About 50 miles north of San Diego on Highway 15, right in the middle of Southern California’s wine country, is a nondescript building next door to a ballet studio. This is Team Quest’s California MMA training center and on any given day you are likely to find several of the most talented fighters in the world here.
As I enter the Team Quest Gym, I am greeted by a cacophony of grunts, shouts, and exhalations, as the fighters go about their workouts. The sound of a huge man hitting the biggest tire that I have ever seen with a 20 pound sledgehammer thumps heavily through the air. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Snow is barely discernible on the gym’s sound system over all the noise.
Where did they get a tire that big? I wonder.
Scanning the gym, I see an intimidating assortment of equipment. In addition to the punching bags, boxing ring, plyometric steps and free weights there is a more sinister array: the mammoth tire which I learn later weighs 400 pounds, a long rope hanging from the high ceiling for climbing, kettle bells, and a collection of mysterious looking blue metal bars. There is also Red Man, the long suffering 130 pound practice dummy used for developing throws and slams.
The team’s conditioning coach, Dr. Ryan Parsons, is putting the team through one of his patented workouts. Dr. Parsons stands to one side of the gym floor, giving instructions to his fighters in a steady monotone voice that is dispassionate and yet somehow commanding.
“Hit the tire,” he tells the huge guy.
“Climb the rope,” he orders another man, who then shimmies straight up to the ceiling.
“Pick Red Man up and slam him on his head… and again.” Red Man has a tough life.
“Don’t rest, don’t rest,” Dr. Parsons says if anyone starts to lag.
“Go to the pull-up bar, go, go, go!”
The pace is merciless. I lose track of the number and duration of the exercises, but the session actually intensifies the more fatigued the athletes get. I later learn that Dr. Parsons changes the order and length of the exercises each day, and alters the workout for each individual athlete. He keeps it all in his head and directs the team’s entire workout like Napoleon maneuvering his divisions at Austerlitz.
“By calling out the exercises, it teaches guys to listen and builds rapport between an athlete and his coach,” he tells me. “In a fight, anything can happen. A fighter has to be able to listen to his corner.” Dr. Parsons designs the workouts to imitate the conditions of an actual fight as closely as possible. His exotic array of exercises requires multi-joint movements along several planes, mimicking the type of movements made in a fight.
“I work them for a little longer than they will fight. If they are fighting in Pride with two ten minute rounds and a five minute final round then, maybe we’ll go for two twelve minute periods and a seven. During the circuit, I work them really, really hard for forty to sixty seconds before letting them rest with a lighter exercise for a bit, because this is what happens in a fight.” As he tells me, this I wonder which part of the brutal gauntlet I witnessed would qualify as light.
Remarkably, what I have just seen has been the warm-up. The real workout is about to begin. Now it is time for grappling training.
The team runs through four or five drills to perfect their techniques on the ground. They pair up and practice how to most effectively clinch an opponent, how to take him down, how to pass his guard and how to maintain dominant position. In the escape drills, Dan Henderson, the team’s reigning monarch does a little more than the rest and actually escapes to a standing position each time before resuming his position on the ground and beginning again.
After about thirty minutes of this technique training, the first hints of real fatigue are beginning to show. After only a one-minute water break, the sparring portion of the workout begins. Here is where it gets ugly.
The fighters work six five-minute rounds, switching partners at the end of each round with no rest in between. The sparring becomes more realistic and intense as the rounds progress. The fighters begin with takedowns and defense at about three-quarter speed in the first round. By the sixth round, they are punching, kicking, and slamming each other around, doing everything they would in a real fight. Many of them look like they are at the point of utter exhaustion, but somehow they push on. This savage ordeal is designed to require the maximum effort by the athletes at the finale, which simulates the late round push that is often the difference between victory and defeat.
I realize that there is a winnowing process going on. For the members of Team Quest, there is no hiding from themselves, or from each other. There is no ego here, no posturing, or self-deception. Or if there is, it will not last long. If anyone does not have it in him to fight to the last breath, or if there is one iota of quit in him, it will be revealed in these workouts. Team Quest has a proud tradition, and before someone can represent its standard in the ring, he must prove himself in the unyielding crucible of this gym.
Between the fifth and sixth round, Henderson literally works until he drops. His legs shaking from their exertion, he misses a step and collapses. He lies on the floor for a few seconds, seemingly injured, before he leaps up and is at his final sparring partner’s throat. Of all the fighters in the room, the only one who never appears to tire is Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
In the early days of MMA, when the world was being introduced to the Gracies and the bafflement of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the game was all about technique. Royce Gracie was not a better athlete than Kimo or Ken Shamrock or Dan Severn, but he beat them because he had knowledge of certain techniques they did not know how to defend.
While the members of Team Quest all have extensive technical knowledge, they are first and foremost world class athletes. If you face a member of Team Quest, not only will he likely know every technique you do and how to counter it, but he will also be faster, stronger, and in better shape than you are.
The conviction that conditioning and physicality are keys to success was inculcated in Dr. Parsons and the other founding members of Team Quest when they were competing as collegiate wrestlers. Everyone I ask points to this background in competitive wrestling as a key factor in the team’s remarkable success.
“A college wrestling room is the nastiest place on the planet,” he says. “Its the hardest workout that anybody has ever done, so when guys go through that, they develop a certain mental toughness.”
Dan Henderson, a silver medalist in the 1992 Olympics, explains the advantages of a wrestling background like this:
“While today I may fight three times a year, when I wrestled it was maybe ten or twelve tournaments a year with five matches a tournament. So our wrestling background has built mental toughness. I mean, you fight the way you train, and we don’t quit when we train or when we fight. We have passed on that mind-set to the other members of the team.”
As the final round ends and the workout concludes, the temperature in the room has risen ten or fifteen degrees, and the fighters are completely drained. It is rare and impressive to see people spend themselves so totally. Having witnessed what they go through in the gym, it is difficult for me to imagine them ever facing anything worse in the ring. I later discover that they work out like this twice a day, five days a week!
I catch Dr. Parsons after the workout. “I would like to try the workout,” I blurt out, not really expecting him to allow it. “Show up tomorrow at eleven,” he tells me, matter of factly.
Why did I do that? The sane part of me wonders.
I don’t really have an answer, but when you see men like the Team Quest fighters who have so mastered themselves through hard work, discipline and force of will, it is hard not want to be at least a little bit like them.
While membership in the Team Quest Fight Team is invitation only, the California gym is open to the public. Paying students can take a variety of classes, and even be privately coached by some of the fighters.
As I enter the next day, Thierry Sokoudjou, who has recently made a huge splash in Japan with back-to-back knockouts of two of PRIDE FC’s biggest stars, is in the ring coaching a man on how to throw punches. Imagine being able to go to Yankee stadium and have Alex Rodriguez give you a batting lesson.
The man slowly practices the right uppercut, left hook combination Thierry has taught him to throw. His punches gradually get tighter and crisper as his muscles learn the movements. “Hey Sean, do you give a fuck that Thierry has won two big fights?” Dr. Parsons shouts so that Thierry and the rest of the gym can overhear him.
“NO!” shouts back Sean Tompkins with theatrical vehemence, as Thierry smirks and gives them a sidelong glance from inside the ring.
Tompkins, a protégé of the legendary Bas Rutten, is the team’s striking coach and was recently named the head coach of Rutten’s old IFL team, the Anacondas. He has helped the members of Team Quest develop devastating strikes to go along with their grappling ability and conditioning. When Thierry got his first shot in Pride, against Rogerio Nogueira, he knocked the favored Brazilian out with a single left hook in only 28 seconds. In Dan Henderson’s last fight, a rematch with the vicious striker Wanderlei Silva, Henderson completely dominated the stand up exchanges and then knocked the dreaded Chute Boxe captain out cold, again with a left hook.
“I hit Wanderlei pretty hard with the right hand, then I missed one left hook but the second one got him. The key is I am starting to throw more punches.” Henderson says. He credits Tompkins with much of his success with striking.
“When I started, I wasn’t a naturally a devastating puncher, and during the beginning of my career I wasn’t knocking anybody out. I didn’t know exactly where to put my punches or the correct way to throw them, but now I have been able to refine that a little bit.”
This is typical Henderson understatement. The left hook that separated Mr. Silva from his senses was as picture perfect as ever seen. Not fast, but tight, short, and smooth, gaining its power from the weight Henderson put behind it, along with the angle and leverage with which he threw it. It showed Tompkins’s coaching expertise in action.
As Thierry’s private session ends, Tompkins and Jason Miller are sitting on the ring apron discussing something intently. Whatever they are talking about, a wide-eyed and gesticulating Miller seems to be vehemently making his point.
Jason Miller is boisterous, indefatigable and deceptively intelligent. His ring name “Mayhem” is as fitting a description of what his life might be like without the discipline of MMA, as it is of what he causes for his opponents in the ring.
When Miller talks to you, there is an offbeat energy that draws you in. He has the sort of dangerous charisma that people who are half crazy sometimes do.
“I was a local tough guy with about bazillion street fights, always beating everybody up. I had a crush on this girl so I got to know her brother. Well, he and I became friends, so I quit having a crush on his sister but he was this little guy and a martial arts geek. One day he shows me this tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. After I saw it I was like ‘man I can beat all of those guys up,’ not realizing that there is a lot more to it than being able to take a punch and punch a guy back Well one day he asks me to spar and I say, ‘against little you?’ So we go in the back yard and he kicks me in the stomach. I take him down and before I know it he has choked me unconscious with a triangle choke. I didn’t even know what it was. When I woke up I told him, ‘Man that was awesome! I have to learn that.’”
It was a turning point in young Miller’s life. From there Miller went on the road traveling wherever he could to get the best training. He bounced around, training with several camps, but has apparently found a home with Team Quest. He is Henderson’s most frequent sparring partner. Miller’s cardio is sick.
As eleven o’clock rolls around, Dr. Parsons asks me if I am ready. “I’m as ready as I get,” I tell him. Dr Parsons, in a rare merciful gesture, says he will only put me through two five-minute circuits with a healthy rest in between.
“Pick up the hammer and hit that tire,” He says.
“Is there some technique to it?” I ask before beginning.
“Yes there is, you pick the hammer up swing it over your head and hit the tire,” He deadpans.
“I see,” and so it begins.
“Keep hitting. Breathe, you’re doing well,” he says looking at his stopwatch.
This isn’t as hard as it looks, I think to myself.
“Start doing push-ups.” Still not so bad.
“Run down there and jump up and down on the box,” he says, referring to the plyometric steps. I start to wonder how much time is left.
“Go do pull-ups” I am now officially gassing, and am embarrassed by the fact that I can only do a couple without resorting to using the nearby wall for help.
“Pick up the medicine ball and slam it down as hard as you can.” Hard but better than the pull-ups. “Sprint down there and slam Red Man.”
“How?” I gasp, thinking he will give me some secret leverage trick that will make the task easier.
“It doesn’t matter, just do it. Pick him and throw him on the ground.” Technique is not the point, physical exertion is.
“Again, slam him until I tell you to stop,” Dr. Parsons’ instructions come in the same constant cadence I remember from the day before.
“Do wind sprints to that wall and back. Keep going.” This sucks.
“Now jump up on the ring and down.” Ryan expects me to be able to jump from the floor to the apron of the boxing ring, but I have to cheat by using my hands for an extra boost at the last second. Again, the point is not so much the action as the physical exertion involved.
“Now take this medicine ball and do squat jumps to the wall and back.” I’m an idiot.
“Now throw the ball and hit the X on the wall,” He says pointing to a blue X high on the wall by the pull-up bars and climbing rope.
Are you kidding me that must be 15 feet up there.
“Do it and catch it on the way down, and do it until I tell you to stop,” Dr. Parsons says tersely.
After what seems like about three days, he tells me that five minutes have elapsed and I can stop. My arms are on fire, I’m utterly out of breath, and my head is spinning, but I didn’t have a heart attack, (which had been a possibility), and I didn’t throw up, (which had been a probability). That wasn’t so bad.
“Rest a little and we’ll do the second one,” he tells me.
Ouch! In my momentary hubris I have forgotten that I am supposed to do two circuits.
After a charitably long rest, I embarked on the second 5 minute circuit. Suffice it to say that it was much, much harder. I hit the wall and thought I was done about the third time I swung the sledgehammer at the start. Now, I realize what Dr. Parsons meant when he spoke to me about listening. At a certain point you become so fatigued that there is not enough energy for your conscious mind and your body at the same time. Whatever mental dialogue you have ceases, and the voice of the coach is like a rope which pulls you along as your body performs what it is instructed to do. Even though I feel like quitting after about 20 seconds I don’t. I somehow make it through the second circuit as well. I can only attribute this to the fact that the fear of shame is a powerful motivator. I will also mention that while my shit list is not very long, Red Man is on it.
As I collapse next to the ring, gasping like a drowning man, the thought runs through my mind that while this has probably been the greatest physical exertion that I will ever experience in my life, for the members of Team Quest it would have been just a warmup, and an easy one at that.
The next day it is time for me to go, and when I come in to tell the team goodbye I notice a rack of Team Quest merchandise. There are some cool Tshirts and various types of fight gear and equipment. I ponder a rack of baby hoodies bearing the logo of this fearsome fighting club.
As I make my round of goodbyes, there is a kickboxing class being run by Tompkins going on. There are several very attractive women in the class, their pretty faces contorted into grim and bellicose expressions as they concentrate on their punches and kicks.
As the class finishes and they begin to file out, these women, who moments before seemed so intense and violent change back into themselves; into the people they are outside of the gym. Their goodbyes bubble through the air in the cheery strains of Southern California.”