As each year closes, most fans of anything related to entertainment or sport can bank on a year ending list of something. My guess for 2011: Top 10 Charlie Sheen Expenses. These lists and/or rankings run rampant on the web. Mixed martial arts is no different—the top fights of a particular division, top knockouts of 2010, top 50 hottest ring-girls of the year (don’t looked shocked, that piece is already in the works for a December release). Nothing is immune to being ranked in a sport.
There was one in particular topic that caught my eye from last year—it wasn’t the Top Ten Most Desperate Yet Still Perverted Comments Left on Arianny Celeste’s Facebook—top MMA gym. Greg Jackson’s camp was bumped from the top spot in many 2010 gym rankings of the year by Duke Roufus and his boys in Wisconsin.
Jackson’s camp is filled with taller than life athletes, who either hold or contend for titles in nearly every weight division and has been the epitome of a great MMA gym for years now. At any given time, headlines are being made my Jackson fighters like Georges St. Pierre, Rashad Evans, Nate Marquardt, Leonard Garcia, oh and Jon Jones.
As mighty as it is, Jackson’s stable is not the only rodeo in town.
Duke Roufus boasts a formidable lineup himself with Anthony Petis, Pat Barry, Matt Mitrione, Alan Belcher, Erik Koch and Danny Downes. Maybe not the most star-studded roster, but the consistency and youth factors are evident in and out of the gym.
I like the change of pace, Roufusport deserves the nod, teaching high-level competitiveness and creative striking. Everybody remembers Anthony Pettis’ matrix-esque cage kick during the dying moments of the WEC against then champion Ben Henderson. Pettis propelled off the chain linked cage to land a dropkick across Henderson’s face during the very last minute of the very last WEC card ever—easily the “kick of the year,” arguably “moment of the year.”
Both Jackson’s and Roufusport have proven to produce some irreplaceable talent over the years, but each has overshadowed possibly the smallest and yet most dominant camp in the game—Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in Stockton, CA.
How can this camp—or way of life, as senior member and reigning welterweight pound-for-pound champ Nick Diaz calls it—be overlooked? There are too many things these pack of gritty, technically flawless, divisional destroyers do to perfection to be set aside when discussing great camps.
Despite being a tiny professional lineup, it’s one of the meanest around. Cesar Gracie is the man behind Gilbert Melendez, the reigning Strikeforce Lightweight Champion, Nick Diaz, the reigning Strikeforce Welterweight Champion and the once reigning Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields. Let’s not omit Nick’s little brother, UFC Welterweight Nate Diaz, an Ultimate Fighter winner who mingles within in the ranks.
Had Shields’ exit from Strikeforce not been so rushed by personal and financial reasons, the Cesar crew would have three belts at three different divisions in one promotion—that’s impressive. It also prevents a lot of internal problems, like fighting fellow training partners at the same weight. As sacred as this team’s solidarity is, it would be hard to believe any of them would compete against one another for a belt in the same division anyway.
Training under this umbrella goes beyond mastering technique and winning fights; rolling daily and endlessly punching pads under the same roof with your “brothers” is only a secondary action amongst these guys. Being part of the Cesar Gracie team is a way of life. This impression has been made fact by the camp’s top guys during numerous interviews.
This element is not exclusive to Gracie’s squad, quite the contrary, but their special bond as fighters and friends has facilitated undeniable results at a professional level of the sport that is rarely mimicked.
Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley was the most recent reminder last weekend with half of the core team on display, defending their respective titles against legitimate contenders. Both titleholders retained their belts in impressive fashions, defending against their opponents as all dominant champions should—with heart, skill and grit.
In Diaz’ case, he added an angle of resiliency, after getting clipped standing with Paul Daley. But, he fought through it with ease and composure, piling on strikes of his own against Daley, a well-known knockout artist, proving that his technically ugly stand-up is some of the most effective around.
Like his teammates, Diaz has retained a spot as a “top ten” divisional standout and earned a bottom spot—at least an honorable mention—on people’s pound-for-pound. It was a shiny night for Team Caesar, a memorable night of dominance by Melendez and Diaz.
The remaining piece to the puzzle awaits his, and his team’s, toughest challenge to date: an impending title shot at Georges St-Pierre in Toronto at UFC 129.
Top Ranked MMA Gym of 2011: Team Caesar Gracie…homie.
By Joe Schafer