Over the last year, few fighters, if any, have exploded onto the UFC scene more prominently than Liverpool’s Paddy Pimblett. The 27-year-old Scouser loudly proclaimed himself as the promotion’s “new cash cow” after his debut in September 2021 and racked up two more finishes at both of UFC’s 2022 stops in London. Along the way, Pimblett’s teammate, veteran UFC flyweight Molly McCann, earned three consecutive Performance Bonuses, the latter two coming via stunning spinning elbow efforts. With each highlight-worthy finish and hyper-quotable interviews that would follow, the more people vied for a piece of “The Baddy” and “Meatball.”
Not only did that mean Pimblett and McCann somewhat losing their ability to walk down the streets in Liverpool without getting stopped for photos, it also meant a constant stream of fanfare and media attention on the place they built their skills – Next Generation MMA.
“(The attention) became overwhelming,” McCann told UFC.com. “We all had to learn…Nobody actually asked for fame. We just asked to be world champions, and obviously the fame side comes with it, so it’s just trying to understand that.”
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If you ask Pimblett, he’ll say it all feels normal because it is what he always expected, and now, the rest of the fighters on the mat are used to a gang of cameramen on the mat. The gym is adapting, as well. Along the graffiti-style art on the walls of the gym are signs and rules for visitors, which include not interrupting an athlete while they’re training and respecting the work getting done in the gym.
Next Gen’s head man Paul Rimmer admits the amount of fanfare his two pupils receive is “bewildering” at times, but he doesn’t view that as any sort of burden.
“I think it's like really good to see them blow up because they are such amazing people,” Rimmer said. “It's great for the world to see them, get to know them, and I feel like they’re so open and good people, that people feel it from them, feel they're approachable and they can come and speak to them and reach out. I think that's a very important thing, like being able to come and meet your role model, train with your role model, ask them some advice. I can't think of another sport where you can just walk into a training facility that world class athletes train in and become friends with them and train with them and do them sort of things, but MMA is that sport where you still can do that.”
Rimmer’s journey in mixed martial arts started in earnest when he moved to the United States to train under Chris Brennan in Orange County. Although Rimmer grew up training and was interested in different martial arts, his interest in jiu jitsu piqued after watching Royce Gracie win the first UFC tournament in 1993. After a few years, he moved back to England and found a scene that was lacking.
“There was no one teaching,” he said. “When I came back from America, I just wanted some training partners and people to bring on, and then it turned into me coaching full time and (opening) gyms.”
While learning the sport for himself, Rimmer noticed people asking him for advice and complimenting his teaching ability. He opened his branch of Next Generation MMA in the early 2000s, and after a couple moves, the current facility consists of two stories and a bevy of professional, amateur and children’s classes.
Because of the longstanding presence in the city, Rimmer has a first-hand account of the sport’s growth in the country throughout the last two decades.
“I remember when people didn't know anything about MMA,” he said. “There was no UFC on the TV. There were no UFC events in the UK. It was all very, very quietly done up to now you see where Paddy and Molly fought at the O2, and now they can't walk down the street without getting recognized. It's changed dramatically. I don't think MMA is a small sport anymore. I think it's very, very much mainstream. I think it's still got a lot of room to grow, but I would not consider it a small sport anymore.”
Although Rimmer coached a handful of mixed martial artists who would eventually compete in the Octagon, McCann (who, in 2019, became the first Englishwoman to earn a UFC win) and Pimblett have raised the gym’s profile immensely.
McCann, who aptly describes the mood of the gym as “a vibe,” credits Rimmer and the relationships he builds with fighters as reasons for the gym’s stability over the years.
“In a moment of need, we are just as much his family as his wife and his kids (are),” McCann said. “When you know you have a coach who is willing to do that for you, you’re willing to do further for them. When he’ll sit there and listen to what you’ll have to say and try and guide you – he’s not just a coach for the gym. When we come to this gym, he’ll sit you down and ask what your goals are and how you can make a living. This is longevity. It’s not just, ‘Let me take my 10 percent and that’s all.’ It’s not like that in this gym.”
When asked about the growth experienced not only in notoriety but as coaches, Rimmer credits the adaptability and honesty of himself and fellow coaches Adam Ventre and Ellis Hampson.
With each fight, they adjust and take into account not only how the fighter can perform the best, but how they can also win the little moments of the fight. They also look beyond the straight skills of grappling and striking and into the intangible parts of the game like aggression, range management, point scoring and defensive awareness.
“I'm not a coach where I go, ‘This is my opinion,’” Rimmer said. “We watch fights, and we look for the facts. When we find the facts in fighting, we bring them in and we are like, ‘This has to be done.’ It's a non-negotiable thing. You have to be able to do these things. A lot of people like to watch MMA, but they're not really watching what other people do, and they’re just watching fights, enjoying them, and they’re kind of like, ‘I think you should do this.’ We go to the PI, we listen to what they've got to say. We look at all the camps training, look at what they're doing, and we're always trying to grow. I'm not the sort of coach that will be like, ‘I don’t value your input.’”
What that creates is a fluid process of developing fighters that isn’t reliant on a specific skill set. All anyone needs to do is look at McCann and Pimblett to see where the overlap is when it comes to philosophy. Both fighters are aggressive and active, but they go about it in different ways. For McCann, that’s more of a striking-led approach while Pimblett is particularly tenacious in his grappling.
That goes for everyone in the room, resulting in different looks throughout a training camp, which Pimblett appreciates.
“Paul sees what you're good at and then they’ll work on that,” he said. “That's what's so good about this gym. We haven't just got one identity. We're not just one person. I mean, a lot of people, a lot of other gyms, they’ve just got this style, that’s it. There you go. In here, what you’re good at, we’ll work on.”
As far as what’s ahead for Next Generation MMA, Rimmer desires to coach a fighter to a UFC title, and Pimblett and McCann are keen on helping him achieve that goal. It’s still early days for their journeys to gold, but their current run of form bodes well.
More than that, though, Rimmer hopes to put his athletes on a path where they can find longevity within the MMA world.
“The impact I hope I’ve had on them is putting them in a position where they change lives and do what they want to do like I am,” he said. “I hope I help them build a career in MMA, which not a lot of people do. People tend to have a fight career in MMA, but I'm hoping that Paddy and Molly will have a career in MMA, whether that’s presenting to coaching, whatever that is. I hope I've have helped them get to a position where not only are they exceptional fighters, but also the personalities that people want to be around.”
Hampson and Ventre are two examples of that intention as former fighters who have turned into sharp coaches and cornermen.
Altogether, the gym stands as a strong pillar in both Liverpool’s community, as well as England’s mixed martial arts community. The breakthrough and ascent is always an exhilarating part of the journey, but it was one that was hard won and built on many, many years of trial, error and effort. With more eyeballs on them than ever, Next Generation MMA hopes to continue to provide all the help it can in shaping the future of English MMA.
“I just feel like the legacy for this gym is it doesn’t stop with me and Paddy. It starts with me and Paddy,” McCann said. “The systems that Paul and Ellis and Adam have made, the coaching style and philosophy they’ve got, they got it right with us and they got it wrong with us, but what they did do is they learned from us and our performances and our fights. They will leave this city better than when they came into it.”