The path to adulthood is not always the straight line that many want it to be. Many children see graduating high school as the final act of their childhood and the first step into becoming a functioning member of society. The decision of where to attend college or start in a field that can be their career is always a difficult one. But sometimes, the career finds the individual and not the other way around. That was the case for Zach Fears, whose first step into adulthood was inside a cage.
“I actually took my first amateur fight when I was in high school or right out of high school,” Fears told Combat Press. “I trained with some local guys and it was a little rag-tag thing in a garage. I actually have a really strong karate instructor — and I had a karate background coming up — [in] Paul Wells. He’s a two-time national champ, full-contact karate national champ, and he’s really solid and knows a whole lot about the aspects as far as not just karate, but jiu-jitsu and all that stuff. He gave me a really good base.
“And then, from there, I just kind of started venturing out on my own. I went to Memphis Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and trained down there on the weekends and stuff when I could. I’d go up to St Louis and train with Jermaine Andre’ and St. Charles MMA and some of the guys up there. So I kind of trained a little bit all over the place and got a wealth of knowledge. The bad thing from that is, I never really had a set instructor. I never had anyone that really had my back and really built me. I was always kind of that guy who came in the gym that was a tough guy, and it helped and it hurt me because, at the same time, some guys wouldn’t really want to help me or show me a whole lot because they’re like, ‘Oh, we may have to fight this guy.’
“I took my first ammy fight and didn’t fight again for five years. I had to get it changed because they actually had it down as a pro fight initially when they looked it up. So I had to get that changed at the World Championships, [because] they almost didn’t let me fight because they were saying I had a professional fight. It was right after high school, before I ever went off to college or anything like that. Then I went off to college and I wrestled and that kind of gave me my start. I had these buddies that, after they graduated college, started fighting and so then, after I was done wrestling in college, I still want[ed] to compete. I still work out all the time. I still go to my college and wrestle with those guys in my spare time. So I was looking for something to kinda stay active and that’s where it kind of led me into fighting.”
Fears went on to compile an impressive 14-1 amateur record (officially, it’s listed as 3-1) before turning pro in August 2014. Fears won his first three fights by submission, decision and TKO, respectively, before being matched up with former welterweight Jeremie Holloway in June 2015 at Fight Lab 48. Fears controlled most of the fight before being put to sleep by a second-round modified guillotine choke. Most fighters would beat themselves up afterwards and analyze everything they did wrong. Fears, though, was in a unique situation. He just got caught.
“I haven’t done a whole lot different than I was doing before, you know?” Fears said. “I kind of knew beforehand what I needed to work on. I try to get the most efficiency out of my time. I know what I need to work on. I know where I need to improve and those are the aspects of the game that I am always working on. I’m not really perfecting what I’m already good at and what I know. There’s no point of touching back really too much on those. I stay with it, but I’m always looking to improve.
“You see so many fighters nowadays that have pedigrees and things and then they switch it up as they go. I don’t really necessarily agree with that. My mentality is perfect — don’t forget what got you to where you’re at. Just perfect that. Make that even better and add the tools on to it, but don’t ever shy away from that. Why should I ever shy away from what got me to the level that I am at? Why take a tool away that you already have?
“I believe that was [Holloway’s] only fight that he ever fought at 155 [pounds]. I think even his next fight, he went right back up to 170. He was a big, strong guy, but technique beats strength every day.”
His words ring of truth. Many fighters have a pedigree that they have perfected over the years, but then they start doing something else because it just “‘works.” The best example of that in recent memory would be the case of Chuck Liddell. Liddell was a strong kickboxer early in his career, but once his hands started working as well as they did, it was as though he forgot he had kicks available in his arsenal. At only 27, Fears’ understanding of the game is quite impressive. In all reality, the thing that Fears craves most right now is simple: more frequent fights. Currently, he is on track with just two fights a year.
“I’m definitely trying to fight more than that,” Fears said. “Sometimes it’s hard to find fights, man. A lot of guys don’t want to take unnecessary risks, especially coming up when you don’t have a lot of fights and you’re a tough fighter. A lot of guys want to shy away from that because there’s not a whole lot of reward for them. Most of the reward is for me. If I look at guys with higher records, they don’t want to fight a guy with a lower record that is tough because, if they lose, where’s the upside for them? And, likewise, the guys with not a whole lot of fights don’t want to fight a tough guy and suffer a loss [to] the up-and-comers. It’s kind of tough to find the right match-up and people who want to take it.
“It’s kind of unique to the sport. I mean, you have boxing. One-on-one sports, it’s kind of similar where you can kind of pick and choose what you want. And the bad part is, where does that help you and where do you benefit from that? As a fighter, you have to look at every fight and really weigh the decision on ‘how does this help my career’ because each individual fighter is not really about anybody but themselves. ‘It’s about me. How does this better me? How is this going to help me for my career? And what are my goals?’ For me, my goals are to be at the highest level, and I’m not going to be able to compete at the highest level [by] shying away from people. I’ll tell you that right now. I’m never really one to shy away from competition.
“On the local scene, especially even coming up as an amateur, it was just really hard to find fights for me. That was partially due to myself, because I didn’t really have a gym so I just cross-trained with a whole bunch of schools. So a bunch of people in the area knew me and they knew that [I] was a tough fight.”
For now, Fears has his eyes set on one person: Max Bohanan. Fears meets Bohanan in his upcoming fight at Ring of Combat 54. Bohanan, like Fears, is coming off the first loss of his professional career.
“I’m not really gonna say my game plan, but we have a game plan and we’ve really been working some stuff,” said Fears. “For the last two weeks, it’s kinda just been a fine tune. We’re not going to change nothing up and we’re just going to kinda perfect what we are going to do. Just maintain my body and get ready for the fight. It’s been real light and just kinda get in there and hit the mitts and get my timing down a little bit. Other than that, man, I’m ready.
“I’m definitely going to hold to my strengths and limit his strengths. That’s how I look at every fight. I’m strong at every aspect… I believe I’m strong at every aspect of the game, so that’s a little bit different from a lot of the guys. For example, he has a pedigree in BJJ, so we kinda know a little bit what to expect versus me. You can’t really look nothing up on me. You don’t really know too much. And I feel strong in every aspect of the game, so it kinda gives me more leeway with where I want to take it and what I want to do.”
When Fears began in this sport, he was a nomad to various gyms in various states across the country. It wasn’t until he found Rich Clementi that he found a place to call his very own.
“I’m kind of the dark horse. A lot of people don’t know a lot about me,” said Fears. “They don’t know me personally. But the people that know me can definitely vouch for me. I’ve been around to a lot of gyms, pretty much all over the Midwest. Like I said, coming up I didn’t have a home school. I just traveled a lot and did a lot of cross-training
“I actually started training down with Rich just prior to the World Championships. After I had won Nationals and just prior to my World Championships, I moved down here for work. My work had slowed up in Missouri in the winter. I came down here. My dad actually owns a construction company down here. I came down here to work and I ended up staying down here for a year and a half. So all of my fights except for the Jeremy Holloway fight, I was down here with Rich.
“As far as training partners, it’s really just a few of us. I’ve trained at both kinds of gyms. I’ve trained at gyms where there’s 20 fighters in on sparring days and I’ve trained at gyms where there’s two guys on sparring days. The difference is that you need both. The difference is that you can really perfect things when it’s a lot more one-on-one stuff. For me, it’s been me, Rich Clementi and Brendan Allen, as far as our steady trio right there. It’s awesome. These are two other super high-level guys that are there to help me and I’m there to help them, and we have a special relationship between all of us that I’ve never really had at any other facility. I think that’s one of the things that made me grow leaps and bounds from before.”
In addition to being a fighter, Fears is also a husband to his wife, Kyle, and the father of two children, his six-year-old son Kale and two-year-old daughter Zoey. He also has a full-time job that allows his to continue to follow his dream.
“I work 50 hours a week managing a construction company and train in the evenings, so I’m go, go, go,” said Fears. “It’s kind of sad, man. You see these guys that are very talented and that are competing at a high level and they still can’t make ends meet. Think of what these guys can be if all they did is fight — if they worked 40 hours a week getting better in the gym.”
Just sit and think about that for a moment. Seriously. How many fighters would be champions right now if they were just able to dedicate their time to training and being in the gym? How many fighters would be able to support their families day in and day out and get to do what they love?
Fears believes consistency is the most important thing. Seasoned fighters have stressed the importance of consistency, even in something as little as the sound of their coach’s voice. If the coach yells at a fighter during training, then he can yell at him during the fights. If he talks softly during training, he must do the same during the fight. So many fighters miss this key aspect.
“We don’t want to be thinking when we are in the cage. That part is already gone. It’s just reaction,” Fears said. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s fight day. I need to do all this stuff different,’ or, ‘It’s fight week, I need to change everything up. I need to change my diet. I need to eat this special meal after my weigh-in.’ Blah. Blah. Blah. I don’t necessarily agree with that. I see it as it’s just another day.
“I want to put my body in the best shape and stuff, but when you change everything up, now you’re taking yourself completely [away] from what you’re used to. How can you expect to perform like you are used to performing? You need consistency and you need something steady, which comes from the gym, instructors, diet, exercise, with your mental preparedness, your instruction from your coaches… all that stuff. You need consistency to make it just fire off and not even have to think about it and to feel the same way that you have always felt.
“It just takes one little lapse. One millisecond difference. Being a combination being a little bit late or missing a block or something like that to get caught. We’re talking inches, not miles, here.”