EAST LANSING, Mich.- The fighters are normally the marquee stars in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
Which makes sense.
They are the ones fighting, the ones that promotions want to turn into stars and bring attention to the sport through their performance.
As with any sport, though, the people behind the athlete are just as important.
For MMA fighters, that is often the training team that they work with for weeks to best prepare for a fight.
Mando Gutierrez, a one-loss bantamweight fighter from East Lansing, assembling a team starts and ends with putting in the work.
“It all starts with culture,” said Gutierrez. “You can always build a guy’s skill-set, but you can’t build their work ethic without culture and team atmosphere.”
Devin “The Prodigy” Smyth, a welterweight fighter currently at 9-3, knows that same feeling in building up a successful work ethic. The godson of UFC Hall of Famer and former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans, Smyth has seen first-hand the kind of commitment it takes to thrive at the top of the MMA world.
“If you find yourself not 100% committed to the sport, if you find yourself slacking, you’re going to get hurt,” said Smyth, who hails from East Lansing.
“That’s something that I know Joaquin (Rodriguez), my head coach, would look for is someone willing to grind and put in that work day in and day out, because if you don’t, your opponents are.”
Rodriguez has been able to train Smyth since childhood to ignore everything else and just focus on one thing: winning.
“Joaquin has that ability to put that killer instinct in you to be like,’ I don’t care what’s going on right now, I need to win, period,’” said Smyth.
The ability to push fighters beyond what they thought were their limits is an ethos Gutierrez agrees is key.
“I need a coach that’s always on my butt, pushing me to be better,” said Gutierrez. “Someone that expects a lot of me at all times, but also isn’t scared to tell me no or show me new things.”
It’s through a lot of tough love in training that enduring friendships can be found, something Gutierrez said is an aspect that people on the outside often do not notice.
“People don’t realize the bond,” said Gutierrez. “Leading up to a fight, your coach knows more about you than anyone, so they need to know how to keep you motivated and keep you confident in those tough weeks.”
It’s a welcome dynamic for any fighter and coach combo to be able to have that kind of relationship.
It’s one that Smyth enjoys having with Rodriguez, as opposed to the other kind of relationship between a coach and fighter that only exists so one can gain off the other.
“There’s a lot more coaches in this state that don’t give a s*** about their fighters,” said Smyth.
“They just want to take the money, get up on that big stage and make their name only where it benefits themselves.”
Fortunately for Smyth, he’s been brought up with a coach that in his words, “would never be found in a situation like that.”
“Joaquin will never take a fight he thinks we’re not ready for, never put us in a bad situation…he wants us to win because of us, not him,” said Smyth. “He genuinely cares, man. We tell him we love him, and he comes right back and says he love us.”