by Ben Fowlkes
Dean Lister is in a tough spot. He’s a world class grappler, an Abu Dhabi champion, and depending on who you talk to, he may be the best pure jiu-jitsu fighter in the world. Trouble is, when you carry around a reputation like that it’s hard to surprise anyone.
Because Lister’s ground game is so advanced, most of his opponents will do anything to avoid it. They’d rather force him to stand and strike – which he admits he’s been less comfortable with – and rely on providing just enough offense to win.
“It’s frustrating,” Lister says. “Everyone so far has had pretty much the same strategy. My last opponent (Jordan Radev) was supposed to be an Olympic wrestler from Bulgaria. He didn’t want to go to the ground with me at all. I guess that’s how a lot of people approach it though, just trying to stay on their feet no matter what. I don’t look at it as a negative thing. It’s just how it is.”
The problem for Lister is that as good as his ground game is, when he can’t win with it he’s struggled to find other paths to victory. His recent losses to Nathan Marquardt in the UFC and to Ricardo Arona in Pride were both the result of decisions, as were all five of his career defeats.
The UFC recently announced that Lister will get a chance to avenge one of his early losses when he takes on Jeremy Horn at The Ultimate Fighter Finale show in June. The two first faced off in 2003, when Horn took Lister’s King of the Cage middleweight championship belt from him with a split decision victory.
“We’re both different now,” says Lister. “I’m about three times as experienced as I was back then. I only had like five fights back then, now I have fifteen. Then again, he’s probably fought way more than fifteen times since then, the way he goes.
“One thing Jeremy is known for is he’s not afraid to fight on the ground or on the feet. He’s very well-rounded. I just think that no matter what happens, it’s going to be an exciting fight. It doesn’t matter if it’s on the feet or on the ground – of course everyone knows that I have a preference.”
The bout with Horn may carry even more significance than a normal rematch, considering the UFC’s recent roster cuts. Lister has accomplished almost everything he can in the field of submission grappling and jiu-jitsu, and says his focus now is on becoming a great mixed martial artist – not just Tito Ortiz’s jiu-jitsu coach.
“Before I got into the UFC, even before I got into Pride, my grand goal was to become Abu Dhabi world champion. I’ve done that. Now that I’ve had that moment, I’ve changed my focus to the UFC. I was satisfied, but I’m not satisfied anymore. I think if you stop trying to grow, that’s it. You have to keep taking chances and putting yourself out there. That’s how you grow as a man, as well as a fighter.”
Lister’s recent growth has included a return from a very serious tendon injury that caused his biceps muscle to “roll up like a window shade.” The recovery was as tough mentally as it was physically, he says.
“It was a nightmare situation. Physically, it was a big problem. But psychologically it was an even bigger problem. I just had no confidence in my takedowns, no confidence in the strength in my arms, so it’s been tough getting over that, but I’ve been feeling better recently.”
After getting the offer to rematch Horn a little over a week ago, Lister has been splitting his training time between his new Throwdown Elite Training Center in San Diego and Tito Ortiz’s camp in the mountains of Big Bear, Calif. where he’s hoping the training will help him get to the next level in his career.
“I’ve been up in Big Bear with Tito and Sol Soliz. I’ve been trying to broaden my horizons like I used to, but also keeping my close friends around me. I want to become a complete fighter in the UFC, so I have to improve my striking, improve my takedowns. I don’t look at it as a big issue. I look at it as a challenge.”