“We trained, traveled together, coached with and against each other and played together. I’m gonna miss you, You Crazy Canadian!” – Duke Roufus

“He texted me late last night, telling me he loved me…so thank God I called him to tell him it was mutual.” - Bas Rutten, Aug. 14, 2011

It’s been eighteen months since the passing of London, Ontario’s legendary MMA trainer, Shawn Tompkins. On paper, Tompkins’ legacy to the sport of MMA looks average at best. We must delve deeper into the unique story of this amazing individual to understand his special place in the history of our sport. It’s the story of a man who left us far too soon, yet who hasn’t really left us at all.

When we’re at our best, as human beings, we find something that captivates us and we make a run at it. Too often, however, we come to realize that our passion exceeds our potential. We discover that no matter how hard we try, we’re never going to command the center-stage spotlight in our beloved undertaking. At such a point, the “rational” voice inside us convinces us to abandon our field of interest and pursue other things. After four straight losses in the cage, most of us would succumb to that prickly voice of reason. Shawn Tompkins did not, and the world of mixed martial arts is forever in debt to him because of it.

At the age of six, Tompkins began his life-long journey into combat sports. Shotokan karate is where he’d make his initial mark, attaining a third-degree black belt, as well as two Canadian National Karate Championships. In his teens, Tompkins would transition into kickboxing, which would inevitably become his discipline of choice. Tompkins’ dedication and enthusiasm for the sport of MMA showed early on. At one point, he traveled to Los Angeles and slept on a gym mat just for the chance to learn from the great Bas Rutten. However, as mentioned, Tompkins’ brief career in the cage would bear no fruit, ending with an 0-4 record with his skills never taking him beyond the first round. It wasn’t until later that Tompkins would become proof that there are many rounds in life and that it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down, only how many times you get back up.

Despite having never had his arm raised in the cage, Tompkins managed to keep his chin up. Instead of folding and moving over to the blackjack table, he took a walk around the cage and contemplated a position on the outside—specifically, one in which Tompkins could give wings to those who were better suited to the canvas stage. He’d had minimal experience as a trainer in Canada, but hadn’t yet tried his hand at it in the fighting capital of the world. As Henry Ford said long ago, “Don’t let what you can’t do get in the way of what you can.” Amen.

After a brief stint as head coach of the IFL’s Los Angeles Anacondas, Tompkins saw a new door open at Xtreme Couture MMA in Las Vegas. There, his coaching style would take shape and his future in the sport would begin to solidify. Tompkins’ popularity grew quickly, and it wasn’t long before he became one of the faces of MMA.

In late 2009, Tompkins parted ways with Xtreme Couture and joined forces with Tapout Training Center in Las Vegas, rebooting his Team Tompkins concept that had shown a lasting success in Canada. This final adjustment set the stage for the remainder of Tompkins’ coaching career.

Having possessed a keen eye for the potential he himself was unable to manifest in the cage, Tompkins is best known for developing promising young talent from the ground up. Over the course of his training career, he would shepherd multiple fighters into the big leagues, some of whom were only in their teens when Tompkins took them under his wing. Despite the ongoing success of several of his proteges, none have been able to bring home the gold for Tompkins in the form of a world title.

Nevertheless, one of the themes of Tompkins’ life was toward this golden end: If you can’t make the summit, let someone else climb on your shoulders to get there. On April 30, 2011, a man named Mark Hominick nearly did just that. After suffering four rounds of relentless abuse from champion Jose Aldo at UFC 129, Hominick turned the tide in epic fashion and concluded the fight with a show of heart deserving of its own title. Hominick would fall short on the judges’ scorecards, however. Eight months later, he would fall again, and twice more after that. On Dec. 11, 2012, after four straight losses in the cage, “The Machine” ground to a halt and hung up his gloves. Another sad day for mixed martial arts.

It’s an interesting coincidence that Hominick, like Tompkins, decided to shift his MMA career from the inside to the outside of the cage after four consecutive losses. And although Hominick maintains that his retirement was no direct result of the loss of his coach, we’re left to wonder how much that loss affected him in the cage and led, however indirectly, to his decision. Tompkins was, after all, a powerful presence in Hominick’s life for over 10 years.

But Hominick is only one piece of the Tompkins core elite. Two additional fighters combine to form the trio that helped make Tompkins a household name: Sam Stout and Chris Horodecki. These two fighters shared an equally strong bond with their coach and stood on his shoulders to catch a glimpse of their own peak potential. Since Tompkins passed away, however, the entire trio has limped forward like lost souls, logging only a single victory across nine fights.

Such a thing must weigh heavily on these fighters each time they enter the cage, knowing one of their greatest wishes is to carry on the legacy of Tompkins. However, viewed through a certain lens, the faltering of these three fighters only underscores the brilliant motivational power of the man who once stood in their corner.

In addition, what many fans aren’t aware of is that a new trio of Tompkins-inspired fighters has taken flight. Three new prospects have risen from the aftermath of the legendary coach’s early departure to carry the torch: Jesse Ronson, Chris Clements and Jesse Gross. Clements trains at Tapout in Las Vegas, and Ronson and Gross train at Adrenaline Training Center in London, Ontario—a Tompkins spin-off that was founded by the original trio to carry on his work.

This new trio, by contrast, has suffered only one loss since Tompkins was taken from us. Their forward momentum lies mostly with Ronson, yet all three have that potential Tompkins was so adept at searching out. Thus, they represent the next generation of the Tompkins MMA bloodline, even as they may never have gotten to train closely with the famed mentor. Tompkins was said to be fond of the phrase, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” As it turns out, it might be yet a third kind of race—a relay.

This isn’t to say that Stout and Horodecki are ready to hand over the baton just yet, only that the Tompkins torch continues to burn bright and his historical legacy may have just begun. However, the truth of the Tompkins legacy still lies within his veteran trio. It is a legacy of a different type and more difficult to quantify. It’s centered around a theme of friendship and extended mentoring, one where Tompkins held a unique position, blurring personal and professional lines toward a stronger coach-student bond. This “human” legacy is best revealed through the words of his students themselves:

“He was the best man in my wedding. He was more than just a mentor in the sport. He became a life mentor for me.” – Mark Hominick

“Shawn pretty much raised me. He was like my second dad. I’ve learned just as much if not more from him. Me, Mark, Sam—we were his boys; that’s what he called us. You got the sense when we fought, he fought, because Shawn was right in there with us.” – Chris Horodecki

“Not all trainers…care like Shawn cared about us. He was so emotionally invested into his fighters and the sport that the stress contributed to his passing. I really believe that.” – Sam Stout

From surrogate father to brother-in-arms to best man, Tompkins went above and beyond what could be asked of any coach. He shone like the North Star over the lives of these three devoted warriors, who must now each find their own stars to guide them—no easy task. One of the three, Hominick, has already chosen to diverge from the path, though thankfully not from MMA altogether. As for the other two, they continue to battle on the front lines, soldiering on with the torch held high in hand, clinging to the spirit of the man who shaped more than just their careers.

Tompkins was a man who walked the walk and set an example so powerful that it eventually brought him the title he deserved. He would become known simply as “The Coach.” Tompkins dealt not only in cage skills but in life skills, delivering a powerful combination of tools to young fighters and young men. Perhaps most of all, Tompkins imparted to his students an understanding that success isn’t about titles and excellence doesn’t require one to be a well-rounded fighter, only a well-rounded individual with some fight in him.

It’s such things that give The Coach a unique place in MMA history and secure a legacy which requires no further accomplishments beneath his name. Sadly, as if by some unwritten law of nature, such unique legacies rarely come into focus until their benefactor has moved on from the world. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the lucky ones who walked through life by his side.

To the majority of us, Shawn Tompkins is merely a distant inspiration, a legend. But on Aug. 14, 2011, we sensed the full impact of this legend as he flew from the world of cages forever, leaving behind a spirit that shines eternal on the sport of MMA, and one which will inspire and elevate generations of fighters to come.

Truly, this is a man who should have been laid to rest with his arm raised.

Photo: Shawn Tompkins (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.

  • Robby Collins

    *Writer’s note: I never got to meet Shawn Tompkins but he somehow still touched my life, inspiring me to a deeper commitment in the sport of MMA. Having recently taken up kickboxing, I can only dream of having someone like Tompkins in my corner. Maybe we idealize people after their death, but something tells me this amazing individual was the real deal. For the most part, that something is the words of others who knew The Coach–words that tell not only of training expertise, but of kindness, a glowing personality and a lovable sense of humor. The following was taken from Shawn’s online guestbook and completes the picture where my own knowledge was lacking:

    “[I] didn’t know Shawn very long. Met him in the Spring of 2011 in London,ON. Had the priviledge of taking him and a couple guys from ATC out for lunch. Felt his passion and energy right away. Took the time to talk and show genuine interest in me. Saw him a couple weeks later at the Fan Expo in Toronto. You knew he valued your presence by his big smile. a few weeks later i received a text from Shawn while i was in Vancouver. I was there on business but to also watch our local UFC star, Sam Stout get his big W. Shawn heard from someone (likely Hominick) that I was in town. He invited me to a party/fundraiser and wanted to make sure I was there. He is by far the one person in recent years who has reached out selflessly. We scheduled a lunch date in London for Monday August 15th. I was looking forward to getting to know Shawn. If he touched me this deep in such a short time, i can only imagine the deep ache in his family and close friends hearts. Shawn even agreed to be one of my MMA industry references on my resume to the UFC Canada office. He actually asked me if i wanted a letter of reference from him. He gave more than he took. He inspired and encouraged. He smiled and welcomed me into his world. So glad I at least had a few moments, getting to know the ‘coach’.
    -Joe Botnick

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