Every fighter cannot wait to get their time to shine. The shot at the big stage is the sole focus for a lot of combat athletes, even if they have no chance of making it. However, one of the most disheartening things can be making it to the show, only to quickly wash out.
Kyle “Gunz Up” Stewart was a United States Marine Corps infantryman. After making it through boot camp and three combat deployments to Afghanistan, he knows a thing or two about how to avoid washing out.
During Stewart’s time in the Marines, he also started his amateur MMA career. By January 2019, well after the end of his military career, he had compiled an 11-1 pro fighting record. He had recently switched gyms to train with James Nakashima, the only guy to whom he’d suffered a loss, and was offered his UFC debut against Chance Rencountre. Stewart lost his to Rencountre by first-round submission. He returned to the Octagon six months later, but he lost again in a decision to Erik Koch. Stewart was subsequently cut from the roster. A dream come true had quickly evaporated.
“I had just switched camps to the MMA Lab,” Stewart told Combat Press. “I was just talking to John Crouch about it this morning — about where I was mentally, going into the UFC. I was at a smaller gym at Arizona Combat Sports. That’s nothing against them. I was just going and training against the same three or four guys my whole career. Being at a world-class gym like the MMA Lab, there is a break-down, build-up process. It’s weird, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Switching from Arizona Combat Sports to the MMA Lab, I was ignorant in that my confidence in my abilities was much higher until I walked into a world-class gym.”
The process of getting broken down and having to build back up is pretty standard of any military boot camp, too. However, when Stewart walked into the MMA Lab, he wasn’t in line with a bunch of other rookies. He was in there with combat veterans who had a ton of experience at a level he hadn’t trained with in the past.
“You’ve got [NCAA Division I] college wrestler, jiu-jitsu black belt, D-1 college wrestler, Benson Henderson. You’re really in a gym with absolute monsters,” Stewart said. “It’s just round after round. You kind of get broken down. One, your confidence is shot. Two, you realize your skill set isn’t what it needs to be. Those things kind of go hand-in-hand — your confidence comes from your skill set.
“After I switched to the MMA Lab, I realized my skill set wasn’t what I thought it was, and with that, it was a big blow to my confidence. Going forward here, I’m just trying to get back into the UFC. I’ve had a lot of time to grow at the MMA Lab. I’ve had a lot of time to train in a world-class program, and I feel like I have my old confidence, like back when I was 8-0, 9-0.
“I’m more optimistic about the future than I was even back then. I made it to the big show, and, looking back, I don’t understand what it was that affected me so much mentally. Now, I feel far more confident. I would happily step into Bellator. I would happily step into the UFC tomorrow. I would be much more confident.”
After Stewart’s release from the UFC, he was trying to get his momentum back. However, it was tough to find the renewed drive to do so. He was looking for his next opportunity, but he wasn’t sure how bad he wanted it. Eventually, he was offered a rematch against Mike Jones, whom he had knocked out in seven seconds in 2016.
“I wasn’t expecting him,” Stewart said. “[We] are buddies, or, at least, we are as close to buddies as guys can be and fight each other in the cage. I was surprised that he wanted that fight again.
“I think it was a good fight for me to go in there. At that time, I had just gotten cut from the UFC, and I was like, ‘Do I still want to do this?’ You know? I expected myself to win. I expected myself to dominate.”
Stewart did dominate. This time it took 40 seconds to get the knockout. He was starting to feel the fire again. The taste for blood was as good as it had ever been. However, as he was preparing to fight Jordan Williams in the Legacy Fighting Alliance in March, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit.
“This whole thing’s been a roller coaster,” Stewart admitted. “I’m hungry and ready to fight, but that’s all that’s been on my mind. I was ready to fight Jordan Williams, and I thought that was a great fight for me. I love fighting southpaws, so I think it was a great fight. Then, the black plague hit, and everything was canceled. Everybody was in limbo. Then, the UFC and Bellator got up and running, but, basically, unless you are in the UFC or Bellator, you’re kind of screwed.
“I was talking to a promoter in Florida, and was like, ‘Dude, if you have fights, I will drive myself to Florida and fight.’ I just want to get my career moving again. I’m in the gym. I feel great. I love my new weight class, but if I can’t get a fight, along with everything else going on in the world, that just adds to the anxiety.
“Everything’s political now, but my happy place is in the cage, man. That’s been the hardest part, is just waiting and waiting and waiting. I was talking to my manager, like, ‘Hit up LFA.’ We were even talking to a promoter in Brazil about possibly fighting in Brazil.”
Just a couple weeks ago, it all came together for Stewart. He got the call from the LFA, which offered him a co-headlining slot on the LFA 91 card, which takes place on Friday night at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D. Stewart has been paired with Tim Caron, a 10-2 fighter who was beaten previously by the aforementioned Williams.
“This fight is a much bigger step up in competition,” Stewart explained. “He’s been a prospect for a while now. He’s fought on [Dana White’s] Contender Series. He’s fought in Bellator. He’s definitely a step up.
“This game will zap the life out of you. Then you lose everything, which is what I felt like after I got cut by the UFC. I spent 10 years trying to get into the UFC, and I was out in six months. It just felt like I didn’t know if I loved it anymore. That whole fight camp preparing for Mike Jones was just figuring out if I still want to do it. Now, it’s like, let’s fight the top guys. Let’s go in there, beat the 10-2 guy, do it impressively, and really show the matchmakers of the UFC that I’m a different guy now.”
Through all of the madness surrounding the virus, Stewart was able to maintain a training regimen, albeit an unorthodox one. A lot of fighters were forced to do the same.
“That’s kind of how it’s going right now,” Stewart said. “Even in the UFC, guys are announcing they’re fighting, and it’s like a three-week camp. I’m training. I’m still training. Even if it’s just one-on-one in the gym, or when everything’s locked down, meeting with certain people at certain places [and] meeting with people in my weight class and training, it’s been like the underground railroad for training around here, you know? It’s kind of word of mouth. I’ve been training my ass off, and this is the longest I’ve ever had off from fighting that wasn’t from injury. That’s what’s really been driving me crazy.”
Stewart feels like he didn’t perform to the best of his abilities the last time he was in the UFC. He’s probably right. He was dealing with some confidence issues and was admittedly scared. Now, he has had an opportunity to get much better as a fighter, and his confidence level is off the charts as he prepares to enter the cage for LFA 91. A win in a fight broadcast on UFC Fight Pass will definitely help to put him back in the spotlight and on track to return to the coveted Octagon. His dream is still within striking distance.