The man who turned the Welsh Valleys into the fighting capital of Europe

-Credit: (Image: Rob Browne)
-Credit: (Image: Rob Browne)

The first thing you notice is the smell. A sort of stuffy wall of sweat, bound together with testosterone and the unique leathery aroma of freshly cleaned gym equipment.

This pungent cocktail of scents plumes up from the cage in the middle of the ground floor, which vibrates with the clattering of pads and barked undecipherable instructions. At the top of the stairs, an enormous wall plastered with plaques, posters, and other miscellaneous mementos of glory - a display that acts as a de facto trophy cabinet. A seemingly deliberate and overarching reminder that this is a place where greatness is forged.

There's little shortage of material. Some of the country's most prosperous fighting talents have launched their careers from this gym, which sits on an otherwise unassuming industrial estate, nestled inside the green valleys around Abertillery. Brett Johns, Jack Marshman and Oban Elliot are some of the famous names to have graced this hallowed ground.

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It takes a whole team to deliver any sort of success on this scale, of course. But one man is nevertheless at the heart of it all.

"I like to think of it as being like an elite football academy," says coach Richard Shore, who takes me upstairs to his office, the nerve centre of Shore MMA gym and, as it turns out, the sight of many a dressing down.

"That's the naughty chair," he smiles pointing at my seat. "I've had some of the toughest men in the country sat there in tears," he laughs.

It quickly becomes apparent that tough love isn't exactly in short supply here.

"They know it's coming from the right place," Richard says. "They know I'm not saying things to be difficult, or to be awkward, or to make them feel bad about themselves. It's to improve them as people.

"I've watched a lot of these lads develop from boys to men. As a coach and coaching team we try to improve them as men, women and human beings. I say it all the time, I don't want a world champion if they're an idiot and don't carry themselves well outside of the gym. All these things factor into having a complete fighter.

"It's about bringing the best out of people. It's about being strong enough. A lot of fighters have too many yes men around them. One thing we don't have here is yes men. I bring them in here sometimes and read them the riot act if I feel their attitude's not right. Or their work rate in training's not enough.

"It's a difficult task. Knowing when to put the arm around the shoulder, and when to shout them down and alpha male them occasionally. But I think we've got the balance right and know all their personalities well. You've got to be training a fair while before you become an integral part of the MMA team. You don't just walk in become part of that team. I have a good relationship and understanding of their personalities and characters, as well as their abilities."

Even son Jack, who rattles the office door midway through our chat, doesn't get much in the way of preferential treatment.

Josh Reed (left) is one of Richard Shore's many success stories -Credit:Rob Browne
Josh Reed (left) is one of Richard Shore's many success stories -Credit:Rob Browne

"I'm probably a bit harder on him than I am everyone else, just so no one can say I have favourites! Me and him have a really healthy relationship.

"The minute we're out of the gym it's family time, but it's a lot more stressful coaching Jack. I've coached thousands of high level fights, and nothing comes close to how stressed I am when it's Jack, because it's not a natural thing to watch your son go and have a fist fight. Every sinew in you as a father is to protect your child. But the minute he's in there and they shut that door, you realise he's on his own. It's taken a few years of my life that's for sure."

Shore Junior has just arrived back from his latest UFC bout in Brazil, and is currently one of the shining lights of Welsh MMA. At the time of this chat, however, it's all about Josh Reed, who's preparing to take his first step into PFL, the new kid on the block in the British MMA scene, with a big fight night against Ibragim Ibragimov lined up.

Richard nicknamed Reed 'Crazy Horse' as a nod to the 32-year-old's loose fighting style. "it's because he didn't use to listen!" Shore jokes.

"There have been a few times when he's had to take me aside and be like 'Listen here now'," Reed admits. "I do listen nine times out of ten, but there are occasions when I go my own way. I think that's a being there in moment thing. You're having to think in seconds."

But while they may have exchanged a few strong words over the years, the respect for Richard is palpable.

"I like the way he runs the gym," Reed says. "He frames himself as the boss and everything goes through him. He's almost like a dad to all of us.

"His coaching is second to none, but I've got so much respect for him as well. We've had such a tight bond over the years, and it's easier when you respect someone so much.

"Whenever there's a session on, he's in charge. There's no talking, no messing around. Everything runs smoothly and he's on everyone. He's got eyes on everyone. That's why you've got fighters here fighting in the biggest and best promotions around. Because of the way he does things and the respect he commands.

"This gym here is bigger than the old one, but we needed this to get to the next level. When Jack Marshman was in the UFC, we didn't even have a cage in the old gym, which was awkward. But we've come here and we've got everything we need."

Richard is passionate about ensuring his fighters have all the tools they need to thrive on the big stages, but this isn't just an arena where champions are made, it's also an outlet for youngsters, often from troubled backgrounds, to express themselves in a way that otherwise wouldn't be possible.

"As you can see on the mats now we've got about 30 kids all under the age of 15," he says. "That's our juniors. For them it's all about enjoyment. No one's pressured into competing. It's just about turning up and training, having fun, keeping them fit and keeping them out of trouble.

"We get some flak from some people as they just think 'Oh, you're teaching all these youngsters that are in and out of young offenders institutions how to fight'.

"What I give them is an opportunity. If you have young men that are aggressive by nature, give them an outlet for that aggression. It's no good sending them to pottery class!

"Send them here where they can work their backsides off for an hour an half, sweat, and maybe even get humbled a bit by some of the smaller lads. All of a sudden they realise they don't need to be fighting on the streets. I say to everybody, if you want to fight, come down with me and you can fight for money. But you've got to put the work in.

"Jack Marshman's a perfect example of someone that's turned their life around. He was thrown out of school at 15, had a wrap sheet as long as your arm with the police. We worked hard with him. Got him in the army, and he's gone on now to have a successful career in both the army and MMA."

Marshman was something of a trailblazer for this gym, signing on for the UFC, the sport's Premier League in 2016 and becoming the first ever fighter from Wales to do so. His legacy has clearly loomed large over those that have come after him. On the surface, it feels like success is the main non-negotiable here. However, the reality is discipline, hard work, and character development are worth more in these four walls than any title belt.

Get the attitude right, he says, and the rest will come.

"I've had some of the most talented and naturally gifted athletes you can imagine," he says. "But they can't apply themselves.

Richard Shore recently went public about his cancer diagnosis, which was revealed by son Jack -Credit:Rob Browne
Richard Shore recently went public about his cancer diagnosis, which was revealed by son Jack -Credit:Rob Browne

"When the weekend comes and the sun's out, they find themselves sat in a beer garden drinking lager with their mates. The disciplined guys are 24/7. This is what they want to do. They avoid the alcohol. They avoid the drugs. They train consistently.

"When they haven't got a fight coming up they still train consistently as they're looking to improve. They ask questions, so it's the mental attitude that I look for. I don't look for anything physical. Some of the best fighters that have come through this gym were useless when they walked through this door. They didn't have a clue. But we moulded them into fantastic athletes because they have the right attitude."

The reality here is that Richard isn't just a very good mixed martial arts coach. For many of these young men, he's something of a father figure.

"I love a lot of these like family," he says. "You have that bond with someone. Growing up, I never had that father figure in my life. When I was about 15 I met a local businessman, Pete Ferguson, who took me under his wing, gave me a job and directed me.

"I think I would have ended up in prison or in trouble, or whatever, were it not for him. I think I could've not had the life I've had today. It could have been very, very different. I'm always mindful of that when I'm dealing with these kids.

"Some of them haven't got father figures, and if they do, they aren't the best role models in the world. There are obviously some who have fantastic fathers, who come to support them and the team. What I try to do is big brother them or father them depending on what their needs are in their personal life."

Richard has seen first hand the benefit a positive male role model can have on young lives, and his passion for keeping youngsters on the straight and narrow goes beyond the boundaries of this gym.

"I work three days a week at a school working as a behaviour manager. I work with kids with behavioural needs, I work alongside the police, social services, youth offending teams, parents. It's just about trying to keep kids in school.

"The kids also see me on TV or whatever, and I think it gives me that level of respect that I'm not sure other members of staff would get straight away. Same with the parents."

The work he does in schools still shares a fair amount of overlap with the work done in the gym. It's perhaps even contributed to the success of this place. Fighters here feel a sense of validation they simply don't get anywhere else.

Having bounced around various sites since first setting up in 2007, Richard's created something so many want a piece of, including some of the world's most established names.

"We're unfashionable," he somewhat ludicrously claims. "The gyms in America and London all get a lot of finance. We've had a couple of great sponsors lately, but in the South Wales valleys it's unfashionable. There's nothing here.

"But I do believe you could hold our team against any team in the UK, and if you look at stats and results we're on a par with anyone in Europe. One of the biggest complements I had was when Aljamain Sterling was over and asked if he could come train with us. That's one of the greatest fighters of all time, seeking me out to come train in the gym with our guys.

"Going back to the football analogy, we've got a real team spirit here. If you go out to the big gyms in America, there's no team spirit because you're out there for yourself. You're not bothered about the guy that's five ten yards away from you. You're solely there for your own purpose.

"Here, everyone's looking after each other. Everyone's supporting each other."

Josh Reed (left) is one of Richard Shore's many success stories -Credit:Rob Browne
Josh Reed (left) is one of Richard Shore's many success stories -Credit:Rob Browne

That team spirit oozes out of every pore of this place. Reed, Johns, Marshman, Elliot. They all have their own stories to tell. Their own narratives to spin. Their own destinies to fulfil. But they train together. They celebrate together. Sometimes, unfortunately, they also lose together.

Richard and his coaching team have created a tightly-knit community, and the bond that binds everyone here was fully laid bare this time last year.

Shortly after beating Finland's Makwan Amirkhani on his featherweight debut at UFC 286 in London, son Jack revealed that Richard had been battling cancer in an emotional live speech, sparking a huge outpour of support.

Richard had, until that point, decided to keep his diagnosis secret, seemingly hyper-aware of the attention it would draw.

"It was one of those things. I was diagnosed in November. It had been a tough six months leading up to that as I was initially diagnosed with a hernia. This was in the May, then in the July I did the pre-op as someone had cancelled, and the doctor said he didn't think it was a hernia.

"So from then it was constant scans and biopsies. Then I had a big operation where they cut me from my hip right down my groin to the back of my leg. When they opened me up they found lumps. When the biopsy came back then it was cancerous. There were some lumps they couldn't get out as they were touching arteries.

"We had the diagnosis towards the end of November. It's not the news anyone wants to hear. I was actually more upset for the kids and my missus. I know that's cliched, but I was.

"I just wanted to deal with it in my own way. I just didn't want the fuss. If I'd put anything on Facebook I'd have had a thousand messages and I didn't want any of that. I didn't want any distractions. I also didn't want anyone thinking I was making excuses for Jack's first fight at featherweight.

"He did what he did and it went viral. The outpouring of love and messages after that was insane. People I'd never met before saying they'd been going through the same."

The slight squirming suggests Richard is still, to this day, a little embarrassed by the attention.

"It was a tough period, but I got the all-clear in July. I'm going for a scan this week and I'll have my 12-month check-up at the beginning of July. So far all my other tests have come back fine and fingers crossed it will be positive again."

Some might think this has perhaps put things into perspective, but there's little room for slowing down. Richard has to pack his bags for Newcastle shortly after this interview, having only recently returned from Brazil. Then there are trips to Manchester and the United States round the corner too.

Richard admits he's not sure how he still finds the energy. "I think I can do it all in my sleep now," he says.

Regardless, there's little sign of him slowing down any time soon.

"I've been through adversity all my life. There's nothing you can throw at me that will break me."