David Rickels may not look the part of a professional mixed martial artist, but, as his nine previous professional opponents can attest, he can certainly play it inside the cage. His unkempt beard and disheveled haircut mask the perils hidden behind them, perhaps by design.
“I get a reaction out of people all the time when they find out what I do,” Rickels told Sherdog.com with a laugh. “They look at me with the shaggy beard and they’re, like, ‘You’re an MMA fighter?’ They’re, like, ‘What the hell?’ It’s pretty funny. It definitely doesn’t hurt. I’m sure a lot of my opponents underestimated me early in my career because of the way I looked.”
His physical appearance netted a teenaged Rickels the nickname he will carry with him into the cage when he meets Jordan Smith in the quarterfinals of the Bellator Fighting Championships Season 6 welterweight tournament at Bellator 63 on Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
“I was 18 years old when my friends first started calling me ‘The Caveman,’” he said. “Had just signed up with this kickboxing gym, and I kind of made a little bit of a name for myself for getting my ass whooped and just continuing to come back. I was 18 years old, and everyone thought I was 25 or 30.
“I’m coming into this muay Thai gym where I’m taller than most of these guys that have been doing muay Thai forever, and I’m just constantly getting the s--- end of the stick,” Rickels added. “I just wouldn’t give up, and I had this long, crazy, shaggy hair, this big scruffy beard and this prehistoric face, and the nickname just stuck with me.”
A third of the now 23-year-old Kansas native’s fights have taken place in Bellator, each of them ending via triangle choke. Rickels last appeared at Bellator 53 in October, when he finished Levi Avera with the maneuver in the second round and secured his place in the 170-pound tournament. The winner of the eight-man draw -- which includes Ben Saunders, Raul Amaya, Carlos Alexandre Pereira, Bryan Baker, Chris Lozano and Karl Amoussou -- will earn himself a six-figure payday and the opportunity to vie for 170-pound gold against either Douglas Lima or reigning Bellator welterweight champion Ben Askren. They meet next week at Bellator 64.
Rickels (9-0, 3-0 BFC) was originally booked to face Brian Foster, but the UFC veteran was not medically cleared. That opened the door for Smith.
“All of my friends and training partners were super excited for the Foster fight, but everyone’s just as excited about this fight with Jordan,” Rickels said. “I haven’t really had a lot of those knockdown, drag-out wars in my career, and I’m kind of hoping I get one in this fight with Jordan.
“Jordan is definitely going to be a little bigger than Foster, who I originally thought I was going to fight,” he added, “and he’s a lefty, which throws a bit of a curveball, but when that cage door closes and you start fighting, all that s--- goes out the window anyway.”
Smith (17-2-1, 0-0 BFC) will not enter his promotional debut cold, as “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 11 alum will carry a two-fight winning streak into the tournament.
Affiliated with the Black House outfit, which includes UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, the 27-year-old has secured seven of his 17 career wins by submission and seven more by knockout or technical knockout. Smith owns notable victories over UFC veterans Karo Parisyan and Brandon Melendez.
“I’ve seen some of Jordan’s fights, so I know he likes to stand and strike a little bit, and he comes to fight; he’s tough,” Rickels said. “He has a good record, he’s been around for a while and he’s been in some wars. He seems to just out-tough his opponents from what I can see. It’s kind of funny: stylistically, I think we’re very similar, so it’s going to make for a damn exciting fight. One of us is going to fall down eventually. I’m sure of it.
“It’s definitely really cool that Jordan trains with Anderson Silva, but that doesn’t make him the best fighter in the world,” he added. “I could go start training with Anderson Silva tomorrow and tell my friends about it and try to convince them that I’m the second-best fighter in the world, but, unfortunately, that’s not how things work. I’m sure Jordan has seen damn near everything under the sun in the gym, but when we go out there and start fighting, it’s just me and him and nobody else in there with us.”
Rickels believes conditioning will play a significant role in the outcome of the quarterfinal matchup, especially if Smith needs to cut considerable weight.
“I think my training is going to make the difference in this fight,” he said. “I’ve been killing it in the gym. I don’t see Jordan being able to keep up with the pace that I’m going to put on him. He’s a big guy, so I’m sure he’s going to be cutting a lot of weight on such a short notice, and I never really have to cut that much.
“Also, unless he’s planning on just laying on me, which I don’t think he is, I don’t think the weight’s going to matter much,” Rickels added. “We’re just going to go out there and bang it out. Who knows? Maybe it will go three rounds, but I don’t really see that happening.”
Rickels sees the potential for a barnburner.
“I see this as the fight that’s really going to put my name out there,” he said. “On Saturday morning, people are going to be saying, ‘Holy s---! Did you see that David Rickels-Jordan Smith fight?’” That’s how I see this fight going down.”