Without proper guidance, navigating the waters of life can be all the more difficult than it may be even with that directional aid.
Like an ocean, there will be many waves that one will be hit with throughout. Some big, some small, but no matter the size of the challenge, ups and downs, positivity and negativity, contrasts are necessary requirements to evolve as individuals.
In the world of sports, this applies as well. The basic form of an up would be a win with the down being the loss. And if there is one thing that every single sport has in common it’s that at the very least, it takes two unique souls to tango.
Obviously, in team-based sports, several singular persons work collectively to accomplish their task at hand and generally the stronger their bond, the more refined their abilities and drive will be to succeed.
However, combative sports such as the many different martial arts only see one on one variants of competition. But as the purist solo act that fighting is in its final version, there are many pieces of that overall puzzle that come into play to make the fighter that is sent into the arena.
The best support systems, no matter the sport, have proven to be so much more than just that. And for Alliance MMA head coach Eric Del Fierro, his gym’s name couldn’t be any more fitting.
Having coached and been around the sport for 20 years now, Del Fierro has undeniably established himself as one of the very best coaches in the world today. Yet he happily remains under the radar and out of the spotlight whenever possible.
Del Fierro being one of the most underrated coaches in the game has become somewhat a common opinion amongst MMA pundits. So if that’s what everyone thinks, does that really mean that he’s still underrated?
“I actually never really think about it,” Del Fierro told BJPenn.com when responding to whether or not he feels he gets proper recognition. “It all goes back to why you do what you do. We all have our own things that make us tick and whether I’m coaching an amateur fighter or whether I’m coaching a pro at the highest level, the satisfaction comes from seeing these guys reach their goals and just win by win, just watching them create these results. And that’s where I get my satisfaction from.
“I’ve always been more of an introvert, so I’m never really seeking out camera attention. That’s not really what I got into it for. I know it’s part of the sport, but I just like my quiet corner. I just have fun with the results.”
As is the case with any ‘project’ or investment, it’s all about the payoff and putting as much as possibly can be put into it. Anything less than maximum effort could be considered a waste of energy.
For Del Fierro, working collectively and in some harder
So when MMA burst onto the scene, a new and exciting challenge presented itself for the future Alliance mastermind to get involved with.
“I actually started years ago when the sports first really started taking off, I was in the military at the time, I was in the navy and I just happened to be doing Judo and I remember it was UFC 3 I believe or something like that,” Del Fierro said. “Like everybody else, I was just intrigued about what Royce [Gracie] was doing. And then I just started following it and then I bounced around in San Diego for martial arts, experimenting with different ones myself. So I finally settled in Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den down in Chula Vista where they had it there for a couple of years. And that’s kinda how I started doing putting the whole thing together.
“When I started training with those guys, I think within a month I was just training with one of the main instructors, and it just continued from there. I was never looking to compete. I was already a full-time fireman at the time and I was just having fun but I really enjoyed the training that all the pros did, the hard sparring, everything. I think when the team broke up and that gym went under, the guys that were a part of the pro teams still stuck together, we kind of developed our own system and started training and I kind of fell into that position of coaching.”
Similarly to former UFC heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic who is also a fireman, Del Fierro’s love for the sport coincided with his ‘normal’ job. Which happens to include a fair amount of fraternization itself.
In actuality, the engaging part of being a coach and building a team was never going to be a struggle for Del Fierro. But his uneventful times at a certain fire station were arguably detrimental to the growth and expansion of his incredibly analytical mind.
“I didn’t have my own gym at the time,” Del Fierro said. “I was already working full time. I think for me, I’ve always been a student of the game, you know? A student of martial arts, and when people ask me how did I really get into this sport and how did I get so involved in it… I always go back to the video game, Tetris.
“The first fire station that I ever got assigned at… Absolutely nothing happened at this fire station. It’s where people went to retire. I just happened to be there for like two months straight when I first started. And I had nothing to do so I would play Tetris for hours to the point that I would dream about Tetris. When I would do martial arts, whether I was grappling, whether I was striking, I would see patterns that I would see ideas. And that’s kinda how I see martial arts even to this day. Where every athlete [is], where their strengths are, where we can move certain things around. So I, to this day, I look at fighting like a video game to a certain extent, you know?”
As surprising as it may be initially, the comparison is quite intriguing and a formula that’s clearly panned out. What works for one person might not work for the other, and if it’s isn’t broken then there’s no need to fix it.
To get the best possible grasp of something, maximizing the immersion levels is a must. And especially when in a sport like MMA with so many different variables and little bits and pieces that can be added to an arsenal, it kind of commands one’s full focus.
“Martial arts was like that, it was like that for me,” Del Fierro continued when comparing MMA to Tetris. “I jumped around from everyone just trying to understand it. I did every martial art you can think of until I just got it to a place, which by the time was the Lion’s Den, and those group of guys that were doing everything. Grappling, striking, wrestling.
“Where I was at in my life at the time, coming out of the military and being in the fire department, I think leadership and organization was a little bit easier for me to organize the guys and give them the workouts and tell them what time we were meeting. You know, what everybody had to do and I think every athlete kinda just hopes to have that and for their camps, it was easier for us to develop our own little team down there.”
As much of an underappreciated individual as he may be to the collective majority of the MMA audience, Eric Del Fierro couldn’t be any farther away from that word when it comes to his team and the people around him.
Chula Vista’s Alliance MMA team is more than a team. It truly is an unbreakable unit thanks to Del Fierro which has only motivated several of the very best fighters in the world today to strive towards their goals in ways they possibly wouldn’t have been able to do so without.
Due to his great humility, he might not take the credit for it, but on recent occasions, some of his fighters such as Jessica Penne and Jeremy Stephens have gone as far to say that the former Lion’s Den member saved their lives.
That can be attributed to the fact that Alliance is more than just another team… It’s a family.
“I think part of the martial arts journey is… We are a family,” Del Fierro said. “The thing people don’t realize is, you’re in these people’s lives at the best of times and at the worst of times. Even though we know… You’ve heard [UFC President] Dana White say over and over that, you know, this is something these athletes do for a small period of their lives. They got a five to 10-year window, maybe sometimes more. Just this small window they’re in, they’re putting 100 percent [into it]. And when something happens, like a loss… It sometimes spirals that athlete out of control.
“I’ve been in this sport a very, very long time and I’ve had a couple of athletes at the highest level go up and come crashing down and a couple of them are doing life in prison. Other times it comes to suicide and others have disappeared to addiction. So I don’t take my involvement in a person’s life as a joke. I truly love what I do and I truly love the connection that I’ve built with these guys and I hope the best for them even after their careers are over.”
Although Del Fierro has undeniably built connections with all of those at Alliance, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that there isn’t one that stands out over the rest.
Two minds are better than one, and as alluded to earlier, combining them is a must in sports.
There have been several great fighter and coach tandems throughout MMA’s history. Whether it be Jon Jones and Greg Jackson, Matt Hume and Demetrious Johnson, Firas Zahabi and Georges St-Pierre… Eric Del Fierro and Dominick Cruz are a must mention in that same conversation.
On July 15, 2006, the very ambitious and green 20-year Cruz found Del Fierro hosting Total Combat 15 when he took on Dave Hisquierdo whom he would defeat via split decision. It was the Arizonan’s seventh career victory.
An invitation from his future coach to work together would follow the fight, and the rest, as they say, is history.
With Del Fierro by his side each and every step of the way, Cruz would go on to cement himself as one of the greatest fighters of all time and the bantamweight division’s best with several UFC and WEC titles to his name. But achieving his success wouldn’t come without some well-documented physical adversity.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” Del Fierro shared. “Through the ups and downs, through the injuries, it’s been an evolving relationship. We both learn a lot every day from each other and it’s just amazing to see his growth, his mind. I always knew he was a mental fighter. From when I met him to when we got to where we got with his career and now seeing him just analyze fights and see how he breaks down fights. We still do that at the gym with every athlete, and even before he goes on TV, we go over different fights to see what I see and see what he sees. So it’s just amazing to see his growth. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of what he’s accomplished, all he’s accomplished in this sport and what he continues to do.”
As Cruz still battles with his body to this day, Del Fierro knows that his star pupil can still do anything that he sets his mind to. And it’s that very same mind that has gotten him to where he is in and out of the Octagon.
As the appropriate care and guidance are given to all of the Alliance leader’s athletes as humans, the same can be said for actual coaching methods and approaches… In all their L-block-like glory.
Every coach and fighter has their own unique ways to prepare for a fight. Some cooperate more than others with the same idea, some not at all.
In the end, the goal is always the same and that’s to come out with your side’s arm raised.
“First and foremost, I try to work on our strengths versus theirs,” Del Fierro explained. “That way we can create the gameplan behind our strengths. If we focus too much on the opponent, it kind of puts you in a defensive mindset, you know? So I try to focus on our strengths first and what we can implement. I study tape on the opponent to see for a specific thing that might benefit us, but at the level of the game especially at the bigger shows, the UFC, Bellator, everybody’s good.
“We’re at a stage now that everybody’s good at everything. There’s nobody that’s just dominant at one thing anymore. So we do gameplan for certain guys, but the focus is more on ours first and then what the opponent’s good at.”
Finding and utilizing mentors to the best of their abilities in everyday life is just a part of the journey. And that’s no different in sports either.
In the best of cases, that’s exactly what ends up happening. Thus leading to a kinship so strong that it can end up defining an alliance.
This article first appeared on BJPenn.com on 3/6/2019