It’s not unusual for fighters to compete against people they have history with, or for camps to have allegiances that connect to the opposite corner. Yet every now and again there’s a fight that comes up where there’s more going under the surface than just two combatants taking their shoes off.
Emmanuel Sanchez is fighting Marcos Galvao in the co-main event at Bellator 175 on Friday night in Chicago, about 90 miles from Milwaukee where Duke Roufus runs his gym. Roufus will be cornering Sanchez, who is coming off a big majority decision victory over Georgi Karakhanyan in January. Meanwhile his former pupil Jason Strout, who now runs the Church Street Gym in Manhattan, will corner Galvao, who defeated LC Davis in December.
Strout was a boxing and Muay Thai champion while fighting under Roufus between 1999-2003, and the bond he formed with his coach has kept them friends to this day. It was Roufus who opened his doors to a wayward 21-year-old who happened into his gym, gave him a purpose, and set him on his path in the fight game. That’s the kind of thing that you tend not to forget. It’s also something that stands when the time comes for the student to try and outwit his teacher.
“Duke’s a mentor that I looked up to,” Strout told MMA Fighting. “He got me started and showed me the right path. I could have gone to any other gym at that time.
“I remember, somebody bought me a ticket for his Muay Thai fight, and I was like, I’m going to go check it out. I walked into the venue, saw these guys kicking and elbowing each other, and I said I got to do this. Went to the gym that week, signed up, and told the guy I wanted to fight. Six months later, Duke had me in the ring. I think I fought 10 times in that first year. He kept me busy. It was a good foundation to start with.”
These days Strout is the head coach at Church Street, training the likes Galvao, former Bellator champion Liam McGeary and many others. He and Roufus have had quite a history together, some of it comical.
Back in the day, when Dustin Diamond — a.k.a. “Screech” from Saved By the Bell — was booked to box Ron Palillo (“Horshack” from Welcome Back Kotter) on Celebrity Boxing, it was the coaching tandem of Roufus and Strout that got him ready. Roufus was in Strout’s corner as he captured the Wisconsin State Boxing Tournament, as well as the ISKA Jr. middleweight title and the IKF regional Muay Thai title.
Towards the end of his fighting career, Roufus staked Strout with coaching some amateurs on the team with upcoming bouts, and Strout — with the scaffolding that he provided him — found he had a knack for it.
Roufus has watched Strout made headway in New York as a striking coach, and he says it’s gratifying to see one of his students go on to make broader contributions in the fight game.
“I try and teach all my guys to have a life after fighting,” Roufus said. “Not everybody is going to walk away from industry set up for life where they don’t have to work again. He’s a heck of a trainer, and a student of the game. Obviously in his young career as a coach, he has a great body of work.”
The two will coach opposite each other for the first time on Friday at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, setting the stage for the rematch between Muhammad Lawal and Quinton Jackson. Both men gush about the other’s fighter, making it one of the more pleasant, particularly business-like entries into a fight that we’ve seen in a while.
“‘Lara [Galvao] comes to the gym and goes, hey I got a fight,’ and I said, ‘who you fighting,’ and he goes, ‘Emmanuel Sanchez,’ and I’m like, aw man,” Strout says. “But it is what it is. This is a job, this is a business. I don’t feel like emotions into it like I’m fighting a guy from my own camp. It’s such a long time ago. I left in 2003.
“But as far as Emmanuel goes, I’m a fan — I’m a huge fan. Every time I go to visit Duke at the gym [Roufusport] I see Emmanuel there and he’s a great, great kid, and I love the way he fights. I’m a huge fan of his fights. He fights like — I guess it’s because that’s where I’m from too — but he fights the way I like. He’s aggressive, he doesn’t back down, he goes and gets it.”
For Strout, there’s an air of coming back to his roots — the Midwest, Roufus, the air of a big fight. For Roufus, facing Strout vicariously through Sanchez and Galvao is just another weird interaction in a game full of them. Roufus has cornered opposite many fighters that he has been close with, including Din Thomas who was in Chris Kelades’ corner when he fought Sergio Pettis.
And that wasn’t even the craziest civil war he’s been through. There was the time he stood opposite one of his own mentors, Rick Roufus, back in when Anthony Pettis delivered his famous kick in the final WEC show.
“Now, I’ve cornered against my own brother when Anthony [Pettis] fought Benson [Henderson] the first time,” Roufus says. “So to me, my thing with coaching, it’s very impersonal for me. The fighters, they have their beef and they have their tensions. That’s fine. For me as a coach, I don’t get involved in that side at all anymore, because at the end of the day Marcos and Emmanuel are going to dance, and do what they do.
“Jason and I are going to encourage and mentor our athletes. They don’t put Jason and I inside the cage at Bellator. It’s those two gentlemen that are going to fight it out. As coaches we’re going to do everything we can, but what’s going to make it special is what those fighters do.”
One of Roufus’ favorite words when discussing the incestuous nature of fighting is “impersonal.” He says he keeps his emotions out of it, but that he can’t help but root for the guys he helped pave the way for. Strout is no different.
“The situation, I see it as a great thing,” Roufus says. “I’m doing great things when I can help mentor and have a legacy of great coaches out there. It’s going to happen more, unfortunately, because I’m mentoring more guys to be great coaches.”
Strout echoes Roufus’ sentiments, but there’s still the old paradox in play, the old adage that Leonardo Da Vinci put out to the world that has stood in as a truth in gamesmanship for a century: “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.” Facing Roufus as a coach isn’t ideal, but it’s as it should be.
Strout said it’ll hit him in Chicago, when Roufus is guiding Sanchez to try and knock Galvao’s head off. He says it’ll be weird knowing that this time the words aren’t being directed at him.
“I think when I hear his voice, I’ll probably have flashbacks,” Strout says. “When I watch a fight on TV and one of his guys is fighting, I can still hear his voice in the background, and it’s familiar. So that should be interesting. I won’t be weirded out about it, I think I’ll be more excited than anything.
“We’re all one big happy family doing what we love, what more could you ask for?”
Roufus agrees. He shines at the idea that the fight game is lineage in the familial sense to be passed down.
“There are many people that have helped me, and you feel like you’ve got to keep passing it on to people,” he says. “I got here not because of myself, it was my father, my older brothers, my family, my mom — it was all the great teachers and coaches over the years. I just feel part of a karmic path back to the game.”