Sliding doors moments, serendipity, destiny, fate.
Call it what you want but there have been several of those along the way for Eugene Bareman on his journey from schoolboy rugby star to the world-renowned coach of UFC champion Israel Adesanya.
Bareman will attend the Halberg Awards next week as a nominee for coach of the year alongside Silver Ferns coach Dame Noeline Taurua, rowing’s Gary Hay, canoeing coach Gordon Walker and para swimming coach Roly Crichton.
There is one thing worrying Bareman about the event.
“The only thing I feel is that I don’t normally wear a suit, I do have one but it’s from a wedding, I’ll just recycle it so I’m hoping I fit it,” he said.
“I’m more concerned I invited a whole lot of people who I think it’s important for them to be there, they’re just as big a part of the story as me, I’m also worried if they own suits cause we’re a rough bunch.”
‘This kickboxing, Thai boxing thing’
Reflecting on his journey to becoming one of New Zealand’s best coaches, Bareman recounted how a dummy spit saw him change from rugby to boxing.
“I came from a big rugby family, played rugby just as soon as I could walk, I played through the local club at Massey out in west Auckland, did the whole first XV thing, one year I was captain of the first XV,” he said.
“I then left high school and went down to the local club, Massey, and for whatever reason they didn’t pick me for their top team, didn’t think I was good enough and rightfully so.”
“I thought I should have higher honours, things didn’t really go my way in terms of selection and stuff so I spat the dummy being young and naïve."
A chance meeting with a friend would set the wheels in motion for a transition to MMA, then a Yellow Pages ad played a key role.
“Then I needed something to do, what am I going to do? I seen a friend over New Year’s who’s doing this kickboxing, Thai boxing thing, I was like I’ll give that a go.”
“That’s when I looked through the Yellow Pages and found Lolo and his Balmoral Lee Gar and I decided I would go there.”
“In bold it (the ad) said 10 world champions on it.”
The legendary Balmoral Lee Gar gym run by Lolo Heimuli was the home of pioneering NZ combat sports stars including Ray Sefo and Jason ‘Psycho’ Suttie, and every bit as intimidating as the stars who trained there.
“I was very timid, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I walked there and it was underneath a church, hidden away, I had to really look to find it, looked dodgy, I could hear all the noises coming out of the basement and I was like what is going on here?”
“I looked around the corner and I saw everyone training, it was absolutely full, full of guys like grunting and growling and yelling.”
“What actually happened was I peered around and saw that and was like I’m not doing this, this isn’t for me, this is crazy, look at all these guys, they’re very intimidating.”
“I kind of backed out of there without anybody seeing me and when I got to my car I heard someone yelling ‘Eugene, Eugene!’ I was thinking who knows me here, I turned around and it was my friend who six months earlier had told me he was kickboxing.”
“It just so happens that Balmoral was the same gym he went to and he had seen me peer my head around the window and walk out so he had to run out for me.”
"When he got to me, I was like ‘oh bro I can’t do that, those fellas in there are crazy, that’s not for me.’”
“He reassured me, forget about all that, all these guys are great guys.”
“I always think about that moment, when I peered my head around the corner, for whatever reason if my friend hadn’t seen me pop my head around the corner then it’s just funny, I wouldn’t be sitting here, my life would be totally different.”
“I look back at that, it just fits that sometimes there’s a path that’s written for you and maybe this was the path I was meant to go on.”
One particular feature of Bareman’s is what Heimuli can remember.
“He had about half a dozen rings on his eyebrows and then some on his nose, lips and cheek,” Heimuli said.
‘That was a place where you could lay my bones to rest’
With a roll call that included Suttie and Sefo, Balmoral Lee Gar was the home to some of the world’s best kickboxers.
“Those guys at one time or another were at the very pinnacle of the sport, competing overseas against the best of the best,” Bareman said.
“I walked into a world class training environment.”
The master coach Lolo would not only guide Bareman through his fight career, but also give him his start as a coach.
“Eugene wasn’t training long, but I needed someone to take the class, I was like ‘Eugene, bro can you take the class? I’m going to go to town,’” Heimuli recounted of Bareman's low-key start to coaching.
The tutelage of the legendary coach known by his first name also included having Bareman watch old fights and discuss what he would say to the fighters if he was their cornerman.
“You can see a million things, but I want you to sum up the most crucial, vital information because they’re not going to listen to you anyway if you tell them too much,” Heimuli explained.
“We played a lot of these games.”
With the foundations in place for a coaching career of his own, Bareman needed to branch out, but he would only go with the blessing of Lolo.
“My biggest apprehension was leaving Balmoral, it had become such a big important part of my life, that was a big part of my identity,” Bareman said.
“When you’re there twice a day, sparring, that was a place where you could lay my bones to rest.”
“That (Balmoral Lee Gar) has a very big part and what I learnt from that gym, that culture, that environment, from Lolo himself, has got a massive part to do with the position I’m in.”
‘All his ground work and stuff, he’s just watched on YouTube’
Bareman would take on the running of the City Kickboxing (CKB) gym with a friend and after years trying to keep it afloat, destiny would once again intervene to bring Bareman and Adesanya together.
“Sometimes you just have a path and destiny collides, for whatever reason Israel is meant to meet me and come to my gym,” Bareman said.
“I met Israel under funny circumstances, he was living in Whanganui and came up (to Auckland) for for an MMA fight, he had a friend at my gym who asked him to corner him, but his friend didn’t know anything about MMA so his friend in turn asked me to corner him.”
“It’s not normally what I would do because I don’t know the person, I never trained him, I ended up at the fight, I introduced myself, asked him what he’d done.”
He said he done taekwondo when he was 10, had a couple of kickboxing fights, and he said for the most part all his ground work and stuff, he’s just watched on YouTube a couple of nights before.”
“Straight away that sent warning bells through my head, but at that stage it was too late to walk out the door.”
Predictably perhaps, it was an inauspicious start in the sport for the man who would take the UFC by storm.
“He got absolutely pasted, beaten, in every round, he showed some talent, but it was such a one-sided fight.”
Months later, Adesanya would pack up his life in Whanganui and move to Auckland.
“The lad just wanders into the gym saying, ‘I chucked all my stuff in the car, left everything I had, I want to train at your gym.’”
After giving Adesanya the chance to explore other gyms, their partnership was sealed.
“From that moment we just put our head down and worked, and the rest is history that is still being written,” Bareman said.
‘Izzy have the similar relationship with Eugene’
Heimuli sees similarities between the relationship Bareman has with Adesanya to the one he had with Sefo, with trust playing a key part in both.
“Most fighters they don’t follow extreme details apart from people like Izzy and Ray Sefo," Heimuli said.
Combat sports fans of yesteryear won’t need telling but Sefo was a global superstar in K1, which he took by storm with some of the most explosive knockouts ever.
“I was getting him to do things people never done before like the stepping over punch and all this stuff,” Heimuli said.
A punch Sefo would use in his infamous knockout of K1 legend Jérôme Le Banner in 1997.
“Ray was doing it because Ray trusted that if I teach him to do that, surely it must work and I see Izzy have the similar relationship with Eugene,” Heimuli said.
Heimuli saw Bareman’s work in Adesanya’s last win, a knockout victory over Australia’s Robert Whittaker at UFC 243 in Melbourne in October.
“They were doing a lot of stuff with arm trap, throwing a decoy punch one side.”
“He’ll lean away and look like he’s off balance by doing a decoy right, the trump come on the other side with the left hook, that wasn’t a fluke, that was a plan.”
“Why would you throw an ugly right hand? Just to direct his head where the oncoming power shot comes from.”