Team Alpha Male wasn’t feeling like a top dog. Fighters were unwilling to continue working with Thonglor Armatsena, also known as Master Thong, the team’s trainer. He had taken them only so far. Team Alpha Male founder Urijah Faber knew it, felt it and saw it. Something had to be done.
It was late 2012, and several team members were gearing up for possible Ultimate Fighting Championship title shots in 2013, including himself. They had to get over the team-wide stalemate if they were to place championship belts around their waists.
“We were losing the structure of practice, and guys were starting to go elsewhere for training,” said Faber, who fights Michael McDonald of Modesto on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena as part of UFC on Fox 9. “I was on a promotional trip in China and got an e-mail from (Ultimate Fitness general manager and Team Alpha Male head coach) Dave Roman from our gym, and he basically told me I had to find someone fast. I reached out to some people and made a list of guys I knew were out there.”
Enter Duane “Bang” Ludwig.
Ludwig, 35, was known in mixed martial arts circles as a Muay Thai kickboxing brawler. He was the 2002 K-1 World Max USA Champion and the 2004 International Sport Karate Association’s light-middleweight world champ. But he has had limited success in MMA. He’s 4-5 in UFC events, as both a welterweight and lightweight, and hasn’t fought since injuring his left knee against Che Mills in UFC on Fuel TV in November 2012. Although not officially retired, Ludwig has quickly transitioned into a head coach and, since taking over Team Alpha Male’s training in January, the team has gone 12-1. Only bantamweight T.J. Dillashaw has lost, and that was a split decision against Raphael Assuncao in October.
“Duane was at the top of my list,” Faber said. “As soon as I landed, I texted him and asked if he was available. He was in Colorado trying to start a Muay Thai affiliate network but was looking for any opportunity. It was perfect timing.”
Ludwig agreed. He said he had little money in the bank, and with a wife and two young children, he needed a job.
“I was fighting for the money but keeping my eyes and ears open for any opportunity,” Ludwig said. “I’m glad to be here in Sacramento, and there’s no better, more dedicated athletes than these guys (at Team Alpha Male).”
Ludwig’s impact on the team was almost immediate. No longer were fighters training and coaching other fighters while Master Thong left for a six-week stretch in 2012 and kept his whereabouts a secret. He’s since moved to Texas, Faber said.
With Ludwig, structure was restored. Ludwig incorporated what he calls Bang Muay Thai into the regular MMA mix at Team Alpha Male’s workouts at Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym on I Street. His system infuses Thai kickboxing with a Dutch influence that utilizes a higher form of striking, Ludwig said. He takes the best kickboxing styles and moves from Thailand, combines it with the best from Holland, where he claims the best kickboxers live, and invented Bang Muay Thai. With the success Team Alpha Male fighters have had since Ludwig’s arrival in Sacramento and his own previous ground work, the Bang Muay Thai system now has 12 affiliates around the world.
“Duane has added a lot of structure and leadership,” said Joseph Benavidez, who will fight Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson on Saturday for the UFC flyweight title. “I had only worked with Duane for a month before I faced Ian McCall and got a unanimous decision. But then I knocked out my next two guys. It’s amazing what he’s brought, all the angles to striking.”
Chad Mendes, a featherweight, is also on Saturday’s card and fighting Nik Lentz. Mendes has knocked out all four of his opponents since Ludwig came aboard. One more and he’ll own the UFC record for consecutive KOs among active fighters. Chuck Liddell owns the all-time record of seven consecutive knockouts.
“(Ludwig) has improved our team so much,” said Mendes, who has never been taken down in a professional MMA fight, also a record. “He does a great job of breaking an opponent down and has really improved my accuracy. He’s probably the most honest guy I’ve ever known, sometimes brutally honest.”
But that was exactly what the team needed, Mendes said. He, Faber and Benavidez all got title shots in the last couple of years but failed each time. Benavidez’ shot at revenge against Johnson on Saturday will go a long ways in gauging the effect that Ludwig has had. Can Team Alpha Male claim a belt? Faber is the last to wear one, but that was in 2008, and he is 0-5 in title fights since then in the featherweight and bantamweight divisions.
“Duane just brings that passion and leadership and does all the simple things that a great coach brings, plus he speaks English, which has been huge,” Benavidez said. “His numbering system in drills is vastly different and works a lot better. We drill very hard, and many of us are used to that as former collegiate wrestlers. He brings that confidence, and there’s no doubt that his system works. You can see the results. He has the blueprint.”
Mark Billingsley covers the UFC and mixed martial arts for The Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.