The MMA Lab is coming off its best four-week stretch in recent memory, with eight fighters competing professionally across multiple top-tier promotions from mid-February to mid-March. Six won their bouts, further boosting the reputation of the mixed martial arts and fitness training center as one of sport’s top facilities for producing talent.
This weekend the gym will look to continue that run as three of its top fighters are set to compete for RUF Nation, a tribally owned MMA promotion company based out of Phoenix. MMA Lab’s Marcus “Maniac” McGhee headlines the event.
“The Lab is globally recognized,” said Alex Martinez, one of the six fighters to secure a win in February. “Other gyms in the area mean well, but there’s levels to this stuff. The Lab is in a league of its own.”
Founded in 2007, The MMA Lab has long been a second home to an elite roster of fighters competing for the UFC, Bellator and other professional organizations worldwide. Its mission is to create a relationship-based community that supports those interested in improving themselves through martial arts and fitness, including some of the best.
Perhaps the most noteworthy result from a fighter at the Lab was Jared Cannonier’s triumph at UFC 271 in February, which secured him a title shot with the middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya.
Known formally as “The Killa Gorilla,” Cannonier has been one of The Lab’s most distinguished fighters since joining the gym in 2018.
“I train at the best gym with the best wrestlers in the world,” Cannonier said. “So yeah, you can take me down. Heck I’ll even lie down for you. But you ain’t gonna keep me down.”
The MMA Lab’s Kyler Phillips fought earlier on the same night, subduing his combatant with a triangle armbar in the third and final round. The Lab’s Mario Bautista fought the following week, showcasing his skills en route to a unanimous decision win over Jay Perrin, bringing a third UFC win back to the Valley in two weeks.
“There’s no better place than this place right here, right now,” Phillips said of The MMA Lab.
Most MMA gyms offer a variety of classes and have multiple instructors on hand, teaching an array of techniques and styles. The Lab believes it stands out from the rest because of its focus on family and the communal aspect of MMA.
It’s not unusual for fighters to arrive at the gym with family in tow.
“You can truly feel that you’re building relationships with the coaches, that they care about you, your friends, your family. It’s a journey together,” Martinez said.
Members of the gym support one another and often refer to training partners as “brothers.”
“It’s a family, that’s what it is,” Lab member Kyle Robbins said. “Not a lot of (other gyms) are like this. It feels good to be a part of something.”
Fighters must clean the mats and pads before classes and after training sessions, working together to keep their space clean for teammates and coaches. The Lab expects everyone to help out, from the top UFC fighters to gym members with zero experience. No one receives special treatment.
“I trained at gyms in Scottsdale and Phoenix, and I learned a lot, but the experiences I’ve had at the Lab – I couldn’t get that anywhere else,” said An Ho, who was victorious in his professional fighting debut in February. “The other places don’t teach you the respect – the roots of the sport, the way that the coaches do here. If I don’t show up to practice at The Lab, my coaches will text me, ‘Where are you at?’ They stay on top of me, and hold me accountable for my actions.”
Largely due to the emergence of gyms like the Lab, Arizona has quietly become a hot spot for MMA in the U.S. in recent years, with some of the biggest names in the UFC and Bellator holding their training camps in the Valley.
“I feel like Arizona is the mecca of MMA in the United States,” Ho said. “I think that as the sport continues to grow, kids are starting to train at a younger age, especially because of all of the different gyms in the area.”
States including New York and California have more MMA gyms. Arizona is unique in that its elite facilities are located within a few miles of one another.
“It’s pretty awesome to have the Lab, all these other schools that are really in this small vicinity. You don’t have to drive very far to get good martial arts in Arizona,” said Keith Hagen, MMA Lab’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu coach.
Former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson is widely recognized as the face of the MMA Lab. He has come a long way since he first entered the gym nearly 15 years ago.
He went from mopping the floors in exchange for training sessions to becoming a part owner. In 2012, he joined forces with legendary coach John Crouch.
The Lab’s reputation for helping aspiring fighters along in their journeys, guiding them from promotion to promotion, was the main reason Henderson looked to become an owner.
“His record of growing and building fighters from the ground up, starting as amateurs and getting them into the big shows is unparalleled,” Henderson said about Crouch.
“He’s a hero to me,” Lab regular Keith Hagen said. “He’s a great human being. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a huge mentor – a huge inspiration.”
While many elite fighters train at The MMA Lab daily, the gym welcomes fighters at every level, from beginner to black belt. Hagen recalls his first day on the mats, and how Henderson made sure he felt like he belonged.
“I had no idea what I was doing, and he would sit there and take time to show me how to kick the bag,” Hagen said. “He’s the type of dude that walks the walk. He doesn’t talk very much. He just shows up, works hard, and the results speak for themselves.”
After several years of running the gym together, Henderson and Crouch made the decision to upgrade their facility in 2018. The Lab is now equipped with three training rooms, a full-sized octagon and a spacious weight room for strength and conditioning. Instructors offer programs for fighters in all of these spaces.
The Lab also offers many classes geared toward teens, including self-defense, BJJ and kickboxing. The gym promotes the classes as a way for adolescents to keep busy after school or to stay out of trouble.
“I wish I would’ve had the Lab as a kid, instead of just going home or fighting kids on the block,” Martinez said.
Phillips and Bautista are among the fighters who realized their passion and desire to fight professionally as teenagers while training at the Lab with Crouch.
Crouch moved to Glendale and joined the Lab as an instructor in 2006, not long after receiving his black belt from the hands of world-renowned BJJ icon Royce Gracie.
Crouch is known throughout Arizona’s MMA community for his no-nonsense approach and his unwavering commitment to the sport.
That commitment is clearly paying off.
Story by Dylan Rush, Cronkite News