Fame and fortune. It’s usually synonymous with both Hollywood and the world of professional sports. The fortune aspect is heard almost daily, as the world learns of their favorite running back receiving a multi-million-dollar contract or the hockey player gets traded to a rival team in exchange for more money and a better draft pick for the upcoming season. The fame, though? The fame comes from years of blood, sweat and tears. It comes from starting from the bottom and working toward the top, a once seemingly unachievable goal. The pairing of fame and fortune usually coincide with each other in every sport, save one: MMA.
Not to beat a dead horse, but it’s no secret that fighters are underpaid. Many have two, even three, day jobs to finance the training required to compete at an elite level. Look at the recent figures for UFC flyweight Ian McCall, who revealed earlier this week that his current UFC contract pays him $16,000 to show and $16,000 more if he wins. In McCall’s case, the criticism surrounds his inactivity, but there is no denying that a former champion should be receiving more money. Unless your name is Conor McGregor, Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey, fighting alone does not and cannot provide the financial security needed in life.
This is why fighters must continue to show that they are worthy of the fortune. If they do this, then the fame usually will come. Sometimes it comes in the form of the competition they face. Sometimes it comes with a devastating finish that lands on highlight reels for years to come. Maybe it’s an impressive winning streak that showcases the fighter’s dedication and the time they put into becoming a true mixed martial artist. Sometimes, though, even with each of the previous goals accomplished, the fame is nowhere to be found. The lack of notoriety in turn keeps the fortune out of reach. This is the case for quietly rising Bellator middleweight John Salter. Salter, who is fresh off a submission victory over UFC veteran Kendall Grove, is currently 4-0 in Bellator, which is a feat in itself, but he is still relatively unknown to the casual MMA fan.
“After the [Brandon] Halsey fight, obviously I want to fight for the Bellator title,” Salter told Combat Press. “I think I’m the best guy in the division. But the other thing is, I kind of have to establish myself — hey, I am this guy who deserves to be here [and] I want to fight these top guys. [Then Bellator] gave me Claudio Annicchiarico in Italy, who’s a great kickboxer. He’s got a great kickboxing record, but he’s not an MMA guy. It doesn’t mean anything to beat him.
“Obviously, I got a win. [I was] excited, glad I was there, and I was sitting back in the locker room with my buddy after the fight, and I said I didn’t feel like I really accomplished anything [that night]. That was frustrating to me, because obviously anybody out there who is trying to see if I’m wrong is going, ‘Well, why is he fighting this guy?’ I don’t turn down opponents. If someone offers me an opponent, I take it. I’m here to fight. It’s what I do. It’s not one of those things like, ‘No, don’t give me him.’ Obviously, it was in Italy, so, yeah, I’ll take the fight and fight and take a vacation in Italy with my wife.
“I don’t think Bellator looked at it as offering me a lower-level opponent. I think they looked at it as, ‘Here’s a trip to Italy,’ so I appreciate that. I don’t look at it negatively or anything like that. But, at the same time, that didn’t help my career. So, then I come back, and it’s like a week and a half after that fight and my manager calls me and asks me if I want to fight [Alexander] Shlemenko in five weeks.
“Yes. Absolutely. And my wife and I were about to leave on a vacation for Christmas, so I trained the whole time through Christmas. I didn’t spend time with family. I trained the whole time getting ready for Shlemenko and then my manager calls me a couple days after Christmas and was like, ‘Shlemenko says he needs more time.’ They gave me an option. Do you want to wait on Shlemenko or fight Kendall Grove? I said I’ll wait on Shlemenko. I think it means more.
“So, I was waiting on Shlemenko. [I] kept [thinking] every day, ‘When’s it gonna happen? When’s it gonna happen?’ And then all the sudden a newsfeed pops up and Shlemenko’s fighting in Russia. That kind of pissed me off, but immediately it got floated out there that I might get to fight Hisaki Kato. That’s perfect. Right back into training camp. Same training camp for that, but never got a contract. Never got a contract and then I found out that there was some legal issue and that wasn’t gonna work out. So then Shlemenko got floated back to me for April. Absolutely. I’m ready to go. Stayed in training camp. Then, all of the sudden, the same thing kind of happened. Not sure if it’s gonna happen. Not sure if it’s gonna happen. Then I see on my newsfeed he’s fighting in Russia, again. So that’s when I went and did ADCC.”
To those unfamiliar, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club is a competition that draws the greatest jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world in all age groups. (Side note: Watch the 2015 match between Master Ricardo Liborio and Mario Sperry. It’s sheer brilliance.) So, for Salter to just up and decide to compete against men who had been training for years for this particular event was pretty impressive.
“I train with these guys that are competing and winning these tournaments and I beat them, so I know I’m at that level,” said Salter. “I just hadn’t competed in a while. Actually, the reason I went to [compete] in ADCCs is, my wife was like, ‘I want to go to Finland.’ So I said, ‘All right, I’ll go out there and do this tournament so we can go to Finland.’ So, I did that. It was a great thing. I was already in shape and I think that got my name out there in the jiu-jitsu world, but that’s my fault — I don’t compete enough in jiu-jitsu to keep my name out there. I wasn’t really planning on doing it, and my friend called me — he lives in California.”
Salter’s friend pointed out that the ADCC West Coast trials were taking place and suggested that Salter should use his downtime in MMA as an opportunity to compete. Salter told his friend that he’d consider it. He mentioned it to his wife and she encouraged him, especially after finding out they’d be traveling to Europe.
“It’s funny, because my friend was talking about it. They only do this tournament every two years,” said Salter. “My friend was talking about it, saying, ‘All of these guys have been working on it for two years and you did it because your wife wants to go to Finland, and you won.’ I know it’s not what normally happens, but, you know, I don’t think about competing in jiu-jitsu that much because I am so focused on MMA all the time.
“It’s funny, because when they put out the press release about the tournament, they listed like five guys that had a chance to win and obviously I wasn’t in that. I get it. I don’t compete in jiu-jitsu that much. But I do submit people when I fight. And then I look at it and I have to beat four of the five guys they listed [to win], so at least I get to beat all the best guys and kind of make a name for myself. One of my friends actually trains down at Atos, where Josh Hinger is, and he warned Hinger before our match that ‘my buddy’s gonna compete and he’s a pretty good wrestler, so watch out for him.’ And Hinger made fun of him for telling him that. So I thought it was pretty fun to go out there and beat him [and] just wrestle him to death.
“Then, right after that, [Bellator MMA] offered the Kendall fight and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ Kendall is a big name and tough guy. It’s a challenge. The thing with Kendall was, I know people try to talk down about Kendall, but Kendall’s only 34 [years old]. He’s not old, and the guy submitted Alan Belcher, so he is a stud. So, it was a good fight and I was glad to get that fight.”
Salter made the best of his wife’s encouragement. Now, he’s slated to compete in the ADCC finals in Finland on Sept. 23-24. It all goes back to the lifestyle that accompanies being in the world of MMA. No professional baseball player can go compete in a rugby match or a football game. No basketball star is going to suit up and play hockey with some of the toughest men in the world. The diversity that MMA provides is unlike any other. It’s incredible for Salter to be able to juggle both competing in the highest level of jiu-jitsu and competing for Bellator. It’s a testament to the sport itself.
With Salter’s impressive win over Grove at Bellator 181, it seemed that he was on his way to the coveted title shot he feels he deserves. Instead, Bellator matched up current champion Rafael Carvalho with former UFC middleweight Alessio Sakara, who sports a bleak 4-3 record with one no-contest in his last eight bouts. Sakara did win his last two Bellator showings in 2016, though. The same night of Salter’s victory over Grove, Bellator also announced that recent acquisition Gegard Mousasi will take on the aforementioned Shlemenko.
“You know, I think in his mind, [Shlemenko]’s been fighting in Russia. His past two fights [have been] against wrestlers, one of them who’s a lot smaller than him, and I think he’s been trying to beat wrestlers to get his confidence up to beat me — to fight me,” said Salter. “But I’m a different animal than those guys. I can strike where those guys can’t, and if I put you on your back, I’m submitting you. I think in his mind he thinks he’s been preparing for me over there, but I think you’re definitely right. If he loses, he’s not in a situation to get that title back [and] he’s gonna want to fight me to stay relevant.”
With that in mind, it seems that by process of elimination there is only one man left for Salter to challenge.
“I think the only logical fight for me right now is Hisaki Kato,” Salter said. “I’d like to do that. Maybe November? Give me time to get back from Finland and get ready for a fight. I think that would be perfect timing. I think Mousasi beats Carvalho. And that’s the thing — I want to fight Mousasi, but I want to fight him when it means something more. So I think that’s perfect. A lot of guys were talking to me all week, ‘Well, why don’t you call Mousasi out?’ Yeah, I want to fight Mousasi. But fighting him for just a fight that doesn’t mean that much? I don’t really see the point in that. I think a title fight is the perfect time for us to fight, whether he’s got it or I’ve got it.
“In the meantime, if I’m not getting a shot, that’s fine. I just want to stay busy. Give me fights. Let me stay busy. I don’t have the following that I think I deserve for who I’ve beaten, so let me keep beating guys and building that following. That’s kind of where I am.”
Salter has high hopes for 2017. He wants to add an ADCC championship to his collection and move one step closer to a Bellator crown. He, along with the rest of the sport, realizes that the MMA landscape has changed. With that comes the need for personal change as well.
“I will say a little bit of people not knowing me and not having the growth or whatever is a little my fault,” said Salter. “My old coach was like, ‘I want you to strike with this guy before you take him down.’ And my thought — it was kind of like when I wrestled — if I’m in a tournament and there’s a lot of good people there, I’m going to show as little as possible to win, because I might have to use something else later. I’m not gonna show my bread and butter to win. Just like my two top submissions — I’ve never used [them] in a fight, and until I have to, I’m not going to. I’ll tell you my favorite one. It’s a kimura. That’s one of my go-to’s.
“For so long, I never stood up in a fight until I needed to, because the less video of me striking out there, the better. So, then I ran into Halsey, and Halsey’s looking at me like, ‘I’m gonna out-strike this guy,’ where everyone that knows me and trains with me knew I was gonna go out there and out-strike him. It works as a positive for me, as far as surprising people, but I’m seeing now that it’s easier for people to go, ‘Well, that guy is one-dimensional. He just takes people down and beats them up.’
“A lot of people said that after the [Dustin] Jacoby fight. ‘He’s very one-dimensional.’ Well, yeah. I’m fighting a 6[-foot-]4 guy who fights in GLORY. Not the smartest thing to stand up there in the outside and try to trade punches with him, you know? That doesn’t make me one-dimensional, because I’m not an idiot. I definitely see that for a lot of my career. People said, ‘Oh, he’s just a wrestler,’ or, ‘He’s a jiu-jitsu guy.’ That probably is on me for not showing what I can do as much as I probably should have.”
What Salter’s describing is a form of sandbagging. In one of the more recent cases of this approach, the world saw Holly Holm uproot Ronda Rousey from her senses, handing her defeat for the first time in her career. It was largely a result of Holm hiding a part of her arsenal in previous fights. It’s a dangerous tactic to use, but an effective one in the age of technology. A fighter’s strategy and skills are no longer a secret come fight night. Now, an opponent is able to look up the fighter’s previous fights, gym affiliates and social-media accounts to gain any advantage possible.
“I did that when I was wrestling,” Salter admitted. “I’ve even lost matches before where I’m like, ‘I probably could win this match, but it means nothing today. It means the State Championship in a week.’ It’s about being the smarter athlete. I’ve always said when I wrestled: My goal is to not be the best wrestler on the mat. My goal is to be the guy that wins. And if that means I gotta outsmart somebody, then that’s what I’m going to do.
“It’s worked really well for me in MMA, but, at the same time, you don’t get your name out there. People like seeing people get punched, and when you take someone down and submit them, it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, this guy can submit people.’ With the Kendall fight, I wanted to go out there and stand a little longer than I normally would have against him, and I spent most of the first round on my feet. Where I knew if I take him down, I could put him in a bad position pretty quick. You gotta do that now.”
It seems that Salter’s greatest attributes are his sense of humor and the profound statements he makes about this sport. Well, kind of. It was his wife this time around.
“It’s so funny, because my wife actually made a joke about this the other day,” said Salter. “There’s nothing I can do to be known as a fighter. For so long in my career, everyone was like, ‘Oh, that guy’s just a wrestler.’ And I fought Kalib Starnes, who’s a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and we fought on the feet. He tried to take me down. I took him down, passed his guard and beat him up. After it, everyone was like, ‘Your wrestling is so strong.’ I defensively wrestled him and then passed his guard and beat him up. Then I get my black belt and I pull guard on people and I submit people all the time. I submit Halsey off my back and then everyone was like, ‘Oh, this guy’s a jiu-jitsu guy.’ And that’s why Kendall was saying in his stuff he was getting ready for a jiu-jitsu guy. I just can’t be a fighter. I gotta be something. I think it’s good, though, because people forget that I do other things.”
Whether he is a jiu-jitsu guy, a wrestler or a striker, one thing is certain. Salter is bound to challenge for Bellator gold sooner rather than later. He isn’t big on trash talk or accusing other fighters of ducking him, but in the case of Carvalho, he didn’t hold back.
“At the end of the day, it’ll work out in the future, but he has definitely done what he can to not fight me,” said Salter. “A wrestler is bad news for him and a wrestler who is a high-level black belt in jiu-jitsu is a short fight for him. I think he knows it.”