sparring) you have to sit down, talk it out with whoever is in charge and if nothing changes and you’re taking your Mma career seriously, you have to start thinking about other options.

Keep your training and management different

This brings me to my next point, a piece of advice which I have to thank my fiancée for, as it has proved invaluable. Keep your training separate from your management I.E: don’t have your trainer manage you.

It’s not too bad at the start of your career, in fact it’s natural, but as you get more successful it’s always best to separate the two. It means that, God forbid, if you did have a disagreement with your management it doesn’t affect you, its damage limitation should things do go wrong. I really believe, generally, it’s not a good idea to have one person control so much of your career, unless you really know and trust them. The excuses I’m guilty of spouting out, and have heard other fighters make for their team/manger, sounded like something a woman that’s making excuses for domestic abuse might come out with “it’ll get better, it’s just a difficult patch we’re going through”. Again, every situation is different and you have to make these judgements for yourself, this is just what I’ve personally experienced.

One of my good fighter friends had the same trainer and manager, he was coming to the end of his career and for his last couple of fights, he wasn’t paid some of his sponsorship monies. It was basically stolen by his trainer/manager. During a conversation about it he said to me “they know I’m on my way out and are taking what they can”. This then had such a negative effect on his confidence; it literally took all the fight out of him and made one of the hardest jobs out there, so much harder! I also decided to leave the team because, even though this has never happened to me, as I always kept trainer/manager separate, it proved to me that if the opportunity ever arose then this is how they would have treated me, especially since the fighter I’m talking about had been with these guys for more than 10 years! It made me not want people like that walking out behind me, as those guys are supposed to be the ones that have my back when I enter the cage.

There is more to where you train than a name

A common mistake a lot of fighters make is hearing the name of a well-known gym, hearing about all the great teachers and fighters that are located there and thinking it’s just as simple as turning up! But what I and a lot of other fighters don’t figure on is that it’s often a double edged sword. Let me explain… Because of the weight that the well-known gym name holds, it means there will always be an influx of new fighters coming to train there, as well as the fighters who fight for the gym anyways. So, your variety of sparring partners is always great. What isn’t so great is trying to get one on one time with instructors. I mean, there are only so many hours in the day and the people who are part of ‘the team’ obviously have to come first. I noticed when I was training at Extreme Couture’s that the fighters that fought for the gym i.e. Tyson Griffin, Gary Maynard, Martin Kampmann etc., had their own training camps, which worked on the’ whatever they needed to work on’ principal, where as I (not part of ‘the team’) would be sparring and doing classes.

The problem was that the classes that I was doing were working on any number of techniques, not specific things that I needed to work on for my up-coming fight.

Please understand me here, I’m not saying anything against Extreme Couture, or any of the teams I’ve listed, they were all massively welcoming and I learnt a lot from training at each one of them, but I feel people need to realise that it’s impossible for the gym to provide the same time and resources to everyone that walks through the door and wants to train there and why should they? I was, after all, only paying a small amount daily to train there whilst some of the fighters in the team we’re paying a % of their fight purse to the gym. I was also only there for around 2 months and after that, they might never see me again so it stands to reason that more time and effort is with the guys that fight out of the gym.

I feel inclined to say a big thank you to Shawn Tompkins who, not only made me feel welcome while I was at Extreme but always, no matter how busy he was, took the time to take me on the pads and help me out as much as he could R.I.P Shawn Tompkins.

Who’s watching out for you?

On a recent Joe Rogan podcast, Mac Danzig was talking about when he was training at Extreme Couture and that he “never felt there was one person watching over them”. He talked about how he felt like “the patients had taken over the asylum” and these patients were all of the “alpha variety” which meant it was always hard sparring, all of the time, which then lead to everyone dreading training but no one wanted “to be seen to be the one to be backing down in any way”.

I thought Mac made an important point of how crucial it is to have someone who knows what they’re doing supervising things and that all the fighter’s respect and listen to. That’s why when the sparring is planned out it’s not going to be flat out, hard sparring every day and if someone does get buzzed, in those sparring sessions, then there’s someone supervising that will make sure whoever needs it, sits out. In big gyms, where a lot of fighters train, it’s hard to keep track of what everyone is doing. It’s important that if you’re training for a fight then you’ve got someone who keeps track of you.

The conclusion

All the above leads me to where I am now. I train at a lot of smaller clubs in Bristol, UK. I do my boxing training at Paddy Johns gym, my Ju Jit Su at Pedro Bassa and wrestling and mma with my good friend and fighter Wesley “the owl king” Murch at Olympians gym. I trust everyone at these clubs and know that they all have my best interests at heart. They all work hard with me on whatever aspects I need to improve on, for whoever I might be fighting next. When it comes to sparring…. I’ve always struggled, so for my last fight I brought over Dylan “Sudden” “Rush from the U.S, he’s a great Mma fighter and helped me out so much with my preparations for the Lashley fight.

I’ll also travel to spar with fighters like Oli Thompson and to my good friend Mustafa Al Turk, who opened up a great Mma gym named Team Junk Boat fighting out of Pumped Gym.

If any of you reading this are in the Stevenage area, of London, I couldn’t recommend it enough…. tell Mus I sent you and give him a slap round the face from me! Don’t worry he’ll be fine with it.

I’ve found that by keeping my training base local and with people I know well, I can control what I am going to work on for my next fight rather than travel somewhere that has a good name- rightfully so- but is already stretched and has new fighters coming in all the time, so you’re left fighting to get a bit of direction and mentoring.

Everyone is different and dealing with different circumstances and I’m by no means saying there is a right or a wrong way, I’m just simply mentioning a few of the experiences I, and fighters I’ve trained with, have come across.

The last thing I would like to say is to all the Mma fighters out there, that might find themselves in any of the unfortunate situations that I’ve mentioned, whether it being that you feel the gym you’re at isn’t being honest with you in some way, or maybe they’re all great guys but don’t have the sparring or knowledge to take you to the next level. Whatever it might be, if you feel something’s not right, no matter what it might be, you have to address it and see if you can sort the problem out. If you’re at the ‘right camp’ then the instructors will want you to bring up whatever’s bothering you, so it can be sorted out. If it can’t be sorted out you have to decide whether you stay or go. Either way at least you know where you are with it.

Please always remember, you’re the one getting in the cage and by doing this putting your health at risk…. So you owe it to yourself to give yourself the best possible chance available.