So, which is it? Is famed MMA trainer and former kickboxing great Duke Roufus a vengeful oaf who bullies peers, demands obsequious students and runs a butcher shop of a fight camp filled with mismanagement? Or is he a talented if strict disciplinarian who provides world-class training to elite UFC talent while operating a gym in the midwest that services happy kids and satisfied parents who merely wish to get in shape?
In the wake of the death of amateur Roufusport kickboxer Dennis Munson, Jr., some previous Roufusport fighters like Rose Namajunas or Eric Schafer have taken to social media to now slam the all-star coach. Roufus, they suggest, helped create an abusive environment that mentally and physically bullied the perceived weak at the expense of stars and team cohesion.
They are not only sharing stories of what they say is their own mistreatment, but the exploitation of others.
Roufus, however, vehemently denies it all (or most of it, anyway). He claims his gym could have been rough in its early days, but isn't now. In addition, Munson's death, while tragic, isn't a reflection of a broken gym culture.
The disputes center more on what used to be than what is now (those with issues with Roufus have long since left the team). Yet, there are portions of the issue where the narrative overlaps between detractors and even Roufus himself, namely, that Roufusport then and the gym now are two entirely different experiences.
According to those contacted for this story, there is general agreement the Roufusport of today isn't merely gentler, but smarter and more systematized.
"It's a different time," Roufus says. "Our training and everything in our sport is evolved and adapted and grown. The Roufusport 2014 is definitely a different Roufusport than in 2010, 2009 when those guys were around.
"I think right now, we've grown with industry. It's a time different time than it was then. For them to comment, it was almost four years ago and the training was different."
Roufus argues he's gradually made a number of changes over the years as he's improved as both coach and trainer. Strength and conditioning sessions have taken the place of sparring as means to conditioning. That reduced full-contact sparring to once a week, rather than four or five times times per week as it once was.
The team has grown in number, which means inter-weight class training has been minimized. He says he's also been more selective about who is allowed to join the team. Cohesion, he argues, is something he always believed was important and helps build unity as much as training awareness. Only now, he claims, is he better at fostering it.
"Why I have certain people on the team, and why I don't, I try to put together the right people who don't get upset at one another if one person lands a good shot, and the other one's gotta land a bigger shot. I've seen that escalate.
"Me, as a coach, it can be hard to police certain individuals because they're a liability instead of an asset for the team. Right now, I'm a big team component person. I feel that's why a lot of our people are doing well and we have a nice roster of people considering little Milwaukee, Wisc., USA. I credit that to my people. When they get in the gym, they know how to train properly. I'm not a big proponent of going hard myself. You gotta save it for the match."
Ben Askren - who joined the team in late 2010 when names like Pat Barry, Ben Rothwell and others were leaving - corroborates Roufus' characterization of the team's evolution. The ONE FC champion notes there are structural challenges to coaching MMA that he never suffered through in his tenure inside amateur wrestling, a sport where there's established tradition of creating and sharing best practices,
"Duke's not following a blueprint," Asken notes. "When I came through the ranks in wrestling - in high school and college - those systems have been in place for 100 years and they're fairly standard training across the board for all the colleges. There are conferences every year where all the major coaches get together and they talk about the issues in wrestling, what's going to happen. There's a major governing body, USA Wrestling, which oversees a lot of the issues.
"The organization is there in wrestling to make a very well-balanced, organized system. In MMA, all of these coaches are doing their best. They're trying to throw stuff together. Duke didn't have a MMA coach because when he was coming up, MMA didn't exist. I've been to a lot of MMA gyms. I'm not going to say Duke's is perfectly organized, but it's definitely way more well run than the majority of places I've been."
Schafer, however, doesn't recognize Roufus as someone accustomed to reeling training in or having much of a plan (despite always having a talented team). He says he was instrumental in helping found the MMA team the gym now enjoys. Roufus was the striking coach and he the grappling expert. He was a part of the team, too, but had elevated status given his role as trainer. He notes his tenure by saying he was there when "Pettis walked through the door the first time."
He says there were two basic problems at Roufusport. First, disorganization, although that wasn't much of a stumbling block to success.
Second, and more sinister, were various forms of bullying by Roufus that he says were common during his more than four-year tenure in the gym, even against UFC fighters.
"We started off pretty good, but you'd see the bullying. The little things here and there and then it would progress and progress. After a while, all of a sudden, you see it once in a while, but then it's happening to your best friends. You're seeing guys you're helping out get beat up and stuff like that."
Schafer claims he personally never suffered the kinds of abuse told in stories on social media by former teammates. He believes his position as coach helped insulate him from the worst of it. He also suggests stars like Anthony Pettis never had to suffer through it either. Just about everyone else, he argues, weren't so fortunate.
"I was kind of the assistant coach, head coach of the grappling side. I cornered almost all the UFC guys in the early days. Of course, I was the 'golden boy' to some degree, kind of protected a little bit. Pettis, I never heard of a bad thing done to him.
"From the bottom up, everyone's had some bad experiences. I've seen UFC heavyweights that were told to beat another UFC heavyweight out of the gym. And the guy didn't want to, but it was like almost gang thuggery stuff. It was just sickening after a while."
Is the abuse Schafer alleges a product of a by-gone era? Askren says he's never heard or seen anything of the sort during his time in the gym. He claims he's never been asked to bully or intentionally hurt anyone else.
Askren also insists while the practices at Roufusport are tough, his days as a member of the University of Missouri wrestling team were those of higher intensity training.
He recently took Roufusport members Sergio Pettis, Pascal Krauss and Dustin Ortiz to a practice session at his alma mater. The level of intensity, he says, surprised all three UFC fighters. "A Division I college wrestling team has so many guys at such a high level, it'd be like having every single guy in the gym being a top 10 UFC guy and that's who you're competing against every single day. Most everyone has been wrestling since they were 5 years old. It's been their dream to wrestle in college. There's such a high level of intensity.
"A lot of these guys were taken by the environment in a college wrestling room."
Still, Schafer contends the bullying was real, both on and off the mat. He acknowledges there's a fine line between tough preparation and bullying, but the subtleties aren't lost on him. "There's a difference between hard training and being a bully," he says.
The jiu-jitsu black belt claims a striking coach once quit and was told to return to the gym "to fight it out". He also says he recalls a situation during the camp to prepare Pettis for Shane Roller when pure wrestlers were brought in to help Pettis and the rest of the team prepare. Schafer argues the pure wrestlers weren't going hard enough when Roufus entered the practice, so Roufusport fighters were told to aggressively turn it on against them in MMA settings, something the wrestlers were unprepared to handle.
"Chico [Camus] whispered in the wrestler's ear, 'Sorry, man, but I gotta step it up.'"
Askren can't and won't comment on situations or examples raised by fighters in a different era of the team, but stresses safety - both as a form of training and in terms of protocols in place - is a critical component to training at Roufusport today.
"One of Duke's biggest things is - and it actually helps me from a fighting standpoint - he's very adamant on defense. Really, when he gets frustrated, they're not paying enough attention to their defense. He makes a point that we're fighters and this is our living. The more times we get hit, the shorter our career is. That is one thing Duke is adamant about."
"A chronic problem is so many people work on offense as opposed to working on defense," Roufus adds. "One thing when you work with really good boxers is they focus on not getting hit in practice. I think that's something with the evolution of our sport has been they key to why our guys are doing well."
"The hard thing is, when people don't have the defense, it can be tough in there [sparring]."
Roufus says in addition to limiting sparring, he's also required use of Vaseline, head gear and has segmented practices between full-time professionals and the rest of the students.
He also says he's tried for years to patch-up the differences between he and Schafer and has found his former student unwilling to even engage in dialogue. "I said let's sit down and chat about it," he recalls. "You can't take care of grievances if you didn't know what they were."
"This is a guy who I thought was my friend. We spent some good times together," Roufus says. Schafer doesn't deny Roufus has reached out, but claims he's simply uninterested in reconciliation.
He also admits he doesn't know what the situation at the gym is like today, but is dubious it has substantively changed. A recent personal experience with a current pro fighter from Roufusport gives him pause over claims of benevolent evolution.
"I had one of their stars, current stars, just six months ago came to my gym crying, wanting out, because he had bullied one of his friends. The stars don't get bullied, but this guy - and I wish I could say his name - I don't even know the guy until that day. Just one of the newer guys. He decided to go back. The truth is, they have the best team and they have the best guys. There's a benefit to being there. There's not many camps in the midwest that can even come close to having those guys, so how can anyone compete with them?
"I feel like I'm the mom and he's the abusive dad and I divorced him four years ago, but I'm still getting messages from people I don't even know," he contends. "Maybe it's changed. I hope it has."
For his part, Askren is willing to acknowledge Roufus can be sternly authoritative, but isn't malevolent. His action as coach are almost exclusively geared to maximize performance in the athlete and the team.
"Duke's great to me," Askren notes. "I can definitely see the criticisms that he's harsh sometimes. I get that, but overall, I think the thing to take away is, Duke doesn't have ill will or is mean on purpose to people, which is what Rose and Eric were insinuating. He's definitely always been good and fair to me. If he does criticize people, I think lots of times he thinks that's what is going to help them and that's what he feels is best at the time.
"No one's perfect. No one's going to say the right thing to an athlete 100 percent of the time. He tries to say what's in the best interest of the athlete as many times as possible," Askren observes.
Roufus doesn't necessarily deny misjudgements may have been made (although he does not acknowledge the individual stories being circulated about him as true either). What he does point to is what he claims is an overwhelming majority of Roufusport members - from kids to teens to adults to amateur fighters to UFC elites - who are happy where they are. "What about all the people who are happy, all my students? All of my other people who are there daily?" he asks.
"I have so many people in class having fun daily. Honestly, it's not our athletes that keep the doors open at Roufusport. It's the students."
He wonders why Barry didn't say anything to Roufus when seeing him at GLORY events this year. Roufus also claims Namajunas trained with the team as early as this past spring. "Here's the thing. I wish maybe you'd have said this when you came to visit me and train [in the spring] instead of harboring your opinions now. It's a bummer."
Barry did not return phone calls to MMA Fighting as of the time of this writing.
The Death of Dennis Munson, Jr.
The other issue at play, and what precipitated criticism of Roufus on social media, is the death of Dennis Munson, Jr. Munson, an amateur kickboxing student at Roufusport, died following an unsanctioned bout at an event promoted by Scott Joffe, Roufus' business partner at the gym, earlier this year.
According to an investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Munson died from a lack of proper regulatory oversight, which included an inattentive referee, only one ringside phyisician and a host of other documented mistakes. The state declined to press charges against anyone for Munson's death, citing a lack of authority over unsanctioned kickboxing contests.
Roufus declined to talk with the the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, but told MMA Fighting he's long been a proponent of stiffer regulation.
"Here's a fact that most people don't know," Roufus said. "Zuffa asked me to be one of the spokespeople to talk positively when they wanted to legalize MMA here. But, guess what? I was one of the big proponents to say, hey, 'Are we going to regulate kickboxing?'" Roufus says the state passed on the opportunity to regulate the sport, despite his insistence.
"I'm all for regulation of these sports. They decided not to do it. That's the bummer about this whole situation that most people don't know."
As for the event, Roufus says he was in the locker room at the time of Munson's bout, helping other team members prepare for their contests that evening. When asked if he acknowledges mistakes were made in terms of ensuring fighter safety, he says they did their best. He admits he doesn't "know all the rules", but argues "it was all the same officials that work on the state regulated shows.
"It was the same doctor the state uses. That's the thing. People can say it's self-regulation, but it was the same officials."
The kickboxing team has been disbanded in the wake of Munson's death. Amateur MMA fighters at Roufusport, however, are still allowed to get muay Thai or kickboxing experience on other shows, even if they're not state sanctioned. Roufus is quick to note, though, he'll only take his students to reputable promoters within the community.
As for Munson, Roufus says his choice to remain silent about the experience has been misinterpreted as a lack of concern. "The whole thing is tragic. It's been an awful, awful experience obviously for Dennis' family and loved ones, let alone me. People miscontrue. If you're silent about something. You don't care.
"I found my sister dead when I was 15 years old. I didn't talk about it for 10 years. Does that mean I don't care? I had to and still carry that weight and burden and bother.
"Just because I don't talk about these things doesn't mean we don't care. It's just...it's hard...," Roufus says, trailing off as his voice begins to crack.
He admits the experience, both Munson's death and the subsequent fallout, has forced moments of reflection. Still, however, he insists, the gym is in a new era. He is upset he may have hurt others and hopes to resolve any conflicts that he can, but is resolute that Roufusport is a safe place to train and not what he claims is the caricature of the truth circulating today.
"Definitely, I'm sorry people feel the way they do, but there's hundreds of happy people there and especially happy athletes that are doing quite well. Right now, I have to focus on those people. We are all saddened by Dennis' loss. We're never going to forget him. He was a great kid with a great smile. When I think of him, that's the first picture that pops in my head.
"What I loved about Dennis was he embraced the martial arts side of our academy. That's something we really focus on at Roufusport. It''s not just our fight team. That's a small part of our day. It's the empowerment through kids martial arts, teens, adults. Getting in shape, self defense, fitness, fun, recreation."
"I wish people would see the positive things we're doing everyday," he says.
Disclosure: The author has worked in a broadcast capacity with Duke Roufus in 2014 for four GLORY kickboxing events.