WSOF champ Steve Carl ready for 'guy everybody is afraid of' - NBC Sports

WSOF champ Steve Carl ready for 'guy everybody is afraid of'
Once afraid of Rousimar Palhares, Carl now craves the challenge
March 19, 2014, 11:00 am

Even though the vast majority of pro fighters don't publicly admit it, each and every fighter knows deep  down which opponents represent favorable match-ups– and which opponents pose a “bad” or tough match-up for them. Every established fighter recognizes which other fighters are most equipped with the style to beat them.

Nevertheless, scores of MMA fighters over the years have publicly declared to the media, “I'll fight anyone they put in front of me,” but behind the scenes (whether through their manager or otherwise) rejected offers to fight a certain dangerous stud. Sometimes the reason for declining a fight involves disagreement over money; other times it's because a given fighter considers an opponent too high-risk, low-reward. Other times a fighter is just flat-out afraid of another guy.

Which is why Steve Carl deserves major props for being man enough to say aloud what few others dare to:

“When I look at the World Series of Fighting roster, I think Rousimar Palhares is my toughest matchup,” said Carl, the reigning World Series of Fighting champion at 170 pounds. “He's the guy everybody is afraid of … When he first signed with WSOF I thought, 'I really don't want to fight that guy.'”

Carl, who upset Josh Burkman last October for the belt, could have made his first title defense against Jon Fitch in June. Carl liked the matchup but says there was one problem: He didn't want to wait so  long (what would have been a 7-month lag) until his next fight. So Carl entertained a counter-offer, a March 29 date against Palhares, a Brazilian brickhouse known to be a lot of fighters worst 'fightmare.'

While weighing the offer, Carl had this conversation with himself:
If I beat Jon Fitch then I'm probably going to have to fight Palhares next anyway. Am I going to say 'no' to that fight? Absolutely not – I'm the champion. So why not just fight Palhares now when all of this controversy is behind him and everybody wants him to lose? This is going to gain me much more popularity, recognition and fan base.

The “controversy” Carl described was UFC president Dana White banning Rousimar Palhares from the octagon for continuing to crank heel hook submissions after opponents had already tapped out. While some in Palhares' native Brazil and prominent Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts such as Renzo Gracie (and myself) have defended Palhares and believe the punishment was much too severe, fans and journalists in the United States have overwhelmingly condemned and painted Palhares as the dirtiest fighter in the sport.

The Steve Carl of three years ago most likely would not have accepted such a dangerous fight. Back then he hit a dry patch, winning once in three fights. At a crossroads in 2011, the underachieving Iowan – prone to over-analyzing and 'paralysis by analysis' before some fights – somehow latched on to a mindset that would dramatically alter the trajectory of his professional fighting career. From now on, he vowed to himself, I'm fighting on auto-pilot. No more hesitation. No more over-thinking the game.

“I quit giving into the fear that I had before fights,” Carl said. “In all three of my losses I let myself lose. I went into those fights mentally overwhelmed and I couldn't perform my best. So I sat myself down after my last loss (in 2011) and said to myself, 'If you're going to keep fighting then you're going to have to just go out there and do it.'

“It was self-realization; I realized that the only person holding me back was myself. If you really want to achieve your true potential then you have to let yourself go. Your true enemy is yourself. The biggest battle is internal. Once you conquer that everything else is easy. Now I'm the same guy 10 minutes before my fight as I am when I talk to someone on the street during the week. I'm backstage before my fights chilling and having a good time. The last thing I have on my mind, or that we will talk about, is the fight. I just do my warm-up and then go out there; I don't worry about gameplans … I just let the bell ring and just go. I just go out there and react.”

Since mentally flipping that switch Carl (21-3) has reinvented himself inside the cage, submitting seven straight opponents – six of them in the first round. Only Josh Burkman, who tapped out Jon Fitch last year, made it out of the first round with Carl (who was a heavy underdog in the title fight). Carl, a former Motorcross competitor who says he once cleared a 120-foot jump, is a fighter who takes risks. He's finished 75 percent of his opponents – a very high rate for someone with over 20 fights.

The problem for Carl, “on paper” at least, is that 16 of his wins are by submission. He is strongest where Palhares is strongest, though it will commonly be presumed that the Brazilian leg lock specialist who earned a silver medal at the prestigious ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championships) is the far superior grappler and has faced tougher opponents. Expect Palhares (15-5, 11 subs) to be the sizable favorite in the March 29 clash, though Carl feels comfortable being underestimated. Carl has grown accustomed to the slights and the doubters and owns the type of stubborn personality needed to thrive while going against the grain. Just how different is Steve Carl from most in MMA? The WSOF kingpin trains in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the little-known Hard Drive MMA team and believes all the pieces are in place to beat the best.

“I think any fighter can achieve greatness anywhere,” Carl said. “Some people feel like they need to be in a big camp, training with big-name guys, and famous coaches, but I don't feel that need. I'm fine with what I'm doing. 80 percent of my workouts are just me, (WSOF heavyweight) Derrick Mehmen and two kickboxers. That's most of my training camp. If you can find somebody to push you, you can train with one person – or you could train by yourself. Finding the ability to push yourself is all you need.”

Carl is looking at the Palhares fight through the prism of opportunity. He beat Burkman. He can shock everyone by beating one of the most controversial figures in the sport (Palhares), then has widely-respected Fitch waiting in the wings. The fighter who once worried too much has learned to relax and focus predominantly on the upside of things.

“That's one of the exciting things about this fight: I get through him and then my confidence will be ten-fold better,” Carl said of defending his title against Palhares. “Nobody wants to fight this guy? Alright, I'll step up, put my title on the line. Let's do it. He has what I want. I should be the guy that everybody is afraid to fight. But right now that's him. So I want to go through him to get that recognition. This is a chance for me to face that fear and prove that I've mastered myself.”

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