In the next of my ever-expanding interview series, I'd now like to introduce you to Aaron Stephens, of Stephens Vale Tudo (SVT). Aaron is the coach/trainer/manager for Jason Stanley, a fighter I interview a while back. You can find that interview here. You can find SVT on the web here and on Myspace here.
Check after the jump for the full interview. Stephens has been on the MMA scene for a while now, and he's got a lot of great things to say.
PV: First, can you give us a quick introduction and some background on yourself?
Stephens: Hmmm, I’m originally from Flatwoods/Russell, KY, (which is where we have our school now). I started training (BJJ, JKD, Kickboxing, etc.) in early 1993 in Oklahoma City, when I was in the Air Force. My first instructor was Rafael Lovato, Senior. Coincidentally, Lovato Junior is now the second American after BJ Penn to win Black Belt Mundials (Worlds). Junior was around 10 when I started, lol. Now he’s a BJJ STUD! Anyway, I trained there for a couple/few years.
Also, during this time, I went to Carlos Machado’s in Dallas, Texas, sporadically. After that, I trained at USA Stars in Norman, Oklahoma. My main instructor there was Tony Equigua but I was most definitely influenced by the MASSIVE Judo presence there (Pat Burris is basically a Judo legend). I also got to work some with Ron Tripp (Sambo Champion who’s supposedly the only person to beat Rickson Gracie in competition - a Sambo Competition). While I was there, I also spent some time with Frank Trigg and Evan Tanner who trained there off and on.
I trained at USA Stars up until 1998 when my enlistment ended. Of course, I have to thank some of my most dedicated BJJ Instructors (virtually, via VHS) – Pedro Carvalho, Mario Sperry, Carlson Gracie, Jr. are a few who come to mind. Man, those guys spent a lot of 1 on 1 time with me to help me get knowledge. MANY THANKS to them! ;-)
PV: Tell us how Stephens Vale Tudo came about.
Stephens: Wellll, when I came back to this area in 1998, I had been training in BJJ, Judo, Sambo, Kickboxing, etc. for around 5 years and was a pretty decent fighter, competitor, and instructor. I was absolutely hooked on BJJ. I loved training and rolling every day. BUT, when I came back here, there was NOBODY doing BJJ.
I searched around for a while and found a group about 30 minutes away (Huntington, WV – Ground Zero / Ashley Lockwood, Head Instructor and all around GREAT guy). They were pretty much on about the same level as me so, I trained with them occasionally, when time would allow. Somewhere during this time, I was found, through the internet, by Joe Hall (now an Editor for Sherdog.com). He was a freshman at the University of Kentucky, but was originally from my area. Soooo, I began training him (when he came home) and some more of their friends from the High School that he went to. From there, word of mouth spread and before I knew it, I was teaching classes to 5 to 10 people a few nights a week in my garage at my house. Stephens Vale Tudo was born…
PV: Why Vale Tudo? Why not Stephens MMA or Stephens Combat Sports? What made you choose to have a vale tudo based approach to your training?
Stephens: O.K. Back when we were doing this in my garage, “MMA” was not the household name that it is rapidly becoming. I almost went with Stephens Submission Fighting but, I’m going to be completely honest here, I felt some loyalty to the BJJ I had incorporated soooo much of into our system. BUT, since I didn’t have “set” training with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Instructors (my main instructors were white belts, so what belt was I gonna get?).
If you hadn’t been training in a Gracie garage, you probably didn’t have a belt. So, since I didn’t have a BJJ Belt, I didn’t feel that I could claim to be a BJJ Instructor. So, wanting to pay homage to my Brazilian training but not wanting to claim BJJ without a belt I went with Stephens Vale Tudo. Since we did no gi, stand-up, and everything, I liked the ring to it. I guess that’s pretty much it.
PV: What kind of classes/training do you offer? Who teaches the various classes?
Stephens: Currently, I teach all of the “Martial Art” classes (BJJ, MMA, Kids, etc.) – My son, A.J. (13) helps me teach the “younger” kids BJJ Classes. My girlfriend, Spring, teaches some awesome Cardio Kickboxing and Toning Classes. She also does a lot of personal training work.
PV: What is your day-to-day role at SVT?
Stephens: Daily, we open up, and I’m there most of the day. I have day and evening classes, etc. We’re pretty much there all day (9 to 9), 5 days a week. We both also have classes on Saturday.
PV: When you opened SVT, was training competitive fighters one of your goals?
Stephens: When I started SVT, almost 10 years ago, just being able to continue to roll was one of my only goals.
PV: Since you opened SVT, how have you seen the fight scene in KY change?
Stephens: That’s easy, there wasn’t one…
PV: Can anybody off the street walk in and train for fun, or do you focus more on competition-based training?
Stephens: We have classes SPECIFICALLY designed so that ANYONE (regardless of fitness level, experience, etc., can come in. I also have kids BJJ Classes ranging from 5 yrs to 15 yrs).
PV: How many staff members do you employ?
Stephens: There are currently 2 of us.
PV: How many fighters (pro/am/otherwise) do you train/coach?
Stephens: Probably only 3 or 4 guys. I’m very picky about when someone is “READY”, even for their first fight. Lots of guys are willing to jump in the cage, but very few are ready to do the WORK it takes to WIN.
PV: Do you have other roles with the fighters (i.e. manager/agent)?
Stephens: Yes, all of the above. We are like a family.
PV: Have you ever had to work on finding sponsors for your gym and/or fighters? If so, has it been hard to find sponsors?
Stephens: We’ve not really pursued the sponsor thing very heavily, but I do have some deals in the works as we speak.
PV: What is the public perception of your gym on a local level? Do you feel it’s well received and has a lot of community support, or is it more a situation where the community thinks you’re just a bunch of brawlers?
Stephens: Between Spring and I, we do a lot of good things for people in the community. Actually, we’re still largely unknown. But, with us doing personal training and her doing Cardio Kickboxing and Toning classes, we’re WAAAAAYYYY more than a BJJ/MMA school.
What kind of things do you do to promote your gym and fighters?
Stephens: Right now, nothing. I don’t want them known yet. ;-)
PV: Are there any other gyms that offer what you do in the area? If so, do you find that you’re competing with them for students, or do all of the gyms seems to find an equal amount of success?
Stephens: Our nearest neighbor is 20 plus miles away and we really don’t compete for students. Completely different markets. We have a good, respectful relationship and that helps.
PV: How many of your fighters are able to train on a full-time basis?
Stephens: One (Jason Stanley) is currently it and we’ll see what happens.
PV: What’s an average day of training like for one of your fighters?
Stephens: When Jason’s in “full swing” he’s got an average of 2 or 3 “sessions” per day varying from weights, technique (ground and standup), running, core work, etc.
PV: What are some of the promotions/competitions your fighters have competed in (MMA or otherwise)?
Stephens: Kentucky Fighting Challenge, North American Grappling Association, Smokey Mountain Grappling Open, Tennessee State BJJ Championships, Extreme Grappling Open (EGO), Sinister Grappling Championships, Tri-State MMA, even Danger Zone back in the day (Dan Severn and Becky Levi’s old promotion in Indiana).
PV: What events do you have coming up?
Stephens: In BJJ, we have the Helio Soneca (my BJJ instructor) Tournament in Louisville on December 7th and we will be competing at the Arnolds (NAGA) in March of next year.
PV: Do you also corner your fighters? If so, how much importance do you place on the coach in the fighter’s corner?
Stephens: I definitely try to corner my fighters when they fight. I believe that it’s HUGE. The coaches voice serves many purposes, ranging from specific things to do and work to just being a voice of comfort for a fighter in a bad spot.
PV: What do you like most about running SVT?
Stephens: ALL OF IT.
PV: What do you like least?
Stephens: NONE OF IT.
PV: What’s one thing you’ve had to deal with you wouldn’t have imagined when you started SVT?
Stephens: Five year olds!!! LOL. You gotta love ‘em.
PV: What kind of financial issues do you face that the general public might not know about?
Stephens: LOL, ALL OF THEM!!!
PV: Do you like to follow MMA in your personal life (i.e. watching UFC events)?
Stephens: Not a huge MMA Fan actually. I went to UFCs and met fighters many years ago. Lots of awesome stories. Imagine sitting in a Hotel bar where the only people in there are you, your buddy, and Randy Couture and his brother. I didn’t even approach them. I had a picture with Chuck and Tito on each side of me in a Hooters in Rome, Georgia. Coincidentally, the other guys (unknown at the time) setting at the table with Chuck and Tito turned out to be….. THE TAPOUT CREW.
A picture with me having Kevin Randleman in a headlock (his idea). Watching a UFC when there were only 1500 people in the place. Sitting on the edge of the mat (hotel conference room) watching Pat Miletich cut 12 pounds for a fight (rolling and “cooking” in his suit) not realizing that several of the guys hanging around in the room were future STARS (Matt Hughes for one).
If you watch Mark Coleman’s pre-fight reel for the First Pride Grand Prix (where he’s doing takedowns on Brandon Lee Hinkle) you’ll see some of my students and I sitting along the wall – we were training with them when the Japanese guys came in to film his pre-fight video.
ANYWAY, THAT WAS FUN. THOSE WERE THE DAYS… Those days are gone. It’s just not the same today. I paid $230 per ticket to set in nosebleed seats in Columbus, OH. I watched the fight on the big screen. To me, the golden era has passed. ;-)
PV: Is there a particular fight team or camp that you admire?
Stephens: Miletich, Jackson, Sityodong, Rickson Gracie (a truly AMAZING SPIRIT), Renzo Gracie (himself and his team). That’s it for now, although I’m sure I’m missing some.
PV: Do you have a training background in combat sports? If so, what?
Stephens: Dating back to 1993, when I started, I’ve trained in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Judo, Combat Jujitsu, Sambo, Shootfighting, JKD, and Muay Thai. My first love and still #1 is BJJ.
PV: Are there any particular hobbies you enjoy in your down time?
Stephens: I enjoy reading and collecting books. I’m a computer geek so I play computer games with my sons when I can. Used to like to shoot hoops but I’m too busy teaching classes these days. I try to spend time with my family and the love of my life (Spring) and after that, there’s just not much else that fits.
PV: Thank you for taking the time to do this, Aaron – is there anyone you’d like to give a shout out to?
Stephens: First and foremost, to my family and loved ones. They are #1, hands down. Secondly to my SVT Family. To our friends and students, for choosing to share their lives and goals with us and for giving us the opportunity to serve them and help them achieve. Thanks to you PreView, for the opportunity to reflect on some of my fun times back in the day. It’s been a while. LOL.
So there you have it. Stephens has some great stories - I particularly liked hearing what he had to say about being a UFC fan before it was cool.
Stay on the lookout for updates on Stephens, SVT and Jason Stanley - they've got a lot to offer in the MMA world.