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Future of sports in the SCV: Team BJMUTA

Local gym, fighters hoping to make a breakthrough

Posted: July 24, 2010 10:21 p.m.
Updated: July 25, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Mixed martial artists Ruben Almanza, left, and Trevor Harris, right, train at Big John McCarthy’s Ultimate Training Academy in Valencia on Friday. Both will fight on a card at Six Flags Magic Mountain on July 31.

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As mixed martial arts continues to grow in popularity, there are many different theories on what it takes to build a successful fight team.

Ask the guys at Big John McCarthy's Ultimate Training Academy and they’ll tell you it boils down to one thing – raising one from the ground up.

“The real barometer for what you are as a gym is not the level of fighters that will come in and train for a short time,” McCarthy says. “It is the homegrown people that come from not doing martial arts in their life. … To me, the most important thing is how well the homegrown guys do and how well they progress because that is what your gym is all about.”

For a camp looking to become a hotspot for MMA, and for fighters with their eyes set on the top promotions in the sport, the California Fight Syndicate’s show at Six Flags Magic Mountain on July 31 will put four of BJMUTA’s homegrown cornerstones in the local spotlight.

Trevor Harris, 28, Vinc Pichel, 27, Dave Webber, 26, and Ruben Almanza, 19, will step forward from a camp loaded with up-and-coming talent, while Joe Henle, whose status with the gym is currently undetermined, will also step into the cage.

Henle was a participant on the most recent season of the UFC’s reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter.”

For Webber (3-2), who has lived in Saugus since he was 6 years old, and Almanza, who will be fighting in his second amateur bout and also lives in Saugus, it is a unique opportunity to perform in their hometown.

“I never thought of Santa Clarita as a place that would be holding fights, but I’ll tell you what, you go out and about in this town and people are always talking MMA, especially the younger group of kids growing up and going through high school now that the sport is getting a lot bigger,” Webber says. “The sport is exploding. To have a gym like this out here and to now actually be able to fight in my hometown, it’s a great feeling for me.”

Webber started out training Brazilian jiu-jitsu eight years ago and has since been working to improve his striking.
He went 16-1 as an amateur.

Almanza, who is 1-0 to start out his amateur career, can also attest to the sport’s local growth.

“I’ve seen a lot more people that actually know what the letters M-M-A mean,” he says. “They’ve seen it on TV and say, ‘Oh you do UFC?’ ‘Yeah, I do MMA.’ A lot of people have gotten more into the sport.”

Despite his young age, Almanza has also spent a lot of time working on his ground game.

“When I was a little kid, my dad enrolled me in grappling classes,” he says. “That’s what kept me normal instead of bouncing off the walls.”

Aided by the efforts of the fight team, head coach Brian Peterson sees MMA continuing to grow in the SCV.

“We are going to show that people can be proud of the fighters that are homegrown,” Peterson says. “When you are watching fights on TV and on pay-per-view, and you see a homegrown fighter (you might think), ‘Hey this guy is a local guy, that’s really cool.’ We have a big article done on him, and I think that is going to snowball.”

For Pichel (3-0) and Harris (1-1), “homegrown” has taken a different shape as both fighters look to rise through the MMA ranks as representatives of the gym.

And they’ve gone out of their way to do it.

Pichel has trained at BJMUTA for three years, and is currently in the process of moving to the Santa Clarita Valley.

The former street-brawler, who had an amateur record of 10-1, says the sport turned his life around.

“It changed my mindset a lot and has definitely helped me,” says the self-described mat rat. “I was definitely going nowhere in my life and this turned it around for me."

The 155-pounder decided he wanted to get serious about his training and turned to BJMUTA to do it.

“Anything is possible if you are willing to sacrifice enough to get it,” Pichel says. “Trevor moving down here from Oregon proves that he wants to be trained with us and to be a fighter. That says a lot. Most guys will say, ‘I want to go out there, I want to be a fighter, but I can’t afford it or I have a job and I am stuck in my job. If you want something, you will get rid of everything to do it.”

Harris recently moved down from Klamath Falls, Ore. just to train at BJMUTA.

“I had a buddy who was in the Marine Corps., and he went and tried out for Big John’s team,” recalls the striker. “He called me up and said, ‘Hey, I got a good gym here, you should come check it out.”

Harris also has a wrestling background and amassed a 14-2-1 amateur record before turning pro.

Even with the new addition, that team has remained closely knit.

“Our chemistry is unique. We are always joking around, always messing with each other,” Almanza says. “Everyone is like family.”

That bond is often needed and often tested as the guys push themselves to reach new levels in their training and in their careers.

“It’s not easy,” McCarthy says. “It’s not glamorous working your butt off and working another job in between to pay the bills.”

For Webber, Almanza, Pichel, Harris and other BJMUTA fighters such as Alan Shook and German Baltazar, making it to a top promotion is the ultimate goal.

And if one makes it, in many ways, they all do.

“I’d love to see one of the guys from this gym make it big – myself, one of my training partners Vinc Pichel, Alan Shook or one of the other pros on the team – because not only would it be great for the gym, but our hopes are to attract some of the top guys and bring them here to help our training too,” Webber says. “It’s not just for the publicity, but for the training partners alone and to make Big John McCarthy’s a focal point for MMA.”

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