Since he was hired in January as the first full-time head coach for the Sacramento, Calif.,-based Team Alpha Male, Duane Ludwig has gotten plenty of credit for the team's success.
The former UFC welterweight contender, whose career ended in 2012 when he couldn't remain healthy, finds a lot of humor in that.
"People seem to want to point to me and my hiring and give me all this credit [for the team's success]," he said. "It's nice, and I'll take it, and I deserve some of the credit, but it's fighters who win fights."
It's true that Ludwig inherited one of the sport's deepest and most talented teams. But consider the 2012 versus 2013 records for Chad Mendes, Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez and Danny Castillo, four of its biggest stars, when assessing Ludwig's impact.
Each of them will fight on Dec. 14 at SleepTrain Arena in UFC on Fox in Sacramento and all will be trying to finish off a more success 2013 than they had in 2013.
In 2012, Faber was 0-1. In 2013, he's 3-0. In 2012, Mendes was 2-1, but he's 2-0 in 2013. Benavidez was 1-1 in 2012 and 3-0 in 2013 and Castillo was 1-1 in 2012 and 2-0 in 2013.
That works out to 4-4 in the year immediately prior to Ludwig's hiring and 10-0 since. That can't be a total coincidence.
When Faber suggested to the team that it should hire Ludwig as head coach, he had Ludwig come in to conduct a seminar to give members a chance to assess him.
Needless to say, they came away impressed.
"We all just fell in love with his system and how he coached," Mendes said. "After he left, we all got back together and said, 'Let's do this. Let's get this guy out here.' So we figured out this whole money situation and got him to move his family out here.
"It's been awesome for us. I love having Duane here with the team. He's a great coach and he's obsessed with the sport of MMA. He's one of the best coaches I've ever seen. He's very passionate and he's a tactical genius. He can pick out the tiniest things and make a difference."
Prior to Ludwig's hiring, there was no head coach at Team Alpha Male. Thonglor Armatsena, aka "Master Thong," was the unofficial coach, but he was mostly a Muay Thai coach and frequently left without notice.
At one stage in 2012, he was gone for six weeks and no one had an idea where he was. The team members essentially trained each other, but with Faber, the owner/leader on the road so much, it was chaotic.
"Some of the smaller pieces started falling apart, and we needed someone to come in and start cracking the whip," Faber said. "There were a lot of disgruntled guys. Master Thong actually left for a six-week period without letting anyone know. We just really badly needed some leadership."
Ludwig turned out to be the perfect guy. He lost his final three fights, the last one to Che Mills on Sept. 29, 2012, in which he injured his knee.
He would have loved to have been able to keep fighting, but his body was breaking down and betraying him.
His long-term goal was – and remains – to open a Ludwig Martial Arts Academy and then have satellite schools around the country.
But he didn't do that for one very simple reason: Money.
"My finances weren't in order, so I took the job training fighters to be able to make a living and save what I need to get the academy opened eventually," he said. "That's what I want to do. This isn't a forever thing [being an MMA team head coach]."
Other fighters often came to Ludwig for advice and training tips during his fight career. Faber said he was known among the fighters for his technical knowledge.
To a large degree in MMA, the fighters coach themselves, and that's an area where it lags behind boxing. In boxing, there are trainers who have spent their lives in the sport and have learned how to coach.
In MMA, because it's such a new sport, there aren't many of those kinds of coaches around. As a result, the fighters usually coach themselves and learn as they go.
Ludwig learned from Bas Rutten, Trevor Wittman and Greg Jackson during his fighting career and molded that into his own system of fighting.
He has made a point to individualize the training to suit the differing needs of his athletes even though he has a few basic points that are the foundation of his system.
But he's learned that positivity helps. He never preaches what a fighter is doing wrong.
"I don't agree with the philosophy of coaching a guy and telling him what he's doing wrong," Ludwig said. "I like to tell them what they're doing right, and what they need to do."
He does plenty of film study of his fighters' opponents and then spends time working with them on the techniques he believes are going to be successful.
It's been a huge hit so far. Ludwig coaches Chris Holdsworth, who last week won The Ultimate Fighter 18.
On Dec. 14, he'll have Benavidez challenging Demetrious Johnson for the UFC flyweight title; Faber meeting Michael McDonald in an important bantamweight bout; Mendes facing Nic Lentz and Castillo taking on tough Edson Barboza.
A 4-for-4 night might be too much to expect, but Mendes said the attitude of the team is entirely different with Ludwig in charge.
"At the highest level of this sport, the fighters are so close in talent that one small thing, one minor mistake, one tiny thing that you tweaked can make the difference between winning and losing," Mendes said. "Duane's been what we've been missing. He's the guy who fixes those little mistakes and tweaks those things and that's why I don't think it's that much of a surprise how good things have gone for us."
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