BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA — The gym is big enough to hold 20 people scrambling around on mats, and small enough that fighters are slammed not into a cage, but into a wall shared with the Mexican restaurant next door. Occasionally, the thudding collisions startle people just looking to get their burrito on.
"It would be a god-damn catastrophe if we knocked over their dishwasher," head coach, owner and former Marine Chris Conolley bellows in the direction of heavyweight Kem Oti and middleweight Eryk Anders. " And it's right on the other side of that wall."
The lunch rush, especially on a Saturday afternoon, is just beginning. And seriously, the students at Spartan Fitness MMA in Birmingham, Alabama have knocked over tables before.
Conolley may be breeding fighters, but that doesn't mean they can't be neighborly.
Oti is there, 91 long miles on I-65 from his home in Decautur, Alabama, to prepare for a fight on the undercard of Roy Jones Jr.'s final boxing bout down in Pensacola, Florida, on Feb. 8. But he's not the reason there are so many people in this room going hard and creating lunch-disturbing chaos.
The reason for that is Anders.
You may not have heard of Anders yet. He has just two UFC fights under his belt, both on Fox Sports 1, the cable network that houses the promotions' least-marketable fight cards. But on Saturday, the former starting linebacker for Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide steps into the cage against the legendary Lyoto Machida in Brazil.
After that, with a Hall of Fame notch on his belt, Anders believes he's on the fast track to UFC glory. If he stays active, maybe even a title shot by the end of the year.
Conolley, listening in, is quick to pump the brakes on that kind of talk.
"You're an unranked guy," he reminds his charge. "And you're going into an opponent's home country. You haven't done anything yet."
It's harsh but true, and the type of brutal honesty that keeps Anders—whose pedigree would allow him access to any gym in the world—close to home with the man who taught him how to be a professional.
The marquee prospect in the UFC's 185-pound division isn't hanging out on the beach in South Florida, in coastal California, the mountains of Albuquerque or anywhere else the top stars of the sport congregate.
Instead, he's building a curriculum for the kids classes he teaches at his day job here, consumed in the business of martial arts. He's surrounded, not by groupies and hangers-on leading him toward temptation, but by family, friends and a coach he can trust to tell him what he needs to hear.
"The more popular an athlete gets, the more the people around him just say yes to whatever he wants. Coach is not a yes man," Anders says. "He's the opposite. He tells me his opinion and what he thinks and demands a certain level of excellence.
"He's not going to let you half-ass. He tries to motivate you and make you better. He genuinely cares about everyone here, versus some of these mega gyms where they don't even pay attention to you until you are an upper echelon UFC fighter."
As Anders talks, he falls behind his teammates, who are already on the mats and ready to go.
"Time starts and stops at your convenience Anders?" Conolley asks with a wink in his eye. "I guess we'll all just wait for you."
The two men move off to prepare for Machida, ready to shake up the MMA world—so long as they don't rock the precariously positioned margaritas at the restaurant next door.
No one might have ever heard of Eryk Anders if not for the fateful penultimate evening of 2007 in Shreveport, Louisiana. Anders' Crimson Tide had just squeaked by Colorado in the Independence Bowl, and the sophomore linebacker hadn't played at all.
Over a night of cards and beers in a local casino, Anders and his dad, Gayle, broke down his future. Anders, recruited by Alabama's previous coach, Mike Shula, didn't see much hope under Saban, the harsh new Tide leader.
His father, the voice of reason, encouraged him to stay the course.
"I didn't see myself playing," Anders remembers. "Saban was bringing in his recruits, and I was just like, 'Man, it's over with.' It wasn't turning out to be what I'd thought it would be. But my dad said, 'Stay in school. Worst case scenario, you get your degree. You'll be alright.'"
It was the last time the two men would ever talk. That night, Anders awoke to screams. His mother had found his dad dead in bed, the victim of an apparent heart attack.
"He wasn't in the best health," Anders says. "He was overweight, he smoked cigarettes and he had diabetes. And he was a little older. He was 65 years old. So, it was kind of a circle of life. But he'd never steered me wrong before, so I decide to do what he said and stay in school—got my degree in health studies, and I think those last few years were pretty successful.
"I decided to stay, and that very next year, I started to come in on passing situations, to rush the passer. I found a knack for that, and by my senior year, I was the starter."
His career with the Crimson Tide culminated in storybook fashion. The player who almost walked away for good instead led the team in tackles in the BCS Championship against Texas. With his team clinging to a one-score lead, Anders demolished the Longhorns quarterback Garrett Gilbert, forcing a fumble that led to the touchdown that secured the game.
"All the seniors were on the field together after the game," Anders says. "And we all just kind of looked at each other like 'Is this it? It's over?'"
Tryouts with the Cleveland Browns and Canadian Football League followed, but neither amounted to much. Anders even played one season in the Arena Football League with Colorado "to get football out of my system."
He was supporting his young son and working as a janitor for LabCorp with aspirations of getting a government job. He wanted to procure parts for Apache helicopters at the Redstone Arsenal in nearby Huntsville. His mom had made a life in the Air Force and he saw a similar future for himself.
That's when his next great passion beat its way into his heart.
Anders met UFC heavyweight Walt Harris at the gym back in 2011 and was intrigued by his offer to stop by and see what mixed martial arts was all about. He fancied himself a tough guy and was looking for a way to burn off steam after working what felt like endless nine-hour shifts.
"The first day I walked into the gym, the coach there was like, 'Hey, can you fight?' Within an hour of walking in, I was sparring. I grew up fighting, so I thought I could," Anders says with a knowing shake of his head. "Right up until I got in the ring with someone who really knew how to fight.
"I didn't even have a mouth piece. I tried. I gave what I had, which wasn't much. They weren't malicious, but I spent the better part of the day in the corner just trying not to get my teeth knocked out. I got choked out and submitted. But I fell in love with it right there. I knew I had zero skill set and had to start from day one. I really embraced the challenge. What I love about the martial arts is that there is no end to it. Things are constantly evolving."
Still, Anders was wary of getting in too deep. He kept his day job at Redstone and moved back to Birmingham to work as a customer service representative at AutoTec.
"Just sitting at a desk was hard," he says. "I had already found this passion and had been training for two years. That's when I started having these thoughts like, 'Is this really it for my life?' I've never been so tired as I was when I sat at a desk all day. Sitting there doing nothing and I was exhausted."
Everything changed after meeting his soon-to-be wife, Yasmin, after an amateur fight on the local scene. His alcohol consumption, he admits with a grin, was up, his defenses down. The two started chatting. They've never stopped.
"Pretty much since the day I met her, we've been together," he says. "She has a head on her shoulders. She speaks five languages. She's from Brazil. She was in school to get her master's [degree]. She was already a lawyer in Brazil. She had her ducks in her row."
After his second pro fight, she laid out a challenge for him: Why not, she asked, give fighting a real try? AutoTec, after all, would be there if he tried and failed. But his athletic prime only offered a short window to give a pro career an honest shot.
"She was the foot on my back I needed to really do this," Anders says. "I wasn't sure. It's risky. In this sport, it's sink or swim. And I had a child. It's not like I could just live under a bridge or sleep in my car. But she saw how dedicated I was to mastering my craft. I'd wake up at 4 a.m. so I could work out twice before I even started my regular day. She saw how bad I wanted it and told me, 'Look, you can go back to a job anytime. But you can only do this now. Give it a go for two years.'"
The next piece in the puzzle was the right coach. Conolley, a black belt in the same Straight Blast Gym system that has bred world champions like Randy Couture and Conor McGregor, was the only man in Alabama who had the experience to take a neophyte to the big time.
The only problem: He wasn't sure he was interested.
"I hate fighters," he admits. "I don't take fighters. A fighter only trains when he's got a fight coming up. He's only concerned with himself. Fighters quit. I train martial artists. Martial artists never quit. I needed to know if Eryk was a martial artist or a fighter."
The tell came when he saw Anders compete against one of his students in a jiu-jitsu tournament. Many gifted athletes don't enjoy jiu-jitsu in a gi, Conolley says, because their strength and quickness can be easily negated. But, Anders, he noticed, wasn't just trying to muscle his way into positions. He was doing honest-to-goodness jiu-jitsu.
He wasn't doing it especially well. But he moved like a martial artist. Conolley was impressed, and the two have been a team ever since.
"When he came to me, he was just this raw talent," Conolley says. "There were serious concerns, especially with his footwork. It was sloppy. His fundamentals were sloppy. He just wasn't a good striker."
But Anders had natural ability and a willingness to work. The second part was key, because Anders was far behind the fighters he wanted to eventually compete with. And his physical tools, Conolley says, were never going to be enough to overcome a skill deficit.
"Man, I'm telling you, I've had a lot better athletes come into my gym," he says. "From University of Alabama. From off the street. From everywhere. Some of them, football took its toll on them and they had too many injuries. Some of them liked the idea of it but weren't really about this life, the grind of it. It's not for everybody."
Anders, he says, couldn't get by in football on his athleticism alone. MMA would prove a harsh business if he counted on physical tools to help him solve problems in the cage. First he needed to get good enough just to learn what Conolley had to share. That involved starting from scratch and building fighting fundamentals he'd never picked up. It was a humbling task Anders undertook with good spirits.
"He had to come in here and really work hard to develop his jiu-jitsu, develop his striking, develop his footwork, just to survive," Conolley says. "Nothing bothers him. Nothing really flusters him. He processes information quickly. He learns and is extremely coachable. And he's one of the only guys I've ever worked with who does everything you're supposed to do. Every single, solitary thing I tell him to do, he does. That comes from football."
"The most important thing football taught me was how to be coachable," he says. "Learning how to be coached is a big thing. Instead of just thinking that I know it all. Being at Alabama, I learned how to study film and breakdown my opponent, learned how to be coachable.
"It's been a big help in my career. Because I go other places to train, and I kind of see the athlete being stubborn and not really listening to what the coach is saying. Then when it comes fight time, he goes out and loses because he didn't do what the coaches said or stick to the game plan."
Anders had under a month's notice last year to prepare for his first UFC bout against tough veteran Rafael Natal. It was the second short-notice fight UFC had offered in the days since he'd won the regional LFA title. With a banged-up hand to worry about, he'd said no the first time.
He wasn't sure he could say no twice.
"They'd offered us a different fight the week before that," Conolley says. "Eryk, he wants to take anything that's offered. He wants to get going. But it was an undercard fight. It wasn't worth the risk. Four days later, they offered Natal. OK, I like that. With the way Eryk plays and the way Natal plays, it was going to be bad for Natal. We deciphered his game. When they offered us that fight, it was worth the risk. It's on the main card. It was a week later. That one made sense."
Anders decimated Natal in the first round, then beat Markus Perez to close out 2017, bringing his record to 10-0.
Machida, though he's lost four of his last five, is a different than Perez and Natal. The former light heavyweight champion has beaten the likes of Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, Mauricio Rua, Tito Ortiz and Rashad Evans, champions all.
At 39, he's still dangerous, both in retreat, where he's an expert at turning defense into offense in the blink of an eye, and when charging forward with blistering speed. But his three consecutive losses, all finishes, give Team Anders confidence.
It's taken some time to get here, to a place where the legends of the sport aren't idols to hold up as examples, but rather targets for conquest. Along the way, Anders has had to reinvent his body for the challenges he would face. In every interview he does, it's assumed his conditioning comes from a life on the gridiron. In truth, football had created an athlete entirely unsuited for the challenges of MMA.
"The conditioning pyramid was upside down," Conolley says. "He had to learn to go at an intense pace for longer than 10 seconds, which is the longest you'll see a football play last. It's a huge change but a transition he's made really well, thanks to the speed of his recovery.
"According to the UFC Performance Institute, he floats from the striking energy system to the grappling energy system better than anyone. He is the most in-shape athlete, for MMA, on their roster. He's not going to be the best endurance athlete. He's never going to be the best sprinter. But he is the best at going from grappling to striking with ease and recovering."
Anders never looks tired, even as the workout reaches an end and everyone else shows signs of being human. His teammates take turns doing their best Machida impressions, with lightweight Matt Elkins proving most effective. They switch out every five minutes. Anders, the willing victim, works seven straight rounds. In the minute between, Conolley offers advice and demonstrates techniques, like an "unstoppable" uppercut from the clinch and a no-look cross that the left-handed Anders masters quickly.
"That would have hit, if your god-damn left foot had been on the mat," Conolley yells at one point. "You were up like a ballerina when you threw that s--t."
They work hard, but this isn't the kind of sparring that you'd see in traditional MMA gyms, especially in the bad old days. There is never a sense that anyone wants to hurt the man across from him. This is about learning, not proving how tough you are.
"We train very intelligently here," Anders says. "In football, every play, every game, you're getting rattled. If you play on the line or as a linebacker, you're getting smacked every play. In here, we only spar once a week, and we're not in here trying to kill each other. For longevity, if you can train at a place where they actually care about you, you can do MMA for a very long time. Whereas in the NFL, at 30, I'd be considered old."
Forty-five minutes later, the team gathers around Conolley for a military-style after-action review. Anders, soon to be on his way to Brazil, offers his home to Oti so he can minimize his commute in the final week of his training. Only one rule is in place.
"No girls," Anders says.
The moment is typical of Anders, who Conolley says works hard to make sure all his teammates are included, mentioning them often in television interviews and making sure he's just one among many.
"All the guys are super stoked for him," Conolley says. "There is no jealousy. They want to see him succeed. The guy fought a five-round war with Brendan Allen on a [Friday night] last year. We flew home on Sunday. On Monday, he was here for practice because we had three guys getting ready for fights. And he knew he needed to be here as a body for them. And he came in here to help them."
As Anders leaves to change, his coach is more willing to share praise instead of critique. At first, he feared, Anders was moving forward in his career too quickly. But every day, he sees things that tell him Anders has the potential to be special.
"He's constantly developing," Conolley says. "That's the frightening thing. He's just two fights in with the UFC, and he's headlining an event. And he hasn't even begun. He has so much more to do. There's a lot more weapons we can add to his arsenal, and he's getting better every time out. Perfecting the use of a weapon and just firing that bitch are two different things.
"He's just now perfecting some of his weapons. He's processing information and able to make reads. He's making feints and setting traps. There's levels to this s--t. And he's moving to that next level."
Anders knows all about levels. In college football, he competed at the highest one. Likewise, he knows if he wants to reach the pinnacle of MMA, every bout going forward will be a big fight against a big name.
"Some guys, you see their heart beating in their chest. Looking at their body language and their demeanor, you see the uncertainty," Anders says. "I don't really feel pressure. I'm fixin' to go down and play an away game in Brazil, which I'd equate to going to Death Valley at LSU. A lot of people fold in those situations. But it kind of helps me focus a little bit more. I thrive under that pressure. That's proven. And I'm happy to prove it again to Machida and to Brazil."
Jonathan Snowden covers Combat Sports for Bleacher Report.