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Del Fierro embraces Latino heritage

Eric Del Fierro, left, uses his "warrior" style to train fighters like UFC champ Dominick Cruz. Ed Mulholland for ESPN

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- Eric Del Fierro prides himself on the ability to multitask, which puts his decision to concentrate on mixed martial arts instead of boxing in the appropriate light.

"I don't think I was trying to get away from boxing as a whole. I was just so intrigued by the mixed martial arts game," said Del Fierro, one of MMA's best trainers. "Just being in martial arts myself, I wanted to stay in this and see what I can do."

Dominick Cruz became the best bantamweight in MMA under Del Fierro's watch. Alexander Gustafsson nearly did the same recently in the light heavyweight division against Jon Jones. Bellator champion Michael Chandler has quickly risen up the lightweight ranks. And many more successful fighters have graced this suburb of San Diego, less than 30 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, to work with a trainer whose attitude is rooted in the tradition of forward pressure and old-school MMA.

"Eric being of Mexican descent and speaking Spanish and training in Tijuana with a lot of those guys, I think that brings a different style to Eric that you can't see anywhere else," said Cruz, whose trademark footwork and movement can be tied directly to Del Fierro's schooling. "We might not all fight that way, but it's in our personality through Eric putting that out of himself. As an athlete, you're always somewhat of an image of your coach.

"Today, Eric comes in [the gym] and says, 'If a guy turns away at the edge of the mat and runs from you, you're a big wuss if you don't knock them out.' What more do I have to say? That's the kind of coach I enjoy, the kind of coach I want to learn from, the kind of guy who has no mercy and understands the intensity that you must have in order to compete at the highest level. And Eric has that."

Del Fierro, 42, was born in Houston after his parents, seeking a way out of poverty and the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, entered the U.S. illegally in 1969. He was reared in a Spanish-speaking home in San Antonio, where his mom cared for him and his siblings while his father, now semiretired, operated a successful construction company for nearly three decades.

In 1993, Del Fierro left Texas and his family for San Diego and the Navy -- an unexpected move, he said, "because no one moves away from home." He took advantage of access to Tijuana -- visiting nearly every week, particularly to train with his first kickboxing coach, Miguel Reyes -- and Southern California's emerging MMA scene, such as Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den, also based in Chula Vista.

By 2001, Del Fierro worked his first corner, doing all this, as he still does, while serving as a fireman. April will mark his 20th anniversary as a first responder. Maximizing an intensely busy schedule, Del Fierro has made it a habit of spending time between calls at the fire station studying video of his fighters' upcoming opponents.

"I multitask," he said with a laugh.

With his knowledge of the fight scene in Mexico and desire to do as much as he could in martial arts, Del Fierro added co-owner and matchmaking duties for regional MMA promotion Total Combat to his schedule.

"[MMA in Mexico at the moment] it's huge. It's growing," said Del Fierro. "We promoted shows down in Tijuana, Mexico, for years when it was illegal in California. It was huge back then."

"[Mexican fighters] are more well-rounded now," Del Fierro added. "They've always had good striking. The only thing they're missing, like every other part of the world, is wrestling. And it's coming. Guys are doing better. They're learning, and they're traveling to get better at it."

From 2003 to 2009, 35 Total Combat cards dotted Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and, mostly, Mexico. Del Fierro is most proud of an event that drew nearly 16,000 fans in Mexico City, which is part of the reason Total Combat garnered attention from Zuffa in 2006 when it was in the market to expand. The Las Vegas giant that promotes UFC bouts eventually opted to assimilate the WEC, where Cruz won a title at 135 pounds.

He doesn't do any active recruitment, Del Fierro said, "but because of who I am, we've met a lot of people in Mexico. They have contacted me. Some of the best fighters out of Mexico have come here and just spread the word. It's been good. One of our veterans has been with us forever; Edwin Aguilar is from Tijuana, Mexico, and he goes all over doing seminars in Mexico. It helps get the word out about who we are and what we can do."

Del Fierro met Cruz after signing him to fight at lightweight on two weeks' notice in 2006. The future UFC champion showed a level of determination that night, impressing Del Fierro with his warrior spirit, a phrase so often used to describe fighters with Mayan or Aztec blood running through their veins.

Cruz's father wasn't around when he grew up, so he didn't know much of the Mexican side of his family, and his Irish-German mother didn't teach him Spanish. But based on his heritage, Cruz said he must have been meant to be a fighter.

Cruz is one of the few fighters with whom Del Fierro will speak Spanish, though that hasn't happened much the past two years while the UFC champion struggled with significant knee problems.

"He used to call me 'Rojelio' from across the room," said Cruz, referencing his middle name. "Everyone would look around like, 'Who is that?' I'd know what he was talking about. He would say certain things in Spanish no one would know, but I would know because he and I have a relationship like that. It was more of practice/fun/play around-type deal. I know we'll get back to it."

When they do, perhaps as soon as the start of 2014, Del Fierro said his family will be watching.

"My family is huge fans of the sport," he said. "Huge fans of us. My fighters. Myself. It's a big family deal. In Texas, it's huge for sure. I'm superproud of being Mexican-American. I'm very proud of my heritage, very proud of where I came from."