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The rise of Fortis MMA has been a quick one. Only having opened in late 2016, they’ve catapulted onto the average fan's radar by sending over a dozen fighters into the UFC during their brief existence. Add in the genius of owner/coach Sayif Saud shouting incredibly memorable corner inspiration—inspiration that almost always gets comment from the broadcast table—and you have something you not only pay attention to, but can’t forget.
While Saud founded the gym, his co-owner has flown a bit more under the radar — which isn't easy to do when you’re the owner of two gold medals and three NBA All-Star Game appearances.
So how exactly was it that former Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets great Deron Williams went from the hardwood to the mats? The answer starts before he even started high school with his love for MMA.
“I’ve been a fan of MMA for a long time. I don’t know when exactly it was I started watching avidly, but I’ve just always been a fan of MMA,” Williams told the Top Turtle MMA Podcast on FloCombat. “My first sport was actually wrestling. I wrestled from when I was 5 [years old through] 8th grade until I had to stop in high school because it’s the same season as basketball and I had to make a choice at that point, and at that point in my life, I felt like basketball was the better option.”
The timing was perfect for a young wrestler to become interested in MMA. WIlliams cites the likes of Randy Couture and Ken Shamrock as guys he saw doing what he was trying to do on the mats only in a cage as inspiration for his love for the sport.
Although the rigid schedule of high school athletics forced him to step away from wrestling, he wasn’t yet out of basketball when an opportunity knocked to get him back on the mats.
“I’m from Dallas originally and when I went back to play for the Mavericks in 2015, one of my assistant coaches, Jamahl Mosley, is a jiu-jitsu guy,” Williams explained. “We had definitely talked about our love for MMA and jiu-jitsu. He said, 'You should come do a private with me [and] this coach I’ve been working with.'"
That coach was, of course, Saud. Although Fortis was just a thought in Saud’s mind at the time, he was working on gathering the resources to open it as a coach at Octagon MMA. While doing privates there for the better part of a year, Williams and Saud sparked a friendship.
“I started doing privates with [Saud] just for the love of it, just for the work out. At the time, I didn’t know it, but he was working on opening Fortis,” Williams explained. “After probably six months of training with him on the regular and we became friends, he was like, 'Let me show you something.'”
And that’s when Saud showed Williams the beginnings of Fortis MMA. It wasn’t quite the finished product that Saud was envisioning, but Williams instantly saw the potential in the space and in Saud.
“He took me over to Fortis and this was before—they didn’t have any mats down, still working on the finishes and the bathrooms and stuff like that, but you could definitely see the space coming together,” Williams recalled. “I knew how good of a coach he was and I had gotten to know some of the fighters at that time. So I was like, 'Man, how can I be a part of this?'”
Being that they were close friends, Saud had no problem going into business with Williams. Although Williams is a partner in Fortis, he leaves the day-to-day to Saud, instead focusing on how he can help him on the business side of things.
“Sayif is the best in the business, man. You know, I’m not going to go and step on his toes in any way, shape, or form… I leave that up to him—to run the business—that’s what he does. This is his world. This is his life. But we talk a lot. He asks advice and we talk about the business a lot—about what guys are doing and what’s up next.”
But while Williams is more on the business side of things, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a familiar face around Fortis. In addition to popping in to train with the gym’s slew of light heavyweight beasts like Kennedy Nzechukwu, Ryan Spann, and Alonzo Menifield, Williams also makes sure that the team all has a way of watching their squad’s big fights.
“I’m the guy that, when we have fights, when there’s fights on that everybody wants to watch and some of our guys are fighting, I’ll have fight parties at my house,” Williams said. “So I’ve gotten to know all our athletes, all our fighters.”
He and the rest of the team will be watching as one of their own gets a shot on the main card of Saturday’s UFC 240 pay-per-view. Geoff Neal fights Niko Price and looks to get the number back next to his name, which Williams confidently expects him to do.