My Life As An MMA Fighter: Brian Ebersole

Brian Ebersole is an Instructor at Evolve Mixed Martial Arts in Singapore and the Head Coach of the Evolve Fight Team. He is a UFC veteran with over 70 professional MMA fights. During his UFC career, he was a two-time winner of the Fight of the Night Award. In addition to the UFC, he has also competed in such organizations as Strikeforce and Shooto. His professional MMA record includes notable victories over such fighters as Carlos Newton, Chris Lytle, and Dennis Hallman. Before his professional MMA career, Brian was an NCAA Division 1 Wrestler at Eastern Illinois University and has over 30 years of wrestling experience. Although he has never been officially ranked in Jiu-Jitsu, Brian possesses black belt level submission grappling abilities. Throughout his career, he has coached and trained alongside such athletes as UFC fighters Matt Hughes, John Fitch, Frank Shamrock, and Roger Huerta.

When I was 5, my dad asked me if I wanted to wrestle. Like many young children, I had become fond of the word ‘NO’. So that was my response: “No, I don’t want to try wrestling.” Fortunately, my dad was persistent enough to ask me again, soon afterwards. And, fortunately, I was like any other kid and changed my mind often. And off we went, to my first wrestling practice, a few hours after I had finished my day at Kindergarten. I was hooked, from day one. Ever since then, I couldn’t remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t practicing, competing, or thinking about wrestling.

I come from a small town called Bradley, Illinois. It’s surrounded by cornfields and soybean fields and is 45 minutes from the nearest city suburb. It’s farm country, laced with plenty of factories and lots of blue-collar folk. My mom had worked as a gas station manager and delivered for Fed Ex for 15 years, while my stepfather worked as a welder after serving in the military, and finally settling into a large local paint factory, where he sits on the board of their worker’s union. My dad has worked labor and maintenance jobs for most of his life, retiring after working for the city council for some time. And my step-mother recently retired from my local high school after ___ years of teaching (a woman never tells or hints to her age!). I was the first grandchild to go to college, and my whole family couldn’t have been prouder. Thanks to wrestling recruiters, my good grades, and a high score on my college entrance exam, I was able to get a mix of scholarships to help pay for schooling.

Wrestling in college was on whole other level than what I was used to. Mediocre college wrestlers were better than the best high school wrestlers, on average. I was training with some really talented guys, guys who felt impossible to move. Initially, I enjoyed my classes and even made it on the Dean’s list. Our wrestling coach made sure that we always had decent grades, a source of accountability which helped a lot. I had also started fighting MMA, going 4-0 in the summer between my first and second year of college. I never had any formal MMA training, relying on my wrestling skills and some idea of submissions that came from the early UFC events.

My first MMA-type experiences stemmed from a bunch of guys I played basketball with, teaching each other how to grapple and fight, after the UFC events piqued our interest. One guy, Mark Thomson, was a decorated Traditional Martial Artist, having competed in numerous tournaments. Frustrated with his lack of success in the grappling/wrestling, he finally said: “You’d never take me down before I could punch you anyway.” I thought my odds were good, considering I was successful at taking down trained wrestlers, and this guy had never trained to defend a takedown in his life. Somewhere between his feet leaving the ground for the first time, and me setting him nicely onto his back for the fifth time; Mark conceded that a fight between he and I would likely be decided on the ground. It was training experiences like this, starting at 15-16 years old, that left me comfortable enough to take an MMA fight as a 19-year old college wrestler.

Brian has been wrestling ever since he was 5 years old.

My first MMA fight was against this boxer. Although I was reassured by the fact that I had wrestled over 400 matches while this guy didn’t have 400 fights, I was scared of the unknown. What would happen if I struggled to take him down? He’s just a boxer, so I’ll just need to dodge his punches. Will he throw kicks? Does he have a good guard or ground game? I won the fight with a submission and fought three weeks after that. Eventually, I would fight 4 fights in the next three months. I guess you could say this was the start of my career.

Word got around my college campus, by the beginning of my third year, that I had been fighting MMA. Inevitably, someone wanted to “test” the local fighter. And on a Friday night, early in the school year, this hockey player and his friends must have been chatting on the subject. Said hockey player came over to my dorm room one night, looking to pick a fight. Fortunately, I wasn’t there. However, as I returned home late on Saturday night, a life-changing conversation and confrontation ensued. Looking back, I wish I had walked away. That would have been the right thing to do. I made a bad choice, I stuck around long enough to allow the guy to throw a punch, and ended up defended myself; rather successfully I might add. I could have never imagined that this decision, and the resulting consequences, would lead to me working at a pig farm and dropping out of school. But that’s where the incident led me, as I was suspended from school for 10 weeks, and couldn’t step foot on campus.

That period of time saw a major decline in my level of interest, academically. Without the lure and accountability that wrestling offered, I just didn’t even want to be at school. Not to mention the newfound financial troubles, as I couldn’t sleep in the dormitory I’d paid for, nor access the meal plan I’d paid for — new rent and food costs, and loss of scholarships put me in quite a pickle. I ended up with compromised marks in all my classes that semester and skipping another semester after that; all to try and pay for rent and food. I went from this guy who was on athletic scholarship, and had made the dean’s list academically, to eventually dropping out of college altogether; though I was over 80% finished with my required coursework.

I didn’t know what depression was then, but both reading and “adulting” have led me to come to understand what it means, what it is. And I think that working on a pig farm; artificially impregnating, moving, and feeding pigs; instead of being with my teammates and going to class left me in a state of depression. I reckon that was as near rock bottom as I’d ever been, and as close as I ever want to be. Don’t get me wrong, I still had some good things going on in my life, as far as friends and family. But losing out on wrestling and academic opportunities dealt a major blow. My MMA adventure, however, was one of the very few things that was providing some hope and enjoyment. After deciding I didn’t want to have another bad year at school, I packed all my things and decided to move to California to train and fight MMA full-time, much to my parents’ dismay. It was their dream for me to finish college, but it was my dream had always been sports, and this was a way for me to continue chasing what I enjoyed.

Moving to California was tough. Rent was so expensive; I had to work multiple jobs to sustain the living expenses. I dug ditches and tended bars – and let me tell you, I enjoyed one much more than the other! I made some pretty mean drinks. My favorite thing to make was this shot made of light rum & blue curacao. Mixed in a shaker and distributed over any number of shot glasses, top each with a sprinkle of Bacardi 151 and immediately light on fire, ‘Twas quite a spectacle. Some would drink it straight, after blowing out the fire; of course. Many would blow it out and drop the shot into a pint glass of fruit juice. All told, bartending was my favorite “normal” job, and it helped that I had a big personality. But it was also suited perfectly for my training schedule, as the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) fighter’s training was at noon every day, so I could sleep in after late nights. And I had time after training, before work. I trained once a day, every day, which wasn’t as much as I had wanted. Given that some of the USA’s finest athletes and coaches were in the area, I’d have benefited greatly from more training time. But as it was, I had a fair level of success, winning most of my bouts via submission. I had a few losses, as the competition was tough. And it was here that I realized that to be successful at the highest level, training had to take priority, and I could not do as I had done in the past, taking tough fights on short notice. I had been motivated to take a few “ill-advised” bouts, as the money was good, but the circumstances were not. Like any fighter, I convinced myself that I could overcome “anyone, anytime, and any circumstances”. Thankfully, a move to Australia and a role as a full-time coach saw me much better prepared to manage my bout selection in the years to come.

After four years in California, I found myself in Australia; with two bouts in as many months. This trip in 2006 ended up being a bit of a recon-adventure, as it led to me moving back to Australia. After taking my first proper coaching role, and making a name for myself throughout the country with both my competition success and coaching efforts; I found myself in a unique position to again take a bit more control over my career. I left a full-time coaching job and decided to make my way as a full-time competitor and guest coach. Being able to do seminars at gyms around the country was a great way to meet new training partners, glean new contacts, and solicit sponsorships.

One such training trip, I was training and bunking with Ben Alloway, just a short time before he landed a spot on The Ultimate Fighter Australia. We were both set to fight on the same card, in his local area. One early morning, I had borrowed his scooter for an outdoor personal training session. I noticed, while driving, that my phone was ringing. For some reason, maybe because it was so early and any call would likely be someone close to me, I found a way to continue driving with one hand and answered it. I managed to pull off the road to a full stop, as I was yelling “one moment please” into the phone. Lo and behold, it was a promoter (Justin Lawrence) that I had first fought for in Australia. He told me that he had an email from the UFC and that they wanted me on their fight card. I was stunned. Just 3 months ago, they had told me no, they didn’t need an American with 12 losses – which was ironic because I had just beaten a former UFC champion in my last fight. I felt the tears streaming out of my eyes, as I finished the call. And I had another 20 minutes to drive, blurry eyed and shaking with excitement. After my session, it all hit me. I called my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) and when I broke the news to her, I really began crying. It was truly all so surreal. I only hoped it wasn’t a cruel prank!

My first UFC fight was also my most memorable one. My opponent, Chris Lytle, was from Indiana (where I was born). Being from the same region, we were familiar to one another. He was on a 4-fight winning streak, and I was replacing his recently injured opponent (Carlos Condit), who was on a winning streak as well. Their original bout was meant to be a #1 contender fight, meaning the winner would receive a shot at the Welterweight Champion, George St-Pierre.

I still remember walking out into the octagon for the first time. I had tears in my eyes when they announced my name. I came in as a huge underdog, but I didn’t let that stop me. In fact, I made sure that anyone who knew me placed a bet on the fight. I was a 3-1 betting underdog, so my win would provide a great payout! When I touched gloves with my opponent, I knew at that instant, that it was where I was meant to be. I started the fight with my cartwheel kick, just to shake any nervousness and after getting a feel for his striking rhythm and started to work my wrestling game plan. Lytle kept on trying to stuff them by trying to apply a guillotine choke each time, but that played right into my strength. In the second round, I landed a hard knee, stunning Lytle. I tried hard to finish with a choke, but to no avail. He was able to keep his wits about him through the chaos. I had another strong round, in the third, especially in the last 30 seconds where I landed some good ground and pound, cutting him in the process and leaving a strong impression with the judges. In the end, they gave us the Fight Of The Night award, and the judges gave me the win. It was the best night of my life.

Anytime I’m asked, I always say that I hated fighting other wrestlers. I would consider those fights my worst performances, as my strengths are nullified, and I must rely on “Plan B”. When wrestlers fight each other in MMA, you have two guys ramming into each other at full force, over and over. Sometimes lunging in with strikes, other times with takedown attempts. It’s like two rams butting heads over and over until one gets a headache and quits! It’s not my favorite style of fight, hence the trouble in “performing well”. Two of my toughest fights were just this type, this match-up style. First, Hector Lombard, who was an Olympic Judoka. At 5’9′ and 185, after cutting weight, he was a rock solid guy with a great base (hard to move). Even kickboxing him, I tried to pick at his legs, and he checked on or two of my kicks, possibly fracturing my foot/instep (who goes to the doctor over a sore foot, right?).

Another tough fight was when I fought Omari Akhmedov, a solid Russian wrestler. Worse than having to fight a wrestler, was having trained for a southpaw Muay Thai fighter, and having a late opponent change. Talk about a stylistic change! I’d spent 9 weeks honing my game-plan for a striker that I could take down, to now facing an Orthodox-Standing Wrestler that would be a nightmare to take down! After checking a kick and injuring my knee, I retired from the fight after having limped through much of the 1st round. My body had enough, that day, and for all the rest of my days. When I announced my retirement, it was because I knew my body had endured enough. And I couldn’t play my “A-game”. After 70 fights, I wasn’t as athletic as I once was, I couldn’t wrestle hard and pick people up anymore, and most importantly I had relegated myself to looking for openings instead of making them as I once had.

As tough as it all was, I’m grateful that the lessons I learned from fighting MMA and wrestling are those that have shaped me into the man, and coach that I am today. Wrestling is the most honest sport there is; either you can do something to someone, or you can’t. You can be deceptive, but your technique and effort have to be true. Since nobody is just going to fall down, or roll over for you, you have to have the will to make it happen. Just like life – it’s up to you to make something out of it. You need to get out, work hard, and chase your dreams. There are many ways that one can be a champion in life, but the process is the same. Respect the process, work diligently, and reap the intrinsic rewards.


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