PRO MMA Gym Spotlight: Guardian MMA Pt. 1

One of PRO MMA’s missions is to take the reader behind the scenes to get a better look at what has made MMA into the fastest growing sport in the world. Fans often get just a glimpse behind the scenes of an MMA fight with shows like the UFC Countdown series, The Ultimate Fighter series, and the Tapout reality shows.  

We read or hear about the training camps and gym affiliations that guys are associated with, and learn that there are many people involved in preparing these athletes to do battle.  An MMA fighter relies on coaches, trainers, managers, agents, training partners, and promoters but the base of operations is a home gym.  

Many guys cross train at multiple gyms, but their home gym is often where it all started.  Whether it is a tiny MMA gym in a small town in Anywhere USA, or a large franchise of gyms like Xtreme Couture, the gym is like a second home to many fighters both amateur and professional.

PRO MMA ( will be showcasing gyms across the nation and introducing you to the people that are responsible for bringing MMA to a town near you. In this first part of a two-part feature, we will be looking at Guardian MMA located in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Guardian MMA recently saw one of their own, Shane Primm, make it to the house to compete for the title on The Ultimate Fighter season 8.  

In Part 1, we will talk with Cliff Fonseca, who along with his partner Doug Frazier, founded Guardian MMA.  Cliff is a black belt under Master Lloyd Irvin and is the head BJJ instructor at Guardian:

PRO MMA:  How did Guardian come to be what it is today and how did it all get started?

Cliff Fonseca:  It started with 2 guys that had a passion for real martial arts training.  We just grew from there.  I started training at Nashville MMA under 6th degree black belt Luiz Palhares along with Ed Clay and Shawn Hammonds.  I would teach what I learned immediately week to week.  It was always very difficult in the beginning to sign someone up standing there in a white belt.  LOL!  One guy even asked me, “Is white belt the highest level in Jiu Jitsu?”  Seven years, many tournaments, and countless hours in the gym later, we are now up to 300 members.

PRO MMA:  What are your goals for the gym moving forward?  I know that membership has grown and people really enjoy training there, even when they come from other gyms while in the area.  How important is that community feel for the fast growing mixed martial arts community?

Cliff Fonseca:  Our vision has always been to have a place that attracts the highest level athletes.  At the same time, we want to have a family atmosphere also.  We want everyone to feel at home when they come to Guardian MMA.  We hold ourselves to the highest of standards.  Our students are looking to better themselves both mentally and physically.  They look for us for guidance and support in reaching their goals. Those things are not possible without a sense of unity and belonging for all members.

PRO MMA:  We touched on your start with Jiu Jitsu in an earlier question, but how did you get started in martial arts prior to your jiu jitsu beginnings?

Cliff Fonseca:  I was always fascinated by martial arts growing up.  I loved the movies the most, and always wanted to be like Bruce Lee and Van Damme.  Now of course I realize that it’s all bullshit as far as the way it’s portrayed in movies.  I saw the UFC and watched Royce Gracie in awe.  I knew immediately that is what I wanted and needed to know.  I think that the story is typical!  LOL!  I started BJJ for self defense.  Never playing sports, I never knew how competitive I would be.  Needless to say, I was sucked into competition.  

PRO MMA:  What are some of your accomplishments in the sport?

Cliff Fonseca:  I’ve won the Pan Ams as a brown belt, and also won World, National, and Regional events in both Gi and No Gi competitions.  Jiu Jitsu has taught me more about myself than any other one thing in my life… except for my ex wife!  LOL!  It has taught me that all of life is a fight.  Not in a negative way, but that all of life is a challenge.  Life doesn’t tell you when it’s going to put it on you.  So if you let yourself go physically and mentally, then you won’t be ready.  That when life, like your opponent, is going to put a real ass kicking fiesta on you. 

PRO MMA:  You have been very successful in your career and life in martial arts.  What are some of your personal favorite accomplishments?

Cliff Fonseca:  Well, going back to the previous question, I would have to say the Pan Ams is a personal favorite accomplishment.  But a memory that stands out is a tournament I participated in as a blue belt.  I had won the GI and absolute blue belt divisions on Saturday.  It was Sunday and I had just swept my division in No Gi and was winning my last match in the open division.  I had Mata Leao sunk when in my haste, I crossed my feet.  The guy ankle locked me hard. It felt like the bones in my leg were bending and I was in agony… so I tapped.  Then he jumped up and kissed me! LOL!  Moral of the story:  Don’t cross your feet while on the back.  I’ll never forget that lesson.  It is also an honor to train with law enforcement and military personnel everyday.

PRO MMA: We spoke to Ed Clay not long ago and he mentioned you as friends and training partners, what is the relationship between the gyms?

Cliff Fonseca:  I started training with Ed when he first opened his school Nashville MMA.  He is a talented grappler and trainer.  Some of my “A” game tricks, I learned from him.  People like to talk and rumors go around that the two schools don’t get along.  Nothing is further from the truth.  The truth is that’s what our hater fan club would prefer.  LOL!  I’ve also trained with his BJJ instructor Shawn Hammonds since I started and we are really good friends.

PRO MMA:  Guardian MMA has great coaches including yourself, and you even have Jonathon Reid as the boxing coach who had an appearance on “The Contender”.  How important is it to you  that the coaches are world class and have actual experience in competitions?

Cliff Fonseca:  I think it’s more important to the students who compete.  I believe all of our students are proud of their instructors and what they have accomplished.  To the students who compete, it’s the experience that they look for.  They ask questions like, “What can I expect when I go out there”, and “Do you get nervous coach?”  For strategy, nothing can replace the value of experience.

PRO MMA:  The gym really has a family type atmosphere and the students really work to help each other achieve their goals regardless of what level they may or may not be at.  How do you  feel about the atmosphere at Guardian?

Cliff Fonseca:  We are very happy with the environment we have created.  We support all of our students and they support us and each other.  It is crucial that we work, train, and play as a team.

PRO MMA:  I’m sure you talk to guys off the street everyday interested in taking a trial class, or wanting to be an “Ultimate Fighter”.  What do you think it takes to be a fighter or a competitor, whether it be in MMA, Muay Thai, Boxing, or BJJ?

Cliff Fonseca:  It takes more than the willingness to step into a cage or ring for a few minutes.  It takes years of training and a willingness to make it your lifestyle.  It takes hard work, dedication, and sacrifice… a LOT of sacrifice.

PRO MMA:  How do you handle a student that is progressing nicely and feels they are ready for an MMA, boxing, Muay Thai fight or a BJJ competition?

Cliff Fonseca:  If they are consistent with their training and express a desire to compete, then we will take the necessary steps to get them prepared for their event.

PRO MMA:  What is the process of readying a fighter to be prepared for their first fight, and how do you gauge their progress when starting an amateur type career for them?

Cliff Fonseca:  In the beginning it’s about fundamentals and a willingness to work hard with no excuses.  It has to be a priority in your life.

PRO MMA: We all celebrated the news that one of Guardian’s own, Shane Primm would be on the Ultimate fighter.  He trains out of Gracie Tampa also which has produced 4 fighters to make the show.  This is Guardian’s first to make it to this level.  How do you feel Shane will do following his experience of being on the show?

Cliff Fonseca:  We feel confidant that Shane will do very well.  We are proud of him and his progress as a fighter.  We look forward to watching him grow in his career.

PRO MMA:  Are there any other prospects or fighters to watch coming out of the gym?  If so, tell us a little about what they bring to the game, and when we can hope to catch a glimpse of the next Guardian product?

Cliff Fonseca:  We have a guy named Chad Koller who is very talented on the mats.  He has a lot of heart and a great work ethic.  We look forward to seeing him do his thing very soon…

PRO MMA:  Thanks for spending time with Pro MMA.  Are there any shout outs you guys would like to make, or anything you would like to add to the interview?

Cliff Fonseca:  Of course to everyone who has made GMMA what it is today.  Master Lloyd Irvin, Ed Clay, Shawn Hammonds and the myriad of training partners and followers of Guardian MMA!

Join us soon for Part II of the interview.  We will be talking to Doug Frazier, the other half of Guardian MMA.

By Denny “The Mad One” Hodge

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