Ryan Jensen (Jade Kimmel/Combat Press)

From Ninja to Batman: The Career and Retirement of Ryan Jensen

“Remind me to tell you about the time I was living at Clay Guida’s parents’ house.”

Very interesting words from a professional mixed martial artist with an active career going back 18 years. Anybody who is educated in MMA knows that this will be the beginning of one great story.

In 1992, a young kid from Omaha, Neb., moved from his childhood home to a new neighborhood. He had no friends, he had no hobbies, he had no direction and he was lost in the mix of mid-high-school limbo. As with any new kid on the block, he met a few friends and just started to do what they did.


“A couple guys started training not too far down the street from where I was living,” Ryan Jensen told Combat Press. “So, I started skipping school and training every second I could get. I wanted to be in the gym.”

Jensen was training at Innovative Martial Arts Strategies, home to a group of Omaha police officers, including Steve Jennum, who would go on to become the winner of Ultimate Fighting Championship 3. The instructors at IMAS had a mix of backgrounds, including wrestling, taekwondo, hapkido and even ninjutsu. When Jensen started training there, the UFC did not exist.

“We were training MMA before they even called it mixed martial arts,” explained the veteran fighter. “For me, it was always MMA from the start. I was an early-day mixed martial artist. We were wrestling and punching and kicking, and punching and kicking to the ground, and I was trying to figure out the ground game, practicing there all the time. It was mixed martial arts right off the bat.”

Jensen’s story is a unique one, to say the least. Just like any teenager, he didn’t know that move would reshape his entire history. He was just looking for something to do with his new buddies and got instantly hooked.

In the mid-90s, MMA wasn’t even known by that name. The early UFC was a tournament format where guys would come in representing their specific combat backgrounds, but right off the bat, Royce Gracie proved that no matter how good of a brawler someone is, it’s important to be able to take the fight wherever it goes. Jensen was already learning that, and he didn’t even know it.

As the underground fighting scene began to grow, legends were taking shape. Pat Miletich was one of the biggest names in the scene. The legendary coach and fighter was traveling around the Midwest, fighting in basement venues on the weekends. Through his partners in Omaha, like Jeremy Horn and Matt Anderson, Jensen was able to get on board with the Miletich camp in Davenport, Iowa.

“Jeremy was training with Matt Anderson, and he started training up in Davenport on the weekends with Pat,” Jensen elaborated. “Jeremy was the one fighting every weekend. He was like the pioneer — him and Pat and all the dudes from Miletich. Those were the dudes that were fighting every weekend, and you’d see them in underground gymnasiums. Some of the guys that Jeremy Horn was training with became my friends.

“I met Jesse Jones, and he fought for the UCC title years ago. UCC is where Georges St-Pierre and David Loiseau came out of. They all came out of that circuit. Jesse was a good buddy of mine. So, it was Jesse, Scott Morton and Jason Ramirez, and a bunch of us would travel up on the weekends. I probably did that seven different trips, and the opportunity came up. I was a year out of college, and I wanted to do this full-time. These guys were the best. It was Jeremy, Pat, Matt Hughes, Robbie Lawler. The place was stacked and was a room full of killers. I moved up there for six weeks. I was maybe 21. I was living in Jeremy Horn’s girlfriend’s old apartment.”

When a person is that young, traveling to a new town with few local friends is tough. After a couple months of gaining world-class experience with the best guys in the game, Jensen’s funds were depleted. He was homesick, and it was time to get back to Omaha. However, that time at Miletich was more valuable than he could have ever imagined.

“I started looking at the gyms back home,” Jensen said. “They were doing more of a street self-defense thing. Pat was looking at it more as a sport. I went back to Innovative and was just walking through guys.”

By this time, Jensen had been training for over five years, the UFC was still under the old, semi-failing regime, and there were already new guys coming into their own. While the Miletich camp was the most legendary in the Midwest, high-level camps were forming all over the country as the sport continued to gain traction. Out in Oregon, another legendary team was taking shape.

Team Quest has its own somewhat notorious background, but most people only know about the drama between Matt Lindland and Dan Henderson. There were a lot of good things that came out of that camp, though. Through a fellow Omaha native, Jensen got to be a part of it.

“Jake Ellenberger went up to Portland and was living with Chris Leben, and he came back to Omaha and started kicking my ass,” Jensen admitted. “I’m a competitive person, so I had to go find out what he was doing. He’s seven years younger than me, and he was teaching me stuff. So, I went out there and learned about the Team Quest style of ground-and-pound — smothering your opponent and being the wet blanket.

“I met up with Lindland, we got on the team, and there were so many good dudes up there — Nate Quarry, Chris Leben, Chael Sonnen, the Healy brothers, Ryan Schultz, Matt Lindland, Matt Horwich, Chris Wilson, Ed Herman. It was stacked with tough, tough dudes.”

By the time he was in his late 20s, Jensen had trained with some of the top guys in the sport in multiple camps across the country. He was 11-1 as a pro, had only been out of the first round once, and he held multiple titles in regional promotions. Naturally, the UFC came knocking.

Jensen was not quite 30 years old yet when he stepped into the cage for his first of eight Octagon appearances. The bout took place at UFC 74 in August 2007, and Jensen was finally following in the footsteps of his old coach, Steve Jennum. While the fight did not go his way — Jensen tapped to Thales Leites in the first round — the next step of Jensen’s career was beginning to take shape.

“Clay Guida and I fought in UFC 74 together, and we became friends,” Jensen explained. “I started going up to Chicago around that time, training at Midwest Training Center. I would do camps in Chicago, and was still traveling to Portland. For two of my camps, I stayed at his parents’ house. He would pick guys up and we would travel an hour and a half to practice and an hour and a half back home, and then do that again. It was like six hours of driving each day, because he would pick up all of the other teammates around the Chicago area. We would roll in deep with like six or seven guys in the car.

“We were training in Schaumburg, but Clay’s parents were in Fox Lake. Back then, it was Shonie Carter, Felice [Herrig] was running around with the Midwest Training Center guys, the Beebes, and Brian Gassaway.”

After another submission loss to Demian Maia at UFC 77, Jensen was released and quickly transitioned to Strikeforce in March 2008. He was looking to break this unusual losing streak, but things again didn’t go his way. However, this was a blessing in disguise.

“I ended up fighting Joey Villasenor,” Jensen said. “He smoked me in Strikeforce. It was the only time I’ve ever been KO’d. I ended up running into Greg [Jackson] at a UFC, and I was like, ‘Hey man, I’d love to come out and train with you guys.’ He game-planned me really well. At the time, Greg was a name, but it wasn’t the Greg Jackson that you see now. I was just impressed.

“They had a great team down there. When I got down there, I knew absolutely nobody. The only person I knew was Brian Stann, because he had spent a week at Team Quest and we hit it off, and he knew I was a good dude. They brought me to the team, and it took about two weeks. Joey and Brian sat me down and said they wanted to offer me a spot on the team. Obviously, everything comes down from the general. Those dudes were captains on the team, and everything comes from Greg. Ever since then, I’ve been doing all my big camps with the Jackson group.”

What was the only knockout loss of Jensen’s career turned out to be a segue into the fourth major camp he was a part of as he was entering the second decade of his career. Most guys don’t get the opportunity to train with Miletich, Team Quest and the Midwest Training Center, so the addition of the famed Jackson-Winkeljohn camp was another huge notch in Jensen’s belt.

With a new camp in Jensen’s corner and the veteran having never been to a decision in his career, it was an easy call for the UFC to bring him back into the Octagon. Between 2008 and 2011, Jensen returned to the big show, taking on guys like Wilson Gouveia, Jesse Forbes, Mark Munoz and Court McGee. He went 2-4 in that three-year run and was released again by the promotion. While he would have loved to stay at the highest level, this was another blessing in disguise.

In 2008, while trying to train as a full-time fighter and raising a family, Jensen joined forces with kickboxing coach Kurt Podany, the Ellenbergers and several other guys who were trying to build a new MMA gym in Omaha. As any business owner knows firsthand, this can be very tricky, because growing a business from scratch takes more than just knowledge of the product.

“Right around that Wilson Gouveia fight in 2008, I started building Premier Combat Center,” stated the Nebraskan. “For all my camps, I had to leave the business in Omaha for six- or eight-week training camps down there [in New Mexico]. I know how to teach martial arts, but I didn’t know how to run a business.

“My job is to market and sell martial arts lessons. The fight camps weren’t translating in the business world. About the Rudy Bears [and] Jason Louck fights, I couldn’t travel for camps anymore, because it was too much of a strain on my family. Plus, I had incredibly good training partners back home — Jake Ellenberger, Joe Ellenberger, Jason Brilz, Anthony Smith. I started working that, and I started winning more.”

So, fresh out of the UFC and focused on staying close to home, Jensen got back to his winning ways. He is a coach, a mentor, a father, a fighter and now a successful business owner. His fighting career went unblemished for the next two years as he finished five opponents in the first round. After 29 professional fights, he has still never been to decision.

Jensen’s last fight was in April 2014 at Bellator 117. It was amazingly his first and last fight under the Bellator banner. After the fight, he was benched for a few months with an injury, and the remainder of the year became a time for some serious self-reflection.

“When I ended up getting injured, almost a year ago, it really gave me time to sit back and look at the business and get the systems together and the structures together that we need to be really successful,” Jensen intimated. “It was something that I couldn’t really do when I was fighting — I’m always going into camps. When I was running a gym at 75 to 80 percent, and I’m fighting at 75 to 80 percent, I really had to make a choice — one or the other. At this point in my life, between kids and family, and I haven’t had any big injuries, besides this last one, and my brain is functioning just fine, it was just that time. I don’t want to be one of those guys that just fights.”

While some guys like Dan Henderson or Anderson Silva just can’t seem to get their mind wrapped around retirement, Jensen knew the time had come. It was one of the toughest decisions of his entire life. On Saturday night at Victory Fighting Championship 45 at the Ralston Arena in his hometown, Jensen will be stepping into the very cage where he won one of his first titles. This time when he steps into the cage, it will be for his very last battle. The veteran has decided to hang up the four-ounce gloves.

“It was kind of one of those things where, if you’re not going to fight at the highest level and you’re not going to be a contender fighting in the UFC, what’s the point of doing this?” questioned the longtime pioneer of MMA. “For me and the career I’ve had, I’ve been with the best, I’ve trained with the best, and if I’m not going to compete on that level, for me, it’s just really not worth it. I’m 38 years old, I’ve got 29 professional fights and I’ve been training since 1992, at the beginning of this thing when it started. Now, it’s grown into the animal that it is. I’m just looking at this next generation. Our gym’s doing really, really well right now.”

Little did Jensen know, but the story was not about to stop there. Is he fighting this weekend? Yes. Is the guy he’s fighting in a really bad position? Of course. Was the legend of Ryan Jensen going to end in an arena? Hell no.

On Thursday, March 5, Jensen was heading out of the gym to go home and prepare to travel to Minnesota the next day to corner one of PCC’s up-and-comers, Darrick Minner, who was fighting at Resurrection Fighting Alliance 24. When Jensen walked outside, he was greeted by an unwelcomed surprise.

“I rolled out about 5:30, and that’s when I saw it,” Jensen said. “My trunk was open and everything was gone.”

The fighter’s car had been broken into and looted.

“So, I grabbed my video cameras and saw they scoped the place for a little bit,” he explained. “Then, they jumped in my car and grabbed all my stuff — all the shit out of the back of the car. We got the make of the car and we saw them on video.

“Then, I checked all my credit cards and everything, and they were using them at Walmart up the street. I rolled up there and blocked them in.”

Just a quick tip to any current or future thieves: the next time you break into a car, make sure you check the name of the business that the car is parked behind.

In the past, this could have turned into a bloody beatdown, but, much to the dismay of all the sensationalist reporters out there, this was not the same Jensen who lived in a borrowed apartment at the Miletich camp or at Guida’s home in suburban Chicago. He has matured in life and has too much to lose. But, he didn’t exactly let them get away.

“I tried stabbing his tires with the keys to my car, and it broke my keys in like a second,” Jensen regretfully admitted. “I was bleeding all over the place and beating on his car. He was blocked in and I was beating on his car, and I was like, ‘Give me all my shit, man. I’m calling the cops right now. The cops are on their way.’ Then, he gets out and starts running into Walmart, so I chased him there, and I’m like, ‘This guy’s a thief! This guy is stealing from Walmart! He just stole from me! These guys are tweakers!’ And, I was just following him from like five feet away. People were videotaping me, so I wasn’t going to beat up a homeless tweaker dude. It took a lot of strength not to kick him in the leg or something.”

Naturally, the story hit the local, national and even international news pretty quickly, including a viral video on YouTube. However, the fact that he didn’t physically assault the low-life criminals caused Fox News to refrain from publishing a story they did on the incident.

“It’s kind of saddening, you know, to see that people don’t have a lot of good faith in fighters,” said Jensen. “People wanted to hear the story that I beat the living piss out of him, this headline type of deal. I guess we’re still thought of as Neanderthals. My intentions, when going up there, were to put a beating on somebody. But, when we got up there, I started observing my surroundings and I ended up blocking them in [and] beating on the window.

“Honestly, when he got out, I didn’t know if he was going to pull a knife, and I had one of my younger instructors with me and I didn’t want anything to happen to him. When he got out and I realized he either didn’t have anything or wasn’t going to take it to those extremes, I just followed him around and scarlet-lettered the dude. Everybody pulled out their cameras and thought I was the crazy one.”

In 1992, Jensen was training with ninjas. Over the following 23 years, he turned into Batman, fighting crime alongside the best of them. Give a mixed martial artist a video camera, a computer and a room full of instructors, and there is no way they will let the bad guys get away.

Jensen has had a long, storied career. While the most casual fans who are more concerned with the gossip stories and the magazine covers might not be aware of how many times he has been around the block, the real fans of the sport, and many of the pioneers, know exactly who he is and how he has grown up over the last quarter century. At this point in his life, it’s time to focus on business and family matters, and, of course, coaching that next generation to be highly successful fighters themselves.

“Training’s been going really good. I do most of my training during the day and then I’m coaching at night time. After that last injury I had in Bellator, I healed that up over the summer and got back into the gym. I talked about doing this one, and training’s been good. I’m getting back into my type of fight shape. But, this is the last one. This is the last one, my man!”

Anyone who can make it to Ralston Arena in Ralston, Neb., this Saturday night will not want to miss the last scrap for Ryan Jensen, a longtime pioneer and true veteran of mixed martial arts.

Below is a special photo gallery provided by Ryan Jensen showcasing his MMA journey. All photos are copyright their respective photographers.

Jensen would like to thank his wife Nikki and daughters Lexxie and Kylie for putting up with him all these years. He would also like to thank everyone at Premier Combat Center, Jackson-Winkeljohn, Team Quest, Miletich Fighting Systems, Innovative Martial Arts Strategies, Dr. Jack Stark, Riley Ross and all of his training partners and friends throughout the years. He would like to leave everyone with one last statement: “Get your mind right and get your life together.” Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanJensenUFC