UFC veteran and coach Fabiano Scherner may have begun his career throwing hands and wringing necks, but in the years since he’s left the Octagon behind, he’s developed a softer – but equally, if not more valuable – set of skills: running American Top Team Portland, an MMA gym that caters to students of all levels, from BJJ white belt hobbyists, all the way up through professional UFC contenders.
“It’s been a rocky road,” Fabiano tells me, chuckling. “It’s not easy, you know? Just like you learn jiu-jitsu to become a black belt, when you start coaching and [being] a business owner, you’re also in a learning situation. You train [those skills] on a daily basis, just like you would when competing.”
“Transitioning from being an athlete – a fighter in MMA, and a grappler – I’d say that one thing that helped me the most was learning from my own mistakes, and through the journeys of other guys [I knew in the business],” he adds.
Fabiano also learned, quite quickly, that there were some key differences to selling students on an MMA gym – that happens to include a jiu-jitsu and grappling program – versus a pure jiu-jitsu academy.
“I found out that it’s easier to run an MMA gym [like ours], because you can put anything out there, and it can find someone,” explains Fabiano. “In a grappling or jiu-jitsu-only gym, you have to be very specific, and sometimes, that’s hard. Anything I put out there about our gym, and what we offer, it’s going to reach someone, which makes things a lot easier. I can put out any kind of post on social media, or in advertisements. In grappling, there’s a lot more [you have to do].”
He credits a great deal of his business success to his partnership with ATT Portland co-owner Brandon Miller. “I tried both being a coach and running the gym, and it got to the point where I had to make the choice,” says Fabiano. “So I got a business partner who can handle the business part.”
“The gym was doing very well, and it got to the point where I wouldn’t be able to take more students or more fighters, because I wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Fabiano tells me in frank terms. After all, there are only so many hours in a week, and part of being a good businessman – and a good coach – is also knowing your own limits.
For other aspiring gym owners who are primarily interested in coaching, Fabiano recommends either finding a reliable business partner who can help deal with the gym’s finances – or being willing to stay small.
“It’s really hard to do both [coaching and running the business] in a good way,” says Fabiano. “Taking care of the business, the bills, everything – all of it was very hard, just like being a good coach is very hard. So I chose to get a business partner that [knew how to handle those issues] – so that I could be better at what I do best, which is coaching. That helped me a lot, when I didn’t have to worry anymore about finances and payroll. And the growth of the gym was even bigger after that.”
One of the biggest challenges for Fabiano – former UFC fighter, coach to current UFC fighters, and all-around tough guy – is his task, as a businessman, to get ordinary people to sign up for classes at a place where guys literally knock each other out for a living.
After all, American Top Team Portland is perhaps best known as the stomping grounds to UFC contenders like Ricky Simon and Ed Herman – which makes it easy to forget that most of the gym’s clientele are everyday people with everyday jobs, who for the most part, originally walked through the doors looking for a new hobby, or a more-interesting-than-average workout.
“That is the hardest challenge in an MMA gym,” says Fabiano. “How to have a fight gym, with fighters competing at the highest level in the world, without scaring the people who come through your door.”
Part of the solution, according to Fabiano, necessitates structuring the gym schedule in an intelligent and accessible way. “I got professional fighters to come in for training when the cage and the mats weren’t busy with the regular people,” he explains. “We get the fighters – and whoever wants to train to be a fighter – to come at different hours. And then there are regular classes on the schedule for regular students and members during the busiest times. At every gym, the bread-and-butter time slot is between 4:30 and 5 PM to 8. If you put the fighters’ training during that time, it’s going to hurt your business.”
At the end of the day, Fabiano believes the most important key to getting hobbyists to train at a home gym for professional fighters is cultivating an inviting atmosphere – particularly from the pros, when welcoming new students. “It’s all about the culture of your gym. For example, with my MMA fighters, there’s no MMA fighter who’s going to be disrespectful to a white belt starting his first day. They actually want to help and build them up. I think we built that culture from the beginning.”
Fabiano also recalls instances of gym members stepping up to help each other out. “I remember when the pandemic hit, I had a bunch of professional fighters whose only job was to fight, and suddenly there were no shows. The UFC and Bellator kept going, but that was it, but for the fighters who weren’t [with those organizations], they didn’t have work.
“So what kept the gym going was the grapplers, and the jiu-jitsu guys, who never stopped paying their membership. We had this meeting with the black belts and brown belts, where I told them, ‘Hey, the [MMA] fighters are going to need your help.’ Most of our grapplers have day jobs, you know? They have no issues paying their bills. So they were able to keep paying their membership, so the fighters could keep training. And the fighters kept training because they had help from the grapplers. We didn’t have issues with people quitting.”
“Things have changed a lot since I first started,” reflects Fabiano. “People are a lot more willing to help that new person who’s stepping into your gym for the first time. They want them to have a good time training. You don’t have that thing where they’re trying to check if you’re tough enough to be there. That doesn’t happen anymore, because the process is going to do it anyway – so why, at the very beginning, would you give a new person such a hard time that they quit?”
The help that jiu-jitsu students and coaches were able to lend to the full-time fighters during the pandemic also, in Fabiano’s view, taught the entire community a valuable lesson. “Now they see that we need every single member in the gym,” he says. “Not only the toughest ones. You need everyone engaged, and to pull together.”
His advice to aspiring jiu-jitsu or MMA coaches is straightforward: “You have to identify what your athlete really wants. Because they come to you, a lot of the time, and say that they want one thing, but end up doing something totally opposite from what they said they wanted. When people come to me for the first time, if I’ve never seen them before, I’ll sit down with them for thirty minutes to an hour, and go through questions about what their expectations are. You’ve got to listen to what they tell you, and from there, you make a plan.”
“The most important quality to develop is willpower,” he adds. “You’ve got to put in the work. You have to want it. It’s not going to be easy. I would be lying if I told you it wasn’t that difficult. It’s a learning process, and there’s a lot of frustration involved. The worst feeling to deal with is frustration, and if you don’t know how to deal with frustration, you’re screwed.
“When a person wants to reach higher levels in whatever they’re trying to do, they’re patient with themselves. They get frustrated, yes, but the frustration is like a gas on the fire for them. They’re going to use it as fuel to feed their fire and fix everything and do better.”
To learn more about Fabiano Scherner, follow him on Instagram or browse his website.
For a unique opportunity to learn directly from Fabiano Scherner and his students, consider signing up for his training camp in Brazil, from November 6 to November 12.
To hear more about what’s going on at American Top Team Portland, follow their Instagram account or check out the website.
This story is the fourth installment in the Grappler’s Career Corner, a series of informal interviews at the Jiu-Jitsu Times offering insights and advice on building a career in martial arts and combat sports – based on the experiences of successful professionals in the industry.
If you’d like to share questions or thoughts, reach out to us on Instagram.
Previous Installments in the Grappler’s Career Corner:
Meet Nick “Chewjitsu” Albin, YouTuber, BJJ Coach, and Gym Owner
Meet Meg He, CEO, Investor, and Competitive Jiu-Jitsu Athlete
Meet Nakapan Phungephorn, Chairman of the Black Belt Business Union