(Photo via USA Today)
By Elias Cepeda
MMA fighters are typically quite good at talking about participating in the sport in philosophical terms. It is human chess, it is the ultimate competition, they feel peace in the cage or ring after the bell sounds, they get a thrill out of it, it is the most pure sport expression of martial arts, etc.
Most MMA fighters are pretty smart and since they participate in a constantly attacked and judged sport, many have come to see themselves as ambassadors for the sport on the whole.
It is important to remember, however, that professional fighters are prize fighters. That is, no matter what auxiliary benefits they get for fighting other trained athletes, they do it for money.
Fighters fight to put food on their plates and roofs over their heads. Joe Warren never forgets this.
The former Greco Roman wrestling world champion is in his car driving to his home state of Michigan on a recent afternoon. In tow, are the reasons he fights – his family. After winning a world championship, Warren was focused on making the U.S. Olympic team in 2008 and going to Beijing and winning gold.
A failed marijuana test and ensuing two-year suspension slammed that door shut for Warren. It was only then, at the relatively ancient age of thirty two, that he decided to follow in the footsteps of other world-class wrestlers turned fighters like Mark Coleman, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland and fight MMA.
“I was training to win a world championship, I won a world championship and then didn’t get to wrestle in the Olympics,” Warren tells CagePotato on the ride to Michigan.
“While training for wrestling, some of the best fighters ever were in the room. Guys like Randy Couture, Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson. So, it was always in my mind. I started to do a little bit of color commentary but I didn’t have any credibility in fighting because I hadn’t fought. So, I decided to take some fights. I had some babies now and I needed to keep making cash.
So, I called Dan [Henderson] and they got me a fight instantly. In a month, I was in the Featherweight World Grand Prix. I flew out there starting fighting.”
Not only did Warren jump right into the fire against champions like Chase Beebe, “Kid” Yamamoto and Bibiano Fernandes in his very first three fights back in 2009, he did so with only a month of MMA training in his pocket. “I went in there strictly a wrestler,” Warren says.
“I flew out to Team Quest maybe a month before my first fight in Japan. I didn’t have a chance to learn the fighting aspect of it. It was just about safety – keep my hands up.”
Despite his lack of experience and, frankly, skills, Warren did well. He beat Beebe and Yamamoto before losing by submission to Fernandes. Then, he moved on to Bellator and won their featherweight title.
Warren underscores the fact that he is still essentially brand new to MMA – not having built up muscle memory in key areas like striking and submission grappling that his opponents have. On the strength of his wrestling and will, Warren has found success in MMA.
Still, in both victory and defeat, Warren has been in some brutal fights. Warren calls himself “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” but is still somehow humble in acknowledging his shortcomings and assessing his future.
“I got into MMA to provide for my family and strictly on being the baddest man on the planet in Greco Roman Wrestling at that weight,” he says.
“I felt I was the toughest in the world and so I took that attitude and went after it. It was dangerous but it worked out for me. I just showed up to win these tournaments. I jumped in the deep end with both feet and came out of it.”
That said, Warren would have taken more time to learn the craft, in a perfect world. “Definitely if I would have had more time to develop, I would have taken more time,” he says.
“Then again, maybe if I would have gone slowly, taken some fights as an amateur, I wouldn’t be at where I am. A lot of people are dying to make money fighting and I started making money fighting right away. I wish I had the technique I needed but instead of that, I’ve just used will power. I push with everything I have. And yes, because of that, I’ve taken some punishment. These guys [I fight] are as good at what I did in wrestling but in Jiu Jitsu or in Muay Thai.”
Perhaps it was that same confidence and refusal to respect obstacles led Warren to continue to pursue his Olympic dream. After serving his two year suspension from international wrestling, Warren continued to fight MMA but also vied for a spot on the 2012 U.S. team.
The fighter’s family didn’t need to eat any less than they had a few years earlier, so he couldn’t afford to stop competing in MMA while trying to make the U.S. Greco Roman Wrestling team.
Not only did Warren train in both MMA and wrestling simultaneously, he entered the U.S. qualifying tournament just a couple weeks after losing to Pat Curran in a Bellator title fight. If you’ve got a weak heart, don’t watch that fight.
Warren got caught by Curran and, by combination of his own incredible chin, conditioning and heart, and an irresponsible job done by the attending referee, went on to take some of the worst, most unnecessary punishment any top MMA fighter has in recent years, before a criminally late third round stoppage. This TKO was just months after getting knocked out by Alexis Vila.
Warren took whatever level of brain trauma that he had sustained in the past eight months or so with him to the Olympic qualifying tournament, cut weight and wrestled match after match. He started out very strong, earning a pin, before getting beat and eliminated.
(Warren’s 2006 Greco Roman Wrestling World Championship winning match)
Warren got back on the winning track in MMA last fall with a win at Bellator 80. He is also now one of four coaches on Bellator and Spike’s ‘Fight Master’ reality competition show.
Coaching and speaking television spots may take up more of Warren’s time in the future, he says, but he’s also still intent on fighting. Also, the wrestler isn’t ready to say he’s done with international wrestling competition, either.
“I still believe, right now, that I’m the best Greco roman wrestler in the world. I don’t believe that I’ve lost anything. I want to wrestle but I need to support my family,” he says.
“I’m using fighting as my job. Things happen. I fought about fifteen days before the Olympic team trials. They didn’t want to let me wrestle. But finally, they let me out of bed. I lost to a good wrestler that I’ve beat before. I believed that if I made the team I could have medaled. Still, I got a good opportunity to coach. Even after I began fighting, I always planned to go out and try for the Olympics again. Who knows? The World Championships are in Las Vegas in 2015. Maybe if I’m done fighting by then, I’ll walk over and show them that I’m still the best in the world.”
For now, Warren is excited about ‘Fight Master’, and prepping for his next fight. Watching fighters compete to get on ‘Fight Master’ on the debut episode last week was “like sitting on your couch watching fights with your buddies,” for Warren.
“I got so excited and animated watching because it just came naturally. You’re watching fights ringside – that’s always exciting. Especially when they are fighting for $100,000 and a contract. It was a lot of fun sitting up there with Randy Couture, Greg Jackson and Frank Shamrock. They are all good friends of mine and are so knowledgeable. I’m actually training with Jackson a bit now and it is great.”
Coaching wasn’t something new for Warren. He says he was able to bring a lot of teaching experience to his team on ‘Fight Master’.
“I coached for years and am still a coach. More importantly, I have been coached by top-tier coaches my whole life so it was beneficial to have me as a coach for these guys. Plus, I know how to fight in these Bellator tournaments,” he says.
Warren has certainly taken his MMA career seriously, and committed much blood and sweat to it these past four years. At the same time, he seems to do it soley to make a living.
Men of character use whatever talents they possess to provide for their families. Some collect trash, some work in mines, others ride a desk. Some few souls brave and capable enough, literally fight for their families.
Joe Warren loves his family and loves wrestling MMA is something he’s good at and can make money. One love has to be put aside while he earns for his other.
With that said, can his success in MMA ever make up for the Olympic void he has in his wrestling career. Randy Couture, perhaps the most accomplished MMA fighter in history, is still haunted by his failures to make the full Olympic team.
He tried four different times and four times he was relegated to being an alternate. Despite a hall of fame career behind him in MMA, with world titles won in multiple weight classes, Couture has said that wrestling Olympic void still stings.
Can a mere job like MMA ever fill the wrestling void for Warren? “I’ve never had anyone ask me that,” he says before pausing.
“We are wrestlers. We start wrestling as young kids. It is our first sport. Our whole life we want to be world champions and Olympic champions. I was able to do that – to win a world championship, which is tougher than the Olympics. I won Pan Ams, the World Cip. I understand what Randy is saying when he talks about those frustrations. But, I got to that pinnacle of wrestling. The one thing I didn’t get was the Olympics. That would have just been another cherry on top.
“I get what Randy talks about. It is so hard to work your whole life and never win that medal or make the team. When you wrestle for the Olympic team it is not for making money. It is for personal gratification. For you to have given all you have and not get what you want, is hard. But I got that opportunity to get a world championship. Then, I moved into a new sport and won another world championship. Whatever else I do, and I would like another belt, I am a realist.
“I can easily put my wrestling shoes and my MMA gloves in a closet when I’m done. I believe there’s a future in coaching and other things. I’m open minded to what the future will bring.”