Din Thomas creates the word-class fighting home he’s always wanted

Author Elias Cepeda writes a regular column for The UG Feed; you can find him on Twitter @EliasCepeda.

In March, Din Thomas walked away from a job coaching at perhaps the largest elite MMA gym and team in the world – American Top Team headquarters in Coconut Creek, Florida. From the outside, the move seemed sudden, and hard to explain.

When Thomas himself was a top contender as a fighter, the sport of MMA didn’t have the widespread attention and acceptance that it enjoys today. As a world championship coach with the titan-producing American Top Team, Thomas finally began to get his due recognition.

Ultimately, however, that wasn’t enough to keep Thomas happy. With his varied professional interests, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt felt pulled in too many directions, for one, with not enough time to help athletes as much as he wanted to.

“I’m an MMA coach but it’s not all that I do,” Thomas says, about a half year after deciding to strike out on his own. “So, sometimes prioritizing my day is very difficult because I’m always trying to juggle so many different things. I’ve got a radio show and I’ve got all this other stuff. Sometimes it’s very difficult. So, from like 2015 to 2019, I was living in West Palm, primarily so I would drive to Coconut Creek which is like 45 minutes to an hour. And then I would be there in the morning from like nine to twelve. Then, I started coming in later – eight to twelve, sometimes to one. Then I had to rush back and do my radio show which was in West Palm. Then at nights, I’d be doing improv and things like that. And sometimes, when I started picking up my workload with coaching, I would have to go to West Palm to do the radio show, then I’d drive back to Coconut Creek another hour to work some more.

“It got to the point where I’d be investing so much into the driving going back and forth to Coconut Creek, working with guys that I didn’t even like. But I would still do it for the team, for the sake of the team because I wanted everybody to win, but then I was thinking, ‘I have so much more to offer these guys.'”

Putting in a lot of miles on the road during the week, in addition to a heavy travel schedule to corner athletes wasn’t all that weighed on Thomas. Perhaps more important to the coach was that he began to feel neither he nor the fighters he worked with regularly were getting enough out of training.

“I’d go up there and work with a guy once or twice a week, drive all the way out there to work with him once or twice a week and he’s not really picking up what I’m putting down,” he explains. “So, I felt like I was wasting my time and I wasn’t being very fair to them because I’m just in there holding pads for them or trying to teach them stuff and they’re not listening because they just want to do a workout. Eventually, it just got to me and I said, ‘I want to be able to really work with people.’”

Thomas makes a point out of saying that the situation really seemed particular to him. From his perspective, there were many other fighters at ATT who got what they needed from other coaches.

“That was probably more my situation because the ones that I were loyal to and the ones that were really loyal to me, they didn’t have the power to demand me more than once or twice a week,” he detailed “So, Mike Brown works with the big names, you know, Joanna [Jedrzejczyk], Dustin [Poirier], he was working with Colby [Covington], and a little bit of everybody. [Those fighters] had the high-profile fights so they had the ability to work with him more. They could work with him every day, almost, and they deserved to. They were in a position to do that. The fighters I worked with were, like, their sparring partners. But I take great pride in that.”

Though Thomas has long coached former world welterweight champ Tyron Woodley, he took pride in carving out a niche working with far less-known fighters at ATT. Ultimately, Thomas believed that he had too many such fighters in his schedule to do them justice.

“I take pride in you, whether you were an 0-5 professional on a regional level,” he continues. “I’m taking pride in the work that I’m doing, no matter who you are, and I want to see you get better. It was hard because I wanted to see some of these kids get better and they couldn’t really get better with the amount of time I had to work with them.”

These days, getting enough time with his charges is not an issue. Thomas works with only a few fighters at a time.

Flyweight Gillian Robertson fights next month, and Jose “Shorty” Torres and Woodley fight within the next week. Robertson lives close to Thomas’s home – which he’s converted into a training center and dormitory – and Torres is even closer to Thomas.

“Gillian Roberts, she lives about ten minutes from me, ‘Shorty’ Torres…actually lives with me,” he reveals. In addition to training Woodley for his fight this weekend against longtime rival Colby Covington, Thomas says he’s also continued to work with Zoila Frausto and Hannah Goldy in recent months.

With his stable so small, now, Thomas can make sure that he only works with athletes he likes and in a way that ensures he gives them all he can. Thomas’ is an old-school boxing coach system, in a sense.

All of his fighters in camp get time with him, daily, doing drills tailored for their needs. Then, he coordinates sparring days for them with outside athletes and gyms.

“It’s exactly that mentality and that system. I know my people,” he explains. “What we do is we train twice a day. Depending on who we’ve got. … I give them their own private time. So, I work with one of them at 10, and the other at 11, then I may bring somebody in at night or have them work together at night. Twice a week we’ll go to another gym to get bodies. … So, yeah, my people who I work with now we work twice a day, one in the morning, one at night.”

Thomas doesn’t give his young fighters much in the way of time-off, physically, either. While continuing to detail the regimen fighters like Robertson and Torres keep under his supervision, Thomas corrects himself.

“I actually gave Gillian a day off on Sunday. Well, actually, I didn’t give them a day off – we watched film on Sunday. I gave them a physical day off on Sunday. In the past, they wouldn’t get days off, we would just work every day, every day, every day,” he specifies. “The day off would be them doing just one workout that day, not two.”

Thomas is confident that he now has a structure that can provide optimal results for his fighters.

“I can see the results,” he says. “I can see them. I can look at them and see the results. I can look at them with sparring partners and see the results. And, they love it. I mean, they’re getting the best possible work they could get. And for me, I’m teaching MMA the way I want to.”

Traveling around the country to work with Woodley, and having other fighters literally live under his roof certainly takes a lot of work, and likely not a fighter on earth could afford Thomas if he charged by the hour for his coaching. Doing things his way, with people he cares about is much more important than money, according to Thomas.

“I don’t try to put a dollar sign on my time and that may be my downfall. That was why I wasn’t that great of a businessman with my school. It’s a conflict of interest to want to help people and then also charge them. You want to help people but you’ve got to eat, too, so it’s tough,” he acknowledges. “But some of the things I do require as far as me working with you – you have to be just a good person that I like. You know? ‘Shorty’ is a good person. Don’t tell him I said that [laughs]. But he’s a good person, and I see it. He’s a very thoughtful, selfless person. For me, that’s part of our chemistry together and our bond – we’re just good people that are trying to help people. Like, [Torres’ nutrition coach Lou Giordano] stayed in my house for a couple days, and he’s just a good person. I was just like, ‘dude, you can come back any time.’ He was clean. He cooked me a meal, and I was just like, ‘you’re just a good dude, man, and I like having you around.’ That’s part of it. If you’re just like ‘arrghhh, I’m a barbarian fighter and I’m going to kick everybody’s ass,’ I’m like, ‘well, you can do that somewhere else. I don’t want you at my house.’ Like, this is my house.

“Gillian, I’ve been working with her since she was a little girl. Honestly, they’re like my kids and we joke about that all the time, so I treat them almost like that. Would you charge your kids for something? Obviously they pay me, but I don’t beat them over the head. We’re in this together. You win, we win. You lose, we lose. We’re in this together. We’re going to ride this out.”

Though Thomas custom-builds his fighters’ schedules, he insists that he has no issue working with other coaches or letting his athletes work with different teachers. Thomas says that he wants to be the type of coach he wishes he had as a fighter, and putting the needs of those stepping into the cage first is a central part of doing that.

“A lot of people criticize ‘Shorty’ because he used to go around from gym to gym. And I’m like, so what? He’s trying to learn information. That’s what we all want. My ego isn’t on the line,” he reasons. “My ego is not going to be like ‘no, you can’t learn from someone else.’ No, I love it. I want you to learn from other people because I need to know it. I want to know it, too, so I can add it in where it fits. I don’t have a problem working with other coaches. They respect me and I respect them, so I’ve never had a problem. … I’m open-minded because it’s not about me. If any coach has a problem with their fighter working other coaches, it’s about them. It’s not about me, it’s about the fighter winning fights. I need to do whatever I need to do to get them to win fights. So, if that means them working with somebody else who is better in an area than me, then I’ve got to let that happen. Why would I sabotage a fighter’s career for my own self-interest?

I may recommend, ‘this is messing you up and here’s how I can prove it.’ If I can prove it, yeah, but if I’m just butthurt about it, that’s on me and I don’t ever want to be like that.”

The lifestyle Thomas has built for himself seems to balance particular needs and high standards, with an easy-going attitude. He doesn’t mind giving his athletes the shirt off his back, but he’s picky about who he lets in and demands space to do his other work.

Thomas won’t freak about his fighters working with other coaches, but he demands clarity on what the plan is.

“I have my own goals in life that I want to accomplish, [so I would not] sabotage others,” he explains. “I want to see people do good, so I’m going to help them do good. In return, when I’m working on my projects, leave me alone [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? Don’t bother me when I’m reading a script. When I’m studying a script, don’t bother me. That’s what I want in return. Let me be good and what I want to be good at, and I’m going to help you be good at what you’re good at.”

Thomas doesn’t even demand that he be the ‘head’ coach in a fighter’s corner. Those who are loyal to him and place their trust in his executive decision-making certainly get more out of the coach, but he says he’s also fine taking a backseat, if an athlete wants to make things just about business.

“If it’s just business, and you want me to be a consultant, or you even want me to be your head coach. I will play any role you want,” Din promise. “I will shut up, I will carry the bucket. I will play any role you want, but there’s a price to it.”

Though Thomas is open to working with fighters from any team, including those still among the ATT ranks, he can’t clear the thorns of gym politics for everyone. Frankly, he doesn’t seem to have much of an interest in wading in those muddy waters anymore.

“ATT has always been very possessive, in a sense, in terms of, ‘if you’re with us, you’re with us. If you’re not, you’re not,’” he claims. “So, there were some guys that were coming up and training with me and then it got to the point where they were like, ‘hey man, we still want to train with you but we can’t take any pictures.’”

Thomas chuckles and then calmly explains how there is some business that he just doesn’t need bad enough. Any professional situation that ruins his vibe right now doesn’t seem worth it to Din any longer. In fact, intra gym rivalries and hostilities are a part of what Thomas says prompted him to leave his former powerhouse home and go independent.

“I get it. I don’t have a problem working with anybody, but I like to have fun with my stuff and if I’m going to take pictures, I’m going to take pictures. If you can’t be in the picture, then maybe this ain’t the place for you,” he says. “This is all I’ve got. This is my thing, now. This is what I’ve got and I’m having fun with it. I like to put my music on and I like to have a good time and if you can’t do that, then maybe you should just stick with what you’re doing. I can’t help you.”

Tyron Woodley and Colby Covington’s ugly rivalry will culminate in their fighting this Saturday in the UFC cage. It began and festered for years while the two represented the same ATT team, however… Covington’s insults and other behavior resulted in his no longer being welcome on the team. It wasn’t the first time that Woodley – who owns and operates an ATT-affiliate gym near his home in Missouri – has had to face off literally or figuratively with a teammate, either, first facing Robbie Lawler years ago.

Thomas says that he just doesn’t want to deal with more in-fighting.

“One is that I’m getting older and my tolerance for negativity just isn’t there anymore,” he says. “I don’t want to be in a bad mood. I don’t want to deal with people’s attitudes all the time. When you’re dealing with fighters, they’re like preschoolers. It’s funny because I met the guys from the TV show Kingdom. That’s a brilliantly written show. It’s so accurate on how fighters act and think. A lot of them are just like time bombs – they go off, they’re selfish, and this, that, and the third. When you’re dealing with a roomful of these people it really does something to your mentality and the way you look at life. I’m not saying that I want to look at life through rose-colored glasses, but I don’t want to look at life through this dark cloud.

“And I [was] constantly surrounded by this energy where it’s just like [pantomimes people talking] and I didn’t want that in my life. I don’t want that energy in my life. I want to be able to help people and be happy, I want to smile, and I want people to leave me alone at times and them to be ok with that. That’s the truth that I want to live.”

Din says that the realization crystalized for him while training Woodley in Atlanta while in the previous camp with “The Chosen One.” From the sound of it, both Thomas and his most famous fighter are doing well, mentally, right now.

“Going from this life where you go to the gym and there’s negativity and cliques, it wasn’t sitting well with me. It wasn’t until I was in camp with Tyron [that I realized] – we were in Atlanta and I was like, ‘this is what I want to do’ – small groups. Life ain’t perfect but if you can eliminate as much negativity as you can, it’s as perfect as you can have,” he remembers. “When I’m dealing with Tyron, that’s just one little kid I’ve got to deal with (laughs), not a room full of them so it got to the point where it was just like, ‘I can’t.’”

During the conversation Thomas also offers that, as far as he can see, Woodley “is in a better place in his life right now. I think he’s in a really good place in his life right now.”

Quality of life, and contentedness are ultimately related to much more than wins and losses. Many high-level athletes never learn that, or when they do they feel at a loss for how to achieve balance after a lifetime of single-minded focus. If he stays independent, Din Thomas will never again coach as many elite fighters at once as he did while a coach at American Top Team.

That doesn’t seem to bother him one bit. In fact, it may be the point.

Both wins and losses will continue to accumulate, but now Thomas seems to feel in charge of his days, the coaching he offers, who he’s surrounded by, his life. There’s no monetary value to that type of independence.

“I’ve been in fights with fighters where I would go watch them win and soon as they won, I left. I would go to that airport and go home, and not care. They would lose, I would go to the airport and not care,” he remembers. “Now, I have fighters [where] I care. If they lose, I’m going to cry with them. If they win, I’m going to cry with them. That’s the way I want it. I want to take them as far as they can go. It means a lot when Gillian Roberts wins a fight because I know what we went through to see her get her hand raised. It means a lot to me, and I like that. I don’t want to be in fights where I’m like, ‘man they got beat up! Alight, where’s the party?’ I don’t want that. I don’t like that.”

Din Thomas may have picked up an indifference that didn’t suit him while being an important cog in a large MMA machine in the past. He’s searching for smaller, though deeper things now, as a coach, it seems.

Thomas wants that connection with fighters he says he lost. When he has that with them, he’s also confident that they’re getting the best coaching in the world.

“I want to feel what they feel. I’m empathetic towards that,” he ends. “I’m taking the people we have as far as we can go. I put so much work into them that we’re going to go as far as we can go. And when they lose, we’re going to go back and fix it and we’re going to go right back out there and get them again because that’s how I would’ve wanted someone to handle my career. I’m going to give that back. That’s what I’m going to do.”

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