Work hard, play hard. It really has become one of the most cliché sayings in the last decade or two, but there is an important underlying meaning. It’s all about finding the right balance in life. Some people work really hard at something they love, but they don’t get enough play. These are the proverbial workaholics. On the other side, there are people that find plenty of time to have fun, but their work ethic is terrible. These are the two ends of a spectrum. Some folks land in the middle, with what seems to be a decent balance. However, this doesn’t mean they are happy with the status quo.
Steele McCall has been a martial artist for his entire adult life. He is a newly minted black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and he is a 10-fight veteran of mixed martial arts. A few years back, he was living his life as a married man. Of course, he needed to pay the bills, which led him to an office job. He worked hard, but he wasn’t necessarily happy with what he was doing outside of training. So, like any reasonable person, he made a change.
“I’ve just kind of been enjoying learning new things again,” McCall told Combat Press. “I was really working on getting my black belt, which I got this last year. It was this huge life accomplishment for me. I’ve also been doing some [jiu-jitsu] tournaments here and there. The last time I did an MMA fight was like two years ago. I’ve been working really hard on my boxing and kickboxing on top of jiu-jitsu as well. I’ve been able to be more active lately, which I’m really, really happy about — especially getting out of offices, which was killing me. Now, I’m working back in a gym setting, and things are just falling into place.”
McCall lives with his wife in the Denver Metro area of Colorado. Instead of an office job, he is now working as a personal trainer at Prestige Fitness. Getting out of an office was his first step in moving back into MMA. In addition to training with coach Bryan Youngs at Denver Thai Boxing and GLORY kickboxer Justin Houghton at Pound-4-Pound Fitness, McCall does his BJJ training at the Kompound, which is an affiliate of Rafael Lovato Jr.’s Jiu-Jitsu Association. This is where he was awarded his black belt under Professor Brad Nicolarsen.
McCall’s current situation is different in more ways than just his day job. He last fought in the MMA cage in April 2016, when he lost to Peter Straub by submission at a local event in Denver. For the prior few years, he had fought as a lightweight. At 155 pounds, he was somewhat emaciated, never had a lot of muscle definition, and was living the win some-lose some kind of fight life. His gym at the time was not the most ideal situation, and things just weren’t quite clicking. The work-play balance was there, but it just was not optimized. After the lost to Straub, though, McCall had a new fire that was lit.
“I was very, very unhappy with my performance in the Peter Straub fight,” McCall admitted. “I’m my own harshest critic, and I was very unhappy with it. I literally went to sparring a week later. I went over to Factory X to start sparring, because they have open sparring on Fridays. I went in and got paired with Marcus Edwards, and he started beating the shit out of me, so I started going there every Friday. I just started sparring with these guys every Friday, and I got my confidence back. I’ve always said I don’t want to leave it with a loss. I wanted to give it my all for another good go. As long as my body feels good and my head feels good, why not? To be honest, man, I feel great.”
For the last three years, McCall has been much happier than he had been with his training and overall attitude toward the game. Instead of sitting around like a lump on a log, he took his time away from the action to make the most of training.
“I’ve been training with Justin Houghton for at least six months now,” McCall explained. “I’ve been training with him and helping him get ready for some GLORY Kickboxing matches, and he asked me if I wanted a spot on this card, because Jeff [Cisneros, Sparta Combat League CEO] was putting the word out there. I don’t have a manager, and Houghton has been such a good guy to work with. He knows everybody, and he really takes care of you, so I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely, 100 percent,’ because I’ve been wanting to fight again. When this came around, I saw the [155-pound] tournament, and I saw LT [Nelson] go through there. I was thinking I would never make 155 again with the way my body is, so I said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s jump on board.’”
Last year, the SCL introduced a new event format. It involved an eight-man tournament in which the first round is pure boxing, the second round is kickboxing, and the third round is MMA. Many people, especially high-level grapplers, might take pause to this format, because it seemingly favors strikers. However, it has gained traction. The winner of each tournament is deemed “King — or Queen — of Sparta.” The aforementioned Nelson, who also trains with Houghton and McCall, won the lightweight tourney in 2018. On Saturday, March 23, in Denver, the promotion puts on the first welterweight edition of the tournament, and McCall is in the bracket. He’s set to tangle with fellow BJJ black belt Hayward Charles in the quarterfinals.
“I feel awesome about it,” McCall said. “I feel really good. I think it’s funny they’re going to put the two black belts together in the first round for boxing. I kind of thought it was a funny one. Jiu-jitsu’s been my bread-and-butter since day one, and it’s what got me into mixed martial arts. I was taking jiu-jitsu and then I learned what MMA was, and I wanted to do that. But I love boxing and kickboxing.”
Denver is one of those big cities that has a little city feel to it, and the MMA community is fairly tight knit. Everybody in the scene mostly knows everybody. McCall happened to cross paths with another “King of Sparta” winner that was able to provide him with some tips.
“Josh Huber won the [135-pound] tournament, and he’s been coming down to Bryan’s gym a little bit to get some striking in,” McCall said. “I was picking his brain on it, and he said the cardio guy wins this, you know? You can’t really go all-out the first fight. You need to make sure you pace yourself. I think it’s going to be really fun. If you just stick to your basics, keep your head down, come in strong, don’t get damaged, [and] really bring that pace, [then] you’ll do fine. It was nice to hear that mindset.”
This is a pretty important tip, because one of the issues that had plagued McCall in the past was the weight cut, which affects cardio. Not only will he be stronger for this one, but his conditioning is the best it has ever been. There was one twist that happened that he wasn’t expecting, though: He could possibly end up fighting a training partner.
“I knew I was going to be in the tournament in December,” said McCall. “Then, a month and a half ago, Justin said LT is going to be in that tournament too, apparently. I said, ‘OK, we’ve only been training together the last couple months, no worries.’”
McCall and Nelson have not only trained together at their current camps, but they have actually trained together a lot in the past as well. The difference is that nobody in Colorado has seen McCall fight at welterweight in recent history, so he is coming in with a new level of athleticism in his back pocket.
“When I started MMA, I fought at 170,” McCall explained. “Then, people were like, ‘You can make 155,’ so I said OK and did it, but I killed myself to get down to 155. It was always such a struggle, and I felt like I was not performing at my best. Those days are pretty much done. The last couple years, I’ve worked on getting stronger, so I feel like I’m carrying a better frame than I ever have. I’m not skinny and lanky and worried about my skills getting me through.”
The new Steele McCall will enter this tournament 15 pounds stronger with much better conditioning, three years of focused training, and a much happier attitude about his craft. On Saturday night, he will finally get a chance to show fans the next best version of a fighter whose best years are arguably ahead of him.