The House That Faber Built: How The Potential Collapse of Team Alpha Male Parallels A Once-Great Gym Of the 1990's
The fracture at Team Alpha Male began as most heated rivalries in the sport do: trash talk. The founder of the gym and one of the sport’s biggest stars, Urijah Faber, was waging a war of words with the team’s former coach, Duane Ludwig. What was once the greatest gym in the business was now nothing more than a hen house, drowned out by the clucking of its rooster with anyone who would listen.
The circumstances of Team Alpha Male’s fall from grace are well documented. But they are also nothing new. A similar collapse happened a decade earlier. Take a drive south on the I-5 from Sacramento and in less than an hour, you’ll find yourself in Lodi, California, home of the once-great Lion’s Den.
It is here we can find the DNA for how an MMA gym collapses.
In the early days of MMA, there were two promotions that lorded over the rest: Pancrase and the UFC.
Pancrase was in Japan and headed up by legends Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki. While working in the UWF (a shoot promotion that featured pro wrestling predetermined matches but featured many very real grappling and striking exchanges), they came to train a tough, muscle-bound grappler named Ken Shamrock. They brought Shamrock with them into Pancrase.
Those who may have come to know Shamrock from his WWF days could be forgiven if they assumed Shamrock wasn’t as dangerous as his gimmick. With goofy green tights and a mock psycho-face, Shamrock was a cartoon badass. However, he was every bit dangerous. Ken Shamrock was one of the baddest men on the planet.
During a period where the sport was working to grow in the USA, Shamrock was the man to know in American MMA. In the American market, his reputation was built on his fights under the Pancrase banner. Those same fights made Shamrock famous in Japan. There was no MMA fighter more popular in the two biggest markets.
Shamrock competed under Pancrase banner until an advertisement for the newly-formed UFC caught his eye. He signed up and became part of the birth of MMA in America. Shamrock would face off against a wiry Brazilian from a famous fighting family in the tournament final, Royce Gracie. Shamrock thought he could out-muscle the smaller man, but found himself caught by Gracie’s graceful technique and tapped out.
Shamrock was pissed. He thought he was the better man. Driven by a narcissistic obsession, Shamrock was determined to to avenge his loss – but he would need new methods. More importantly, he would need a place to hone those methods.
Team Alpha Male was founded by Urijah Faber in 2004. Training out of his hometown, Sacramento, Faber had quickly developed into the star of the weight classes under 155 pounds. He ascended quickly and eventually won the World Extreme Cagefighting belt in 2006.
With the WEC Featherweight belt around his waist, Faber was the man. The MMA’s top promotion, the UFC, didn’t feature Faber’s weight class or either of the two that bracketed it – featherweight (145) or flyweight (125). This made Faber a unique kind of star - the one who virtually represented four weight classes.
Six title defenses later and it was clear Faber was as valuable as anyone in the business. His knack for self-promotion came in handy. He knew how to leverage his brand as well as anyone. And as the founder of one of the sport's growing gyms, Faberhad even greater leverage in the MMA sphere (during their heyday between 2010 and 2014, TAM fighters would often appear on the same card when the UFC booked events out West, a sign they saw the promotional advantages of the TAM brand). One could assume Faber and his TAM stable were very much on minds of Zuffa (parent company to the UFC) when they purchased the WEC.
Faber ruled the roost. TAM was his baby and he was the man in charge, the Alpha Male among the Alpha Male’s. His reputation rubbed credence on his gym and young, talented fighters began to flock to TAM. And Faber liked it that way just fine.
After his loss to Gracie, Shamorck needed to evolve. He founded the Lion’s Den in his hometown of Lodi, California. There, Shamrock’s fanatical devotion to toughness was passeddown to others. As a result, the Lion’s Den became the most feared MMA gym in America.
If you walked through the doors of the Lion’s Den, you were in Shamrock’s world. His process for acceptance into the Lion’s Den was sadistic and brutal, amounting to daily beatings until the weak left and the strong (or masochistic) stayed. This practice had a dual affect of positioning Shamrock as the guru - the only man - who could teach them.
The Lion’s Den was also a solid business venture for Shamrock. He was the representative for the Pancrase promotion in the US, which meant he held all the keys and blocked all the doors for Americans looking to go overseas. This came in handy for Shamrock. He could get his guys in good with the promotion.
Everyone who joined the Lion’s Den at some point had been Shamrock’s bitch. His reputation carried a lot of weight. Shamrock was in charge and they knew it. But Shamrock wasn’t a leader. In truth, Shamrock had founded the Lion’s Den out of necessity. He needed training partners to maintain his standing amongst the Japanese and Brazilians dominating the game. Shamrock needed a place to train and people to train with. As a byproduct of his own success, the Lion’s Den developed most of the US’s top fighters from Guy Mezger to Maurice Smith and also Shamrock’s adopted brother, Frank. They were kicking ass in Pancrase and the UFC. The Lion's Den was the place to be.
In 2008, Faber recruited Joseph Benavidez and Chad Mendes to join Team Alpha Male. Faber was looking to develop the next crop of great fighters – Californians like himself – to further establish TAM as the place to train.
They quickly ascended to the podium of greatness along with Faber. Shortly after joining TAM, Benavidez established himself as a force at bantamweight – which was a class above his natural weight - in the WEC, scoring a pair of title shots against Dominick Cruz (whose history seems to weave in and around TAM as much as any of their own fighters). Once into the UFC, Benavidez was similarly dominant in his unnatural weight class, posting 3-0 UFC record before earning his first shot at gold in the new flyweight division.
Mendes also ascended rapidly. A decorated collegiate wrestler, Mendes had a rare blend of athleticism with a thick, muscular build and fast-twitch reflexes. Shortly after joining TAM, Mendes got his shot in the WEC. He promptly ripped through five featherweights before transitioning into the UFC with his teammates. He earned his crack at gold after only two fights.
TAM had come a long way on Faber’s shoulders and was being carried the distance on those of a new breed. Along with Danny Castillo, the TAM reputation was growing exponentially. If you wanted to be a force in any of the lightest weight classes, you traveled to Sacramento.
This drew a talented but heady collegiate wrestler to TAM. His name was TJ Dillashaw.
Ken Shamrock had formed the Lion’s Den in large part to benefit himself. He needed to compete. But when his UFC ambitions began to take precedent over his Pancrase ambitions, the latter promotion’s braintrust went behind his back looking for others to represent their brand in America. Shamrock was pissed so he quit. It not only cost him his Japanese gigs, but those of Lion’s Den fighters Vernon White and his brother, Frank, as well.
Shamrock was the kind of leader who could lead by only one example: his own. He wasn’t a good communicator nor was he particularly good teacher. When he left for the WWF, not much changed. Except when a figurehead leaves the kingdom, someone new must take up the mantle.
Ken’s brother, Frank, stepped in as the gym’s main instructor. He had been for some time already because of his capable communication skills and Ken’s focus on doing his own thing. Pretty quickly, Frank began to question the training methods instituted under Ken’s watch. Frank was a more cerebral fighter. He saw mixed martial arts differently than Ken. He broke down the different disciplines, seeking to learn the best practices from every one. Under Frank’s tutelage, Maurice Smith would go on to change the sport forever.
In 1997, Mark Coleman was the man in mixed martial arts. A hulking Olympic wrestler, Coleman was discipline-specific like many fighters of that era but had developed a style that neutralized the vaunted ground grapplers of the day. He was capable of putting fighters on their back, where most liked to be, but smash them. He was the godfather of ground-and-pound.
Coleman had run roughshod over the UFC competition from the moment he stepped into the cage, winning the UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournament’s before submitting Dan Severn to win the UFC Heavyweight belt. Heading into the UFC 14 tourney, he was unsurprisingly the favorite.
What followed would become the blueprint for the modern era of MMA. Smith was primarily a kickboxer by trade. Many expected Coleman to take him down and for Smith to be victimized on the mat. Many were wrong. Smith, training under Frank Shamrock’s tutelage, had developed his skills on the mat and a strategy to meet Coleman at his strength. 24 seconds into the fight, Smith was on his back and Coleman was hammering away at him. But a funny thing happened: Smith fought back. He used classic BJJ technique, utilizing grips and hip movement while using offensive elbow strikes to force Coleman to work to keep him down. Then, with Coleman gassed (and resting his hands on his knees, no less), he was a sitting duck from Smith’s striking game.
With the victory, Smith and Shamrock had changed the game. Following his own methods, Frank would go on to become the premier MMA fighter in the world following his own approach. There was a new voice in the Lion’s Den.
In December of 2013, Faber hired a new head coach for TAM: Duane Ludwig.
As if overnight, many observers seemed to forget that TAM had been rolling the competition for years before Ludwig. You could be forgiven for it, considering that in the year-and-a-half since the stable had been competing in the UFC, their top dogs were coming off closely-placed title fight losses. Benavidez had dropped a flyweight shot to Demetrious Johnson in September the year before while Mendes had dropped his featherweight fight to Jose Aldo in January. Faber, too, was coming off a loss to Renan Barao at bantamweight.
On April 20, 2014, everything began to change at TAM. Five months after Ludwig had taken over, three of TAM fighters appeared on the same card in nearby San Jose, California. Mendes starched Darren Elkins, Benavidez TKO’ed Darren Uyenoyama, and Dillashaw waxed Hugo Viana.
Throughout the contest, commentator Joe Rogan sang the praises of Ludwig. Though it is his job, oftentimes it came across as if Rogan was Ludwig’s personal spokesperson (in Rogan’s defence, he had been covering Ludwig’s career during the early UFC days and was clearly fond of ‘Bang’). The implication was clear for fight fans: Ludwig was turning things around at TAM. Faber began to simmer but held his ego in check for a time.
It all came to a head a year later in 2014 when Dillashaw would be matched up against Barao, the man who had already defeated Faber once in 2012 and again in February of that year. Faber had openly lobbied for Dillashaw to get the shot. It appeared his word was taken seriously.
Employing a style reminiscent to the TAM nemesis Cruz, Dillashaw put on a spectacular performance, beating Barao pillar-to-post for five rounds en route to becoming the first TAM fighter to win UFC gold.
Ludwig would go on to win Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2014 (a distinction that has seemingly never been mentioned again) for his work, most especially in molding Dillashaw into a champion. It looked like TAM had risen to the mountaintop by its youngest and most often forgotten young protégé. Except with many peaks, it only takes a short step to slip off the edge.
Frank’s ascension to the top of the pecking order at the Lion’s Den was followed swiftly by his exit.
Shamrock was offered the shot at Kevin Jackson for the UFC Middleweight title. This was hugely disappointing to Lions’ Den teammate, Jerry Bohlander, who thought he was going to get the shot. He felt betrayed. Furthermore, Frank asked the UFC to sent him the contract directly and not to go through his adopted father, Bob, thus avoiding the commission Bob was entitled to. When Bob told Ken, the older Shamrock son was furious. Frank left the team shortly after.
While Frank rose to greatness at his newly formed stable, The Alliance, the Lion’s Den wilted. Ken’s career had winded down to a crawl. Mezger, Bohlander, and Smith would fight on for a number of years to varying degrees of success. The Lion's Den had been divided.
Dillashaw said the decision to leave Team Alpha Male was about the money. You could be forgiven if you didn’t believe him.
After winning the UFC Bantamweight belt, the schism between coach Ludwig and mentor Faber began to take its toll on Dillashaw. Publically, Ludwig was being praised for his work. Faber, curiously, took every opportunity to dampen that enthusiasm.
Suddenly, news broke that Ludwig was leaving TAM in mid-2014. The news came out of the blue. Why would the coach considered most responsible for the resurgence of TAM want to leave?
The drama that unfolded in the years since then has revealed just how deep of a fracture there was at TAM. Ludwig and Faber privately butted heads over everything from training to money to peanut butter. It left Dillashaw with little choice, the coach who turned him into a champion or the mentor who had guided him throughout his career. Dillishaw eventually chose his coach, moving himself to Colorado where Ludwig was stationed. He said it was because Team Elevation was paying him to train there.
Team Alpha Male then hit the skids. Joseph Benevidez’s two losses to all-time great Demetrious Johnson relegated him to an afterthought (despite rattling off five consecutive dominant wins against the division’s elite since the second defeat to Johnson). Chad Mendes was once in the same position as Benavidez. But his title rematch loss to Jose Aldo preceded consecutive losses to Conor McGregor and Frankie Edgar putting him in an unfortunate 1-3 hole in his last four bouts.
Word is that Benavidez has moved much of his training elsewhere, choosing to train in Colorado with Dillashaw and Ludwig (which, if you pay attention to the rhetoric coming out of TAM about those two figures, would leave one thinking Benavidez has to be considered in the same category). Mendes, too, spends much of his time elsewhere.
It’s been more than a decade since the Lion's Den had a reputation for churning out the sport’s elite. The end was the result of ego and infighting, where one voice so used to being the only one heard suddenly became the least listened to.
The same way the Den collapsed, Team Alpha Male is no longer what it used to be.
Last week, we saw the perhaps the last vestige preceding TAM's free-fall. Faber’s once reliable promotional word hangs on as one of the fighters he has publically tabbed as a future champion, Cody Garbrandt, pasted the vaunted Thomas Almeida. While Garbrandt is primed for a run, he's the exception t the rule. His win followed the stupendous knockout of Andre Fili (another TAM fighter Faber tabbed to be on the ascent) last month.
TAM short-term fate balances most precariously this Saturday. Faber fights in what is likely his last chance at UFC gold against Cruz, a man who has come to lord over him both within the cage and within the media. The buildup for the fight has seen a Faber reaching with his comments at every opportunity (maximized by Cruz’s ability to frame his words as such). He appears to be a man desperate to be believed, clinging to a limelight he once basked in. Should he lose, that light may never come back.
Like a once great house, the Lion’s Den, the posturing in the limelight has gone far to undermine Team Alpha Male. Faber, like Shamrock, hasn’t been able to remove his ego from the equation. The foundation of all great houses cannot withstand that kind of weight. Only an hour from each other along the I-5, separated by a decade’s worth of MMA evolution, and yet two great gyms sealed their own fate by the very men who founded them.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.