Michael Jordan. Deion Sanders. Tim Tebow. What do these three men have in common? They are of an elite handful of sports professionals who crossed over into sports that were not their initial forte. Jordan, obviously known for his basketball accolades with the Chicago Bulls, played baseball for a while. Sanders, known as a shutdown cornerback with the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, also played baseball, even participating in the World Series as a member of the Atlanta Braves. And now there is talk that Tebow, the former Florida Gators and Denver Broncos quarterback , may also follow in the footsteps of his fellow game changers and enter the world of Major League Baseball. None of these athletes really excelled in the secondary sport that they played. It was their first sport of choice that produced their legendary status.
Enter Brock Lesnar.
Lesnar will always be known as the man who rose to fame as a professional wrestler in the WWE before shifting his focus to MMA as a UFC heavyweight who eventually claimed a championship. Lesnar, who also tried his hand at the NFL, was able to capture the coveted UFC title in just his fourth professional MMA bout, but his career came to a screeching halt due to the internal battle he had with diverticulitis. Lesnar would go on to rejoin the WWE, where he continued to have an extremely successful career, and even made another recent appearance inside the UFC’s Octagon. However, his time as a UFC heavyweight was tainted when he tested positive for banned substances after his UFC 200 bout with Mark Hunt. In this respect, Lesnar remains more successful in his first choice.
Much like the UFC did with The Ultimate Fighter, the WWE has produced its own show, called Tough Enough, to find up-and-coming stars. The organization scoured the world and selected what it felt could produce the future of the organization based on personality, skill set and overall willingness to compete. One man was selected due to his career as an amateur mixed martial artist, along with his 11 years of wrestling experience. That man would go on to be one of the top three final contestants before being voted off. This began the start of a professional MMA career for the man known as Tanner “The Hammer” Saraceno.
It’s been a year since fans saw Saraceno voted off the reality series, and they were even more shocked to find out that he hadn’t been offered a contract with the WWE at all. Most men would have sulked or tried to get into another smaller, lesser-known organization. Some might even give up completely. Not Saraceno.
“I started my own business when I got off the show, doing tree work, and found a way to stay successful with that. And that allowed me to train full-time so I could really put everything I have into it,” Saraceno told Combat Press. “I’m doing two or three workouts a day and not having to worry about going to work 40 hours a week. It really worked out beneficial for me to really take that chance and put everything I have into fighting, and I’ve been successful since. So I’m going to keep doing that and keep going this route.”
Saraceno may say that he is going to keep going this route, but it seems more likely that he is slowly creating his own unique one instead. MMA has the distinction of being a sport where more than a few athletes hold full-time jobs in addition to competing inside the cage. You’ll never see football players working at your local grocery store or basketball players working at night clubs in order to pay for training. Saraceno has taken hold of his life and created something that is quite interesting and highly beneficial to his career.
“I’ve got three Latino [fighters] — two from Colombia and one from Paraguay — and they’re living with me and training,” said Saraceno. “They’re working for me, and I take them to and from the gym and I try and get them work. If they can’t work for me, I get them work other places. I make sure they get to their doctor’s appointments on time for their medicals and all that stuff. It’s kind of like I am a foster parent for them. [I’m] taking care of them kind of like they are my little kids or brothers. It’s a good responsibility to have and it’s mutually beneficial. They work good and they’re good training partners, so it’s a good situation to be in.
“I’d say some of the biggest problems that guys run into in gyms is [not] having an amazing combination of amazing coaching and a plethora of teammates. To be in there and push you and work with you and reach new levels with… finding guys that are consistent and that are there seriously to fight and not just doing it kinda as a hobby. I fortunately have both of those things, where I have an amazing coaching staff at Revolution Martial Arts and a plethora of partners to help push me.”
In a gym, it seems that there is always that one individual that pushes an athlete to help them reach their potential. It could be a friend, a longtime sparring partner or even a family member. In Saraceno’s case, it’s none other than Jimmy Fowler, his head coach.
“He’s a tough little redneck guy and he’s a lot like me,” Saraceno said with a laugh. “He’s worked a lot for everything that he’s had, so he appreciates what I’m doing and what I’m devoting to be as successful as I am. So he certainly pushes me and helps me reach new limits every day.”
One of Saraceno’s biggest struggles is the balancing of his life around what he needs to do. Football players know that football season is from August to January, depending on how far their team gets. Baseball players know that the season runs April to October. MMA does not offer such luxury.
“[It’s] a lot of frustration and just constant, constant working and planning,” said Saraceno. “I really don’t have a lot of free time to just kind of sit down and hang out. I’m really always doing something with my tree work or my personal training or my fighting, so I have to be very, very careful how I manage my time. What times going to go into doing estimates for jobs and which days I can set aside for my tree work and which days are my two- or three-a-days. So it’s constantly keeping me responsible, I guess.
“It’s kind of like my foster parenting. I’ve got to be on top of them to make sure they’re where they got to be. I’ve gotta do the same thing for me to make sure I’m setting myself up and planning my week out accordingly where I’m going to have time to get all those things done.
“This is a year-round sport. There’s really no off-season for this, so you have to be prepared and willing to accept the fact that you may have to miss a couple birthday parties or maybe some weddings or Christmas [while] getting ready for whatever you’re getting ready for. As best I can I try to… If I can set up a fight maybe before Christmas so I have time to travel, I do stuff like that. Like, I have a wedding to go to next week [in Mexico], so it worked out pretty good where I was able to get this fight just in time before the trip. But, you know, I’ve missed plenty of social gatherings and going out and partying with friends and stuff just because I have to get ready for a fight or I need the extra sleep or rest or just can’t afford it because I’m putting everything else towards my MMA. There’s definitely a lot of sacrifice that goes into this sport.”
Sacrifice and MMA really do go hand in hand. MMA is a sport that is made up of mental, physical and emotional sacrifice. There really is no easy to way to explain the trials and tribulations that an athlete must go through in order to further their career. For example, look no further than one of the most dreaded aspects of MMA: weight cutting.
“The weight cutting is something that is hard to explain to another athlete, just because they’ve never done it,” Saraceno said. “There’s really no other sport where — other than competitive fighting and weightlifting, too — where you really have to focus on how much water you drink or how much food you take in and how much that affects your weight throughout a day and then having to weigh an exact amount. They don’t know the difference of what really goes into it. There’s a lot of teaching going on with that and a lot of patience when you’re dealing with watching your significant other eat Ben & Jerry’s in front of you while you’re cutting out carbs. It definitely takes some patience.
“That’s definitely something I liked about the WWE. You could find new thresholds for your body and push yourself to new limits and not have to worry about how much you’re eating. You certainly have to worry about what you’re eating and make sure you’re filling yourself the right way, but there’s no set weight classes. It’s all, how big can you get and still be able to perform? Still be able to do what it is you do and stay physically fit without having to worry about, ‘Am I going to have five grams of protein or 10 grams of protein? Am I going to have a piece of fruit or a donut?’ There’s definitely a little jealously now that I’m back to the weight cutting.”
Now I know what most of you are thinking: professional wrestling is not a real sport. It’s fake. MMA is a true test of who is the better fighter. Pro wrestling is just guys in speedos playing out a match that is rigged.
“It is certainly not a fake sport,” Saraceno countered. “It is sports entertainment. It is scripted, as far as who’s going to win or who’s going to do what. But there’s a lot of improv that can go into it. If someone takes a hit the wrong way or takes a bump the wrong way and they can’t continue the match that they were supposed to win, there’s ways to get around that. So they have to be able to react on the spot.
“When you’re going out there and you are taking a chop from the Big Show, there’s no way to fake that. You’re getting hit by a 500-plus pound man on the chest, and there’s really no way around that. When you jump off the top rope or jump off the cage and hit someone or hit the mat or you hit the floor, there’s no way to fake that either. Those are legitimate hits that they are taking. You know they want to stay safe, but, at the end of the day, you are doing something and putting yourself at risk and you can’t 100 percent guarantee that you’re not going to get hurt doing that. So there’s definitely risks that go into that, and they definitely take real shots.”
So, given that Saraceno has seen both sides of the fence, it seems that the next question would be about his ultimate goal. Is it to work his way back into the squared circle or become the next UFC champion?
“My goal right now is to become the best mixed martial artist that I can become and reach new levels in my career and work my way up to big organizations and bigger fights and legendary status. [This] is what I’m going for,” said Saraceno. “It’s just… Can I make it? Who can I have want to be me or strive to do what I’ve done? The WWE certainly is an out. I never place limits on myself and tell myself I can only do this. If that opportunity arrives and I can make it work, I would certainly make it work to do both.”
The crossover rate for professional wrestlers coming into mixed martial arts is pretty slim. In fact, the only true semi-successful crossover athlete at this time is Lesnar. CM Punk, another big WWE star, hasn’t yet made his debut or proved that he is MMA material.
“[The crossover is] certainly something that interests me,” said Saraceno. “Being the first to do something and do it successfully, it definitely sparks my interest and makes me want to do it. So it’s a little more incentive to try and do that later down the line.”
Many fighters spend a bulk of their careers coming up in different weight classes, especially going from amateur to the regional circuit to the bright lights of the Octagon. Saraceno’s amateur career was spent at middleweight, but he weighed in at 181 pounds for his most recent fight and decided that welterweight would be his new home as a professional.
“I walk around about 185 when I’m maintaining pretty carefully what I am eating,” Saraceno said. “But if I’m not careful, I can get up to 190, 195. I do put size on very easily, but when I’m maintaining it, I can get it off pretty easily as well. I’m probably on the larger side of a welterweight that you will fight, as far as frame and length and everything goes. And strength — I certainly see myself having an advantage there. Middleweight was just… I couldn’t cut the weight while I was working tree work full-time, [because] I’d hurt myself or take away from my performance and there just wasn’t a benefit at that time. But now I have the ability to fuel myself properly and get the proper rest and do the weight cut properly.
“There’s some people that cut weight differently. I personally don’t like to cut a ton of weight and when I do, it’s very scientific how I do it and very monitored with The Fight Doctors. They really are on top of it and have the best program out there. So it’s not like a guessing game of will this work or will this not work. I know this is going to work. This is how it’s going to work. This is when it’s going to work. It’s fairly predictable and accurate, and that’s what I’m looking for. A lot of guys that cut tremendous amounts of weight — [starting at] 200 pounds two weeks out — I personally don’t agree with that. But if they think they perform better, let them keep doing it. It’s their career and I think it should be entirely up to them. If they’re willing to risk it because they feel they have an advantage and it’ll put food on their table, then I say go for it.”
For the time being, Saraceno is less focused on cutting weight and more focused on Travis Connor, a man making his professional MMA debut at Valor Fights 36.
“I definitely see a TKO [in the] first round or early second round,” said Saraceno, predicting how he’d finish his Saturday bout with Connor. “He doesn’t seem to like striking very much. He kind of shies away from getting hit and seems to freak out a bit once he does get hit, so I think I’ll have an advantage there. He seems to be very strong and explosive, but he does also seem to kinda gas out fairly quick in his fights. I’m definitely excited for the fight. I see it going my way, which would make me more excited for it. I feel very, very confident going into this fight.”
Confidence will be key when “The Hammer” takes on Connor this weekend in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in a fight that will stream live on FloCombat.