Gym Roots: Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts

By Robert Horne Jun 29, 2016

LAS VEGAS -- Former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Randy Couture started Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts in 2006 simply as a place to prepare for a big fight near UFC headquarters. It has since trained numerous champions in various MMA organizations and become one of the most recognizable brands and gyms in combat sports.

The lineage of Xtreme Couture can be traced to Gresham, Oregon, where Couture, along with trainer Robert Follis and fellow fighters Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland, founded the renowned Team Quest camp in 1999. Back then, MMA gyms were not nearly as prevalent as they are today, so Team Quest members sparred and utilized wrestling mats at a local college.

“When I left Oregon and moved to Las Vegas, I was training at ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ Training Center when they didn’t have shows,” Couture told Sherdog.com. “We had a great crew of guys and workout partners. However, we were reliant on dead time between series of ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ When the show was filming, we were out of the gym. Because of the necessity of needing space and a place where we could all train together, we started looking for a place. With the help of my former wife and a real estate agent, we found an industrial space we could convert into a MMA training gym. We came up with the name, and we were off and running.”

Nine years later, Xtreme Couture continues to churn out world-class fighters on Sunset Road. However, starting a mixed martial arts gym was not as easy as finding property to buy. Couture and his team had to build out the facility, purchase equipment and find sponsors. He also had to figure out a schedule by which he could separate the training for professional fighters and average people. Believe it or not, Couture said, not everyone wants to get punched in the face. The fact that companies were eager to work with a known commodity like Couture helped the gym get off the ground.

“It wasn’t a huge struggle because people were interested in getting behind myself as a brand and getting exposure in MMA for the clothing lines and equipment lines,” he said. “Throwdown was really trying to make a push into the equipment, such as mats, gloves and cages. They helped us with a bunch of those problems. The other issue was, ‘How are we going to set this up as far as classes goes?’ We had to separate who really wants to be a fighter, get into a cage and get punched, and who wants to train and look like a fighter. Finding a happy medium between the two was another big challenge.”

After Xtreme Couture moved into its new facility, the future looked bright. The gym was home to many of the top stars in MMA, as former champions Vitor Belfort, Forrest Griffin, Alistair Overeem and Jay Hieron all trained at Xtreme Couture, along with Gray Maynard and Ray Sefo. However, all professional sports teams experience ebbs and flows, and Xtreme Couture was no different. After the gym’s namesake retired in 2011, the gym struggled to find its identity. Maybe it was the loss of key leaders, maybe it was Las Vegas -- which has a habit of chewing up and spitting out those who are not committed to combat sports -- or maybe it was the initial success that spawned similar gyms.

“When I first came out here in ’09, this was the place to be,” said Brad Tavares, a semifinalist on Season 11 of “The Ultimate Fighter” who has compiled an 8-4 record through 12 UFC appearances. “Randy was here, and a bunch of other main fighters were here. I think Wanderlei [Silva] was here before he opened up his gym. There were just a lot of good training guys. I came out here, and at the time, there were so many pros that you had to be invited here. One of my coaches was friends with Matt Danzig, and he was training out here and he invited me. I didn’t have much money. It was before the UFC and ‘The Ultimate Fighter.’ I couldn’t even afford dues, and I was training at Tapout a lot. This was the spot I always aspired to be. I came in and helped a few guys. I helped Jay Hieron through one of his camps, and he really liked me, and I’ve just stuck around ever since.

“This has been my home for the past seven years, and I just love it,” he added. “I love the guys. At the same time, I’ve seen the highs and lows. We had a lot of fighters in the UFC, and we were doing really good. I’ve seen us go through that transition to where it went down to a low. A lot of guys left, a lot of guys retired and there weren’t many guys here except for myself, Evan Dunham and Jay Hieron. I’ve stuck around and stuck through it, and now I’ve seen it go back on the rise.”

One of the reasons for Xtreme Couture’s return to glory centered on bringing consistency to the coaching and management team, Couture indicated. He hired Eric Nicksick, a former college football player who joined the gym to stay in shape after his playing days were over, to manage the facility. Besides managing the gym, Nicksick serves as one of the grappling coaches for the pro team. Couture also reached out to Follis, his former coach, Team Quest stablemate and sparring partner. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Follis moved to Las Vegas to take a break from the sport for a while before eventually agreeing to start training fighters again. Couture credits Follis and fellow coach Dennis Davis for stabilizing the amateur and pro teams.

“I didn’t move here to come to this gym,” Follis said. “They asked me to come over and take a look at it. I’d been looking at some other things. Finally, I came over and we sat down and talked. The team had gone through some change, and sometimes change drives some people away. Quite frankly, I’d heard you couldn’t run a team in Vegas because everyone is so flighty and it’s hard to get that team atmosphere. Finally, I was like I think we can do that. Let’s see if it’s really that or if there is a way to build a team and get that put together out here.”

Follis’ return to Xtreme Couture provided a spark in other ways. He had worked previously with current UFC women’s bantamweight champion Miesha Tate and her partner, Bryan Caraway, now one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s top contenders at 135 pounds. When Tate and Caraway found out Follis was back with Xtreme Couture, they set up a meeting to see if they would still be a good fit.

“Well, it was Robert,” Tate said when asked why she chose to join Xtreme Couture. “Honestly, as soon as we found out he was here, we were like, ‘OK, we know him and know he runs a good program.’ We’ve worked with him before, so we thought, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ I had trained here before, but it was before the team got its momentum back; and it was not like a team feel. Robert showed up and put that camaraderie back into the room. That atmosphere was where it should have been the whole time.

“It’s always great to have an amazing team,” she added. “He’s part of my team and he’s part of what makes everything go around. You have to appreciate him for his skill set and everything he offers there. I really feel like so much of this game is mental as opposed to physical, and that is where Robert is a standout coach. It’s not just about what he can teach me but about what he can pull out of me. That is where I think he is really exceptional.”

When Tate choked Holly Holm unconscious to win the women’s bantamweight championship at UFC 196, the whole gym felt the energy associated with her victory.

“It was very exciting,” Tavares said. “More than any of that, I’m just happy for her. Miesha has had such a long hard road, and she has been so close to the absolute top so many times but just fell short. We are really happy for and proud for her. She deserves it. She’s been here, striving for it, putting in the work and working hard. I genuinely like Miesha, not just because of how good a fighter she is [but because] she’s a really good person. I see her helping out the younger female fighters.”

Follis agreed.

“There is nothing like winning a title,” he said. “It’s energizing for everybody, me included. As a coach, it’s the thing you are aspiring for. Every fighter I talk to wants to win a title. Well, as a coach, you want to win titles, too. They are not easy to get. Whether it’s the men’s division, women’s division or different weight classes, getting any belt in the UFC is a ridiculously hard challenge. So getting another belt as a coach -- and it has been quite a few years since I worked with a champion in the UFC -- was a huge thing, not just for me but for the gym.”

The future at Xtreme Couture also appears bright. UFC lightweight Kevin Lee’s name always pops up when the subject is discussed. Tavares sees the 23-year-old Lee as young, hungry, super athletic and supremely motivated. Follis pointed to Lee’s focus being on becoming a champion, not partying on the Las Vegas Strip.

“After my first UFC fight, I didn’t feel like I had good enough training partners back home,” said Lee, who has won 12 of his first 14 pro bouts. “I was just training myself. I came here to visit. I was searching around, searching other gyms, but as soon as I came here, I stayed. I left all my stuff back home and got an apartment here. The levels of training partners and the level of trainers … what more can you ask for? They are the best in the world. Not only has it helped me develop physically, [but] I feel like I add something new to my game every training camp. Robert Follis has helped me add stuff, and I also work with [striking coach] Dewey Cooper. It feels good [to be viewed as one of the young fighters with a bright future]. I just do what I do and keep doing what I do. I don’t let it affect me. It goes back to the mental aspect. I want to do what Miesha did and bring a golden belt back here.”

The team’s future does not just revolve around male fighters. When Tate linked arms with Xtreme Couture, she wanted to see more of a commitment to the women’s division. Couture, who has long embraced involving more females in wrestling and MMA, was happy to oblige.

“One of the things that impressed me the most, and I brought [it] to their attention pretty quickly, was that I’d like to build a women’s team,” Tate said. “They were like, ‘Absolutely, we’d love that.’ Not all gyms are that receptive to the idea; many are like, ‘More girls, really?’ But they were like, ‘If you want to recruit other top females and you want to have more training partners and you want to put it together, we completely support that.’ I really loved that idea, and we have a great thing going.”

Follis threw his support behind the plan.

“We have a lot of younger women coming up,” he said. “We have some really talented women coming up, and I’m really excited to see that continue to grow.”

Couture also has major plans for the present facility. He expanded the gym’s footprint four years ago to add a lot more mat space and additional room for cages. The expansion also allowed for some separation between the professional fighters and regular students who were more interested in fitness and teaching than competing. Couture admitted that appealing to those customers remains a difficult task, especially in a town like Las Vegas.

“Marketing it that way has been one of the challenges to overcome,” he said. “Everyone looked at us like we were just a fight gym, and that is a constant challenge in this town. This is the most competitive market in this country. No other city has five to six big MMA gyms. This is a very competitive market to carve out members and maintain a business.”

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