Manchester's Fittest have taken over the world's most popular combat-sports based reality TV show.
In an old mill based in Manchester, England, co-owners Sean Keefe and Zoran Dubaic have created "Strength & Performance," one of the UK pioneers in the growing phenomenon of throwback gyms, reverting back to a more minimalistic set-up but with the clear objective of maximizing results.
And it's an intrinsic concept which has its roots in the US; "We first went over to the US to complete Joe DeFranco and Zach Even-Esh's prestigious fitness courses, and we were that impressed with their philosophy that we subsequently decided that we must emulate that set-up over in the UK," claimed Sean.
Open a matter of only 18 months, amongst their impressive list of clients feature Tom Gallon, Jak Vav and Andrew Baxter (England lacrosse team), Michael Churm (Paralympic UK record holder in 100 and 200 meters) and most notably UFC middleweight contender/UK MMA pioneer Michael Bisping. If any further evidence of their expertise is required, they also regularly feature in prominent fitness publications such as "Men's Fitness" in a section called "Ask the Experts", "Men's Health" and "Fighters Only".
Sean and Zoran's working relationship with Michael began back in March 2010; "Since we've been working on his Strength and Conditioning, he has won his last three consecutive fights. Obviously, we like to think there's a direct correlation," said Zoran with a wry smile. Michael Bisping himself has attested to S&P's significant impact on his performance levels; "Since training with S&P I have really felt my explosive power, strength and conditioning move to the next level." And it was this heartfelt praise which ultimately lead Michael to request that both Sean and Zoran fly out to Las Vegas to be part of his coaching staff on the latest "The Ultimate Fighter", which begins with a 2-hour special airing in September 2011.
Initially, it seemed destined for their paths to cross; "Another client of ours is married to the lawyer of the Wolfslair Gym's (Michael's longstanding resident MMA gym, home also to Quinton Jackson and Cheick Kongo), and ultimately it was him that informed Michael about us. Michael was looking for a set-up locally like ours, and after the first session he never looked back. We've been training him twice weekly during his training camps ever since. The most satisfying thing for us is witnessing the fruits of our collaboration when he steps into the Octagon to fight, and his marked improvements were most evident during the Akiyama fight at UFC 120 in London. We think that he has become one of the superior-conditioned athletes in the UFC middleweight division, and we are proud of the role we have played in that transformation," announced Zoran.
And whilst Sean and Zoran do not profess to be MMA experts per se, there was an element of calibrating the training towards specific facets of the sport; "A lot of the movements on which we worked were tailored towards the various disciplines incorporated within MMA, especially as his fights draw closer. But essentially, our principal goal is to convert Michael into a better athletic specimen, so that he can maximize his performance when training in the individual skills of his sport," confirmed Sean.
And onto the actual TUF 14 call-up: "Mike called us up four days prior to the day that the show was due to commence filming, and requested that we jump on a pre-booked flight to Vegas a mere 48 hours later. We knew Mike had been approached to feature in the program, but never in our wildest dreams did we think we would join him. I mean these things just don't happen to ordinary lads from Manchester, receiving an all-expenses paid trip worth thousands of pounds to appear on a reality show in Las Vegas with high-profile sportsmen that's televised globally. I must admit I couldn't sleep through excitement that night," enthused Sean. Despite their reluctance to temporarily jettison their fledgling enterprise in Manchester, they realized the magnitude and potential implications of the opportunity; "Sean and I met at the gym at 6am the next morning, and the decision needed to be made urgently. It was difficult to leave the many clients and athletes that rely on our services, but after ensuring that the gym was left in capable hands in our absence, ultimately we had to accept this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," explained Zoran. So off the dynamic duo jetted to Nevada with the overriding support of the gym (and their envious wives) behind them.
"It's crazy, because the first time I ever watched any MMA was ‘The Ultimate Fighter 3' back in 2006 when Michael appeared on the show as a winning contestant, and then five years later I'm on the show as part of his coaching staff," expressed Zoran, sentiments echoes by business partner Sean; "I was overawed at times. It was surreal to enter the complex where the show is filmed and see the pictures of all the global superstars like Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture that adorn the walls. Let alone appear with world-class fighters in front of the cameras."
However, after their initial bedazzlement, the Strength & Performance (S&P) lads soon got into the swing of things; "We became strangely accustomed to the surroundings. After the first day, we just viewed it as another day at the gym, our office," recalled Sean. "Zuffa is an incredibly well-oiled machine so everything runs like clockwork. The people behind the scenes were very accommodating and were efficient in sorting out any of our requests. Looking back on it, we should have taken more advantage of that, rather than just asking for tennis balls."
The role the S&P boys played was integral to the smooth running of Team Bisping; "Our role was primarily to ensure that the fighters stayed healthy and injury-free. Given that the fight schedule is so intensive, we could only push the lads to a certain extent."
TUF enthusiasts will know that Bisping also appeared opposite Dan Henderson in TUF 9 in the inaugural UK versus USA competition. During the filming, Mike felt particularly aggrieved that he was consigned to the early morning training shifts, yet Sean confirmed that Bisping had more clout this time around; "Mike's the big dog now. He ensured that things were on his terms prior to signing up to do the show. He was content with the training times. Though I do think his aversion to early mornings was slightly sensationalized during TUF 9 for dramatic effect."
In terms of their rapport outside of filming, the S&P boys stayed in the same accommodation as the rest of Team Bisping, and according to Zoran the banter flowed freely; "There was a cinema room in our block so we'd regularly hold team film nights. And then of course there were the midnight Jacuzzis. I jest of course. But, in all seriousness, we lived in each other's pockets for three entire weeks, shopping at the mall and going to dinner together. Mike cooked for us a couple of times, an avocado/egg wholemeal wrap which I'd give a 9/10. He also acted as a tour guide and showed us around Las Vegas, pretty much on a daily basis. And we went racing sports cars one day."
And the nightlife wasn't missed on the lads either; "We rocked a couple of nights out, one which Quinton ‘Rampage' Jackson was hosting at Planet Hollywood. We also got to hang out a lot with fellow trainers including ‘Razor' Rob McCullough and ex-UFC fighter Tiki Ghosn and golden UFC ring-girl Arianny Celeste. We both kissed her, only on the cheek though. And we slipped the other ring girls, Chandella Powell and Brittney Palmer, a business card, though they're yet to get in contact. But it wasn't all glitz and glamor, it was predominantly work. Oh, and Dana White just thought we were crazy English guys."
Both Sean and Zoran vehemently refuted the popular misconceptions of Bisping being arrogant; "Mike is a down-to-earth guy and we have always got on really well with him, something which will hopefully be conveyed through the show. You might get to see the back of our heads for five seconds here and there, haha. And hopefully, not just when we are in the toilet, as there were even cameras placed in there which I found odd. The way the producers edit the show, we really are unsure as to how much airtime we'll receive. One thing's for sure, whilst the editing might be slightly manipulated to intensify the drama, everything unfolds naturally and nothing is staged. This isn't ‘The Hills'."
Zoran insisted that the show is not one to be missed, with tomfoolery and fireworks galore; "I am legally obliged not to reveal too many specifics but we got up to some pretty silly shenanigans, which make for great viewing. I unsuccessfully attempted to steal Quinton Jackson's trademark chain. I also planned on growing a Tiki Ghosn beard to pay homage. And when Mike caught wind of the fact that I'm a classically-trained singer/ex-boy band member, he challenged me to sing to the lads in the house, and of course I obliged."
"There were also some very intricate, classy pranks being played by our team. Nothing puerile involving poo. People may anticipate Miller, being a renowned joker, to gain the upper-hand in terms of stunts, but I think our team triumphed. There were plenty of highly-amusing livewires of various nationalities who helped bring the show to life, and we were delighted with the fighters that were selected for our team. We all got on swimmingly, except for a few minor linguistic barriers, such as the American fighters being unaware of the word ‘niggle' when we inquired about injuries. And ‘Mayhem' Miller, Bisping's opposing coach, is an eccentric character himself, befitting of the persona he portrays on ‘Bully Beatdown'. I'm certain he acts up a little in front of the cameras, but then again who doesn't? Mike can also be pretty out there. But Miller is a cool guy," stated Zoran.
Sean and Zoran even forewent staying on an extra three weeks to conclude filming, in order that they could return to their beloved Manchester mill and whip all their clients back into shape; "We were a bit gutted to leave halfway through the show. We created some tight bonds with the contestants and wanted to assist in their progression through the competition. In the end, we stayed up until the quarter final stage."
And when "The Ultimate Fighter 14" culminates with its customary clash between the coaches, Zoran naturally predicted that Bisping will prevail; "Michael didn't fare too well following ‘The Ultimate Fighter 9' but that was before he hooked up with the S&P boys. He's going to make it four wins in four fights since the start of our beautiful relationship when he meets Miller on December 3rd. Mike is superior in most facets of MMA. There's a slight chance we may even make it to Las Vegas to watch the fight live and catch up with everybody. This would be immense since we'd also be granted backstage-access at the event. Maybe try and sneak our way onto one of Dana's video blogs. The only minor dilemma is that it falls on the same day as the missus's birthday so it may unfortunately end in divorce."
For great health tips and even better banter, follow Sean and Zoran, the Strength & Performance boys, on Twitter @SandP_GYM, which will also link directly to their page. Follow me on Twitter @jonathanshrager.