Heath Sims wrestled at the 2000 Olympic Games and made his mixed martial arts (MMA) debut two years later, facing the likes of Antonio McKee and Satoru Kitaoka in a career which saw him compete against some of the top fighters of his era in the United States and Japan.
He retired in 2006 to focus on his coaching commitments and has been the longtime trainer of former Strikeforce, Pride and UFC champion Dan Henderson since Dan's very first MMA fight in 1997. In 2011, he left his long term home of Team Quest to take up a new challenge in Asia as the head of the wrestling program at Evolve MMA.
"There are things which fighters in the U.S. are very strong at, wrestling for instance, but being at Evolve MMA has made me realize that camps back home are still a long way behind in terms of things like Muay Thai. Most MMA camps in the US don't have a single Thai trainer, I think its tough to get visas, but Evolve MMA has something like fifteen or twenty world champions and they are all legends back home, if you mention their names in Thailand everyone has heard of them."
Sims was one of the earlier wrestlers to turn to MMA and after representing the U.S. at the Sydney Olympics decided to become a full time professional fighter. He has also been involved with Henderson, another wrestling Olympian, since very early in his career but says he has seen a very different side to the sport since moving to Evolve MMA.
"The fighters here work on their Muay Thai every day and the Thais have so much knowledge and experience because they have all had 200-300 fights, which is something which I thought sounded crazy when they first told me. Sometimes there's not so much focus on the Muay Thai side of things in MMA but just look at how much Zoro (Zorobabel Moreira) has learned from working every day with Yo (Lamnamoon Sor Sumalee) you can see how much he has improved."
Lamnamoon won Lumpinee titles at three different weights during his career and is joined on the Evolve MMA staff by a who's-who of Muay Thai fighters including Namsaknoi Yudthagarngamtorn, Attachai Fairtex, Orono Wor Petchpun and Muangfalek Kiatvichian.
Sims says that it is the difference which working daily with Lamnamoon made to Moreira's career which really made him realize how training Muay Thai could transform a fighter, "If you look at footage of Zoro from when he first started fighting he really had no stand up at all and looked very awkward. Now he is winning fights with his low kicks and elbows and knees and even using Muay Thai sweeps to get opponent's down to the ground where he can use his BJJ, he's gone from having nothing except his BJJ to being able to finish fights standing up."
One area in which Asian MMA is definitely lagging behind the scene in the U.S. is wrestling and according to Sims, that's why he was approached by Evolve MMA owner Chatri Sityodtong.
"We spoke on the phone and he said he had something like 10 BJJ black belts, all these Muay Thai world champions and even Yodsanan who was a world champion in boxing but he thought the final piece in the puzzle was to bring in an experienced wrestling coach and that's where I came in."
Sims has settled quickly into life in Singapore and is enjoying playing his part in developing the Evolve MMA Fight Team.
"Singapore's great, the food is fantastic and I can just fly to Phuket at the weekend and go diving or surfing. With the exception of Jake Butler, fighters here don't come from an NCAA background so I am just working with them every day on the wrestling side of the game because if a fighter can handle themselves standing up, is good on the ground and can use wrestling to control where the fight takes place, then they are very difficult to beat."
At present, Eddie Ng, Leandro Issa and Shinya Aoki are all at Evolve MMA to prepare for fights at ONE FC: 'Kings & Champions' at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on April 5th and Sims has been particularly impressed by Aoki's approach to training.
"He really works hard on his striking. Sometimes if a guy is really good at one thing, like Shinya is on the ground, they will just do the bare minimum at everything else but he doesn't just train Muay Thai to set up throws or takedowns, he is training to knock you out and he really makes the most of the time he gets to spend with the Thai trainers here, he's always learning."
Singapore is at the epicentre of the recent surge in Asian MMA with ONE FC, Asia's largest MMA organization, also headquartered there and Sims has cornered fighters at events in Jakarta, Manila and Kuala Lumpur. He is excited to be a part of the scene at a time when it is growing so rapidly.
"Every time I go out with the guys on the Evolve MMA Fight Team it seems like there's an increase in people recognizing them and asking for autographs, you can really feel how MMA is growing here and it reminds me of how the UFC took off back home a few years ago."
Since Sims joined Evolve MMA his old friends Dan Henderson and Tom Lawlor have spent time training there as has his former opponent Satoru Kitaoka as well as Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren and UFC veteran Rich Franklin. He expects more top fighters from back home to make the trip to Singapore in the future because they get to experience a totally different type of training.
"The BJJ and wrestling program at Evolve is very strong but it's really the Muay Thai that takes people by surprise. Even really experienced fighters like Rich find they can learn something new because they haven't had the chance to work regularly with trainers who have 20-30 years of Muay Thai experience and have won hundreds of fights, it's not a level of coaching which is widely available in the U.S. and I talk to guys all the time who want to come out here and train."
With Dos Anjos close to contention for a UFC title and Aoki fighting for a ONE FC title on April 5th, the Evolve MMA fighters are starting to come to the forefront of the sport and Sims thinks it is only a matter of time before his team produces more champions.
"There's really nowhere else in the world like Evolve MMA, all the fighters are full-time employees and everything they need to be able to train and fight is under one roof. In the U.S., a fighter will often go one place for boxing, another for BJJ, another for strength and conditioning but here they don't need to do that. Chatri really understands the sport and there are a lot of young fighters here who are at the start of their careers, I am sure having all these BJJ champions and Muay Thai champions and boxing champions on the coaching team is going to to lead to Evolve producing a lot of MMA champions, it's just a matter of time."