South Wales to Sacramento: UFC stars Jones and McKenna on life in the US

While Britain garners global acclaim for its increasing production of elite MMA athletes, camps outside of the peninsula have become commonplace for contenders looking to bolster their combative proficiency.


In an exclusive interview with MMA UK’s Louis Evans, UFC stars Mason ‘The Dragon’ Jones and Cory ‘Poppins’ Mckenna offer their experiences of undertaking camps across the pond. 


With alumni such as former UFC Bantamweight Champ Cody ‘No Love’ Garbrandt and featherweight title challenger Chad ‘Money’ Mendez, the taffy twosome have chosen to sharpen their knives at Sacramento, California’s Team Alpha Male, led by head coach and UFC Hall of Famer, Urijah Faber.


What made you pick Team Alpha Male?


CM: With that team, one of the good things that I like about it is the consistency, I’m super close to everybody. Everybody cares and is super invested in you! And then, obviously, they’ve got top coaches and teammates too. Overall, it’s pretty great.


MJ: Originally I picked Team Alpha Male because Nad Narimani was training there. The main thing was, I had an ‘easy in’ to the gym. I also had ‘in’ at ATT (American Top Team) over in Florida so I was gonna try the two of them. 


I got on really well with the boys at Team Alpha Male, I found the atmosphere quite friendly. But at the same time, I heard a lot of things about ATT being hard to get into, as in, there’s a wall between their fighters and the travelling fighters. It was one of those things where I wanted to go to both, but after building such a good relationship from one trip with Team Alpha Male, I said ‘look, I’m just gonna keep going back’.


I was quite surprised with how many lightweights and featherweights there were (at Team Alpha Male). Now there’s even more, especially with the welterweights there as well. I work with these guys a lot and, to be honest, that’s a perfect training volume for me. When you got to these gyms and there’s 15 to 20 guys you can spar with, you have a high variation, but this core group of guys are perfect training. It’s really good sparring there for me.


What was your relationship prior to the move? How influential has the other been on you in Team Alpha?


CM: We knew each other from around the scene back home, I wouldn’t say we really talked that much. I didn’t really train with him back home, I saw him around a little bit, he was always really nice. I always watched his fights and everything, gotta support the local guy!


It’s been really nice having him at Team Alpha Male, he helps me out and is happy to have a chat, even on and off the mats. Just kinda talking about the process. I know he’s in the same boat, coming out there to train, coming back home – it’s kinda nice having someone with similar experiences to bounce back and forth with.


He literally just rocked up one day! For people who have done it a lot, it’s not that big a deal. We’re kinda used to travelling back and forth a lot. That was pretty much it!


MJ: For my earlier fights, I actually did my camps in Tillery Combat MMA (now Shore MMA) with Jack Shore and his dad (Richard ‘Shakey’ Shore). I was lacking for sparring partners and a couple of boys had drifted out so I trained there before Jack dropped down to bantamweight. So I met her over there. 


It was because she was shy, but I thought she was quite rude at the start [laughs]. I didn’t really realise how young Cory was! 


Since my trip before my last, we started to train together a little bit, we just got on well. I think Team Alpha Male has been the best thing Cory has ever done, she’s really come out of her shell and her confidence has gone through the roof. I really think it’s gonna show with her skill levels, she’s very, very technical and gonna be very dangerous! She’s awesome!


How have the Americans contended with the Welsh accent?


CM: I’ve definitely had to translate a couple of times for him! People look at me like ‘do they all sound like this back where you’re from?’ I’m like, ‘it depends where you’re from, he’s definitely got a thick Valley boy accent, hasn’t he?’ 


It’s definitely funny sometimes. They say the more I speak to him, the more Welsh I sound too! Obviously, I’ve been out here a while now, I think they’ve gotten used to me and I’ve probably picked up some Americanisms. But when he’s out here, it’s like ‘the more you speak to Mason, the more Welsh you sound. Apparently, I pick it up too, which is kinda funny.


MJ: I’ve had to learn to speak a lot slower, to pronounce my words a lot better. I still get abused by Andre Fili (UFC bantamweight) who says repeatedly ‘speak English’! I said I do speak English, I just don’t speak American!


How have you helped one another to acclimatise to the US?


CM: That’s another good thing about this team, they’re so used to having people come out and visit all the time, we always have people coming in. It’s not a big deal, everyone is so welcoming when you come in, it’s not a shock to the system. Everyone fits right in, obviously, he did, of course. I haven’t spoken to him about that aspect too much but he seems to enjoy it when he’s here. I’ve never heard anything negative out of his mouth.


MJ: To be fair, the comradery and things are the same no matter where you go. The banter is quite poor with the Americans. Especially in the parts of Wales I’m from, the Americans don’t understand how dark our humour is.


A lot of them are brought up on the whole ‘Christian Gospel’ thing – God, guns and saviour, do you know what I mean? They’re just a different population. Now the Aussies, the Aussies are the best, they’re hilarious. The Mexican’s too, their banter is good, but the Americans are just so poor.


What US gym would provide your ideal camp? 

Let us know in the comments!

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