Interview by Matt Homeyer
You began your wrestling career in high school, where you won two state championships as well as held the national takedown record for several years, what got you interested in wrestling and did you ever dream that wrestling would take you to the places it has or that you would achieve the high level of success that you have? Yeah, I been wrestling along time in Michigan, in the Midwest wrestling is huge. I remember going and seeing a wrestling meet when I was younger it was Iowa vs Michigan State and I just really liked it. Friends of mine were wrestlers and their dads were state champs, so they were really good. So that gave me a good support cast and I just started really pushing it and enjoyed it. The hard work usually paid of about nine out of ten times so it was a good sport for me.
You are one of the most accomplished Greco-Roman wrestlers on the planet out of all the wrestling championships, trophies, and accolades that you have to your name is there any one in particular that stands out to you as your single greatest accomplishment? Or is there one that is particularly special to you? If so why? Yeah I mean me winning the World Championships in China back in 2006, it was a huge thing for our country and for me. It was one of the toughest weight classes there was at the time so that definitely sticks out for me. We trained so hard for that, I was 100% ready and performed sometimes that’s not always the case, you might be ready for something and not perform but everything came together that day.
How did competing at the collegiate level of wrestling compare to wrestling at a higher level like the worlds championship that you won back in 06’? Collegiate level is a little bit different, collegiate wrestling is only a style that is wrestled in the United States. I believe that we are the toughest in any style of wrestling anyways so for us to have that collegiate wrestling it’s so competitive in college. I think that being the NCAA division 1 champion is one of the toughest things to do in the world; it’s as tough as winning an Olympic gold medal or anything else. It’s as high up there as it gets. It’s a level of competition that is so equal it makes it a really hard thing to accomplish so wrestling at that division and doing as well as I did was really exciting and to go overseas to represent for the U.S. was just another notch in the belt. I think that they go hand in hand but winning the world championship is a little bit different than winning the national championship that’s why that one sticks out in my mind.
You were denied the opportunity to compete at the 08’ Olympic games, how did feel to go to the games this time but instead of competing acting more as a coach which gave you the ability to pass your vast wrestling knowledge onto Elis Coleman and the rest of Team U.S.A‘s wrestling team? Yeah, it was different this time I wasn’t worried about making weight, I wasn’t worried about wrestling, I was just coaching a guy once a day so it was strange. It was a bit more laid back there was no stress. A little bit of a letdown for me I was assuming that I would be there but with fighting the way I am and things happen after fights and me having to be ready for the trials, it was just bad timing. But, it was a really great event, I was really happy with our freestyle wrestlers, they wrestled great. I think our Greco team is one of the best in the world and didn’t perform which is sad but it was a great performance by the U.S. in wrestling and it was really fun to be there.
What was the atmosphere like at the London Olympic Games? I know that you worked extensively with Coleman, was there any others in particular that you also took under your wing? What advice did you give to them in how to deal with the pressure of competing against the best in the world as you have done many times yourself? The atmosphere in London was great it is an English speaking country which was really nice; it felt similar to New York City. I worked with Elis, I worked with Perry Lester, and I worked with a bunch of guys, the freestyle coaches. We worked mostly technique with me attacking the body. The advice that I gave them was strictly just to believe in themselves , that they were the only Americans here and the whole country was behind them , there’s no time to sit around and wait now, pull the trigger and see if it works. A lot of guys never get the opportunity to compete at the level where these guys are at and some do but don’t perform and it hurts them the rest of their lives. So it’s just another tournament for them, hopefully some of these young guys make the return and wins a gold medal for us at the next Olympics.
With your background in wrestling and now being an accomplished MMA fighter as well, how much do you feel wrestling has helped your career as a mixed martial artist? And for younger generations that are interested in MMA would you say that wrestling is a great way to start off as opposed to jiu jitsu or any other discipline? Wrestling for me how it benefited MMA is it saved my ass really. I jumped in both feet real deep without training, right into the Dream World Grand Prix. So without the wrestling training I would have not lasted more than a minute in front of some of these guys. With me being hard-nosed and learning mental toughness, the never say die kind of attitude was able to help push me thru a lot of the first tough fights. I believe that wrestling is the base of fighting; I believe that if you are a good wrestler that striking and jiu-jitsu comes with it. I think jiu-jitsu goes hand in hand with wrestling the wrestling gyms and jiu-jitsu gyms are pretty much the same things these days. I own a gym in Denver called the Rhino Sport Gallery, wrestling and jiu-jitsu is just cross training with each other. I believe that there will be some kind of connection between the two someday soon. We might have submission wrestling or something like that maybe in a college atmosphere.
You started your MMA career training at Team Quest, what was it like to train with the legend Dan Henderson who comes from a similar wrestling background as you and was it beneficial having someone who had made that transition from wrestler to mixed martial artist there to help you make the transition? Those are the guys that made me make my transition, Heath Sims, Dan Henderson those guys were teammates of mine. I was a young guy on the team, they both were Olympians, and they were Greco-Roman guys. I was coming into the room in college and Matt Linland, Dan Henderson, Randy Couture everybody in the book was in the room. They were the older guys on my team and I was the guy winning, I was a younger guy so I looked up to those guys. Then when it was time for me to start fighting Dan Henderson and Heath Sims called me and said you need to come out here we have some people out here that are going to pay some money to fight. I never even thought about it then they started throwing money at me and I was like ok I’ll try it. We got in there and started fighting, it was very beneficial for me to start at Team Quest, it was very comfortable to have Greco- Roman Olympians there to help with that transition. Dan has been a good family friend of mine for years; I actually just cancelled my tickets to go see him fight because he hurt his knee a bit. It is extremely beneficial to have a teammate who was an Olympian and a friend to make that transition. I believe that definitely helped me.
You took little to no time making the transition into your MMA career taking on a tough task in the former WEC champion Chase Beebe, can you take us back to that first fight and how you felt stepping into the cage for the first time? I remember I was snowboarding in Aspen when I got the call from Dan and he said listen we need you to fly out in two weeks we got a fight in Japan. So I haven’t been training yet so I flew out to L.A. and spent two weeks in Temecula then flew to Japan. I really didn’t understand fighting I just knew that I was going to fight an ex wrestler who was an ex-champion in the WEC which didn’t really bother me at that time. I was recent world champ so it didn’t bother me at all as to who was going to stand in front of me. My confidence level was extremely high. When I got in that ring it was extremely shocking to me, I mean it is a whole different atmosphere in a cage or in a ring then it is on a wrestling mat. It’s definitely an eye opener, to get my hands on Beebe first was extremely tough I ended up splitting his head wide open at the end of the first and it was stopped in the second. I was happy and pretty excited to get that win I didn’t know they were ten minute rounds till I got there. It was pretty eye opening for me, I jumped in it about as deep as you can, then after that we had three fights, every single month it was Kid Yamamoto, Bibiano Fernandes. Guys who were great athletes also, so a lot of different world champs at different sports that were fighting me. I jumped in there both feet with Team Quest , Dan definitely helped me do that and I don’t think I would have any of my guys jump in that deep not after my understanding of the sport now there are so many techniques that go into MMA without being very knowledgeable of them all it is very dangerous to do that now.
In just your second fight at Dream 9 in 2009 you took on the number one fighter on the planet at that time in Kid Yamamoto a fight that you won via split decision and beat him in Japan do you recall how it felt to beat the number one guy in the world when you were just getting started? Kid Yamamoto had a lot of hype behind him at the time he was the number one ranked guy in the world and that he was pound for pound the best, I heard a lot of stuff about him. I went to Urijah Faber’s camp the Team Alpha Male guys they helped me out for that fight. Urijah had been planning on fighting for several years before that so they knew how to fight him. Joe Benavidez was supposed to fight him but then got hurt so for me to get that opportunity was great for me to go to another country and fight there number one guy was very comfortable for me. Being the number one guy in the U.S., I was travelling overseas once or twice every month to compete against a guy in their country just to try and beat them. To feel that pressure was very comfortable for me, I had a bunch of ex wrestlers with me and we just kept that wrestlers mindset. I didn’t understand how big he really was he was a big big name over there. After I beat him there were people crying, they were really upset about it. They are very knowledgeable fight fans so it was a great honor to get the opportunity to go over to his own country and beat him.
You later went on to fight for Bellator Fighting Championship and won the featherweight Championship belt and in just your first title defense you were defeated by Pat Curran back at Bellator 60, how did you react? Did you take time to reflect on it or were u just motivated to get back in the gym and get another shot at getting your title back? I got beat by a bigger man he’s about seven inches bigger, twenty pounds heavier. That’s my problem I shouldn’t be fighting a weight class where I am smaller, just when I came back from Japan there wasn’t a 135lb division they just started it in Bellator and UFC so I fought at 145. Pat was a great fighter, he’s a good fighter we had a crazy three rounds, and I believe that his size was a factor in that fight. I caught that knee there that stunned me. I took my time and made sure I was healthy, I started working with the Olympic team that gave me some time to heal my head and get away from the sport and know I’m back training full time. It was kind of a blessing you don’t usually have the opportunity to take five months off from fighting and still compete. I’ve never been in this situation with losses so it’s weird for me. I guess it’s back to the drawing board, I don’t really see it that way I feel like I’ve been getting better every single fight I get to fight the best guy every time so I guess it’s hard to judge how much better I’m getting. I think this warrior is ready for war again.
How late of a stoppage do you feel it was by the referee in that fight? We saw you taking huge shots and barely standing let alone fight back before you finally dropped , members of the press speculate that you were basically out on your feet and that later back stage you vomited insinuating that you more than likely suffered a concussion can you tell me more about that? Let’s be realistic at this level of fighting especially when fighting for a belt in UFC or Bellator one guy usually goes to the hospital, I hate to say it whoever wins whoever loses one of the two guys goes to the hospital because usually one of them has a concussion or you just went thru a five round war and you both need to be hospitalized. Bottom line is yes, I had a concussion my body wouldn’t let me give up I’m a little too hardcore for myself. A normal person would have probably been asleep at that time but it was a title fight and I told myself there was no way I was going to lose. I was biting down on my mouth guard and just trying to push thru. I think i went out and just never quit fighting, it’s hard to talk about a referee at that point I could say that he should have stopped the fight sooner but this is a title fight for the world championship belt. You don’t want to stop the fight early; you don’t want to finish the fight until it’s over. I see that he noticed that I was on my feet still trying to fight and I think he gave me a chance there. I’m not used to losing or getting knocked out so I was a little sick in that back room , I went to the hospital and got checked out and everything was fine but safety is key at this point I got babies at home.
At one point you were hoping to become Bellator’s first two division champion at both featherweight and bantamweight is that still a goal that you have your sights set on? I am going to fight bantamweight for Bellator now so I will fight my upcoming fight and then I’ll probably fight the tournament in January. So there is a very good chance that I will have held both belts as both feather weight and Bantamweight I have no idea right now I just want to get back in that win column.
What’s next for your fighting career from here? Do you have an opponent lined up yet and if so when can fans expect to see you back in the cage? I fight November 9th for Bellator in the bantamweight division, yes I don’t know who he is, his name is Owen somebody he fights for Bellator. I don’t really care you put a man in a cage I don’t give a shit what his name is and there is danger there.
What combat corner products are you currently using in the gym? I’m using Combat Corner Pinnacle Series gloves.
After your fighting career is over what does “The Baddest Man on the Planet” intend to do? Any plans for the future? Perhaps a collegiate level wrestling coach or something? Yeah that’s something I been thinking about hopefully I can get on television with Spike TV or MTV maybe with Bellator or something that might be a future as a color commentator guy or who knows I might take this Olympic team job and be an Olympic coach. You never know I’m just going to keep wrestling and keep fighting until you guys pull me off the mat or pull me out of the cage.