Many of the young fighters who used to walk into the Team Oyama training center were focused mostly on themselves, head coach Colin Oyama told NBC News.
But at his Orange County, California, mixed-martial arts gym, Oyama and his current crew are much more focused on the part of the sign that reads “Team” than his own last name.
“The thing that I’ve always brought from football and wrestling was that you need to have teammates to do any of it,” Oyama said. “With MMA, you need to have someone to do it with. You can stand there and throw punches in the air all day long, but you need to have others around you.”
The Hawaiian-born Oyama has put both his football and wrestling knowledge to good use as an MMA coach over the last two decades, but what most fighters travel to Oyama for is his world-class striking prowess in the martial art of muay thai, the Thai striking form.
While Oyama made a name for himself coaching former UFC champions like Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz, the current iteration of Team Oyama doesn’t necessarily have the starpower it once did. Oyama’s active fighters include younger fighters and rising stars like former UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza and Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus, which is exactly how the coach prefers it these days.
“Two years ago, I reached a point where I was contemplating that maybe this was it,” Oyama said. “The performance and the attitudes of the younger people started turning me off a bit — especially in Orange County. There was so much entitlement, and it was like ‘Man, you haven’t done a damn thing.’ I ran into a kid from Central California who brought a good work ethic and showed up everyday, and that kind of made me realize that I didn’t lose the passion for what I was doing, but I’d lost the passion for the people who didn’t work out hard and wanted everything handed to them.”
That mentality has made all of the difference for Oyama in recent years. Rather than running the same kind of program at other established gyms with famous fighters, Oyama has seen the influx of energy from the younger fighters — each one carefully screened by the coaching staff — spill over to everyone else at the gym.
“I think we’ve been able to build a team of kids who are all young and come from all areas, but they’re all hard-working kids,” Oyama said. “I think that helps create a closer-knit family versus some gyms where guys think they’re superstars and treat everyone else like crap. We have a lot of good guys who all help each other out, and the same mentality they bring to working out, they bring to the classes. When they teach the classes for the public, it carries over to the members who don’t fight. They know those dudes are working hard to make them better.”
Not having to deal with the egos of internationally famous athletes isn’t the only benefit of working with younger martial artists for the veteran coach. After spending the bulk of the last 17 years coaching at the highest levels of the sport, working with up and comers reminded Oyama of the days when he first became interested in muay thai.
“The kids I have now are the ones I’ve always wanted because they’re all hungry,” he said. “Everyone wants to help each other, and that’s lead to a lot of other people hitting us up. We’re turning some of those people down though, because we’re only bringing in people who will fit here and want to help everyone out.”
While many top martial arts coaches come from a long background of fighting, Oyama quickly found that he’d prefer to be instructing than standing in the ring. After coaching a fighter in what he believed to be a one-time affair, the young martial artist realized he had a knack for getting the most out of athletes. Over the next few years, Oyama became recognized as one of the top young coaches in mixed martial arts for his work with fighters like Ortiz and then Jackson.
“I was out of college, football was over, and basketball was cool but there were a lot of tall guys, so I needed something to do,” Oyama said of his initial interest in muay thai. “I started doing some amateur kickboxing stuff, and then I was still competing when I was training that first guy, so it didn’t feel that different.”
These days, a lot of Oyama’s efforts go into balancing the schedules of his pupils’ upcoming bouts. Although traveling for a big fight isn’t abnormal, the family atmosphere at Team Oyama means the coach is almost always bouncing from one distant location to another and from one training camp to the next. No individual fighter gets special treatment, so each one is just as important as the ones before and after.
“People just see the traveling and everything, but it’s not like you just get on the plane and there you are,” Oyama said. “They didn’t see the eight weeks that went in before that moment or anything else. In our case, we have fights in Oklahoma City, New York City, Ontario, Mexico City, and Vancouver in the next eight weeks. We’ve already gone to Nova Scotia, Brazil, London, and Kansas City this year, so it’s a constant balancing act."
“You’ve got to balance the schedules and the egos and make sure everybody is helping each other out,” he added. “With this crew of kids, it hasn’t been a problem, but in the past that wasn’t the case. Guys would get done with their fights and then peace out, and that’s not really fair for the guys who come second. It gave me a better appreciation for guys like Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick. People think it’s easy because you have all the best guys, but when you have Kobe playing with Shaq, it’s a lot more difficult than people think. They’ve got talent, but they’ve got egos.”