This must be what waiting for the call to the electric chair feels like. Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told by more than a few mixed martial artists who likened their UFC debuts to the worst possible torture you could imagine. And these weren’t some MMA neophytes competing for the first time. In some cases, the fighters going through those feelings you get on the first day of kindergarten were seasoned pros, guys with 15-20 fights.
But there’s something about those bright lights, about the hype and excitement of a UFC event that adds a gravity to the proceedings, a feeling that all the work of the previous years comes down to one moment. And if you fail, you may just wind up back on the local circuit, fighting in a converted barn or high school gym for pennies. That’s a lot to deal with in a small room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
That room has beaten more fighters than Anderson Silva and BJ Penn combined, so what was going on in the head of unbeaten heavyweight prospect Shane Carwin before his UFC debut in May against Christian Wellisch? How did he deal with the inevitable anxiety and pressure?
“We were back there just laughing and joking,” said Carwin, the “we” being trainers and cornermen Trevor Wittman, Nate Marquardt, and Christian Allen. “We were actually talking about the Revolutionary War and how people had to walk in line. You didn’t want to be on the front lines, seeing that guy in front of you go down.”
“I don’t know how we got on that subject,” he laughed, “but it was pretty relaxed and that’s usually how we like to keep it. We make sure we’re always having fun but working hard.”
44 seconds after the bell rang for his UFC 84 fight later that evening against Wellisch, Carwin was on his way back to the locker room, 1-0 in the UFC and 9-0 overall. There was nothing left to say about the knockout victory except that he made it look easy.
“I just want to go in there and perform, have fun, and I absolutely love the sport and I love to compete,” he said. “For me to be able to step into the Octagon, it’s a real dream come true and I absorb every second of that. I don’t necessarily expect some spectacular knockout or submission, but that’s obviously what I’m going in there to accomplish just because I’m overly competitive, and things have just turned out that way. I feel like if you work hard and train hard, things are gonna work out for the best in the end.”
Or you could just call it another stereotype-busting performance for the former NCAA Division II National Wrestling Champion and two-time football All-American, who not only killed the first-time UFC jitters theory, but who has also showed that it’s possible to compete at the highest levels of the game while still working a day job as an engineer. Yet while his eight-hour days are spent working on a hydraulic model and doing infrastructure reviews for the local water district, don’t think he’s skimping on time in the gym, even though he’s heard people wonder how much better he could be if he trained full-time.
“I hear people say that, but sometimes I don’t know how much more I could train,” said Carwin. “I’m training full-time on my lunch hour – that’s my strength and conditioning time – and then after work I do a couple of classes, usually some one on one with Trevor (Wittman), and then I go live in grappling or wrestling.”
He’s also taken on a job twice as week as the assistant wrestling coach at the University of Northern Colorado. But what about those fighters who say you have to train all-day to compete at the UFC level?
“I don’t know how you could train eight or nine hours a day – that seems like an awful lot to me,” he said. “I know my one-on-one’s with Trevor, by the end of them, he’s basically put me through hell in an hour and a half’s time. If I had to go through nine hours of hell with T every day, there just wouldn’t be an end of the week for me.”
So far, it’s hard to argue with the results Carwin has put up. He’s won all nine of his fights, with each bout ending in the first round. In fact, he hasn’t even fought half a round yet, with his pro debut win over Carlton Jones in a WEC bout being the longest he’s ever been pushed – 2:11. That’s great for him and the growing mythology around him, but what’s going to happen when he runs into that stubborn opponent who just won’t go away? How will he cope when the bell rings for round two or three?
“I guess that’s a territory that when I get there, we’ll see,” said Carwin. “But I’ll tell you what, when I’m in the training room, I’m training to go well beyond those three five minute rounds. It’s something I’m comfortable with in the training room, and I feel like I’d be comfortable with it in the ring as well. In fact, I feel that as matches go on, I get stronger.”
That’s a frightening thought for opponents, considering how dominant the 6-3, 262 pound Carwin has looked already. Next on his hit list will be unbeaten British banger Neil Wain, a fighter who will be competing on home soil as UFC 89 touches down in Birmingham, England. It will be new territory for the Greeley, Colorado native.
“It’s gonna be his backyard and I know that the fans are gonna be behind him,” said Carwin. “I’ve been in college situations before where I walked in and got booed, so that’ll probably be nothing any different for me. Sometimes that makes you a little bit more hyped up.”
The fans should be equally excited, considering that Wain has made a habit of fighting like he’s double parked as well, ending all of his fights via KO or TKO. If you’re watching this one, don’t get up to visit the refreshment
stand – it might not last long. And while it’s great to look forward to a fight that might be so explosive that it could end at any moment, it’s not so great in training for Carwin, because he has precious little tape on Wain to study. He’s not stressing out over it though, especially considering that he’s in the stage of his career where most of the pre-fight work in the gym is based on his own development as a fighter.
“I still have so much room to grow and improve in all aspects of my game, wrestling included, so when I’m preparing for a fight, I’m still learning new techniques and I’m working on stuff to even prepare me for the next fight after this, just to make sure I’m advancing as a fighter myself,” he said. “So most of my time is spent on improving myself. It’s hard when Neil doesn’t have a lot of tape out there, plus he hasn’t had a fight in a while, so he’s gonna have improved immensely as well. But from the little tape I’ve seen of him, Neil is an aggressive fighter and it looks like it’s gonna be two aggressive fighters going at it.”
Carwin’s keeping it simple, and that may be the best approach for him, especially when his bandwagon is taking on new passengers daily. It would be easy to get caught up in the hype of being the heavyweight division’s ‘next big thing’ and lose focus, but by keeping his eye on family, work, and getting better in the gym, he’s removing all distractions. Being 33 doesn’t hurt either.
“When I look back at when I was in college, and you’re in between the ages of 18 and 22, I think your outlook on life’s a lot different than when you’re in your 30’s,” he agrees. “I have a career going, I have a family, and I’m focused on where my life and my family’s life need to be. When you’re in your 20’s, you’re still trying to find out who you are, and a lot of those guys still want to have a lot of fun.”
Don’t get him wrong, Carwin’s still having fun – it’s just that his fun these days takes place in an arena with thousands of people cheering. And for him, nothing’s more fun than locking horns with an opponent who is going to meet him in the middle of the Octagon and throw down. So far, no one’s been able to do that with Carwin and leave with a victory. Does getting this good this fast surprise the three year MMA vet?
“You’ve just got to go out there to perform,” he said. “Anything can happen in any fight, and I truly believe that. All it takes is a split second mistake in this game, and anybody can go down. As long as you realize that and have an open mind for it, you’ll be fine. I don’t know if I’ve surprised myself - I’m an aggressive fighter and I like to get in there and get after it. To me it’s a fight. It’s not a three round decision. That guy’s in there to rip my head off, he’s trained for it, and I’m in there to take him apart and I’ve trained for it, so it’s just about getting after each other, and all of that excites me.”
That, and talking about the Revolutionary War just before he leaves the locker room to go fight.