The MMA Lab seems like it is on the cusp of having a moment.
That’s not to say the Arizona-based gym hasn’t already housed success. All one needs to do is walk through its lobby to see posters of its athletes, most notably ones featuring former UFC / WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. However, almost five years have passed since Henderson competed under the UFC banner.
Henderson is still a regular side cageside, though, cornering one of The MMA Lab’s up-and-coming fighters, three of whom showed up to the gym as 18-year-old kids starting their mixed martial arts journey.
Sean O’Malley, Mario Bautista and Kyler Phillips all came to the Lab as fresh-faced fighters looking to make it to the big show, and while they took three distinct paths, they’ve made positive noise in the crowded bantamweight division.
“I got super lucky,” O’Malley said. “This is the first big gym I trained at, and I never left because of the training partners. That’s everything. If you don’t have good training partners, it’s going to be kind of hard to see where you’re at.”
O’Malley, who trains at different gyms throughout the Valley, says The Lab provides him a place to “get his ass kicked,” something the undefeated fighter hasn’t seen much of inside the Octagon. In fact, none of the trio has seen much adversity. O’Malley is one of the more buzzed about prospects in the sport, Bautista most recently scored an impressive win over Miles Johns at UFC 247, and Phillips earned Fight of the Night honors in his UFC debut against Gabriel Silva in February.
Between them, they’ve compiled a combined record of 6-1 in the promotion with five performance bonuses, and they each laud the gym for the familial atmosphere.
“There’s no better place than this place right here, right now,” Phillips said.
Though they are just getting started in their UFC careers, head coach John Crouch points to that matriculation of talent as multiple examples of their methods working well.
“Our longevity and being able to do this over time is due to the system that we have,” Crouch said. “It’s built around having a team and being responsible to your teammates, making sure you’re always paying back to the people that paid into you, and we have younger generations that are constantly building and getting into the UFC and getting into higher-level organizations, so our team-first atmosphere is what’s led to that longevity.”
There might not be a person who embraces that family mantra more than Jared Cannonier. Since making his middleweight debut in November 2018, “Tha Killa Gorilla” is undefeated in three bouts (all knockouts) and is potentially a couple of fights away from challenging for the title. And yet, you might not find an athlete on the roster that is as humble and dangerous as Cannonier.
“Inside of a family, as far as I’m concerned, the family looks out for other members of the family,” Cannonier said. “We’re accountable for each other so, for me, when I hear our amateurs got fights coming up and they’re going out here to have fights, I want to make sure that they know that it’s not just them out there alone. When they fight under this banner, when they come here and train at this gym, and they fight under our banner, they’re going to have all of our support behind them as far as I’m concerned.”
He also sets the tone in terms of welcoming new blood to the gym. When bantamweight Casey Kenney came to the gym to prepare for his LFA flyweight title fight, he said Cannonier went out of his way to introduce himself and welcome him to the team.
“I didn’t really even recognize him or pay attention to who he was, but the way he greeted me wasn’t like a UFC superstar,” Kenney said. “It was just like a normal, average guy that was like, ‘Hey, welcome to the team.’ I knew right then and there that he was a great guy, so that was a good experience with him.”
Having your highest-ranked fighter also be one of your most personable and open-armed is a great asset and testament to what Crouch and his team of coaches have built in Arizona.
“It’s super helpful to have those guys that are willing to put themselves out there and do the right thing and be responsible,” Crouch said. “He’s been a great role model for the younger guys.”
As a whole, you’ll hear the crew at The MMA Lab talk about the younger members in the gym with as much admiration and care for their development in a way that speaks to their own experience growing up in the team.
“There’s 18-year-old kids in there that are where I was wanting to get better, wanting to do that,” O’Malley said. “I still have that hunger from when I was that age. I still want to learn. I still want to get better. I still crave that feeling, and that’s important in a sport like this because you can’t really be 90 percent in, 10 percent out.”
It’s an atmosphere that’s difficult to build and harder to maintain, but it does speak to what the team tries to continue to preach over the years. Longevity helps, too. To no fault or credit of any fighter, it’s common to see athletes move from gym to gym on their journey to the Octagon and even more so after exposure to the highest level of competition and coaching.
Unsurprisingly, Cannonier isn’t all too interested in exploring any of that.
“You know how they say the grass is greener on the other side, but I’m not interested in all that,” Cannonier said. “One thing that keeps drawing me back here (is) it’s hard for one to see one’s growth. It’s really hard to analyze yourself and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotten better here, I’ve gotten better there.’ Being on this team is like standing in front of a mirror at every turn, and that mirror is better than you at every turn. Me having to be better than that person in the mirror, reflecting off of this team, that’s what’s helping me get better, and I see that all the time.”
While Cannonier and the rest of The Lab’s current generation of UFC athletes seems on the cusp of reemphasizing its spot among the elite in the MMA landscape, it’s not something Crouch gets too caught up with often.
“In times when you go out to dinner after a fight and you reflect a little bit, it’s awesome, and it gets you warm and fuzzy,” Crouch said. “Then the next day, somebody is ready to kick your butt again, and if you’re not in the gym working and trying to better yourself – if you’re staring in the rearview mirror, you’re going to run into something ahead of you. It is cool, and I’m proud of what we’ve done, and I’m so happy to be a part of it, but our focus is really on the future and the things that we’re going to accomplish in the next 13 years.”
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