It’s a miserable, drizzling, freezing cold Thursday night and I’m counting the line tracing through the doors of Next Generation MMA, a mixed martial arts gym tucked into one of the more unloved corners of Liverpool city centre.
There are five or so people in the foyer and another six or seven novices in the mat room putting down their names for that evening’s beginners’ MMA class. Behind me are grapplers of all shapes and sizes strapping on their gear – some wearing glorified PE kits, others decked out in the bright and brash patterns of their favourite pros.
Two kids from the children’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) class are wrestling long after the end of their coaching session, their dads chatting on the sidelines as the offspring pivot, wriggle and elbow, choke and release. By now, the beginners are taking to the mat. Under the orders of their coach, they warm up by running in circles, over and over and over. The room becomes so overwhelmingly humid that condensation forms on my backpack.
As I’m watching proceedings, a new arrival introduces himself as George, a first-year politics student from Leeds. “You waiting for a class?” he asks, visibly buzzing, and I say no. Wide-eyed, he fires straight back. “Well, you should be! Honestly, mate. You’ll love it. Promise me you’ll give it a go?” George has been going ever since he moved to Liverpool. It was one of the first things he did in the city and one of the main reasons for leaving God’s own county. “This place is the best, there’s nowhere else like it.” George, it’s immediately clear, is obsessed.
And so is everyone else. Once a fringe, unglamorous pursuit, MMA has never been more popular in the UK. At London’s O2 Arena in March, the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) broke single-night revenue records, raking in £7 million as Jamaica-born Brummie welterweight champion Leon Edwards scored a points victory over the fearsome Nigerian-Texan Kamaru Usman.
It’s a sport with a primal appeal and a narrow aim: to defeat your
opponent, comprehensively, with the world of punches, kicks, elbows, shins, and strangleholds at your disposal. More often than not, fights happen inside an eight-sided cage, trademarked by the UFC as the “Octagon”, between experts of every fighting discipline. The only thing they have in common is their weight. Everything else comes down to tactics.
And there are few places turning keen youngsters into future superstars quite like this one. The appropriately named Next Generation, housed across two floors of a shonky former fabric depot, is where tomorrow’s champions are made. More than this, it has become a community hub where Liverpool’s workaday warriors and stressed-out students can sweat out their troubles on the mat.
It’s also home turf for a pair of the sport’s biggest stars, two of the most charismatic athletes of any stripe to emerge in Britain in the last 20 years: Paddy “The Baddy” Pimblett and “Meatball” Molly McCann. Pimblett, 28, the bombastic boy from Huyton with a signature mop of blond hair, has exploded to fame since joining the UFC, his status as a wild-eyed new contender strong even in the US – not since the Fab Four has such undiluted scouseness made waves across the pond.
McCann, 32, on the other hand, is a different kind of trailblazer. She’s the first English woman to win a fight in the UFC’s eight-sided ring, an advocate for social justice, and a proud and prominent member of the LGBTQ+ community, all while owning the world’s deadliest spinning back elbow. Nowadays, the two athletes can barely walk down a back street without a throng of young scousers on their tail, falling to pieces as they nervously ask for pictures. “Ey, manners. What do you say?” Pimblett is known to chide. Would-be picture-hunters don’t get one unless they say “please”.
But the gym’s imprint on the fighting arts goes beyond Pimblett and McCann. Owned for 20 years by head coach Paul Rimmer, Next Gen is the oldest and most successful MMA gym in Liverpool. Its “home” athletes regularly compete in all three of the UK’s most popular MMA leagues – Cage Warriors, the UFC, Bellator – and its trophy cabinet is stuffed with gold.
With its popularity growing, normal operations at the gym have been upended. Waves of newbies arrive every week; parents watch from the sidelines; friends are brought along to watch sparring sessions; nervous rubberneckers peek inside; vloggers, musicians, TV cameramen and journalists flow in and out, drawn in by the gym’s aura. And all too often, curiosity leads to trying a class, then another, and eventually bringing more friends to watch. That obsession is a virtuous circle.
Because there’s something in the air here that’s more than the heady combo of blood, sweat and ringing eardrums. Next Gen has tapped into something striking deep at the heart of scouse identity: a love of the good fight that goes back centuries.
The gym begins and ends with Paul Rimmer. Every glory, tragedy and everyday mundanity ends up resting on the 43-year-old’s stout, stocky shoulders. Even for a veteran like Rimmer, it’s exhausting. “I’m overloaded,” he booms, 10 seconds into our first conversation. As his venue and fight team’s popularity have grown, he’s found himself as the unexpected conduit for all manner of odd favours and presumptuous requests. Fans of his fighters “see me in all the YouTube vlogs and think: ‘He seems nice and friendly, I’ll go through him.’ But I’m their coach, not their manager. Have some common sense,” he says, witheringly.
Coaching is his full-time preoccupation. In the charmingly dilapidated front office, we are regularly interrupted by members of Rimmer’s team with a problem they don’t know how to fix. One fighter shows off a dislocated finger that won’t go back in place; in an instant, Rimmer proffers his own battered hand and points him toward a serum that helps reconnect tendons to bones. Another complains of a blood test and his abject fear of needles. “Don’t worry,” he reassures the fighter. “I’ll go with you and get you shitfaced for it. Because it needs doing.”
Rimmer has this all on his plate, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, alongside sourcing opponents, studying fights, planning strategies and plotting coaching sessions. As we sit, his Apple Watch flashes and flickers with messages and reminders. Yet for all its relentlessness, it is, to Rimmer, the life he always dreamt of.
He took his first karate class at the age of five, hopped up from seeing 1986’s The Karate Kid Part II with his dad. He soon realised that, while he had little aptitude for Liverpool’s more well-known passion, football, he did have something of a knack for martial arts, his fight obsession underpinned by a love of American professional wrestling. “I used to sit in my little room on a Tuesday night, with a tiny portable TV, and stay up way past my bedtime watching WCW [World Championship Wrestling],” he remembers, beaming, “with the sound off so I didn’t get caught.”
But one week his beloved WCW show was replaced, without notice, by a show called Bushido: Way of the Warrior, a forerunner to the MMA, produced by a Japanese wrestling company called the UWFi (Union of Professional Wrestling Force International). Instead of embracing the soap opera frenzy of American wrestling, Bushido offered itself as something different: it was real, had rules and featured the world’s best amateur wrestlers, boxers and martial artists in combat against each other. “I thought: what the hell is this? Is it real? This is amazing.”
He was hooked. Problem was, Bushido was only on for about 10 weeks before WCW retook the Tuesday night TV slot. So Rimmer bega scouring the back pages of wrestling magazines for merchandise and writing to other fans keen to trade videotapes of episodes. He needed to know everything about this brave new world of fighting. “One Christmas – I must’ve been about 15 – I found this ring-bound jiu-jitsu manual from Japan for sale in a catalogue and took it to my mum and dad. They were like: ‘You want us to buy what?’”
Bit by bit, across his teenage years, Rimmer earned his belts, staying late to work on technique, moving beyond karate and taking lessons first in traditional jiu-jitsu, then BJJ. Eventually, he began helping out with teaching. Finally, the coach said that he’d taught him all he could – and if Rimmer wanted to learn more, he’d have to go to America.
This idea gnawed at him for the best part of a year as he sat through the grind of the boring admin job he’d taken after leaving school. Then, one bright day, he fell backwards into everything he’d ever wanted. After learning of a colleague being granted a year’s leave, Rimmer barged into his manager’s office and argued, semi-seriously, for the same. “I was just being a dick. But she said: ‘Yeah, sure, leave starts in a month.’”
Scarcely able to believe his luck, he set about planning his escape. He had no money, so strolled into his bank and asked for eight grand. “I told them it was for a car.” Fortune, again, was on his side – they said yes. Keeping back £2,000 for loan repayments, he “fucked off to America with the other six. Best thing I ever did in my life.”
He found his paradise in Irvine, at a Californian outpost of Next Generation gym, a Texas-based operation, under the tutelage of Chris Brennan, known to aficionados as The Westside Strangler. For nine months, Rimmer trained relentlessly in every grappling discipline, sleeping on the premises and living off $19 a day. He was 22 and had never been happier.
Then, a week before Christmas, Rimmer’s mum called: she had cancer. “She told me: ‘Oh, don’t come back, you don’t have to come back.’ But it’s one of them, you just have to.” He considered flying home for a few weeks before returning to the US and completing his scheduled year. But while he was back in Liverpool, the gym in Irvine flooded. There was nowhere to return to. Not until after his year-long sabbatical was up, anyway. “I restarted the job, I got a girlfriend,” he says, shrugging. “Life got in the way.”
Having re-assimilated to life in Liverpool, Rimmer began training with a fellow enthusiast he’d met in America. He led coaching classes twice a week, with local fighters trickling in to improve their grappling. Soon enough, he had founded Next Generation Liverpool (an affiliate of the Texas HQ, a franchise arrangement common in MMA) and, with his deep-seated skills combining with local talent, a few of his trainees made it into the UFC.
Still, this was the mid-Noughties, and the sport was the nichest of niches in the city and the country, derided as a hobby for psychotic doormen and wannabe gangsters, and as a poor, low-rent substitute for boxing. And even in the so- called sport of kings, Liverpool had gone without a real fight star for decades. Manchester had Ricky Hatton and Sheffield had Prince Naseem Hamed, but it had been a quarter of a century since light-heavyweight John Conteh had represented Merseyside as a world champion.
It hadn’t always been this way. Over the preceding 200 years the city, and its historic county of Lancashire, had been a crucible of fighting talent across all disciplines and a place where fans could be relied on to build an idol from a local boy done good. Competitive fighting sprung from the shipyards and collieries of the region; its history as a working-class pastime even precedes the dawn of boxing and football. “It’s a workman’s sport,” says Jake Shannon, author of multiple books on the history of fighting disciplines in the North West of England. “You don’t need a ball, you don’t need pads. All you need is another guy to fight and maybe a guy on the side taking bets on the winner.”
Shannon notes that a precursor to MMA emerged in the North West in the 19th century through the labourers working across the region, with each bringing different regional and national fighting styles. “You had the wrestling styles of Flemish weavers going up against the shin-kicking and scuffling of the Irish dockers, and [you had] big tough guys from down the mines.” This multi-discipline mash-up evolved into something called “Lancashire catch-as-catch-can”, named for its flexible rules: “catch” (or grab) your opponent for a hold, in any way you see fit, until you pin them or force them to submit.
“Pub landlords started giving up their back rooms for fights,” says Shannon. The best grapplers were soon earning more from fighting than mining. So, putting in the effort to stay in shape, they quit their day jobs and became the first professional fighters.” These “catch” fights became mass spectator events across the region. At village fairs, renowned hardmen from different towns would wrestle for hours, if not to the death then to exhaustion. Eventually, international fighters joined the fray. In Liverpool in 1902, “The Russian Bear” George Hackenschmidt, an Estonian Swede, defeated Lancashire’s Tom Cannon to become champion of Europe. Two years later, he became the world’s first undisputed heavyweight wrestling champion. As with New York, its spiritual sister across the Atlantic, Liverpool’s confluence of immigrants, hucksters and crafty street brawlers saw it emerge as a premier destination for big-name fights. In the mid-20th century, the city’s first true fighting superstar, featherweight Nel Tarleton, was the country’s finest boxer. He won the Lonsdale Belt (the world’s oldest pugilist prize) in 1934 and 1945 – the first man to do it twice – and his bouts repeatedly sold out Anfield. Not bad for a guy with one lung.
In 1931, the UK’s first boxing and wrestling arena, the 4,000-seat Liverpool Stadium, was opened by former British Army middleweight boxing champion Johnny Best (his
eldest son, Pete, was the Beatles’ first drummer). Renowned nationwide for its rowdy, raucous atmosphere, the arena played host to countless legendary boxers and wrestlers facing beloved local challengers and a fierce home crowd.
This stadium-sized era brought new local heroes to prominence: first, ’60s bantamweight prodigy Alan Rudkin; then Conteh, Liverpool’s first world champion, and one of very few prominent athletes with a mixed ethnic background in the early ’70s.
Meanwhile, 20 miles up the road from Liverpool Stadium was The Snake Pit: the tin-roof Wigan gym of legendarily brutal coach Billy Riley. Riley’s gym proudly carried the torch for “Lancashire catch-as-catch-can”, training everyone from miners to rugby players to policemen in the traditional northern art of submitting opponents by any means. Among the trainees at The Snake Pit gym in the early- and mid-’50s were two wrestlers who would lay the foundations for the MMA we know today: a Belgian by the name of Karl Gotch and future British wrestling heavyweight champion Billy Robinson.
After leaving Riley’s gym, Gotch and Robinson competed against, and trained, a generation of Japanese grapplers in the Lancashire style. Their disciples, in turn, became the first true mixed martial artists, wrestling on Rimmer’s beloved Bushido and sparking a craze in Japan that laid the groundwork for MMA to become the juggernaut that it is today.
While their popularity may ebb and flow, combat sports are, then, embedded in the region’s DNA, with the glory of fighting your way out to bigger, better things a tantalising prospect for multiple generations. “This has always been a fighting city,” Rimmer’s assistant coach Adam Ventre tells me one day in a side corner of the gym. “Good boxers, good MMA fighters, we’re always going to breed them. Because we’re always fighting. We fight back, we fight for respect. It’s just who we are.”
First thing on a Friday morning, I arrive at Next Gen to find the pro team already warming up. Every day begins with a two-hour slot for the pros and attendance is expected of all fighters who can stand upright. Just as with the beginners’ class the previous evening, assistant coach Ellis Hampson is leading the proceedings. Watching keenly are a few of the gym’s most talented kids, ready to listen, ask questions and maybe have a little spar of their own. “What’s the worst injury you’ve ever had?” one young trainee asks Maltese fighter Matthew Camilleri, who proceeds to show off his cauliflower ear and surgery scars with both caution and great pride.
The pro team take to the mat, pair up and start with striking practice, first at quarter-speed, then at half, then eventually pretty close to full pelt. The sound is cacophonous: kickpads being wellied, padded walls being thumped, broken by laughs and apologies for catching a partner with a live round. It’s easy to think, in watching them go, that they’re inured to the pain of it. That’s until I see Ben Petches-Kelly – a giant, rangy, grizzled 21-year-old – crumple like a cheap napkin after a stray toe-kick from Hampson catches him cleanly below the belt. But after a pat on the back and a five-minute break, he’s back on the mat.
Midway through the sparring session, Rimmer strolls in, takes his shoes off and wanders straight to the middle of the floor, casting an eye over each duo’s back-and-forth before calling time. Quick drinks break, then all the fighters sit in a circle as Rimmer talks through the morning’s plan, pulling Ventre in from the sidelines to act as his coaching dummy. The theme of today’s lesson is fighting from underneath: getting yourself into perilous situations – for example, where you can be choked or repeatedly punched until you’re unconscious – and learning to escape. “Every other fighter prepares for when they’re on top, don’t they?” Rimmer asks rhetorically. “But when they’re on their back, they’ve got no answer. Their plans go out the window.” He pauses for effect. “We’re gonna have an answer.”
The atmosphere changes when Molly McCann arrives, dispensing a hail of compliments, jokes and tidbits to every single person in the room, myself included. “Excuse me, sir? Would you mind helping me with this?” she asks me, pointing to the knuckle padding she’s trying to keep in place. Which is how I find myself on this misty early spring morning taping up some of the most valuable fists in MMA (a better deal than facing those fists). McCann is in for a personal boxing session with Hampson and Ventre, but first gets in the zone by turning some speakers on. Now it’s the voice of Mike Skinner and The Streets setting the rhythm in the room: “There’s no excuses, my friend /Let’s push things forward.”
The postman turns up, bringing with him, as he does most days, assorted gifts and fanmail, mostly for Pimblett and McCann, but sometimes with treats for the rest of the team. Among the trinkets this morning: a pair of trainers and an adorable handwritten letter from a seven-year-old in Oxfordshire. There are also new gloves for McCann, royal blue like her beloved Everton – although as she straps them up, the colouring doesn’t have the immediate desired effect. “Get on these! I look like a fucking Tory!” The room lights up with laughter.
After two hours, the fighters are close to exhaustion, the sweat rising off them like vapour, tracing halos round their bodies as they keep jabbing, striking and hoisting one another. Eventually, they slump against the padded walls, legs outstretched, in the stony silence that only comes when bodies are truly running on empty. Adrenaline spent, caffeine buzz worn off (from what must’ve been a pretty strong high, judging by the bin overflowing with Monster cans), talk turns toward food. Lunchtime.
By the main door are two dozen paper bags of food, provided by a former gym-goer who now runs a meal-kit business tailored to athletes. Each is labelled individually and optimised to the fighters’ diets and requirements. Treading lightly so as to not disrupt the well-earned feeding frenzy,
I seek out one of them, a lad who’d gone particularly full-pelt through the sessions. Would he like to have a chat about the life of a fighter? In between mouthfuls of protein-supplemented sponge cake, Adam Cullen, 25, obliges – but not before taking a moment to check on the 12-inch, shin-shaped bruise creeping up the entirety of his right thigh.
You can tell a lot about a fighter by the rap sheet of their finishes, which MMA stats always specify. Some get their wins through the judges’ card, others play the long game and strike when their opponents are worn out. In his professional career, Cullen’s had seven fights and six wins, all in the first round, with the quickest knockout taking 14 seconds. He is all intensity, fearsome and lupine, and visually one of the more terrifying of the Next Gen squad to imagine having to face.
But out of the cage, this Liverpool native is grounded, thoughtful and introspective. “I never want to be told I’m amazing,” he says. “because so many kids get told that they’re it, and they’re not. If you’re not the best in the world, you’re no good.” In MMA terms, though, he’s clearly something special. And as his star has risen, he’s found fewer volunteers willing to bet against his record. In his last professional match, it took so many tries that he was forced to go up a weight class to find an opponent. “I was hurt going into that fight, I was demoralised. My head fell off a few times, I’ll be honest. But I went into that cage thinking that I could show my opponent that he wasn’t on my level. And he wasn’t.”
He was driven to the octagon’s embrace through that old classic: his parents and their deep disapproval of the sport. “I wanted to go and train and I wasn’t allowed, so I got off-the- charts obsessed with it until they gave in.” At first, his family couldn’t understand how or why he wanted to pursue MMA as a career, not least because even fiercely talented pros like Cullen will struggle to make a living without a coveted spot in the UFC. Even now, he still works shifts in the centre of town and manages his training, and his injuries, around those bill-paying practicalities. “But they’ve come around a lot more now,” Cullen says of his parents. “They see how much it means to me.”
Success is coming for him, which has no doubt helped to sway their stance. But even success in this sport comes with a high cost. “I was laughing with my girlfriend the other week, [saying] that the better I do, the worse my life gets,” he says with an acknowledging shrug. Some days when he gets home, he’s so beaten up and wiped out that he can barely move or talk. Success means staying healthy and committed, and cutting everything out of your life that keeps you from your best. In short, he says, “you have to be selfish.”
But success has redoubled the pressure on Cullen, meaning he’s desperate to get back in the cage and do it all again – ideally in less time than 14 seconds. “It’s a sport that gives you constant rewards. It’s so addictive.” The psychological satisfaction of having outfoxed someone is so intoxicating that, next time around, you want to beat someone bigger. “Even when you lose, you want to get back out there. You’re always walking out wondering what you can do next time around, because there’s always an answer.”
This is the nub of MMA’s appeal to Cullen. “I used to do cross-country, and I trained and I trained, but I couldn’t win every time. After a while, I realised I just couldn’t go any faster. But with this, I can keep getting better, keep learning and I’ll be better prepared than my opponent. And I’ll beat them.” Hard work pays off. But in this world so, too, does obsession.
I come back later that day, when most of us are clocking off from the work week and going out to get our kicks in ways that don’t involve pads, paddles and dislocated finger tendons. At Next Gen, Friday night is open mat night, a time where anyone of any level can practice what they want, with whoever is around: spars, drills, grapples, anything and everything.
Finishing up as I arrive are Jannis and Kayleigh, twentysomethings who began as complete novices with minimal-to-no interest in fighting of any form. They’d just heard that there was something special about training at Next Gen. “I didn’t even know what jiu-jitsu really was when I started,” Jannis tells me. “Now, I love it. I’m here all the time. It’s amazing.”
Kayleigh was the same, having found out about the gym during 2020’s first lockdown. It still took her two years to take the plunge but once in, she was all in: “I took a class out of curiosity last year and got addicted so quickly.” Now she’s here two or three times a week for classes and private sessions. “It’s like learning to drive. Once you know it, you’ve got it. Honestly, you should give it a go.”
Behind them, on the furthest corner of the mat, is a trainee caught in a relentless back-and-forth with an older, wilier grappler. Over and again, the veteran moves the goalposts, ties the trainee up in knots. But the tougher it gets, the more the younger fighter pushes to snatch back control.
Eventually, they call it a day, and the young lad comes over and introduces himself: another George, another student, but a scouse one this time. Despite his bruising, twisting session, he’s puffing his cheeks and smiling, with that same exhilarated stare I’ve grown accustomed to with Next Gen trainees. “I’m still getting back into it,” he says. “I drifted out of it a bit through the pandemic and I’m trying to get back to where I was. It’s all about muscle memory, but it’s about the mental side of it, too.”
It’s this dual appeal, he says, that is popularising the sport with students. After a long day in the library, it’s a way of engaging your brain in a different way; a more rewarding alternative to a joyless, monotonous treadmill session. “I’ve seen all sorts of people come in and give it a go: comic book lads, shy ones, a lot of women as well. There’s even people travelling down from way outside of the city, coming back here every week.”
The most exciting thing about Next Gen in George’s eyes, though, is the kids’ team. More than anyone else, he argues, the crop of youngsters training at the gym have a real opportunity to shake up the sport entirely – so long as they keep at it. “They’re the best judo squad in Europe already,” he says. “They’re unbelievable. You see them here on the mat sometimes and they’re taking down 50-year-old men.”
Ventre, who coaches the kids’ classes and trains them for tournaments, is happy to share the secret of their success. “It’s dead easy: we just coach them like adults and they love it, they respond to that. Some of these kids are already so dedicated to improving, they’re more committed than the adults sometimes.” Talked up as a teenage legend within the gym is Paul Rimmer’s 14-year-old son, Jack, who George immediately mentions. “I’ve seen him in here and he’s a beast already – he’s been winning gold medals in judo. It’s like he’s been training his whole life.” I’d seen him in action with the pros that morning, springboarding off the wall and tossing his larger opponent around. It’s easy to see how he’s got a reputation already.
What exists within the gym is an undeniable culture of excellence from the bottom to the top. Perpetually, even the most inexperienced amateur is doing their bit to follow the example set by the most celebrated pro. And with Next Generation’s next generation starting earlier and training harder, I thought about something Cullen had said that morning. “Everyone fights the same way here,” he told me. “The only difference between Paddy, Molly and the rest of us is time.”
I’m standing by the front desk again, watching the queue crawl out through the door and feeling the room get warmer and warmer. Lads stroll in complaining about coursework, talking about recent UFC bouts, cracking jokes about last week’s sessions. The place feels like it’s overflowing, and Rimmer agrees. “We might have to get a new space soon,” he says. “It’s about 250 people coming in and out now.” As Ventre gets people onto the register and Hampson has them warming up on the mat, I ask Rimmer: what is all of this building to?
He points to the trophy cabinet. “You see all of them in there? All the belts and the medals? They’re not to show off. They’re for me. They’re to remind me what I’m doing this all for. When I’m gone, I want this place to be like Billy Riley’s gym. I want Next Gen to still be talked about in 60, 70 years’ time as having changed the game.”
We’re interrupted by Ventre, who’s brought a little kid and his dad to the front desk. He can’t be more than six, with a mop of blond hair that makes him look not a million miles away from Paddy Pimblett, and he’s just finished his kids’ BJJ class. The boy pulls his dad over to the rash guards – the training shirts that all the Next Gen pros wear – and badgers him for one of his own. As dad pulls notes from his wallet, Ventre digs out an oversized top from the stockroom and drapes it over the small boy’s shoulders. It’s twice his size, far too big for him. “What do you reckon?” he says to his boss, before scruffing the kid playfully on the head, “Too big?” Rimmer laughs, leans back and sizes the boy up. “Nah, he’ll grow into it.” he says, encouragingly, turning to the lad. “Won’t you?”