From rugby to law school to UFC, City Kickboxing’s Eugene Bareman talks to Michelle Langstone about what drew him to the sport, training his fighters during the Covid-19 lockdown, and helping build his beloved gym from the ground up. Portraits by Edith Amituanai.
The air inside Auckland’s City Kickboxing gym is heavy with a fug of sweat so thick it feels as if you’re wading through it. It’s a salty, close embrace of armpits and feet, and it’s warm; there are windows open but you can’t feel a breeze. On the black and red mats, 41-year-old Eugene Bareman takes his fighters through a class on grappling. This is the pro group of around 25 fighters, mostly men, and among them are familiar faces to the mixed martial arts (MMA) and UFC scene — Mike “Blood” Diamond, Shane Young and Kai Kara-France.
There’s a vibe that initially reads as subdued, but as I watch the fighters work, I realise every single person in the room is wholly focused on the learning at hand; it’s the energy of fierce concentration. Eugene Bareman moves through his fighters like a quiet shadow. He barely has to raise his voice and the whole room stops. Dressed in a black t-shirt with the gym’s logo on it and loose black shorts, he pads on soft feet through the bodies, stopping to correct them or to crack a joke. He demonstrates moves often, patient with his fighters as they make mistakes and adjust. When the class ends they peel away with reluctance, but not before they thank each other in quiet displays of respect. I lose Bareman in the throng, but a moment later he spots me across the room. His stare is like a laser beam. We go upstairs to a dimly lit alcove to sit on some chairs while the fighters file past, and Bareman begins to talk.
I don’t know why I’m surprised he’s so chatty, but I am. Anyone even remotely aware of the UFC has heard Bareman’s name thrown around in the last few years. He’s the coach who led Israel Adesanya to his world champ title in 2019, the same year he was named the UFC Coach of the Year. Bareman’s currency in the UFC is huge, and he’s an institution in the New Zealand kickboxing scene. But when you see him being interviewed, he’s often quite reserved. Sitting opposite him on his home turf seems to have brought out the chat in him though, and all I have to do is ask him about his family and he’s off, speaking in a quiet, measured tone about the people he loves.
Bareman was born in West Auckland, one of five offspring of a Dutch father and a Samoan mother. When he speaks about them, it’s obvious that their morals and values have become the cornerstone of the way he runs the gym. Of his dad: “He just worked his ass off, and his expectations were the same for all of us kids. There was no slacking around, no matter what we did, whether it be schoolwork, rugby training, or working ourselves.” Bareman’s work ethic is notorious at City Kickboxing — he expects his fighters to give everything, and they oblige him. He’s also inherited his dad’s love for simplicity, and tells me he could easily live a life of scarcity. “If it was just my house I would have one chair, one table, a fork, a knife, a spoon, running water, and a candle for light. I feel like I don’t need anything. I’m just happy with whatever I’ve got.” You can see that reflected in Bareman’s coaching style — there’s none of the puff and grandeur that comes with the UFC — it’s simple hard work, persistence, and pure martial arts discipline. Of his mother, for whom his eyes soften and his tone grows more formal: “The main ideals I got were the obvious Christian ones, like being honest, being respectful towards my elders, and being courteous. Treating everybody else like you’d want to be treated. Good Christian values, though I’m not really a Christian myself.”
Honesty is one of the central pillars of the CKB kaupapa, and it’s something Bareman and co-owner Doug Viney demand of every person who comes through their doors, be it a pro fighter or novice. Bareman adjusts the tweed cheese cutter hat on his head, tucking it down to where a bundle of dreads sits at his neck, and clarifies: “I’m talking about an honesty with yourself, and an honesty with other people when you’re interacting with them.” He says if you’re not honest about your abilities and where you’re at mentally, you’ll be shown up when you start to fight. He leans his weight on his knees and nearly punctures me with a stare as he says: “That all comes out here. It all seeps out. The ultimate truthteller is when you start training with these guys and you start to go through some of the hardships that you have to go through to prepare for a fight. If you haven’t been honest it becomes very obvious very quickly.”
Who you think you are can get knocked out of you pretty quickly on the mats at CKB. Bareman, who has been fighting for over 20 years, knows first hand how hard it is to come up against yourself and your own estimations. Growing up, he wanted to be an All Black and was in his school’s first XV from fifth form. But in the same way he asks his fighters to be honest, he concedes he wasn’t all that truthful with himself back then. “I definitely wasn’t honest with myself about my own self-assessment. It’s one of the trappings of being young but it’s no excuse — if I’d been a little bit more honest with myself about my ability then I might have been able to find myself another path quite quickly.” Bareman didn’t make it in rugby and ended up in kickboxing instead. But arriving in martial arts came by way of an indirect route, and a personal realisation that changed his life.
“I definitely had a tremendous urge or a want to find the thing, or to go on the journey to find the thing that I wanted to do with my life. It started way back at school, when I went to go back for seventh form and they wouldn’t let me.” A star rugby player at Massey High, but a poor student, Bareman arrived on the first day of seventh form to be told by his teachers that they didn’t think he had a future in education and that he might be better off going to get a job.
At this point in his story, Bareman is holding an imaginary newspaper in the air in front of him, miming turning the pages, and pointing out the job section to me. “I looked through the jobs, and probably for the first time in my life, I was a bit scared. I was scared of my future because what I saw was a whole lot of jobs that I immediately identified led nowhere. There were other jobs there, but they weren’t an option for me, because I hadn’t achieved anything academically at school.”
Bareman’s eyes get very wide at this point. He says he fully freaked out. “For me, it was the first inclination that man, I need to take control of my life and find out what I want to do with it. It started at that exact moment I looked at that paper and realised that my career and job prospects were little to none. It was like the penny dropped, and I went to my mum and said, ‘I want to go back to high school. I believe I have a right to go back to high school, and I need you to come down to the school and help me get back in.’”
Eugene and his mother started a campaign to get him back into Massey High, and it took a lot of convincing the teachers. He declared he would give up playing his beloved rugby so that he could study full time, and that’s when he realised the school didn’t really care about his education. The heads of the school said he could only come back if he captained the first XV that year. “I came out of that meeting dejected because I knew what had gone on in there. My mum had pestered them to the point where they knew they kind of had to let me in, but they figured ‘you’re probably going to be a failure like you have been in previous years, but if you’re going to come to the school, we’re going to get some kind of productivity out of you.’”
Bareman felt they were giving up on him, but he cracked on, inspired by one teacher who encouraged him to be the rugby player who surprised everyone by turning his education around. That year he spent all but three lunchtimes in the library studying, and eventually, the librarians opened up for him at interval as well. He also studied at night: “I had a really good system where I’d put a stopwatch on, and I’d set it for three hours, and regardless of if I got my study done in an hour, I would work the three hours. I would stop the stopwatch if I got something to eat, and restart it when I studied. I did that almost the entire year.”
He pauses for effect, watching me before he delivers the knockout punch: “And then I got an A bursary and I went to law school.” He cracks up laughing, his head thrown back to the ceiling, his whole body shaking. It’s a brilliant story and he knows it. It’s also the perfect emblem for Bareman’s whole approach to life — you set your mind to something and stop at nothing to achieve it.
Bareman made it through two years of law school before the lure of fighting drew him away. Dropping out wasn’t an approved decision – Bareman says his parents were disappointed, but by then he was devoting so much time to kickboxing that his grades were starting to suffer. He had a young child with his highschool sweetheart, Cara, and felt the weight of responsibility to push as hard as he could to achieve something as a professional kickboxer. Despite amassing 48 fights and being one of the most respected figures in the New Zealand kickboxing scene, Bareman never quite made it to the heights he hoped for. He became a coach organically – young fighters would come to him for help, looking for the same guidance and direction he’d looked for when starting out.
He’s a humble man, but when he talks about being a coach, there’s this shine that comes over him. “People are coming to me to do something that I never thought they would come to me to do: they’re coming to me to help change their life.” Bareman’s hands are together in a loose kind of prayer, and the smile on his face is almost beatific. This gym and his position here is about more than just about fighting. He’s not only a teacher but a role model, and a father figure. He tells me there is nowhere else in the world he’d rather be than in these four walls with his fighters. It’s his happy place. “100%,” he says, putting his hand on his heart.
Bareman and Viney founded City Kickboxing in 2007 but it hasn’t been an easy road. Bareman says they struggled financially, but in the last few years, with their rise in the UFC, things have started working out for them. He laughs when he says he still grapples with his work/family balance – the gym is as much a family to him as his blood relatives, and coaching has never felt like a job. “This has never ever been a workplace, this has always been me dealing with people that I’m really close to. So it’s like having two wives, maybe. You’re trying to satisfy both of them, and spilt time between them, and sometimes it works and sometimes it all comes crashing down.”
I ask him how his partner Cara feels about that, and he shifts in his chair and considers the ceiling for a minute before he speaks. “I couldn’t have done any of this without her. You have to have a very understanding partner.” The closest Bareman gets to dewy-eyed is when he tells me how the pair “fell into each other’s arms” when they met at high school. They now have four children, the youngest being 11 months old. He says Cara has grown and adjusted alongside him as his work has expanded, and he’s grateful to finally be able to provide financial stability, something they didn’t have when they were young. “It was hard on us when I was trying to be a professional fighter because there’s next to no money in it, but a lot of time and a lot of heartache and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and not much reward.”
It’s lucky for Bareman that Cara has gotten used to the time he spends away, because not even Covid-19 has slowed the trajectory of City Kickboxing on the global scene this year. After closing the gym during the first Covid lockdown in New Zealand, Bareman came in fast with an innovative approach in the second Auckland-centric lockdown: he turned the gym into a tightly controlled bubble for his pro fighters so they could continue to train for UFC 253 Fight Island in Dubai, the ring where Adesanya went on to defend his title against Paulo Costa. For the two-odd weeks of lockdown the fighters ate, slept and breathed fighting, dossing down in the offices and spare rooms and turning part of the gym into a dorm. It sounds hectic, but Bareman is radiant as he recalls its Zen purity: “That environment is the most conducive environment for breeding a champion.”
He says he has no doubt that total focus contributed to Adesanya’s success, and he’d consider doing it again, except it’s a different time in the sport: “The young generation is so different. Yesteryear, when I first started the sport, there were already guys spending eight, 12 weeks away from their family, and living in the gym and training for a fight, and it was just part of the sacrifice that you made, and it was more accepted and normal. For them to do that now…” he lets his words peter out, and then admits he struggles sometimes with this new generation of fighters. “They’re coming from a generation that wears their heart on their sleeve more.”
I can tell he’s exasperated by this because he’s bouncing the ring ropes up and down under his hands and is the least relaxed he’s been. He’s in the ring with Edith Amituanai taking photos and I press him on the generational thing: “I walk the thin line between toxic masculinity, and looking after these guys. You have to pay attention to some of these things — people’s feelings and people’s understanding — but you also sometimes have to figure out where to not pay it any credence.” It sounds like Bareman has to be both good and bad cop for his fighters, pushing them past their limits, but also nurturing their spirits. He shakes his head, looking baffled, but you can see he cares very deeply for these guys — he’s responsible for their wellbeing and he takes it incredibly seriously.
We settle down on the side of the ring, and I ask Bareman what it’s been like in the upper echelon of the UFC, where his and Adesanya’s names are now bandied around like deities. He’s circumspect when he replies with his first answer “The UFC is like the most brilliant company in the world. For my boys, it’s given them a future in a sport where it’s very hard to find a future. They’re the company that’s big enough for us to do that, and they’re given us that opportunity so we’re very grateful and humbled and thankful for that.” He examines the ceiling again and then concedes: “The UFC environment is one that if I had a choice I wouldn’t gravitate towards. At the top — and this could be true of every industry — it’s absolutely cut-throat, absolutely ruthless. The amounts of money that are involved… they up the ante and they up people’s intensity level and they up the level of rivalry. Everything is such high stakes that you’re on the edge the whole time.” Bareman says while it’s a privilege to be part of such a huge organisation, he wouldn’t want to live in it all the time. He also thinks that kind of money can corrupt the purity of martial arts – at the top there’s less respect and more ego.
Well over an hour has gone by, but it’s hard to bring the interview to an end, Bareman is so engaging. Edith, who has stayed to listen to the interview, asks him what part of the whole fight process Bareman likes the most. Suddenly, it’s as if someone has turned a lamp on inside him. “Honestly my favourite part is just after the fight! Right after it’s done. Regardless of who it is, it feels the same. If it’s someone who’s had two fights, or if it’s Israel, it really does feel the same. As far as those two people are concerned, that’s the biggest fight, and the biggest moment of their life. I’ve had people that have had one or two fights, and the joy and elation they get, which filters through to me, has been the same as when Israel won the world title.”
People cram into City Kickboxing seven days a week to train, and MMA is a sport growing globally in massive numbers every year, and I want to know why. Bareman takes a long time to think about it, before he finally says: “What it is, is, no matter what situations you’ve been in in your life, you truly understand vulnerability properly. The feeling of understanding that, fighting with that, going through that internal battle, as well as external battle – physically beating another person whose sole intention is to beat you – those things bring about a feeling that I’ve never been able to replicate, no matter what I’ve achieved in my life.” You meet yourself out there in the ring, he says. You fight your body’s instinct to run, and the feeling of accomplishment, win or lose, is everything.
I ask him if fighting gyms attract troubled souls, and he says yes, and when I ask him why that is, he asks a question back: “Why especially nowadays are there so many young people looking for gang patches? I think it’s for the same reason that they’re coming to a gym like this – to fit in somewhere, and be part of something bigger, rather than being lonesome on their own. In the absence of family, you definitely try to find one.” Bareman says he thinks if the gym had more of a “footprint” among those lost souls, fewer of them would turn to gangs. “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen guys that were going down that path come in here, and then they don’t go down that path.” Others have come in, lost discipline, and fallen into what Bareman calls “that dark place.”
His brow is furrowed, but then it clears. “On the flip side of that, you get other situations. This is an amazing story.” He adjusts his seat, and quietly tells me about a university lecturer he coached for fights, who was abducted one night getting into her car. “She got donked on the head and put in the back of a van and taken up to the Waitakeres. She had to be very patient and very calm – as calm as you can be – and wait until there was enough light, and she’s being tormented the whole time by this idiot. She waited for this person to be at a vulnerable point, and grabbed him and kneed him.” He demonstrates the move, a hard drive of the knee into his hands, which smack with the force. “That knee debilitated him enough where she got a head start. She escaped.”
About a month after the abduction, the woman came back to City Kickboxing for rehabilitation. Bareman and Viney closed the whole gym down for her, and Viney held the pads while she worked out, with just a nurse standing watch. “She felt comfortable, and she sat us both down and said ‘I think you guys saved my life.’” Bareman is quick to interject “We didn’t. She saved her life. But she attributed it to the fact that she had been through adversity as a fighter, and that particular technique where she kneed the guy, she somehow attributed that to us, and believed we helped save her life that day.”
Bareman’s eyes have got very bright, shining with emotion. “Years later she published her work, and right at the end the dedication was for me and Doug, which was real cool.” He smiles and shakes his head. “Amazing.” All the wins, all the international accolades and all the hype, and you can tell that it’s stories like this that mean the most to Bareman; he really is changing lives here. We say goodbye and he pads away across the mats. His feet land softly, each step even and placed with care.
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