Based on his early exchanges with both men, head coach Eugene Bareman probably wouldn’t have believed you if you told him that Israel Adesanya and Dan Hooker would play leading roles in the biggest week of City Kickboxing’s history.
One way or another, Bareman has led the duo to the biggest fights of their lives, with Adesanya taking on Brad Tavares in the main event of Friday night’s TUF 27 Finale and Hooker meeting Gilbert Burns at UFC 226 the following day.
Making it to the pinnacle of the sport at International Fight Week must be a curious feeling for Bareman, a man who has dedicated two decades to combat sports.
What must be even more bizarre is knowing that his first bit of advice to both Adesanya and Hooker was to train at a different gym.
Eugene Bareman doesn’t give a lot of interviews.
In fact, the only reason he’s speaking to me at all is because his wife gave him a piece of her mind after finding out that he had turned down several TV spots in his native New Zealand. My interview request landed in the midst of their barney, and luckily, the City Kickboxing head coach saw it as a way of making amends.
“About half-an-hour before this interview, my wife was giving me hassle because I turned down some interviews with a television channel over here,” Bareman chuckles.
“I was telling her, ‘Who cares, it’s just an interview,’ and then I got your message as if it was on cue. I told her, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this one,’ just to right the wrongs.”
Eleven years ago, Bareman opened the doors of City Kickboxing alongside prominent K-1 campaigner Doug Viney. The duo hoped that having their own premises would allow them to focus more on their training. However, for a short period of time, they got caught up in the business element of the venture.
“When you open a business, it’s a 24/7 job,” he recalls. “You have a lease coming up every month, and what ended up happening was the complete opposite of what we wanted. Doing fitness classes and other things like that completely sucked away our time, because we were under financial pressure as small business owners. In the end, we had even less time to focus on ourselves than when we had been bouncing on the doors and training in our spare time.
“Over the years, it’s become less boxercise classes and more training fighters. The dream of making money off those corporate boxing classes lasted piss-all. Luckily, we both had made names for ourselves on the local scene. Soon enough, we just ended up with a lot of serious fighters on our doorstep.
“As a fighter myself, I couldn’t turn those guys away. It’s not like we could just say, ‘Sorry guys, we’re just training people for fitness.’ Within the first month of us opening, the first real fighter showed up. So our vision changed really quickly.”
Despite the success of City Kickboxing and the gym’s profile being at an all-time high in 2018, Bareman refuses to hang up his gloves. An avid competitor since 2001 across multiple disciplines, he sees just a couple more fights in his future, but only in MMA — you know, the soft stuff.
“I had my last fight a couple of years ago, but I never officially retired. I’ve had 48 fights across all the different disciplines and I can’t stop there. I’ve got to get to 50,” says Bareman.
“I only compete in MMA now. In my opinion — and I know a lot of people disagree with my opinion — I think it’s physically easier to fight in MMA than it is to fight in Muay Thai. It’s just that blunt force trauma absolutely batters you. In MMA, at least you have opportunities to grab your opponent and try to take him down. In Muay Thai, it’s just batter, batter, batter.”
If you didn’t know better, you’d think that birds broke into song and fireworks spontaneously erupted when Adesanya — one of the most promising talents in the UFC’s middleweight division — took his first fateful steps into Bareman’s gym.
The story goes that Adesanya packed up all of his things and left for City Kickboxing one day, and the rest is history.
The reality is, Bareman had actually been drafted in to corner the aspiring martial artist two months before he even arrived at City Kickboxing — and Bareman wasn’t all that impressed.
It all began with a phone call from a friend of Bareman’s, a kickboxing coach. The coach told him that a kid had driven from Whanganui to compete at a fight night, but with no experience in MMA, the kickboxing coach turned to Bareman to corner the upstart amateur. He reluctantly agreed.
“I got there and the kid who turned out to be Israel told me that he had one or two kickboxing fights and that the only jiu-jitsu he had done was mucking around with his mates using techniques he found on YouTube a couple of weeks before the fight. He had no formal training experiences really,” Bareman recalls.
“If I could’ve walked out at that point, I would’ve — but I didn’t because I had already committed to it. He went out to fight and was taken down and held down for every second of the fight. He got smashed. He knew nothing. You could see he had some reach and some physical advantages, but they were only glimpses because his opponent was always trying to take him down.
“We said our goodbyes and I promised myself I would never do something like that again. Even if it was a favor for a friend.”
Bareman guesses that “The Last Stylebender” first graced his gym about two months after his uninspiring amateur audition.
At that stage, the gym had become quite well known locally. Contrary to most gym advertisements, Bareman openly remarks that his premises aren’t for everybody. He doesn’t care what kind of background you’re from. He simply wants good, old-fashioned toughness and respect to be essential virtues in all his products. More importantly, he wants to make sure that none of his team are “disrespectful arseholes.”
So, in a move that was part vetting process and part trust exercise, Bareman sent the man that would eventually become one of the UFC’s most talked about talents packing.
“I told him what I tell a lot of young guys that show up at my gym. I told him, ‘There are a lot of really good gyms in this area. Why don’t you go and check them out, and if you like the atmosphere in this place, you can come back after trying out the others.’
“Of course, that horrible amateur fight he had was still pretty fresh in my memory. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like I absolutely didn’t want to train him, but there was a sense of ‘Not this guy again,’ you know?”
The following day, Adesanya was back in the gym explaining that City Kickboxing was the only place for him. He diligently went about his training for the next while, but it wasn’t until Bareman’s wife remembered she had previously watched him compete that the coach got an inkling of the X-factor the young man possessed.
“My wife told me she saw him fight in kickboxing before — it was probably only his third fight — but apparently he had the whole stadium rocking. Again, for someone to have that kind of impression on someone who has little or no interest in fights, that’s pretty impressive. That was my first inkling that he had something special. Up until that point, my only exposure to him had been that terrible amateur MMA fight.”
It was impossible for Bareman to ignore Adesanya’s determination and focus. Even if he deducted his new student’s physical gifts, his ability to learn, and his tractor-beam of an aura, Bareman knew that he had a lifer on his hands — fighting was something that Adesanaya wasn’t going to be able to get out of his system.
After Adesanaya’s first fight with the gym, the soon-to-be “Stylebender” revealed how he came to be in Auckland, which forced Bareman to recognize that he had a different kind of animal on his hands.
“Before coming to the gym that first day, Israel had just decided that fighting was going to be his life. He put everything he owned in a car, drove up to his Dad and told him that he was driving to Auckland to train at my gym,” he recites.
“Now, Israel’s father is a very straight-down-the-middle kind of guy. He’s an accountant. He wanted the best for his son and he wanted him to get a top education. As far as I know, all of his other children have gone to university and got their degrees, and Israel was headed that way too.
“The reason Israel put all of his things in the car and went to his father’s house instead of giving him two weeks’ notice was he knew he would be stopped. He did it all really quickly so his Dad couldn’t talk him out of it. He didn’t even have anywhere to stay. He had a sleeping bag and a car. He slept in his car for months out here.
“You can’t teach dedication like that. It doesn’t come along that often.”
Bareman first crossed paths with Dan Hooker when Hooker was preparing for his UFC debut in Auckland against Ian Entwhistle. The City Kickboxing head coach, who was quite active at the time, was drafted in to help “The Hangman” prepare for his Octagon bow, and he was quite surprised with the promotional newcomer’s setup.
“To my astonishment, I would show up to training for Dan and I would be the only one that turned up,” Bareman recalls. “A lot of the time it would be just me and Dan training with maybe one other guy. There were limited resources. As soon as I recognized that, I promised him I’d be there every day, no matter what. I told him if I didn’t make it to training, I would I would be in his debt.”
After a subsequent loss to Maximo Blanco then a return to the win column against Hatsu Hioki, Hooker reached back out to Bareman to train him for his clash with Yair Rodriguez.
“I was pretty reluctant to take him on at that stage,” Bareman admits. “It was nothing to do with Dan, it was just because I think we were only six-to-eight weeks away from the fight when he came to us. I don’t think I can do too much with anybody in eight weeks. Whether that’s the greatest fighter on earth or not, in eight weeks I’ll be able to do relatively nothing except getting them fit and sharp.”
After coming up short against Rodriguez, Bareman recommended that Hooker venture to the U.S. for training. So Hooker did just that. He spent some time with Elevation Fight Team in Colorado, but even after picking up a win over Mark Eddiva, Hooker began to encounter difficulty with living so far away from home.
“Dan loved the training in the States, but the cost of living was a bit too high for him — he wasn’t making the money he is now,” Bareman explains.
“He mentioned that Tiger Muay Thai were doing tryouts and I remembered that I already had guys over there that were on scholarships with the gym. I told Dan, ‘You’re not going to have to do the trials and all of those crazy workouts, I’ll just get you in there.’
“To his credit, he wouldn’t do it that way and he ended up doing all of the trials and crazy workouts, but he didn’t get the result he had hoped against Jason Knight.”
The loss to Knight triggered an investigation that led Bareman to identify Hooker’s weight cut as the only possible source of the disappointing results.
“It looked like a different fighter when he competed, because Dan is an animal in the gym. When I see the potential he has in the gym, I think he could be easily one of the best fighters in his weight class in the world. That being said, the performances didn’t match the potential,” remembers Bareman.
“When I deducted everything, the only thing that was different from when he was training to when he was fighting was the weight cut. There was no doubt in my mind that was the biggest factor in his performances. That was when he moved to lightweight and that’s when he came back to train with me.”
When you think about it, Hooker went halfway around the world just to come home — but Bareman believes the time he spent bouncing around has made “The Hangman” even more comfortable at City Kickboxing.
“It’s a funny time for me to look back on,” Bareman says. “I knew Dan would do well if he had stayed in my gym, stayed among the trainers, stayed in the system and added a little more. I thought if I had to press on him how good our gym is and how confident I am in the system that we teach, I just felt it would have come across the wrong way to Dan.
“I don’t know why, but I just thought it would be better for Dan to go over there and experience that for himself. I thought that if he went and he trained with all these other people in all of these other places, he’d realize for himself that he should have never left.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Bareman adds, “he learned so much from all of these other great coaches in their great gyms. But instead of me bigging myself up to him, Dan just felt like the kind of guy that needed to find things out for himself.”
In 2018, Adesanya and Hooker’s efforts in the Octagon have helped raise the international profile of City Kickboxing to an all-time high.
Bareman doesn’t hesitate to call International Fight Week the most important seven days in the gym’s history. And after attempting to guide the pair away from his gym in the early days, he admits he’s surprised that it’s these two who are leading the line for his facility.
“I’ll admit, these are two of the most unlikely guys who could’ve got us to this point based off my early interactions with them,” Bareman says. “Everything happens for a reason, I guess. They are both integral parts of my gym now when you think about it. When people think about me, they think about them, and it goes the same way vice versa. It’s amazing that we’ve got to this point, especially after us going back down memory lane.”
The head coach is almost upset with himself for telling me that it’s been the “best camp” of both men’s lives; he audibly sighs after he utters the old fight cliché, but it’s just what the doctor ordered when you consider what’s on the line.
A veteran of the Octagon at this stage, Hooker hopes to make it four wins in a row at lightweight and with City Kickboxing. A win over Burns will likely open him to ranked opposition for the first time since signing with the promotion in 2014.
It’s just Adesanya’s third trip to the Octagon, but he’s already boasting the main event slot and a ranked opponent. Based on Adesanya’s ascension in Asia, Bareman expected that the UFC may throw “The Last Stylebender” to the wolves quite early. That’s why he started preparing Adesanya for the UFC’s top 185ers years ago.
“Israel and I have trained for this two or three years ago; we trained for all of the top guys years ago. It’s been a constant rhetoric between us throughout the years. We’d look at what [Luke] Rockhold does and we’d see that he steps back and throws a throwaway right hook. We knew he was open when he does that and we knew we could take advantage of it. Unfortunately, Michael Bisping beat us to it,” Bareman says, laughing.
“We’d look at new guys making waves in the division and we’d look at what guys like Brad Tavares do. We’ve done everything we can to prepare for everyone in this division. We also knew that we could end up getting thrown in the deep end very quickly, so we’re prepared for it.”
Frequently at fight nights in New Zealand, Bareman has multiple fighters competing on the same card. He runs back and forth from cage to backstage, often missing the bouts that his team doesn’t participate in. With a day between Adesanya and Hooker’s contests this weekend, Bareman has some breathing room and time to adapt to each of the fighters’ unique personalities.
Wins this weekend could open up the City Kickboxing charges to more money, more notoriety, and to championship chases — things Bareman isn’t really concerned about in terms of the gym’s legacy.
“I want City Kickboxing to have changed a whole host of peoples’ lives for the better,” Bareman says, having paused to gather his thoughts.
“One of the biggest pressures I face is when a young lad comes to me and he wants to be a professional fighter, wants to make a living out of the sport and wants to put everything they have into it. When that happens, every bone in my body is saying, ‘Please don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ At the same time, I know that this is what we do. I know that feeling to just want to fight and make a living from it. It’s my responsibility to try and make that happen for them and that’s honestly a lot of pressure.
“I’ve got guys that don’t compete at all and guys that compete on a much smaller scale, but they get just as much adrenaline competing on those smoker shows as Israel does when he’s fighting in the Octagon. That’s what I love to see. Even if I never got a fighter to the UFC and I never had a champion, I’d be happy doing what I’m doing because of the joy I see the sport giving to other people.
“If a few people show up at my funeral and say that I’ve changed their lives for the better through combat sports, that would be awesome. That would mean more to me than any championship belt.”