The Ultimate Fighter
Meet Eric Del Fierro, coach of Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Alex Gustafsson, Brandon Vera, and many more of the UFC's best...
You’ve seen Eric Del Fierro before, whether as an assistant coach on The Ultimate Fighter 15 or in the corner of a growing number of UFC stars, including bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, and Alex Gustafsson. Now meet the head coach at Alliance MMA, one of the sport’s top gyms.
UFC: What is your official title and how did Alliance MMA come together?
Del Fierro: I am the head coach at Alliance MMA. I would say a quarter of the guys that are on the official pro team have been with me since before Alliance MMA existed as a gym. We’ve always been a part of the same team, and I’ve been coaching for 12 or 13 years. I’ve been with Brandon (Vera) for a decade now, and the team has grown since then.
(UFC bantamweight champion) Dominick (Cruz) has been with me for six years, I think Phil Davis has been here for four-and-a-half years or so, so we have a big group of guys now, and it just keeps growing. The gym itself has existed now for about five years.
In this sport, there are a bunch of talented gyms and teams that we sometimes don’t hear a lot about. You guys are starting to get that attention now. Does it feel a little overdue based on the success you’ve had and the quality prospects that are part of the Alliance team?
I think part of the exposure is more to blame on me in the sense that I’m an introvert. I’ve never really liked attention. I’m real quiet. Some people that know me will tell you I’ve opened up in the last three-to-five years, and that’s probably from working with my shrink (laughs), but I’m a real shy guy.
I’ve coaching for 10-years-plus and I’ve had guys on the UFC main cards for about that long, and nobody really knew much about Alliance MMA or myself for that matter. I think this last two years, three years I’ve been more open to interviews, and more open to giving exposure to the gym and what we’re doing here. I think it goes hand-in-hand with the actual business of the gym. As I got friendly to media, I decided it was easier to go ahead and accept whatever media was coming our way.
There are some very talented fighters that you work with, Dominick Cruz probably being the most high profile of the group. How is his rehab coming along, what’s the outlook for 2013, and how is his demeanor right now?
He’s doing way better now. On that episode of The Ultimate Fighter (where they announced Renan Barao was stepping in to face Urijah Faber), what people don’t know is that (Dominick) had been hurt for about a week at that time, but I don’t think reality hit him until that day when Dana (White) announced that there was going to be an interim belt. These guys pride themselves on these titles – holding these championship belts, and Dominick’s a real prideful guy – and I think it affected him when he found out there was going to be an interim belt. He took it real hard, and the next few weeks were a real hard time for him.
But now he’s doing great. Rehab is going great; I think he’s eight or nine weeks post-op, maybe a little longer. He’s doing good. He’s on a smaller brace now instead of a full knee brace. He’s moving around, his physical therapy is making him do more. He’s doing great, he’s staying positive, and as a camp we’re staying positive. I’m involving him more with our coaching of the guys we have now getting ready for fights; he’s taken almost a full-time role helping me coach these guys, and just being more involved. At the same time, we’re keeping him busy – keeping him out traveling and keeping him in touch with his fans.
How hard is it to keep him reined in and make sure that he sticks to his rehab schedule versus pushing too hard to get back?
We’ve talked extensively about that even before the surgery – how this had to be treated. It’s such a severe injury that there is only one way to rehab it, and part of it was not rushing back into the gym and thinking that when it feels great you’re ready to move. That’s a mistake a lot of guys do with these injuries. The injury feels great, it feels stable, and you think, “Well I’m going to jump back into it right now because I feel good” and then they get re-injured.
Everybody is taking it 100 percent serious, and Dominick is real focused on bringing it back to normal slowly based on whatever the doctor and the physical therapist recommend.
Is there a target date for when he would be ready to come back next year?
No. Personally, the time I’m looking at – what I’m going by – is the average (amount of time) these injuries take to heal. Whether Dominick’s body heals faster or slower, I’m still giving him the whole nine months from the date of injury.
Ideally, I’d like to see him back in full training by the New Year; not necessarily booked to fight, but at least training. But it’s not my call, and we all acknowledge that it will be the doctor and the physical therapist that make the decision as to when he’s ready to get back to training.
Switching to some of the other guys in the gym, you mentioned you’ve been working with Brandon Vera for a long time. How proud of him were you coming out of that fight with “Shogun” where he seemed to have a revelation that he hadn’t always given himself the best opportunity to succeed in the past?
I’m proud of all my guys, no matter what. I coach these guys for the passion of the sport and knowing that we’re all here to accomplish something. I take great pride in that, and these guys take pride in their fights.
Like any other athlete, it’s a process. It could take six months to a year to create somebody that’s ready for a championship or it could take ten years; you just never know what the learning curve is and how long it’s going to take to get these guys to click.
Brandon – anybody that has trained with him, anybody that’s part of the team here knows his skill set; they know what Brandon can do. A focused Brandon should be top 3, top 5, no problem. Brandon kind of marches to the beat of his own drum: if he wants to train hard, he’ll train hard, and it’s our job to motivate him, but ultimately, when it’s fight time, it’s him in the cage and nobody else. What everybody saw in that fight is what we’ve already known: he’s got the skills and he belongs in there.
It was a good fight for him, and at this stage in his career, he’s still growing as a fighter. It’s weird to say because everyone has seen him for eight, nine, ten years now, but the truth of the matter is that he’s still growing; he’s still maturing as a fighter. Some guys mature early, some guys take a little longer, and Brandon is one of those guys that are still learning a lot about himself inside the cage.
You mentioned that sometimes it takes six months and sometimes it takes longer, Phil Davis is obviously somebody that progressed quickly and has been on that path towards being a champion. He had a setback against Rashad Evans in January and an unfortunate situation with Wagner Prado last time out. Where is he at in his development and progression towards being a champion?
Phil Davis is a work-in-progress. He’s a very, very talented athlete, and what people don’t realize is that he took the UFC by storm the first year in. He trained with us, and had smaller fights before getting to the UFC for ten months or so before getting his first UFC fight.
His first UFC fight was against Brian Stann, who had been a world champion in the WEC, so it wasn’t an easy fight. He went in there, dominated, and made a statement, and everybody expected big things from him. From that point forward, he fought every eight weeks the rest of the year. I think he fought a total of five fights. As you know, there is only so much we can do on the learning side of things (when you’re fighting that frequently). All we were doing was keeping him prepared for his fights and keeping him fighting. It was pretty much on-the-job training.
The Rashad fight obviously exposed a few weaknesses in Phil’s game and what we were doing. We were getting away with a lot of talent and his ability to implement game plans, and it had worked for us. Rashad is talented and he’s been around the game a very long time, and we knew we were going to have a very tough fight. Phil was coming off a knee injury at the time, and it wasn’t 100 percent what he should have shown. But now that he’s had time to rehab that knee injury and get back to learning again – as opposed to just getting ready for fights – it has been great for Phil’s career. I expect this coming fight and everything after that to be great.
One of the guys who was a part of that first year run for Phil was Alexander Gustafsson, who then came to you and wanted to work with you. How much development have you seen in Alex since you’ve started working with him, and how bright of a future do you think he has in the light heavyweight division?
The thing about these guys – both Phil Davis and Alex Gustafsson – is that they’ve both helped develop their game. Alex was a world-class striker when he came here and wrestling was his weakness, and it was vice versa for Phil Davis. They’ve helped sharpen each other’s game more than they even know yet.
Alex is very, very talented. He’s come a long way since that fight with Phil; his wrestling has come along, his jiu-jitsu has come along, and he’s just a tremendous talent to work with. The kid is awesome. He’s got a great fight coming up in December against “Shogun” (Rua) and I think people are going to see him establish himself as one of the top 5 guys in the division.
They weren’t friends and teammates when they fought the first time, but they are now. Have you had those conversations with both guys about a potential rematch?
We’ve covered those bases. All the guys at Alliance MMA have no problem fighting each other if and when there is a belt on the line. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but yes, we’ve addressed that situation. At the same time, this is the sport, and if they’re all trying to be the best, sooner or later they might have to face each other.
Injuries have obviously been one of the biggest stories of the year, and one that has impacted the Alliance MMA team. As a coach, what’s your take on the cause of these injuries and is there a way to keep them from happening as frequently?
I think Dominick said it best in one of his interviews when he said, “In order to get ready for a fight you have to fight day in and day out in the gym.” It’s the truth in wrestling, it’s the truth in jiu-jitsu, and it’s the truth in striking. As coaches, we have things in place for trying to get these guys to their fights as safely as possible.
These guys train year-round, and somehow, the stress of a fight and the psychology of the fight causes these guys to gain an injury during a camp. If you think about these guys – they’re here training day in and day out, then they booked to fight, and six weeks into the camp, two weeks from the fight, they get injured. It’s not anything different from what they’ve been doing all year – sometimes it’s just an accident or these guys pushing too hard. That’s why we have coaches trying to mitigate these things, and hoping that they don’t happen.
With our guys who are main card, main event guys, there are certain times that we’ll shut down the live training or the live sparring because we know they’re worth a little bit more to the card. Prelims we can push a little bit harder sometimes because we know they’re easier for Joe Silva to replace, but come main event time, we have some things in place to make sure that these guys are as safe as possible so we can get them to their big fights because this is how they make their living.
Who are the lesser-known guys or guys that don’t get as much attention that people should be looking out for from Alliance MMA?
We’ve got some fights coming up back-to-back in the UFC right now. We’ve got Jeremy Stephens in early October (UFC on FX 5). The following week, we’ve got Phil Davis (UFC 153). After that, it’s Alex Gustafsson (UFC on FOX 5), Phil De Fries again (UFC 155), and Ross Pearson. We’re staying pretty busy. We also have Vinc Pichel and Myles Jury from The Ultimate Fighter 15 who will hopefully be getting ready for fights here soon as well.
We’ve got a busy squad and a lot of fights to look forward to. Hopefully Danny Martinez will be making his UFC debut soon too.