By FIGHT! contributor Brad McCray
“People pay to watch this,” Robert Follis says. “This is practice for one of the top teams in the world. You can’t just watch the Lakers practice.”
Once a used car lot, the garage door in this poorly lit room functions as a cage wall for professional fighters pummeling under hooks. I have been sent here to find out what is wrong with Team Quest and why one of the most venerated gyms in MMA is faltering in recent years.
“It’s a sensitive topic around the gym but I think there is some merit to that question,” middleweight Chael Sonnen says. “I don’t know if it’s just normal or if something has changed.”
Follis was Couture’s training partner in 1997 and came to Team Quest in 2001 to run the business. The gym did well and Henderson opened a second gym in Temecula, Calif. in 2003. In 2008, Team Quest opened a third facility in Tualatin, Ore. Lindland and Henderson scoff at the notion the gyms are struggling. Heath Sims, the manager of Temecula gym, wishes they had more space.
But nine years after it was founded, Team Quest’s star has faded and many of its marquee names are gone.
“People read into things and they see people leaving and think there must be problems,” Follis says. But that’s not necessarily the case. “Your kids are going to grow up and leave the house and people will move on. This is just the natural progression of life,” he says.
Most American fans became acquainted with Team Quest during the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2005 when Couture was a coach and the cast included Team Quest fighters Nate Quarry and Chris Leben.
“That TV show was great for the sport, but maybe not as great for how guys perceive themselves,” Lindland says. “In some cases it was a detriment to their careers.”
Henderson agrees. “It’s really a big change for these guys,” he says. “They believe they are stars because of that TUF show.”
The second season featured Josh Burkman with Couture in a cameo role. Ed Herman and Josh Haynes were on season three. TUF 7 featured Jesse Taylor, Mike Dolce and Gerald Harris. Vinnie Magalhaes and Krzysztof Soszynski appeared on season eight. Henderson was a coach on TUF 9, which featured Team Quest Temecula fighter Richie Whitson.
“That show has been an absolute curse,” Sonnen says. “From Josh Haynes to Josh Burkman to Gerald Harris and Dolce. I don’t know what happens.” Of the Ultimate Fighters only Herman, Soszynski, Taylor and Whitson still represent Team Quest.
For five years, Couture was the face of Team Quest but in 2005 he left Portland for Las Vegas, Nev., re-married and became an industry unto himself with a clothing line, books, and gym franchises bearing his name.
“Randy kind of separated himself,” Henderson says. “He broke off contact with us. It was a little weird for awhile.”
Couture even opened a gym in Vancouver, Wash., 20-miles north of the original Team Quest gym.
“I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ So I asked him and he said he thought it was far enough away it wouldn’t affect our membership,” Lindland says. “He was right. We didn’t lose any fighters. It’s not like he is a coach there. All the guys he coaches are in Vegas.”
It didn’t help matters that Couture aired some of dirty laundry regarding Team Quest’s business dealings and certain people’s in his personal life in his 2008 autobiography, “Becoming the Natural.”
“The whole situation was a little awkward,” says Follis. “I wonder what happened as much as you do. Our relationship is cordial. I have no ill will towards Randy.”
“I think people read too much into it when they see people moving on and they think something is wrong,” continues Follis. “Eventually, everyone will move on. In 20 years, all the fighters will have moved on.”
Like Henderson, many fighters simply returned home. Leben took a coaching position in Hawaii. Chris Wilson returned to Brazil. Josh Haynes went to Las Vegas to train with Couture.
“Dan has a gym. I have a gym. Randy has a gym,” Lindland says. “Where’s the problem?”
According to some former Team Quest fighters, the problem is Lindland, or more accurately, the lack of Lindland. The middleweight fighter competes, manages fighters, coaches, runs the Sportfight promotion, his gym and made a failed state congressional bid in 2008. It’s a lot to juggle and Lindland catches heat for not providing enough individual attention.
After a UFC title shot, Quarry left after Lindland denied his demands for more discipline-specific coaches. “I felt like I needed to be selfish about my career,” Quarry said.
On the flip side, Follis, who is hands-on, has taken the blame for poor performances because he is not a fighter himself. At least one of Follis’ former charges point to boring, repetitive practices reason that he left. “I love Team Quest, but on my first day back from the TV show, they were doing the same practice as before I left,” Dolce says.
But according to Team Quest loyalist Sonnen, Follis knows everything necessary to train successful fighters. “The NBA and NFL are beset with coaches that were not decorated athletes,” say Sonnen. “They were sitting on the bench studying the game. Robert is knowledgeable. He studies everything. He knows everything about fighting. He really does.”
In his own defense, Follis says, “It’s not like these guys were black belts when they came to us. We have taken a lot of guys that were green and turned them into fighters. We took guys who were willing to grow and work and made them into fighters.”
Sims, co-owner of Henderson’s Temecula gym, takes a similar view of the complaints. “We have a lot of guys who started with us and made fighting their career,” Sims says. “Look at all the guys we’ve taken from scratch. Take (Matt) Horwich for example,” he says, referring to the 37-fight Extreme Challenge, Sportfight, Strikeforce, International Fight League, World Extreme Cagefighting and Ultimate Fighting Championship promotions. “Horwich. Everyone thought that guy was crazy and he would never be anything. Look at him now,” Sims says.
In the end, Team Quest may just be a victim of its own success. In 2005, Couture held the UFC light heavyweight title, lost it and retired in 2006 only to return in 2007 and win the UFC heavyweight title. In 2007, Henderson became first man to hold titles in two weight classes when he held Pride’s middleweight and light heavyweight belts. Lindland was considered a top middleweight until his recent knockout loss to a resurgent Vitor Belfort. From that zenith anything less seems like a failure.
In spite of all the changes, Team Quest still boasts a healthy roster of professional fighters including six who are under contract with the UFC – middleweight contender Henderson, Herman, Sonnen, Soszynski, Jake Ellenberger, and Ryan Jensen. Jesse Taylor fought for Strikeforce on Aug. 15 as well as for Japanese promotion Dream earlier in the summer. Pride FC and UFC veteran Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou has found a home in Dream as well, and Ryan Schultz, who had success in the IFL, currently fights in Japan for World Victory Road.
“We pride ourselves on helping guys further in their career,” Follis says. “When they get further along, they may want to open their own gym or whatever. That’s fine. That means we’ve done our job.”
To learn more about the key players in the Team Quest story, check out Matthew Ross’ March 2008 cover story on Dan Henderson, Donovan Craig’s March 2008 profile of the Randy Couture, and Craig’s September 2007 profile of Team Quest Temecula. When you’re done with that, check out our exclusive photo gallery of Henderson, FIGHT!’s photos of Couture at work and play, and this gallery of Team Quest’s Temecula facility.
FIGHT! Fans: Do you think that the idea that Team Quest is more perception than reality?