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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Duke Roufus' profile as a top trainer in MMA has continued rising over the past couple of years, as tfhe former kickboxer has put together one of the top fight teams in the sport, with several rising fighters gaining prominence in that time frame. Roufus' top fighters are looking at very big things in 2012, and as they all look to break out next year, Roufus is hoping to maximize the attention he can devote to each of them.
"What I don't like to do is just rush a bunch [of fighters] at one time," Roufus told MMATorch's Rich Hansen this week on the MMATorch Tuesday Livecast at BlogTalkRadio.com/MMATorch. "Some gyms just have legions... I take pride in my Greek heritage, I like being the Spartans; there may be few of us, but fighting is what we do, and I'm going to make sure that we come out with the best possible warriors. There's a lot of gyms, and they have numbers; I want few, but [at a] high level."
"One thing that I'm kind of hoping to do [this year] is put in that extra time with each athlete so that we can bring out the best in them. We've got four guys [on top 10 lists] right now; one of them has a Championship belt in Bellator, and the other three want to get closer or get themselves a belt in the UFC, so I put some high expectations on myself coming into 2012."
Those four top fighters in the gym are Bellator Welterweight Champion Ben Askren, and UFC contenders Anthony Pettis, Alan Belcher, and Erik Koch. All of them are fairly young, and Roufus feels like more than just a technical coach when it comes to guiding the careers of fighters who remind him a lot of himself.
"I want to be like a Leonidas," Roufus said. "You can count on me scrapping and going to war with you, you can count on me being in the trenches with you. That's the mentality I have. Those are the type of coaches I've always embraced and been around."
"I don't have all the answers, but I can relate sometimes. If I can't answer a technical question, I can definitely answer an emotional or a philosophical question on fighting. I've been in the same situation as Anthony coming up, same situation as Serg. A lot of them, I can relate my experiences that I had in other sports to this sport as well."
One of those experiences is training alongside family, as he's got brothers Anthony and Sergio Pettis both coming up together. Anthony's already become one of the more exciting lightweight fighters in the world, and 18-year-old Sergio has now posted two wins in a row to start his own career. Roufus is excited about what's to come for both of them in their respective careers over the next few years, and understands what goes into training with a sibling.
"I think the potential for [Sergio] is unlimited; he's surrounded by master coaches who are going to bring the best out in him," Roufus said. "It's unlimited potential with both the Pettis boys. They're both hard workers and fierce competitors; I'm looking forward to what comes their way next. I've grown up training with five brothers and my dad was my coach... I think it's different [with the Pettis brothers] because I'm not their dad, and it's not their brother coaching them, so the emotion goes out of it. They're both in the same position of supporting each other, where it's not one coaching the other; it's tough always with families.
"The toughest thing I get is, my older brother was the star already when I started fighting, so I understand Serg's point of view of trying to live up to the expectations of his brother, because that was something that was always on my mind when I was a youngster coming up... Anthony's his biggest supporter, though. Anthony actually missed out on a financial opportunity for one of his sponsors to be at [a UFC event]; the next day he was there to support his younger brother, and at the end of the day that's what it's all about for Anthony, he's going to support his brother first.
With Anthony already competing in the Octagon, and the organization employing a very exciting youngster in 20-year-old Michael McDonald, the doors may open sooner for Sergio than many others in his position. However, Roufus is in no hurry to bring the younger Pettis along, and doesn't set his goals for Sergio at simply making it to the UFC.
"Right now the UFC is the last thing on my mind [for Sergio]," He said. "I know the potential is there. Most guys they focus on getting to the UFC; me, I'm focused on winning guys UFC Championships. That's my biggest focus coming 2012 is winning Championships. If Sergio goes when he's 21, 22, 25, or if he beats Michael McDonald's record that's awesome. Those are cool stats along the way that educated people in the sport know. We want to go for layman's terms and what everyone knows in this sport and the major stat is the UFC Champion."
He doesn't have a UFC Champion under his roof just yet, but as he mentioned, one fighter already holds gold: former Olympian Ben Askren. Askren made the transition to Roufus' camp as a part-timer before making a full-time transition this summer. Roufus discussed Askren's last bout against Jay Hieron, and also talked about how their approach with him will change moving forward after that close fight.
"I think [Ben Askren is] doing fantastic," Roufus said. "He joined us full time fighting MMA on August 1... One thing we didn't want to do coming into the fight with Jay Hieron is mess with his style or his confidence and try to over-think the fight. He's already so good at wrestling, from here on out - he's got a lot of time until his next fight - we're focusing on getting him better at other things, and time is on our side right now.
"My biggest thing is getting him on point so that he has the confidence. That's what fighting is all about. If you believe, you're going to win; if you don't believe, you're not going to win."
Roufus knows a lot about winning. A successful Muay Thai kickboxer and boxer in his own right, he's done just about everything he could in those areas. However, one thing he's not yet had the opportunity to do is compete in mixed martial arts.
"I was supposed to fight, actually, in September or October of 2007... The Cage Fury Fighting Championship, I was going to fight this other kickboxer in one fight and then Kimbo [Slice] was going to fight Tank Abbot in another fight and the winners were supposed to fight each other," Roufus revealed. "They ran out of funding and the event fell apart after a few cards... If the right offer came, there's always something left in the basement; if it fits into my schedule and it's worthwhile I might do it."
"First and foremost, I'd never want it to affect the schedule or training of the athletes I'm working with now, so everything I do is secondary to the athletes I have in the stable, that's the most important thing right now. I have to make sure that everything I do is taking care of them first, and if it fits into the schedule then I'll do it, for sure. I'd be happy to say, if I did do it, that I've done all three things professionally as a pugilist; I've been a boxer, a Muay Thai kickboxer, then MMA."
"Here's the crazy thing, I don't want to knock someone out, I want to submit them."
Whether he ever steps into the cage himself or not, Roufus will continue to bring along his young and immensely talented group of fighters in Milwaukee, Wis. And if he has his way, those aforementioned fighters will be in line for UFC gold come 2013.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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