The Man Behind One of the Baddest Men Alive - OZY | A Modern Media Company
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - SEPTEMBER 27: Israel Adesanya of Nigeria (C) poses for a post fight portrait with his coach Eugene Bareman (2nd left) and teammates backstage during UFC 253 inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on September 27, 2020 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
SourceMike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because sometimes being a badass starts with being a good guy.

By Eugene S. Robinson

  • The trainer for undefeated UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya is Dutch-Samoan New Zealander Eugene Bareman.
  • A former fighter who dropped out of law school for MMA, Bareman has built a stable of champions and up-and-comers by caring about “the inner workings of their minds.”

Eugene Bareman could probably kill you. Actually, he could definitely kill you. Moreover, at any given time, he’s surrounded by people who could do the same.

Bareman, 5-foot-10, maybe 190 pounds, is the man behind one of the baddest men on the planet: the current undefeated UFC middleweight champion, Nigerian-New Zealander Israel Adesanya.

So while we weren’t exactly sure how we expected Bareman to answer his phone when we called him in Auckland, it was a pleasant surprise that he was as pleasant as he was.

I like the old school where you only teach people of a certain character.

Eugene Bareman

The background, though, sounded precisely how you would expect his City Kickboxing (CKB) gym to sound. Skin and shins against bags and pads and just about anything kickboxing-related that you can do with a mask on during the pandemic-related shutdown.

Though New Zealand has been hit less hard than many places, mixed martial arts is still a dicey pursuit given the close-quarters nature of it. Bareman, a 41-year-old father of four, approaches it with a sort of paternal equanimity. “We’re friends here and family, really, and so we want everyone to be OK,” he says.

UFC 248: Adesanya v Romero

Israel Adesanya (right) and Yoel Romero in their UFC middleweight championship fight on March 7 in Las Vegas.

Source Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty

That is, right up until the cage door slams shut and locks and his coterie of hell-raisers — Adesanya, UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, Dan Hooker, Kai Kara-France, Shane Young and Brad Riddell, to name a few — receive the call to fight. Then they’re not worried about much more than leaving the cage with a W. Which is as close to OK as any of these fighters get.

Sure, they want to live to train and fight another day, but it’s their drive to win that has led MMA Junkie to name CKB gym of the year for two years running.

“I never wanted to be a coach,” Bareman says. “I wanted to be a fighter.”

After his second year of law school in Auckland, he dropped out to become one. His Samoan mother and Dutch dad, with four other kids to raise, were none too happy about his decision. At the time, MMA was a flyspeck on the sports radar in New Zealand. The only reason Bareman started fighting was because he had washed out as a rugby flanker and he wanted to get back in shape so he could return to rugby.

Forty-eight fights later, his life’s game plan subjugated as he shifts from fighting to coaching fighters, Bareman is getting stopped for photos and autographs. “Not as much as Israel, but, you know,” he laughs, “just enough.”

To a degree, it’s the celebrity that concerns Bareman. He uses the phrase “combat ethics” more than once, sounding very much like a martial arts traditionalist. “I like the old school where you only teach people of a certain character,” he explains. “People who won’t use those skills for bad. Plus, I’ve found this exact proposition to be true: The people that get the furthest are people of good character.”

“Bareman has been a welcome surprise,” says sports writer Victor Rodriguez. “He’s cemented himself and his crew as elite trainers. Two champs, a series of buzz-saw prospects and a new set of acolytes ready to make waves? Dude is permanently part of the conversation.”

For Bareman, that conversation started a few years earlier, when he noticed that every time he and his crew pulled into the local MMA promotion, New Zealand’s King in the Ring, they kept leaving with wins. “With the talent we had in this country…”

And at your gym?

“At CKB,” says Bareman, “I knew we could compete with anyone anywhere else.” It all came together when Adesanya, an amateur Bareman had already seen fight once and lose, came in to train.

Which is precisely where the roads diverge for coaches who are doing interviews versus the ones just reading them: Rather than kick Adesanya to the curb for that amateur loss, Bareman kept him. For three reasons. “No.1? Attitude and passion,” Bareman says. “The love they have for the sport is important. Two: athleticism. And finally, good eyes. In that order.” Bareman pauses and then goes for the deeply mystical: “And the inner workings of their minds. What’s in their minds…”

Where some coaches care less about what their fighters are thinking and more about their ability to do what they’re told, the fact that Bareman has been so successful with his way of doing business has registered with others. His fighters all seem like … normal folks. Capable of and gifted at tremendous acts of controlled violence, but normal nonetheless.

“I’m a fan of his work in getting fighters to see varying dimensions of violence from moment to moment,” says Rodriguez. And while good gyms come and go, like Jon Jones’ Jackson Wink MMA Academy in New Mexico, or are holding steady, such as AKA in California and American Top Team in Florida, “nobody’s turning heads like Bareman,” concludes Rodriguez. “And that’s for good reasons.”

With arguably the biggest MMA fight yet creeping onto the dance card sometime in 2021 — Jones, the former light heavyweight champ who vacated his belt to fight heavyweight, versus middleweight champ Adesanya, who is chasing him — Bareman sounds damned near chill.

“You know, studying to be a lawyer actually made me a better coach,” he muses. “The value of knowing how to study a lot.” You can almost feel him smile when he says it. So business as usual for 2021?

“The business is to make the most money for our fighters that we can,” Bareman says. “It’s nice if we can do that. But that’s really not why we’re here. Any of us.”

Which sounds 100 percent believable when he says it.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories