Just win. Regardless of the sport, the final objective is victory. The method to reach this goal doesn’t necessarily matter. To quote Fast and Furious franchise character Dominic Toretto, “It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile, winning’s winning.” This same concept can be applied to MMA, but it definitely comes with increased scrutiny. A fighter who consistently goes to the scorecards, whether in a dominant decision or a razor-thin one, can be seen as a “boring” fighter. If a fighter works his way up the ranks and loses a title eliminator each and every time, they are seen as someone who chokes under pressure. It all comes down to winning.
There are two prime related examples in the current ranks of the UFC and Bellator. The UFC has Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, who has now competed for the organization an astounding 30 times. Thirty professional fights on the world’s biggest stage! He has the most wins in UFC history at 22, the most post-fight bonuses at 16, and the second most bouts in the UFC at 30. Yet, the one thing that has always eluded him has been the coveted UFC gold. Now on the rise after two incredibly dominant performances, Cowboy will once again look to make a run at the title.
For Bellator, the example is David “Caveman” Rickels. Rickels has been competing inside the Bellator cage since 2011 and has made 21 appearances with the company, which is the most fights for a single fighter in Bellator history. He also holds the record for most wins of a fighter not holding a championship belt. It’s a strange record to hold for someone who still has a lot of fight left in him.
“Man, I don’t know. Wins… I’m just about wins,” Rickels told Combat Press. “I would love to have a Belt — it would be amazing — but I’m just trying to rack up these wins and put on exciting fights. I hate losing. I’m extremely competitive. I feel like my losses have always made me better. Where I’m at right now — I had a tough loss to Michael ‘Venom’ Page which made me want to get better. It made me want to improve, and I feel like I have [improved] quite a bit. [I’ve] made some changes in training and what not, so hopefully we’ll see some more wins and see where that takes me.”
Rickels was able to bounce back from his loss to Page when he picked up a win over Guilherme Bomba by decision just months later. His fight with Page was his first true outing at welterweight since an early loss to Karl Amassou in May 2012.
“Yeah, I knew I needed to do something as far as changing some things in my training and this and that and making actual improvements in my game,” said Rickels. “The same old shit wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
“Dude, I hella slept on MVP and then I guess all the hype around him started to piss me off, [because] I’m like, ‘Why is this guy getting hyped? He’s not that good.’ So, it was, like, where I slept on him and then I went into the fight angry when I don’t ever fight that way man. Like, I’m not ever angry at anyone I fight. I know I flipped him off at some point during the fight. That was just a bad stylistic match-up for me as well, but I thought I could whoop his ass. Hell, I wanted to go to London. Shit, I wouldn’t have turned it down even if I thought he was gonna whoop my ass. I would have liked to have done better. I feel like I definitely would if we fought again.”
When it comes to competition, it’s no surprise that Rickels was the biggest name in Bellator that Page had faced. It became apparent that this was a test.
“I definitely think that,” admitted Rickels. “[In] my talks with Rich [Chou, Bellator matchmaker], I think I was like [this is a] ‘let’s see how good this guy really is’ kinda fight. [It was] let’s give him Rickels because they knew I pressure. I mean, they know I don’t really wrestle in fights. They know I press the pace and I’m coming with action. If I could have got on him — I just couldn’t reach him — but if I could have got on him, we’d have seen combos and punches and really testing him. Obviously, that’s what I wanted to do.
“Man, he had my number. I downplayed it. I thought, ‘Man, I can get past his range; it’ll be easy. Oh, he’s not that long; his reach isn’t that much. Oh, he’s not that fast.’ But he is all of those things. He’s really good at all of those things, and it was just really frustrating when I was in there.”
It’s amazing that Rickels, who just turned 30 a little over a month ago, has 28 professional MMA fights under his belt and doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Fighting itself is not usually a career with longevity, but it seems that as the sport has evolved, so have the fighters.
“As long as I’m healthy, I’m fighting,” Rickels explained. “It’s the goal in front of me. It’s what I’m passionate about. It’s what lights a fire and makes me want to improve every facet of my life. That’s what fighting has always been for me, so for me to hang it up, I’d have to really make some changes in my life.
“After re-watching the fight [with Bomba], if I was one of my cornermen, I would have been worried about how the judges were scoring it. I think my cornermen were so hyped because they knew I was whooping his ass that they weren’t thinking about it, but in hindsight, I was watching it like, ‘Oh man, if these judges don’t know what’s going on…’ It looked closer, that’s for sure. When I was in there, though, I knew I whipped his ass. There was no doubt in my mind. I was like, ‘Man, I’ve been beating this dude up for three rounds.’
“He was definitely landing some good shots on me as well. I’d love to see the Compustrike or whatever they call it. It had to have been two to one. I mean, I was just outlanding him quite a bit. It was a really good win. He was really tough, and I landed some shots — like, I landed a jump knee off of a kick that was, like, right on his chin, and I could tell he was a little bit hurt, but that’s about all I could get out of him. I was like, ‘Uh-oh!’ I was like, ‘Oh shit, I don’t want to gas out trying to finish this guy.’ I definitely pushed a high pace and put a lot of punches on him.
“I knew I’d be hungry. I knew my training was going really well and preparation and stuff, so I knew I was going to have a good performance. Like, I felt really confident in my performance. The only thing I’d say is that I really thought I was going to be able to finish him, and I just wasn’t able to. He was just more durable than I expected. I know he’s never been finished before in his career, and I would have liked to have been the guy that did that. So, yeah, that was the only thing. I felt really good with my performance and I was comfortable in there. I felt good. I had good flow. I think I landed a 20-punch combo at one time, which was pretty crazy.
“That’s what I would call flow. When I’m just fighting to fight and I’m just enjoying every minute of the fight, as opposed to feeling like I have to win or feeling angry or feeling this way or that way about the fight or overthinking the fight or thinking about problems outside of the fight. When everyone is aligned and I’m just there to be there, I’m fucking happy. Those are just always my best performances.”
It seems that now fighters who want to further their career need to have specific targets lined up for when they are coming off a victory. Rickels has plenty of options from the Bellator roster.
“I’d really like to fight Derek ‘The Barbarian’ [Anderson]. I’ve been wanting to fight that guy for a while,” said Rickels. “I’ve been consistently calling out Benson Henderson. I love that fight, too. I think the Ben Henderson name would be a higher-profile fight, but I feel like both of those guys would be similar in the kind of fight it would be. Both of those guys would be fun. I think Ed Ruth just lost; I would take that fight. Shit, I don’t know. I really wanted to fight Neiman Gracie before I knew he was in the tournament, but that didn’t pan out. What’s funny, though, is that it’s looking like those top 170[-pound] guys, I’m basically gonna have to wait until after the tournament to get any of those guys. So, whoever’s next.”
The move back to welterweight may not have started the way Rickels wanted, but he bounced back quickly.
“Yes, I am a veteran. I am 100 percent in this fight game.” Rickels said. “To enjoy the fight game at this point, I could retire, and I could make money with my businesses. I started some businesses and stuff, [so] I don’t need fighting. I want to be in fighting. I love fighting. So, cutting to 155 was killing my body and I’m a big… I think we need to make some changes to weight classes. I think it should go 55, 65, 75, 85, 95. I think they should make some changes to heavyweight as well. Maybe like a 220. Something like that would just be great.”
When Rickels isn’t preparing for his next fight or spending time with the family, he’s busy as a promoter for Evolution Fighting Championships in Kansas. It’s a move in the right direction for fighters who need to really plan for their family’s future once their time is done inside the cage.
“I look at it from two minds,” Rickels said. “Looking from the fighter as being one and then looking at the business side, because I do own my own promotion as well. So I’m, like, interested in why they’d make this move or this move. Why are they promoting the shit out of Antonio McKee or whatever, and some other guys. Oh! It’s because he could potentially, if they promote him that way, he could be the next huge star. I mean, I guess that’s the game that you’re in. The promotion game is, well I can go with [Jon] ‘Bones’ Jones, who I know is gonna get eyes, or I can try to promote these newer guys and invest 25 percent. If you could put it into percents, we could get four of these different guys and invest at this rate.
”That’s why EFC is not UFC. It does great here [in Kansas]. That’s one of the dope things about EFC. EFC only exists for two reasons: 1) I enjoy it, and so does the other owner. We fucking love it. We love putting on the fights. 2) It’s so that my friends, here in Wichita, who are fighters have a show to be on. Like, that’s it. Those are the only two reasons. Sure, I make a little bit of money, but, honestly, if you were, like, not a fan of this shit, you would not be doing this for the amount of money I am making.”
Rickels even offered some honest advice to those up-and-comers in the MMA world.
“If you’re a fighter and you’re making pretty good lump sums of cash and your hot for let’s say a few years — you need to be hot for a few years to stack up a little bit of dough — [then] hopefully you’re doing some shit outside of that and not just spending it all,” said Rickels. “When you think about a fighter, dude, you fight what, two or three times a year? Make a couple hundred grand if you’re middle level or higher, if that? You know what I mean? If that. If that. Some of these guys will make 56 grand, and that’s for their whole year, and that’s not including their training, paying their trainers, this and that, the taxes and stuff like that. It’s not easy. It’s damn near impossible unless you’re fuckin’ ‘Bones’ Jones or Donald Cerrone or one of the made men in UFC or Bellator, to, like, really make, like, a fortune where you could just like live off this shit. You have to be thinking of avenues outside of fighting. You want to live to fight, not fight to live, for sure.
“It can go both ways for you, but there becomes a point where you have to be able to… Your motivation and your will to fight and be the best has to come outside of needing money. When people tell me, ‘I can’t train to be a real fighter, because I have a job.’ Motherfucker, I had four jobs when I was coming up in the game. You know what I mean? I just find that stuff hilarious. There’s so much time in the day, and if you use your hours efficiently, you can get a lot done. Most people are just a little bit lazy.”
Every fighter eventually wants to enter the UFC. Recently, a fighter most would have never thought would make it there was former Bellator welterweight champion Ben “Funky” Askren. Now, Askren is set to make his UFC debut in two weeks. When it came to the idea of Rickels against Askren, the answer was clear.
“I would in a heartbeat. Hell yeah!” Rickels exclaimed. “He is a ground savage, for sure, and he’s gotten really a little more violent in figuring out when he can punch and still really control people well. So, he’s really good. I’m really dangerous off my back, and I really don’t feel uncomfortable there. I push a really high pace. I would take that fight.”