SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Muhsin Corbbrey's isn't so much concerned with how a gym looks as how it smells.
Corbbrey likes to joke the new location for his mixed martial arts gym, Champions Training Center, reminds him of the Mighty Mick's Gym in the "Rocky" movies. That gym is portrayed in the films as a dingy red brick building on the corner of a run-down street in Philadelphia.
The inside of Champions Training Center on Montgomery Street in Savannah isn't much to look at — just two small rooms that barely fit a grappling mat, a caged ring and a few punching bags. But that never stopped Rocky Balboa, and it hasn't stopped Corbbrey.
"It should smell like hard work in here," he said, "and it does."
Suffice to say being recognized as the 2017 Gym of the Year by Georgia Fighters & Mixed Martial Arts has nothing to do with how big or modern your facility is — only how many high-quality fighters you're producing.
Right now, Corbbrey's gym, which is really the equivalent of a dojo, has a dozen amateurs and professionals who are ranked.
"There's not another gym in this area that produces what we produce," said Corbbrey, who opened Champions Training Center in 2008, and in 2014 went toe-to-toe with UFC fighter Nick Dias in an Elite Extreme Combat MMA event that was broadcast on Showtime. Corbbrey held his own against Dias, who at the time was a rising MMA star. He survived two rounds until he fell in the third by way of technical knockout.
"I was thinking of my career when I started (the gym)," he said. "It wasn't until I saw what we were producing that I was like, we're going to focus on this gym producing one of the best teams in the world."
For Corbbrey, the standard had always been American Top Team, which has become a brand of MMA gyms across the country, with two locations in the Atlanta area, both with state-of-the-art facilities. 2017 is the first year Georgia Fighters has ranked CTC ahead of Top Team.
"We've been in the mix for a long time," said Corbbrey, who was Georgia Fighters' 2017 Trainer of the Year. "We just had a great year this year."
Brandon Moran, a 23-year-old who is about to earn an engineering degree from Savannah State, is 7-0 and ranked as the No. 2 amateur featherweight in Georgia.
Josh Blyden, 30, is 6-2 since he turned pro and is the state's third-ranked pro featherweight. He trained with Corbbrey to prepare to fight middleweight world champion Lawson McClure at the Monster Bellator MMA Supercross Atlanta on Saturday.
Just about everyone who's come through Corbbrey's gym has started from scratch.
Moran was a former high school wrestler who wandered into CTC seeking a challenge.
"It was a whole different world," Moran said. "I was getting choked out left and right. I knew I had to learn this.
"I didn't know how to box or none of this stuff. They improvise on what you know and work on it from there. You can be an average joe."
Blyden also came from a high school wrestling background, grappling at Richmond Hill High. When he started training with Corbbrey, he weighed 235 pounds and was just looking for a way to shed some weight. A year and a half later, he won his first amateur fight as a 145-pounder.
"You couldn't emulate that feeling," Blyden said. "Nothing like winning something you prepared 10 to 12 weeks for.
"You hear in movies that martial arts changes you. It's definitely real. I've learned to be happy with what I have and not complain about what I don't have."
Tough get going
For Wesley Barnes, who became Corbbrey's first pupil when the gym started 10 years ago, martial arts became therapeutic. Barnes served in the U.S. Marines from 2003 to 2007 and did two tours in Iraq, where he saw his share of combat.
When he got out of the service, he tried welding and bouncing at bars, but he was still looking for something more fulfilling. Then he heard about Corbbrey's gym.
"I got this feeling of this is where I need to be," Barnes said. "I thought I was tough, but this was way tougher. I like tough opponents, and this school places you with tough fighters. I've never fought anyone with a losing record."
Barnes was 15-1 as an amateur and turned pro in 2013. He became the National Fight Championship Georgia lightweight (155-pound) champion in March 2017.
Barnes said fighting in the ring is his outlet to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he doesn't hold back when he's facing an opponent.
"If you've ever been shot at, you've got PTSD," he said. "I came from the military world into this, and I'm like what's the worst that can happen? I'm not worried about injuries, and I just go. That's why they call me 'Sheer Velocity.'"
While Corbbrey is churning out pro-quality fighters, he sees the mission of his gym extending beyond that.
"The plan was never to open a gym," Corbbrey said. "I was kind of stuck with it when people's lives started to change."
After spending nearly 10 years in the Windsor Forest area, Corbbrey relocated to Montgomery Street near Tatemville, looking to teach MMA to black youths in Savannah or just anyone looking for an outlet.
"He's probably one of the better role models I've had. He has that tough love," Moran said of Corbbrey. "He has that father-figure level. He can be that old grandfather who gives you that wisdom, and you're like, 'I never thought about it like that.' He'll push you to that breaking point and make you wonder if this is what you really want to do."
But Corbbery is teaching it the same way he learned.
"I love working with kids, watching them grow, watching them from not being able to walk a straight line to a champion," Corbbrey said. "I know what MMA did for me and that it can do the same for anyone."