In 2004, mixed martial arts was a fledgling sport in the United Kingdom.
But for Liverpool fight fans Anthony McGann and Lee Gwynn, that was when a mutual interest in MMA, boxing and submission wrestling crystallized into a vision of a dedicated, world-class facility in their hometown: the Wolfslair MMA Academy.
Fast-forward to 2008, and the flourishing gym is perhaps England's premier residence for high-level mixed martial artists. It is home to UFC fighters such as Michael Bisping, Paul Kelly, and an additional slew of quality British and international fighters -- a remarkable achievement considering that, upon its creation, the gym was little more than a hobby for its creators.
"Our main business was scaffolding, and Lee's family were involved in nightclubs. Lee was a club promoter, too," McGann explained. "We've always been into submission wrestling and boxing, only playing around, in truth, but we have been UFC fans from the word go."
In the Wolfslair's early days, MMA was very much on the fringes of respectability, having barely as much as trickled into the mainstream.
"Back then, you were lucky if MMA was ever on the TV," McGann said. "What happened was Golden Glory's Kazeka Muniz was doing the Liverpool circuit, private sessions, seminars, that type of thing. We got to know him, and he became a friend. Between us, we created the Wolfslair. We [McGann and Gwynn] built it, and he put the brains behind it, bringing over Mario Sucata [Neto] and Antonio Silva. We were even opened by Antonio 'Minotauro' Nogueira."
The gym evolved quickly. Professional-level cages and rings were installed. Additional coaching support came in the form of the duo's longtime boxing trainer, Tony Quigley. With top-level striking and grappling coaches in-house, the gym also soon attracted the likes of Bisping, Tom Blackledge and Steve Clarke.
"The timing was good," McGann said. "Cage Rage was on the up, and Cage Warriors promoters Dougie Truman and Andy Lillis gave us carte blanche on their shows, paying our lads some decent money."
Those days were not without the occasional wobble, though -- something McGann chalks up to inexperience.
"Mike Bisping was the Cage Rage light heavyweight champion. [Cage Rage promoters Dave O'Donnell and Andy Geer] were due to make a fight with 'Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos,' but this was just before Mike was due to be accepted for 'The Ultimate Fighter.' It was a bittersweet pill. While they were stripping him, we were on the other line confirming his place on 'The Ultimate Fighter.' I could see their point and see mine. A year later, we shook hands on it and made up."
The Wolfslair keepers
With an enviable coaching lineup, the Wolfslair also has proved a magnet to several topflight visiting fighters. Men such as Quinton Jackson, Andrei Arlovski and Cheick Kongo count the Wolfslair as a home away from home when fighting in the United Kingdom.
McGann broke down the Wolfslair coaching lineup for Sherdog.com:
Head coach and jiu-jitsu coach Neto: "He's a legend. He once fought Kevin Randleman and Gary Goodridge in one night and went the distance with a peak Dan Severn in a 35-minute bout. He won the grand masters in BJJ. He was a vale tudo champ in Russia. With all the achievements, he brought a lot of confidence to the team. A big man and a great asset from the halls of Golden Glory, Mario teaches the guys that in sparring, hit them as hard as they hit you."
Boxing coach Quigley: "Tony was a friend for many years. He coached us privately in his own gym. We offered Tony a position here, and his success comes down to the fact that Quigley is a strong-willed, big, angry coach. If a fighter's not alert, he'll slap you full blast. He's a strong character, great for the gym and jelled with Mario right away."
Thai boxing coach Dave Jackson: "Another great asset. We realized one thing we lacked was muay Thai, so we invited Dave on board. The fighters love his style of teaching and level of technique and experience. Cheick Kongo took to Dave, and Dave cornered him in the fight with 'Cro Cop.' He was so impressed, he's invited Dave to train him, but [Jackson] is too committed to his role here."
Gwynn: "Lee does a lot of corner work. He's a bit more hands-on. He has taken a big role as cardio coach at the gym. He corners his good friend Paul [Kelly]. If he's not in the corner, Paul feels like he's missing an arm. Paul's a true child of the Wolfslair -- his success is in large part due to Lee's input."
When referring to his own role, McGann is quick to acknowledge that his quick-witted, people-focused personality doesn't lend itself to a training environment in quite the same way as some of the uncompromising coaches who grace the Wolfslair. However, much like Gwynn's role, McGann's grew organically as the Wolfslair reached new heights of success.
"I see this like a family, not a business," McGann said. "We get a percentage of each fighter's purse, of course, but we spend a lot and put plenty back into the running and improvement of the facilities. I might make someone laugh, but I'm a mild-mannered character. None of the fighters would take me too seriously. I deal with people like Dana White or matchmaker Joe Silva and with the sponsorship guys like Affliction and Tapout."
McGann's dealings with White and Silva have been positive.
"Dana White gets a lot of bad press, but he's dragged this sport from the basement to the big screen," he said. "Maybe he's upset people along the way, but you can't deny he's a fantastic businessman. He's always been fair and polite in his dealings with us.
"As for Joe Silva as a matchmaker, we have always accepted every fight Joe has ever picked for us. He does his job well. We won't shirk away from a fight, and he'll always discuss any fights he picks for us. He gave us Paul Taylor in Paul Kelly's UFC debut, and he was clear that whoever won, he was looking to build them up. And you saw what happened: It was a great fight, and our Paul won clearly. Next time out, he's been matched with Troy Mandaloniz, an 'Ultimate Fighter' veteran with a big right hand."
The bout could be another breakout performance for Kelly, who, by the way, has a brother the Wolfslair coaches also are honing.
"His brother Gary Kelly is another tough bastard," McGann remarked. "He has had two great wins. We think he can be every bit as good as Paul."
The present and the future
A typical Wolfslair day starts at 10 a.m. with MMA sessions, rolling, ground-and-pound and takedowns on the mat with Neto and two other top Brazilians, followed by boxing and kickboxing with Quigley and Jackson. Also, a Scottish-based Russian sambo coach provides additional support.
The evenings offer a chance for novices and the general public to try the gym's various combat offerings.
"Overall, the schedule depends on what's coming up," McGann said. "Kongo, Rampage, Arlovski and Ian Freeman all do sessions here, and we've had Dean Lister running sessions here too. Quinton Jackson trains with people like Team Punishment, and his own team is excellent, but he says our coaches and facilities are up there with the best in the world.
"Rampage Jackson is a personal friend. He's stayed at my house. My son Jack gave up his room for him for several weeks, and at the end of it, Jackson gave him his chain. How many 14-year-olds can lay claim to being the proud owner of Rampage Jackson's steel chain?"
Jack McGann is a regular on the Wolfslair mats. Despite his youth, he already is making waves on the local amateur circuit.
"For me, the icing on the cake is my lad Jack," McGann said. "It means everything to see him perform. I get such a buzz. We have a friendly rivalry with Next Generation here in Liverpool. That's the gym that has spawned guys like Terry Etim, and Jack recently fought their main kid. This was a huge event. It was going around all the schools.
"You can only imagine the pressure they were both under. Two thousand people turned up to watch Jack stop him in the second round. It was like a 'Rocky' film! He had Mike Bisping in his corner, and Rampage was on the phone to him straight afterwards, too. He loves to fight, and he has amazing fitness -- really advanced for his age. Not surprising when you look at the private coaches he has at his disposal! Lee's son Morgan is just 10 years of age, and he's been taking some kickboxing lessons from Dave, too," said McGann, clearly flushed with pride at the achievements of the gym's next generation.
Looking at the future, the likable Liverpool businessman and fight fan sees more of the same for the burgeoning Wolfslair MMA Academy.
"Our thing with the Wolfslair is that we have a very strong brand," McGann said. "And while each of us is busy in other fields, we want to work on improving the hot prospects we have coming through and expanding the brand. Maybe go for a clothing line at some stage. Ultimately, it comes down to this this is more a family than it is business. There are no airs and graces with us. We want to carry on having fun and making people happy in the process."
Paul Concannon is a contributor to Sherdog.com.