(Photo courtesy of MMA Junkie)
By Elias Cepeda for CagePotato
After an impressive seven-year career competing around the Northwest and as a member of the Nevada Lions in the IFL, John Gunderson (22-7) finally got his ticket to the big show when we was invited to fight Rafaello Oliveira as a late replacement at UFC 108. Though he lost that match by decision, his performance was enough to earn him a second shot — and that’s when things got tricky. A scheduled meeting with Paul Taylor fell apart when Taylor withdrew from the match not once but twice. Luckily, Canadian newcomer Mark Holst has agreed to replace Taylor at the TUF 11 Finale on June 19th. Gunderson took some time to update us on his upcoming redemption-match, and his quest to find success in the UFC while juggling his other two jobs — personal trainer and soccer dad.
CAGEPOTATO.COM: After taking your first UFC fight on short notice you had a full camp and were set to fight Paul Taylor in April at UFC 112 but then the bout didn’t happen because he pulled out. What happened there?
JOHN GUNDERSON: I got the fight with Paul Taylor in Abu Dhabi and flew all the way out there, weighed in and apparently that night Taylor started having problems. He had migraines and got real sick and wasn’t able to compete. The UFC turned around right away and put me on the finale card against Taylor again. But about three or four weeks ago I found out that Paul Taylor pulled out again and now I’m fighting Mark Holst. They didn’t tell me why and I didn’t even ask.
Let’s back up for a second and talk about what it was like to have gone through an entire camp, then go all the way to Abu Dhabi and have your opponent not compete. When did you find out and how disruptive was it?
Oh yeah, I’ve never gone through anything like that. The day of the fight we actually got on the bus to take us from the hotel to the event center which was literally five minutes away. So I was an hour, hour and a half out from fighting and that’s when they told us. You can imagine, go all the way out to Abu Dhabi after losing my first UFC fight. In the back of your head you are thinking that if you don’t win this one, that’s it. So leaving the hotel, I was ready. I felt like it was taken from me but the UFC gave me another opportunity right away so…
Wait, you were on the bus and that’s when you found out? Did you have a period of denial at first, like did you think there was still some chance that you would get to fight?
Oh yeah. As soon as they told me my camp wanted to go eat instead of sitting around for two hours. But I told the guys, “maybe we should still head up there,” because I thought that somehow I’d still get to fight. But once it’s cancelled it’s cancelled. A good organization like the UFC, they don’t pull shenanigans at the last second.
So they booked you guys against each other right away and then just a few weeks ago you find out that Taylor won’t be able to fight again. Was that even worse for you?
It was definitely upsetting, I’d never been through something like that but you just keep trucking ahead. I’ve got to worry about this guy Mark Holst. Hopefully I’ll still get to fight Paul Taylor in the future. I don’t care if I have to travel to England to fight him. I’ve flown across the globe for fifteen hours trying to fight this guy, I have this guy’s picture in my bathroom so when I woke up at 5am every morning I knew why I had to get up. This is a fight I need to have, even if I have to go to 170, just because I’ve trained so long to fight this guy.
Taylor’s fight against you was going to be his first after moving down to 155. Do you think weight had something to do with his not fighting?
I don’t even know. He doesn’t look that big. I don’t know. I haven’t asked. It’s none of my business.
Now did you say you still have his picture in your bathroom, even though you’re now fighting Holst?
No, I had it up there before. My girlfriend asked me, why do you have a guy’s picture up? (laughs) When I woke up dead tired at 5am, it gave me motivation. I know it is clichéd and sounds stupid but it really gave me motivation. Sometimes you’re so sore and beat up when you wake up that you literally have to crawl out of bed and this reminds you why. All I thought about for three to four months was Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor.
You talk about waking up at 5am. Your day job is being a personal trainer. Talk a little bit about what your schedule is like balancing being a UFC fighter, having a day job and being a dad.
I get up everyday at 5am except for Sundays. I’ve got to be at the gym at 6am and then I’m training people. As soon as I’m done I run to the Tapout gym and work with Shawn Tompkins for my morning session. Then I go home and nap if I can and if not, I pick up the girls from school. Then I hang out with them, feed them, take them to soccer practice or games. Then I drop them off at home with mom and run back to the gym.
You’ve said before that you never felt complete until you began to embrace fatherhood and that you’re the only soccer dad/mma fighter you know of. It’s obvious that you love being a dad every day, which is great. But as a fighter, does being happy with your life and your situation make you soft? Does it take the edge off?
(Laughs) No. It makes it hard but then I realize it also keeps me going. I always have something to do, I’m always busy [because I’m a dad]. It is probably a little harder on the girls sometimes because I’m in a bad mood a week or two before fights. But it keeps me going because I’m not just sitting around the house waiting to train or fight. Days just go by quick because I’ve got stuff to do.
You’ve also spoken about your difficult childhood — coming from a broken home, changing schools often, fighting bullies. You’re grown now, no one is picking on you, you’ve got your own family and it would seem you don’t have anything to prove anymore. Why do you still fight, then?
I don’t know. I just love it. I don’t know what I’ll do when I quit fighting. I like to compete, I’m real competitive. I’m just a huge fan of fighting. There isn’t a UFC event I don’t watch, or Strikeforce or even smaller shows. I like to watch fights and if I’m going to watch and if I’m able to compete, I might as well compete. I want to remember when I’m older that I did all I could in the sport, that I did all I was able to in the sport.
What do you know about your next opponent, Mark Holst, and what are your impressions of him?
I’ve seen him fight live a couple times in kickboxing fights. Both fights he won by knockout against two impressive opponents. He’s got good Muay Thai, good Jiu Jitsu. He’s a well rounded fighter like most fighters are now a days. If he would have fought me January 2nd he would have had a hell of good chance. But now I’m going to wreck him. I’m confident, aggressive, strong, 100% healthy. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got, I’m willing to die. But I can say it, people can talk the talk. We’ll all see on June 19.
You say if he would have fought you six months ago, he would have a good chance. Do you feel you’ve improved that much in a half year?
It seems like there is no way you can improve that much in a short period of time but I feel I have. I’ve done so many things to help my game. I’ve worked on the little things in my game, I’ve constantly worked on them. And I’ve seen them work in the gym so I know they are going to work in the fight. If they work in the gym against some of the best fighters in the world, they will work in the fight.
You’ve had your last opponent pull out twice now. What precautions have you been taking now to make sure this fight happens? Have you been sending your opponent vitamins and health food? Are you going to kidnap him and hold him until the fight?
(Laughs) I’ll tell you what, I have been working in head gear just so I don’t get cut. About two weeks before the Abu Dhabi fight, I got cut in training and had to get eight stitches. It healed just as we left and I was a little nervous going out there with that. So for this fight I’ve wanted no injuries all. I’ve just kept thinking, "this fight has to go through."