The quest to be Supreme

Shaun de Lange, right, slugged his way to a three-round split decision win over Johannesburgs Dino Bagattin.

When the gate swings shut and the lights shine bright down on the two fighters in the cage, it comes down to who wants it more.

For Extreme Fighting Championship (EFC) debutant gym, Kenridge-based Supreme Martial Arts, the story reads like a Hollywood script: young fighters training out of their coach’s garage step into the cage to face off against some of the biggest names in mixed martial arts (MMA) in South Africa. It’s a classic underdog tone.

Head coach Jason O’Reilly wouldn’t have it any other way and watching both of his fighters excel in the hexagon at EFC 58, held at GrandWest last week, will be one for the books.

Duane Jones and Shaun de Lange both put on performances that saw them walking away with bonuses at the end of the night with De Lange receiving the coveted Fight of the Night award for his war against former welterweight champion, Johannesburg’s Dino Bagattin.

However, when it comes down to it, the guys at Supreme are some of the most laid-back people you will ever meet.

They train hard but stay humble and stick to their core value of treating their teammates as family. That tight bond is evident throughout.

“About a year ago we officially opened our doors after getting tired of doing things everyone else’s way. We wanted to do our own thing and break away from set styles and conformity and let our students find their own forms and flow. Martial arts is a form of expression, it’s art, and I always say there’s no wrong way to paint.

“I run my gym a lot differently than most others and it comes down to what the students want to learn, not what I want to teach.

“That way we incorporate all different styles of martial arts and aren’t bogged down with affiliation issues. Then, it’s up to the students whether they want to compete or not.

“We are essentially a family of friends who train together and we keep the gym small on purpose. If you want a factory experience, we’re not the right gym for you – we don’t want to develop ‘factory fighters’,” he said.

By day, O’Reilly is an artist and designer, who is getting his design house, Tjilli Designs, off the ground with business partner Francois Strumpfer, then by night he dons his coaching mantle.

Let it be said that whatever they are doing at Supreme, it is working. When thousands of households across the country switched on their televisions for the inaugural showcase of EFC on SABC3, the first fight of the main card they got to see was Shaun de Lange versus Dino Bagattin.

The crowd at GrandWest were out of their seats for the duration of the match and as EFC president Cairo Howarth said in the press conference, if that was what viewers switched their television on to watch, they were well-rewarded with a show for the ages – a stand up battle that went the distance and had De Lange declared victor via judge’s split decision.

“Both my guys did so well at EFC 58 and I am so proud of them. We have worked hard in preparation and the results showed.

“To be honest, there’s not much I need to do when it comes to teaching. The guys know how to throw a punch and a kick but what a fight camp comes down to is helping them with their timing, precision and movement and that is what we worked on, running real-world drills and fight scenarios.

“The rest is in the fighters’ hands. They work as hard as they need to and they know I am not there to baby them or manage what they do.

“I believe that coaches shouldn’t be spoon-feeding their fighters. They know that there is work to be done and it’s up to them to do it. Shaun was out running every other day and doing beach sprint sessions in between, all the while sticking to our training schedules. That’s what it comes down to – self management.

“Most fighters seem to think of this as a game of floating in and out of a fight camp that maybe lasts eight weeks but what I have tried to do is get the guys to adapt their lifestyle so that they’re training every day, not just when they are prepping for a fight.

“Even if they are doing something outside of martial arts – skating, surfing, rock climbing, anything – as long as they are busy. In fact, you want to see Duane in his natural environment, just watch him climb rocks, he is like a spider monkey up there. And that’s why when you switch on the TV and see Shaun throwing hundreds of punches, he can keep going, because we are doing stuff like that every day, training for championship rounds,” he said.

A dazzling debut for the gym means that the opportunities are about to start piling up for their fighters, especially with talks of tackling top contenders and hints of a run at the championship belt but O’Reilly maintains that they will simply take things one day at a time, continue grinding away and also hopes that they will not only be able to reap the rewards but give back to their sport too.

“I definitely feel that we, as a sporting community, have a responsibility to give back and to develop martial arts, not one’s own gym, but the sport itself.

“There is also a social responsibility to think of – if you are doing well because of sport, give that back and plough into the communities that need it.

“I’d also like to see more collaboration between gyms. At the moment everyone is so bent on trying to get their own names out there but we can work together. I like to think of martial arts as being like a bar of soap. The tighter you squeeze to hold on to it, the more likely it is that it will pop out of your hands.

“In the end, I just want to keep on teaching good martial arts and see people growing and having fun while doing it.

“That sort of atmosphere definitely translates into the guys doing well come competition time,” said O’Reilly.