TEMPE, Ariz. -- The rise to power of Arizona Combat Sports as one of the top mixed martial arts gyms in the country was slow and steady. This was no overnight emergence.
ACS was started by two twin brothers who had no plans to run a martial arts school as their full-time profession. Todd and Trevor Lally just wanted a place to train after they relocated from Washington’s rain-drenched climate to Arizona’s barren desert.
Like many teenagers, the Lally brothers sought outlets through which to release their testosterone-fueled aggression. After team sports like rugby left them unfulfilled, they turned to martial arts. In 1991, after checking out several schools advertising “the fast track to becoming a certified black belt or your money back,” the brothers took a trip to the American Martial Arts Center, a local gym in Kirkland, Wash. Unbeknownst to the Lally brothers, they had stepped into what would later become AMC Kickboxing & Pankration, one of the sport’s top academies, now run by Matt Hume. Josh Barnett, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai and Rich Franklin have all called it home at one time or another.
“I was 17 years old, and I walked in the door and I saw Maurice Smith sparring someone, U.S. muay Thai champion Curtis Schuster [and] boxer Kim Messer,” Trevor said. “Legendary muay Thai instructor Haru Shimanishi came up to us and said to me and my brother, ‘You guys have the body of a Porsche, but you don’t know how to drive it. I will show you how to drive that car.’ As an angry 17-year-old kid, that’s what I wanted to hear.”
The Birth of ACS
Mainly testing themselves in kickboxing and Pankration tournaments prior to their involvement in MMA, the Lally brothers received their big break when they were asked to live and train at the Super Tiger gym in Japan while they competed inside the Shooto organization.
Following their stint overseas, the twins returned home to Washington. They would soon separate for one of the few times in their lives when Todd took an offer to train at John Lewis’ martial arts school in Las Vegas. Trevor remained in the Seattle suburbs until he was offered the chance to leave the comforts of home in favor of Arizona.
“I came down here with Danny Bennett, a muay Thai world champion, and looked in on a couple of the gyms down here and realized they didn’t know what they were doing,” Trevor said. “I was fresh off [the] Abu Dhabi [Submission Wrestling World Championships], and Danny was fresh off his Super Brawl win over Jay R. Palmer and a lot of gyms didn’t want us there. We would offer to teach class for free if they would let us work out there, and all the gyms said no.”
The solution was simple. Trevor, by then a 10-year veteran of martial arts, decided if he could not train anywhere, he would create his own opportunities.
“So we started our own gym,” Trevor said. “Todd came up with the name Arizona Combat Sports, and we buried it in downtown Tempe off by the train tracks. It was a 1,500-square-foot shack. After a year and half, it became 2,500 square feet, but Danny had to go back home to be with his family.”
Once they added Gustavo Dantas, an Andre Pederneiras black belt, as the school’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, the core team that would carry ACS was in place.
‘We Beat the Punk Out of You’
The professional fight team started out small, with Ray and Steve Steinbeiss forming the foundation. In 2006, Arizona Combat Sports received its first taste of national attention when then 21-year-old Jesse Forbes was chosen for Season 3 of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series. Two months later, another ACS mainstay, Jamie Varner, accepted the call and made his UFC debut against Hermes Franca.
The Lally brothers love to hang their hats on the fact that homegrown talent litters the ACS roster. Young up-and-coming fighters like Jacob McClintock and Ultimate Warrior Challenge flyweight champion Pat Runez are on track to become the next ACS athletes to make splashes on the big stage.
Arizona Combat Sports has also quickly gained a reputation of turning collegiate wrestlers into balanced mixed martial artists. Located within in a stone’s throw of the Arizona State University main campus, the opportunity to cross pollinate with a Pac-10 power has become one of the gym’s hallmarks. All-American wrestlers Ryan Bader, CB Dollaway and Aaron Simpson have all honed their MMA skills inside ACS.
“Jesse Forbes would go in there to help them wrestle, and they liked what he had,” Trevor said. “They came over here to check us out, and it’s been money ever since. Honestly, I credit Jesse Forbes with all the ASU guys.”