“Are we doing kickboxing today? This sucks, I don’t want to kickbox him,” grumbled a disheartened student as Duke Roufus entered the cage for a sparring session. The student, a collegiate wrestler, was evidently there to show off his wrestling pedigree more than work the finer details of a leg kick.
“Bro, if we do MMA you can’t take him down anyway,” laughed Bellator Welterweight and former NCAA Division I champion Ben Askren from across the room.
Receiving praise from a student isn’t something most trainers would find rewarding, let alone claim to be amongst their proudest moments, but the relationship between Roufus and his students is mutually beneficial. As much as his students are learning from him, Roufus seems to learn from the students, gaining knowledge to help them with their training as well as the rest of the gym.
A multiple time world super-heavyweight kickboxing champion throughout the 1990′s, his striking skills speak for themselves. It’s the other skills he possesses which often catch trainees off-guard. He is an encyclopedia of martial arts knowledge with a insatiable thirst for more, barely able to peel his eyes from the screen to conduct this interview.
“My defensive wrestling is pretty good. Stuff works because I experiment with it. I didn’t just come up with random ideas. I’m always experimenting with techniques that wouldn’t get me taken down, using the little gloves. Guys move a lot more in MMA than in kickboxing or K-1, so it’s all about experiments.”
It’s that experimentation and refusal to be stagnant which makes the Roufusport Mixed Martial Arts Academy one of the most well-respected and successful gyms in North America.
Unlike many gyms where a clear pattern exists between the fighters, Roufusport has produced an eclectic group of fighters with unique abilities. Included in the list of star students are upcoming featherweight contender Anthony Pettis, longtime UFC fighter Alan Belcher, striking standout Pat Barry, and the aforementioned Askren.
One of the many things which sets Roufus apart from coaches and trainers is his longevity. The 43-year-old has been involved in combat sports for as long as he can remember thanks to a family chain of martial arts gyms. Instead of getting burnt out, Roufus had continued to engulf himself in the sport, learning from every discipline.
“I grew up around this. My family job was to teach at the school every day. Teaching normal students your hobby makes me a real good trainer. Anyone can teach the cream of the crop. My thing is finding a solution for anyone to be successful. I still teach our normal classes at our academy.”
Proficient in striking by a young age, Roufus has always been one to pass along his knowledge. Even while competing at the highest levels, he was selfless in his pursuit of helping the martial arts grow.
By age 16 I was teaching classes. By 21, I was cornering my brother. At age 22 I cornered my brother against Ernesto Hoost. It’s not arrogant; I’m just used to be in the big game situations. I’ve seen a lot of coaches who aren’t used to the big shows. It’s just like a fighter, it throws their game off.
With mixed martial arts just emerging from its teenage years into adulthood, finding a mature and knowledgeable coach is not always easy. Every strip mall has a karate black-belt willing to show you a few chops and hand you a belt in exchange for your money. Roufus has a desire to embrace the student role as much as be a teacher, mixing the martial arts to both expand his competence as a coach and produce quality fighters in many disciplines. In his mind, it’s all common sense.
“If I was trying to create a really good football team, I wouldn’t just focus on the defensive secondary. You need to be awesome everywhere. I look at MMA a lot like a football team.”
As MMA continues to evolve, so too must its teachers. Like the fighters who didn’t mature with the sport, those unwilling to embrace new techniques will fall by the wayside. It’s a trap Roufus refuses to fall into, and he plans to be on the forefront of the sport for many years to come.
Much like his admiration towards his students, Roufus holds in high regard his hand-picked jiu-jitsu coaches, Daniel and Diego Moraes. He refers to them as “incredibly smart and innovative” and, like all the coaches at Roufusport, they are an integral part of every practice.
“We just put it all together, like a good football team. Everyone’s working together. All of our coaches come to every practice together. I don’t care what we’re training at that practice; everyone needs to understand every situation. Everyone is focused on the fight.”
It’s ironic that in a sport where you are responsible for your own success inside the cage, it’s a team effort behind the scenes which more often than not decides your fate. It’s a formula too often forgotten in this era of “Super-gyms”. Roufus and his team have developed the art of game-planning to a science and you can count on seeing something new in every one of his student’s bouts. If they have their way, the camp will have a few more world champions by year’s end.
“The technique you don’t know is the one you get beat by. That’s why I’m big into being innovative and creativity. I think that’s the key to fighting.”