RIO DE JANEIRO -- To get to the famous Nova Uniao academy, you must ascend three flights of stairs in an upscale public gym, past large, glass-walled rooms housing Pilates equipment and populated by flexible people in equally flexible spandex pants.
The long, narrow, one-room gym is beyond basic: one boxing ring, two large mats, no hanging punch bags and an open window for air-conditioning. Matted walls allow the fighters to bounce one another off a vertical surface. They take turns in making sure nobody falls out of the aforementioned open window.
Nova Uniao co-founder and head coach Andre Pederneiras likes to sit on the corner of the boxing ring to watch his team train. Every time I'm here, I find him in the same spot. He periodically gets up as fighters barrel toward his seat, but he always returns to the same spot flanked by any number of his seven assistant coaches. Pederneiras is friendly, quick with a smile and polite to every visitor to his gym. Except today. His face says "Not now, I'm busy."
His attention is fixed firmly on UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who is having the mother of all bad days in the office. It's two weeks out from his title defense against Chad Mendes at UFC 142 in Rio de Janeiro, the second South American show of the Zuffa era, and Aldo is in what's known as the shark tank, a trial that fighters commonly endure in preparation for a bout. He spars a series of men for the length of a championship fight, five five-minute rounds, a new partner on him every 60 seconds.
Pederneiras shows no emotion as Aldo is tagged with telegraphed punches or taken down with sloppy double legs. Where some coaches might scream and shout at their fighter, Pederneiras talks to him quietly between rounds.
His ordeal done, Aldo sulks off into a far corner while everyone pretends not to notice. A few minutes later, Pederneiras sidles up next to him. This is where the coach's job is most difficult: when a fighter is at his lowest, when he starts questioning his every move, when he wants to throw down the gloves and quit.
"Andre can give you the best advice at the right time," says Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro, a veteran MMA fighter and one of Pederneiras' most accomplished jiu-jitsu black belts. "You can be feeling pretty bad, talk to him a little bit, and leave feeling a lot better."
From fighter to family man
At 44 years old, Andre Pederneiras, known as Dede, is one of the most powerful men in Brazilian mixed martial arts. A jiu-jitsu black belt and former fighter, he had four bouts from 1998 to 2000 against the likes of Pat Miletich, Genki Sudo and Caol Uno. His Nova Uniao team boasts an army of more than 60 professional fighters. He is the president of MMA organization Shooto Brazil and promotes up to eight events a year across the country.
Dede says he travels internationally about 15 or 16 times every year to corner his fighters in events in the U.S., Europe and Japan. He's produced titleholders in the UFC, WEC, Sengoku, Bellator, Shooto, Pancrase and more. For many of the fighters on his team, he is their manager, too.
Nova Uniao ("New Union" in Portuguese) is a factory of lightweight Muay Thai monsters. But it's more than just a collection of talented, hard-hitting young men. Nova Uniao is a family.
"Many of these guys, like 80 percent, have been training with me for 10-12 years," Pederneiras says. "I don't like to accept too many guys to the team who didn't start with me. I prefer building the guy inside my gym before showing them to the world."
Ribeiro sees the gym more as an academy than the average camp.
"We don't have a camp here, we have a school from white belt to black belt," Ribeiro says. "We have people come here for a few weeks, sure, but people stay here for 10-15 years. That's the atmosphere Andre has created here, and he's building on it every year."
School of hard knocks
Pederneiras' stable boasts far more than just Aldo. He has fighters such as Renan Barao, Marlon Sandro, Ronys Torres, Eduardo Dantas and many more. Some of his team are sent by affiliate instructors from other cities in Brazil, but the majority of his fighters are native to Rio and have been with him since an early age.
"He catches them so young and builds their character and attitude," says Ribeiro, who has been a student of Dede since he was 14 years old -- a total of 18 years. "It's important for martial arts; it's important for life. Not everybody here is going to be a fighter, but everybody is going to be a good person."
Many of the young fighters who train in Pederneiras' school are from humble backgrounds, meaning they're poor and likely live in a favela, or a shack. But social class disappears when everyone is clad in a T-shirt and shorts. Dede offers his students a distraction from their circumstances and a very real career opportunity.
"I never put any guy to fight before they're 18," Pederneiras says. "I have a lot of young fighters, 16-17 years old. I try to put them into competing jiu-jitsu a lot, to keep them motivated. Because they're always training for a tournament, they have no time to be distracted. And it's good for MMA, because they learn the pressure of competition early."
Nova Uniao is more than just an MMA team. It's a jiu-jitsu powerhouse and one of the top teams on the local circuit. Pederneiras has graduated a total of 104 black belts, and there are Nova Uniao academies across America and Canada as well as Brazil.
Despite their jiu-jitsu pedigree, the first thing most people associate Nova Uniao fighters with is Muay Thai. Their gym boasts a dynamic, concussive style led by the likes of Aldo and Sandro. The influence came from a unlikely source.
"I trained in Muay Thai and boxing," Pederneiras says. "When I was 17 years old I knew Marco Ruas; we lived in the same place in Flamengo [an inner-city area of Rio]. I knew those guys for a long time, I knew so many guys from Muay Thai. When I started my team, I invited all of them to come and train with me."
With the likes of Ruas and former UFC heavyweight Pedro Rizzo providing the stand-up training, Pederneiras insisted that all his fighters (who were mostly from a grappling background) train Muay Thai. "[The reason for training in striking] is because you can have a good and solid ground game, but without the stand-up game, there is nothing."
Key to success
Pederneiras is a family man with a wife and two young children. But his fighters see him as a father figure. Coming to him at such an early age, they develop a bond with him that lasts years.
"Andre has such a character, he's good at bringing people close and feeling very warm in his place. He's an amazing person," Ribeiro says. "That's why I've been with him for 18 years, because my whole life he's given me advice and supported me -- he's always been by my side, in the good times and the bad. That's the type of friend I'm looking for in my life."
To cultivate a sense of camaraderie, Pederneiras does his best to make sure every fighter under his guidance gets the same kind of special attention and treatment.
"I try and invest my money back into the team, not just one guy, so everybody grows together," Pederneiras says. Head of the most successful MMA team in Brazil, he's got one more goal in mind: to be the best gym in the world.
If Pederneiras continues to breed successive generations of talented and hardworking professionals, he may well someday realize this goal. And he, the father figure, is the bond that knits it all together.
"I think that's the secret of my gym, my relationship with those guys," he says. "When they believe in you, they will train like you want. I think it's the best."
Hywel Teague is a contributing mixed martial arts writer for ESPN.com. He is a veteran reporter and edited the international MMA magazine Fighters Only for five years.