Athens, Georgia, is a college town if there ever was one. Home to the University of Georgia, Athens knows three things: good football, hot women, and fun bars. The HardCore Gym has been slowly adding a fourth: MMA.
The gym itself is nothing spectacular—3000 square feet of mats, punching bags, and kettle bells in a concrete block building. The walls are peppered with plaques, hanging medals, and framed shirts, and it smells like a gym should. If you’ve seen one like it, you’ve seen them all. However, what goes on inside the gym is a another story.
Owned and operated by brothers Adam and Rory Singer, The HardCore Gym has been punching and kicking its way up the ladder as one of the elite MMA gyms in the South. Its biggest claim to fame: Forrest Griffi n got his start here and the last time I checked, he was the light-heavyweight champion of the UFC. That’s not a bad bullet-point to have on your resume. But the HardCore Gym has plenty more to boast about. Their current crop of fi ghters is solid, to say the least. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
I got to The HardCore Gym around noon on a Friday. Rory was running late because he was lifting at UGA. Adam was still working his “real” job. So I punched on a bag and watched HardCore fi ghter and instructor Dave Mewborn give a private grappling lesson. His technique was legit and his takedown drill reminded me of my wrestling days at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga—single leg, head up, run the pipe. On the other side of the gym, three college-aged guys worked the bags and sparred. They were laid back and easy to talk to. Their demeanor was an excellent prognostication of what was to come.
Adam and Rory are defi nitely brothers. There is no mistaking that. Although they look different physically—Adam is bearded and heavyset, Rory is clean-shaven and lanky—their Brooklyn accents and mannerisms are almost identical. Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, the brothers moved to Athens to attend UGA. To say they seem slightly displaced living in Athens is a fair statement. They talk loud, move fast, and drive crazy, both possessing a bit of road rage. But, contrary to how Rory was portrayed on The Ultimate Fighter 3, he is actually quite amiable and funny. Adam has a slightly more explosive personality with a vault of MMA knowledge and fun facts.
Having lunch with the brothers was entertaining. They roared back and forth. We talked about college wrestling, Rory’s recent wedding, Forrest, the best gyms in the county, and Adam’s new system of “Scoring a Fighter.” It’s actually a very interesting perspective and Adam promises to pen an article on his scoring methods for FIGHT!
Without ruining the article, here’s the gist of it: every MMA fi ghter gets scored on a 10-point scale in four areas—grappling, BJJ, standup, and conditioning. “To be a world champion, you need a 10 in at least one area,” Adam explains. “Most world champs have multiple 10s and lots of 9s and 8s. It’s still an objective system, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s like the BCS.”
I ask him to breakdown Couture for me. Grappling: 10, BJJ: 8, Standup: 7, Conditioning: 10, Total: 35 I play devil’s advocate and want reasons why Couture’s BJJ is so high. “He only has a couple of submission victories,” I note. I’m sure Adam will bring up Couture’s grappling match with Ronaldo “Jacare” de Souza that ended in a scoreless draw. Sure enough, he does. But Adam also elaborates that Couture’s BJJ defense is excellent, and he scores points there, as well.
“World champs usually have about a 35 to 36. Contenders 30 to 32. And so forth and so on down the ladder,” Adam says. “Rank Rory,” I suggest. Grappling: 5, BJJ: 8, Standup: 7, Conditioning: 7, Total: 27
Rory, who had been keenly texting someone for fi ve minutes, immediately jumps back into the conversation. He wants an explanation for his scores. Adam just laughs.
But Adam and Rory are no joke. Both are brown belts in BJJ under Chris Hautuer. They have traveled around the county and the world, and trained under the likes of American Top Team founder Ricardo Liborio, Straight Blast Gym International founder Matt Thornton, and 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu founder Eddie Bravo, just to name a few.
The Singers’ gym has been evolving for the last 10 years, since around the time of Rory’s fi rst fi ght. They’ve changed names and moved locations a few times. Now, The HardCore Gym is affi liated with both the American Top Team and Roberto Traven BJJ. Quietly, it’s becoming a hotbed for mixed martial artists.
“We started with eight or nine guys doing full contact 10 years ago in the UGA athletic center,” says Adam. “It was basically survival of the fi ttest back then. We were breaking hands and blowing out knees. It was an awesome sight. Eventually, it got so chaotic that we had to ban people from watching us train. We’ve come a long way since then. Now, we’ve got around 150 members.”
Adam and Rory wrestled in high school, boxed a little, and went through an evolution of sorts with martial arts—everything from knife and stick fi ghting to BJJ. Their progression is much like many others in the sport.
“We just absorbed all the knowledge that we could, and it’s been working. When Forrest began training with us in 2000, he was little more than a great athlete who liked to headbutt people wearing football helmets,” Rory says with a laugh. “He trained with us for fi ve years, up until his fi ght with Tito Ortiz in 2006. Now, he’s on top of the world.”
Make no mistake, Rory and Adam don’t want the credit for making Forrest a champion. All they want is for people to know that The HardCore Gym is growing into one of the best MMA gyms in the country. “Right now, we are like a good college football team,” says Adam. “We teach people how to play the right way. And each year, we graduate a couple of studs into the pros.”
“This is not Miletich Fighting System or Team Takedown,” says Rory. “We don’t have a crop of D-I wresters to pick and choose from. Instead, we build guys from the ground up. That’s what makes this place special.”
And building guys from the ground up is exactly what they do. The most amazing facts about The HardCore Gym: There are no BJJ black belts, no pro boxers, and no All-American wresters—and that includes the instructors. Yet, somehow they are churning out top-notch fi ghters, including Brian Bowles (135 lbs., 6–0, 3–0WEC), Stephen Ledbetter (145 lbs., 7–1), David Mewborn (185/205 lbs., 6–0–1), and Todd Duffee (205 lbs.+, 7-1).
it’s all attitude
It’s 5:30 p.m., and guys begin coming into the gym for an open session. It’s obvious by their attitudes that their team is a tight-knit group of fi ghters who don’t take themselves too seriously. There is no bowing. This is not a “school.” This is a gym.
Adam greets each guy that walks in the door with a nickname. There’s Fat Lawyer, Irish Car Bomb, The Musician. I’m dubbed The Writer. But on this particular night, Adam wants to know where Mega- Toe is.
“We had this guy come in here yesterday and his last two toes were connected and formed one huge mega-toe,” Adam explains to me.
Now, I’m intrigued. “You mean he had webbing in between his toes?” I ask. “No, this guy’s last two toes were completely connected and formed one giant mega-toe. I think you’ll be impressed.” But alas, Mega-Toe never showed up, and Adam was forced to take care of real business.
At the gym tonight is a camera crew shooting a documentary on Kyle Maynard—a 22-year-old with a rare disorder called congenital amputation. Maynard recently began training MMA, despite having no arms past the elbows and no legs. Adam and Rory are helping train him, and they fi eld a series of questions from the documentary team, while yelling out instructions to their fi ghters in between takes.
I saw Maynard wrestle when he was in high school at Collins Hill, Georgia. It was an impressive sight to say the least. Here was a guy—with the torso of a 200-pound man—with basically no arms or legs, wrestling in the 103-pound weight class. Now, he wants to fi ght in the cage. I am skeptical. But I don’t doubt the kid at all. He has proven too many people wrong over the course of his life who said, “You can’t do that.”
“Kyle is one of the toughest kids I have ever been around,” says Adam. “He is special because he does what he wants to do and nothing will ever stop him. Training him is a challenge, but it is rewarding watching him tap out able-bodied grapplers in North American Grappling Association tournaments.
Adam and Rory are helping Maynard train for the same reasons they trained with Forrest years ago. Not for fame. Not for fortune. That’s just what they love to do—train and fi ght. Adam loves the training. Rory loves the fi ghting. They both love their fi ghters. “I still love the competition, the energy you feel when you step in the cage,” says Rory, who hopes to get back to the UFC. “I like to travel with my guys and corner them in their fi ghts. That’s part of the fun for me.”
Adam is a little different. He loves the teaching aspect of the sport. But he was never too keen on competition, preferring to defl ect and share the limelight with his fi ghters. “For me, it’s about knowledge,” says Adam. “That’s what drives me. I measure success for myself this way. For others, like Rory and many of the guys in our gym, competition is where they measure their success. Neither way is right or wrong. It just is what it is.”
The fi ghters begin to train, oblivious to the bright lights and cameras of the documentary team, and it starts to get pretty loud. Some are working the bags. Others are rolling. Some are stretching and talking about what kind of fun they are going to get into tonight and their tailgating plans for the UGA/Alabama football game. Remember, Athens has a lot of hot women. So this is important stuff.
The most physically impressive guy in the room tonight is heavyweight Todd “Irish Car Bomb” Duffee. The kid looks like he was chiseled out of granite. He is a specimen. Duffee is fresh off his secondround TKO victory over Assuerio Silva in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In August, Duffee went down to the Dominican Republic and knocked out Josh Bennett in the fi rst round.
Why the hell is this kid traveling all over the world to fi ght? Simple: no one in the area (Atlanta is about a hour drive from Athens) wants to fi ght him. And for good reason. He’s a beast. His record is 7–1, and his only defeat came from a match he had to concede after he broke his hand on his opponent’s face.
“So far, the only way to beat Duffee is to absorb a bunch of his punches on your face and hope he breaks his hand,” says Adam with a smile. “He’s just so physically gifted that as long as he keeps training, he will make it big.”
The truth is, some organization (UFC hint, hint) needs to snag this kid up now and see what he can really do. He handled UFC and PRIDE veteran Assuerio Silva pretty convincingly. And as weak as the new heavyweight crop is, the UFC would be smart to look into the Irish Car Bomb— which, I’m assuming after meeting him, is based on the fact he spends some of his leisure time drinking Guinness, Jamison, and Irish Cream, as opposed to planting explosives a la the Irish Republican Army.
Duffee is not the only one that impresses. Cale Yarbrough from TUF 7 who made his pro debut at UFC Fight Night 14; Dave Mewborn, a 185-pounder who has quietly been compiling an undefeated record peppered with submission victories; and Stephen Ledbetter, an athletic 145-pounder whose only loss came at the hands of Jeff Curran.
And then there is Brian Bowles—a 135-pound wrecking ball. Of his six professional fi ghts, none have gone the distance, and that includes three WEC wins over Charlie Valencia, Marcos Galvao, and Damacio Page.
“Brian can beat you with his hands or his grappling,” says Rory. “He’s just a well-rounded, smart fi ghter. I don’t think many people realize how good he is. ” Fortunately, the WEC has been putting his skills on display lately. Can he beat current WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres? If Bowles keeps winning, it won’t be too long before we fi nd out.
to the big leagues
It’s nearing 8 p.m., and I need to get back on the road. However, Adam won’t leave until I roll with a couple of guys from the gym. I try to fi nd a scrub but before I can, Adam beckons Ledbetter to teach “The Writer” a few lessons in BJJ.
I’m stuck in no-man’s land—good enough that I’m not a putz, but not good enough that I want to fi ght for a living. I roll with Ledbetter. He takes it pretty easy on me until I catch him in an armbar. After a couple of tense seconds, Ledbetter rolls through and counters perfectly. He is free. Adam is laughing and yelling in the background. “Don’t let The Writer tap you!”
No more playing around for Ledbetter, and we jockey for position once again. Eventually, we get into a mad scramble, and he catches me in a triangle. I tap. We go again. This time, another scramble, and he ends up with an armbar. I tap. This kid is strong, has good hips, and knows how to scramble.
I was content to get on the road now, but Adam insists I roll with Rory. So, I do. Rory is all lank. Being in his guard is like being mummifi ed. Rory transitions from open to closed to butterfl y seamlessly, and he tosses me around like a cork in the ocean. Rory sweeps me and ends up in full mount. I give up my back for a second and then roll through. We scramble, and somehow I end up with Rory’s back and my hooks in.
Adam and Rory decide to have a conversation as I attempt to sink in a rearnaked choke. “What just happened?” says Adam. “I was going for a tornado roll,” says Rory. “Didn’t really work, huh?” “This guy is pretty limber.”
Their conversation goes on for about two more minutes. I block them out. They are now probably talking about politics or the new season of Beverly Hills 90210. Rory could just as easily have been reading a book. My rear-naked choke is not coming anywhere close to being effective. All of Rory’s movements are muscle memory at this point. He’s not even paying attention. “You should probably tap him now,” says Adam. “Ok.” Rory sluffs me off his back, rolls through, and instantly transitions to a triangle. I tap.
Adam and Rory are not being cocky. They are just being themselves. They are mixed martial artists with a sense of humor. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and that’s a big reason their gym is having so much success.
I take my beating like a man. In this sport, you’ve got to. Because as Adam says, “This isn’t like boxing where a Tyson/ Buster Douglas upset happens every blue moon. This is MMA. You are going to take a beating. There are so many ways to win or lose that predicting the outcome of a fi ght is damn near impossible. You train hard and when the time comes, hopefully you rise to the challenge. That’s how I train my fi ghters. I won’t put them out there until they are ready.”
Here’s what I predict: A lot of fi ghters at The HardCore Gym are going to make some noise very soon. It truly is a farm team of pros (I mean this as a compliment) who are ready at any minute to go fi ght in the big show. And the best part is that they are all homegrown.