Much has been said about a special bond existing between the 2013 Yahoo! Sports MMA Trainer of the Year, Duane Ludwig and UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. Ludwig, a former UFC fighter himself, doesn't deny that there's something special about his relationship with Dillashaw, even in comparison to his other close Team Alpha Male students like Chad Mendes and Joseph Benevidez.
"We just clicked," Ludwig says of he and Dillashaw, who upset Renan Barao with a dominating finish win in May to win the world title.
"We get along in a lot of areas and are very similar. We have a teacher-student relationship but he's also a good friend."
That bond with Dillashaw is a large part of the reason that Ludwig is currently still in Sacramento, coaching the Team Alpha Male fighters, despite announcing several months ago that he would soon leave to start his own gym back home in Colorado. Cornering Dillashaw in May against Barao was supposed to be Ludwig's swan song with Team Alpha Male, yet here he still is, living with Dillashaw as he prepares for an immediate rematch at UFC 177 against Barao.
"Bang" says that, while they are playing things by ear, he is still in negotiations to purchase the building he hopes will house his gym and will likely not have his own school up and running in Colorado until September. So, it currently works out for him to split time between there and California, where he teaches Team Alpha Male at Urijah Faber's Ultimate Fitness gym and is preparing Dillashaw and others for upcoming bouts.
"I still coach all the guys," Ludwig tells Cagewriter.
"Everybody on the team still does my class and I personally work with all the UFC fighters, still. Benevidez, Andre Fili, Chad Mendes, Danny Castillo - all the guys with fights coming up or who may have fights coming up soon, I'm still working with. I'm still the number one trainer [for Team Alpha Male]."
Ludwig says that it was always his dream to have his own gym, and though coaching Team Alpha Male in Sacramento for the past year and a half or so has been amazing and brought him great success, the lifestyle of coaching pro fighters, full-time, is getting in the way with his family life. "It hasn't been easy for me and my family to live here [in California]," he says.
"It has been in my heart since I was a kid to have my own school in Colorado. I have a wife and three kids and I'm a family man first. The guys here, the pro fighters, thy kind of have a college lifestyle where they do what they want, when they want. That's fine, it's great but we have to travel quite a bit and so I'm away quite a bit as a result. Evel Knievel once said in an interview that he could either be, 'Evel Knievel' or be a dad, but he couldn't be both. I've been trying to be Evel Knievel, a fighter and coach of the year or whatever along with a father for some time but it's hard. I will always be a martial artist but I want to be a father and husband first."
After a long kickboxing and MMA career of his own, it is understandable that Ludwig doesn't want to stay self-absorbed as a full-time MMA coach for much longer. Having his own school will be a much different lifestyle, one where he can focus on "regular" students and, most importantly, stay home with his family.
That said, Ludwig is still very much a trainer to the stars right now. No star is shining more brightly than Dillashaw, who is jumping right back into an immediate rematch with Renan Barao on August 30.
All the Team Alpha Male fighters, from founder Urijah Faber to Mendes, Danny Castillo and Benevidez, seemed to have improved greatly since Ludwig came on board, but the coach says that Dillashaw took bigger leaps than annyone. "By far, TJ is the most improved guy," he says.
"The reason why is a combination of our chemistry together, his talent and his work ethic. With TJ there is no messing around. All the guys train hard here but hes a bit more focused."
Ludwig says that the first fight with Barao went as expected and is a bit surprised that the rematch is happening immediately, given how dominant Dillashaw was. When we mention that it would seem that Barao's team might have wanted a chance to help the fighter make adjustments before taking on Dillashaw again so soon after their late May first fight, Ludwig jumps in.
"He would need to heal up, too," he says .
"This fight is too soon, period. But it is gonna be a good money-fight, good pay per view buys and I think that is all they are thinking about. Thatís where the focus is. I donít really see another fight that hyped up fight unless it's a fight with Faber or [Rafael] Assunciao (who owns a win over Dillashaw and was set to face Barao last May before getting injured and replaced by TJ). And, among those, I think the the Faber fight is the one that would sell. I'd rather not fight that one, though."
There it is - the elephant in the Ultimate Fitness wrestling room. Former world champ Urijah Faber recruited Dillashaw years ago to join his Team Alpha Male and helped groom him to become the champion he has.
Faber also brought in Ludwig, correctly thinking that he could help many of the Alpha Male guys turn a corner in their careers. Ever since Ludwig announced that he planned to leave and start his own gym in Colorado, the relationship between he and Faber has appeared strained, with Faber going so far as to say that the coach "rubs him the wrong way," and also both Faber and Ludwig openly entertaining a fight between "The California Kid" and Dillashaw.
Faber recently told Cagewriter that his desire to win another world title was not enough, in and of itself, for him to want to challenge his teammate Dillashaw in a title bout. And now, Ludwig tells us that he'd "rather not" corner Dillashaw in a fight against Faber.
However, both Faber and Ludwig make a point to let it be known that they are not daunted by the prospect of facing one another. Ludwig tells us that, even after he moves back to Colorado to run his school, he would like to continue to coach the Team Alpha Male guys who still want his assistance, if everyone's schedule permits.
Ludwig and Faber's personal issues seem, at present, to be a potentially bigger obstacle than travel and schedule to Ludwig continuing to work with guys on Faber's team, however. We ask "Bang," point-blank, what the nature of he and Faber's issues are.
Ludwig pleads ignorance on the issue, at first. Ultimately, he seems to believe that Faber doesn't like Ludwig being independent and making his own decisions.
"I'm not sure," Ludwig says.
"It's kinda strange. In the gym, now, [Faber] is cool face-to-face but then he does interviews where he says things that are confusing," Ludwig says.
"My goal here, what I'm doing is to get these athletes to be better martial artists. Thatís pretty much it. I do have plans and want to be situated with my own gym back home. I think most of the guys understand that. They get that I want to be with my family and be my own boss. But, I donít know if certain people don't like that. Certain people might have a life where they don't like being told, 'no.' When you're the man and someone says something that upsets you, you may not like the situation. I can see that. But, I think most of the guys have seen that I've put my business on the backburner to coach them. They get that I want to be my own man."
For now, Ludwig and Faber are co-existing and their fighters continue to sharpen their steel against one another. Ludwig says he holds mitts for Dillashaw four times a week and that the champ takes striking classes with him three times a week, in addition to his sparring work and tape study time.
The situation in Sacramento at Team Alpha Male would appear to be growing more intensely awkward by the day because of Faber and Ludwig's acrimony. The future is unknown for how the team will train, moving forward, and under whom.
In the MMA world, things often fall apart just as they are getting good. You see it year after year, in team after team.
Faber and Ludwig may seem on a collision course, by proxy, but for now they are still on the same team and fights for their proteges loom. One senses, or at least hopes, that those fights remain the priority for both men, for now.