Joe Warren aims to become Bellator’s first two-division champion. | Photo: Daniel Herbertson
Joe Warren learned about self-confidence a long time ago, when, as a ninth grader at the legendary Dan Gable’s wrestling camp, he was taught to talk himself into the idea of being the best.
That concept resonated with Warren then, and, even as a 103-pound teen-ager, he convinced himself that no one in the state could beat him prior to wrestling meets. It eventually transferred to his decorated amateur career, as that unwavering belief in self morphed into Warren’s current moniker at the Greco-Roman World Championships in China.
“I beat two world champions and two Olympic champions that day to win it,” he tells Sherdog.com. “I came off the stage and there was all these press, and they were taking pictures.”
The scene proved too much to resist.
“They said, ‘Mr. Warren, how do you feel?’ And I said, ‘Like the baddest man on the planet.’ And they just started printing it; it kind of just stuck,” Warren says. “I’m gonna keep it rolling for as long as I can.”
It is certainly a polarizing nickname for those who value humility and reserve from their fighters. It is also not all that original, as boxer Mike Tyson owned the phrase when he terrified the heavyweight division in the 1980s. Still, there is something endearing about Warren’s bravado, and if the decorated wrestler can accomplish all he wants to accomplish in the coming months, he will have backed it up.
Already the Bellator Fighting Championships featherweight titleholder, Warren plans on capturing the 135-pound crown during the promotion’s upcoming bantamweight tournament. He also has designs on a spot on the United States wrestling team for the 2012 Olympics in London, something that eluded him in 2008 when a positive test for THC -- a chemical found in marijuana -- resulted in a two-year suspension from the U.S. Anti-Doping Association.
It is an ambitious agenda for Warren, who also has a rematch of last year’s featherweight tournament final with Patricio “Pitbull” Freire looming. The 34-year-old is not looking too far into the future, however. Right now, his main focus is beating two-time freestyle wrestling world champion Alexis Vila in the opening round of the bantamweight bracket at Bellator 51 on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
Though the 40-year-old Cuban’s wrestling credentials are comparable to Warren’s, the former Dream competitor believes the fight is his for the taking.
“He’s a great wrestler but we’re not wrestling, and even if we were, I’d kick the s--- out of him there,” Warren says. “The bottom line is he’s in for a world of hurt. Out of everyone, I think he’s the worst fighter that I’ve had. I personally believe that I’m gonna get the job done as fast as I can and as violent as possible. He’s just a body in front of me right now so I can get to the second round of this tournament.”
Lately, Warren has managed to successfully emerge from one precarious situation after another inside the cage. Freire dropped him in the opening frame of their encounter at Bellator 23 and then caught him in a rear-naked choke, but Warren rallied in the last two rounds to earn a split decision and a title shot against Joe Soto two months later. Soto dominated him for a round in their championship bout -- one that many had 10-8 in Soto’s favor -- before Warren scored a technical knockout in round two. His most recent victory against Marcos Galvao at Bellator 41 came via controversial decision. Warren points to his relative inexperience in all the facets of MMA as to why he often prevails by the skin of his teeth.
“I fought some of the best fighters in the world the first few fights I ever had,” he says, referring to Dream bouts against Chase Beebe, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto and Bibiano Fernandes. “I had no training, so what’s happening is I’m getting hit with some hard shots. I’m just hardheaded and have a violent intensity where you’re not going to be able to stop me; you’re gonna just be able to hurt me a little bit.”
Fernandes remains the lone blemish on Warren’s MMA record to date, and the former Team Quest representative does not take defeat lightly.
“It’s very personal for me,” says Warren, who submitted to a Fernandes armbar at Dream 11. “I train very hard and I take losing real personal, so when it comes to getting in those ditches and trying to fight your way out, that’s where I’m comfortable. That’s where these guys have problems. If they want to bring me to a war, that’s where I win when I get in there.”
Pure wrestling ability has advanced Warren to this point, but he realizes that he will need a more well-rounded approach to continue his success.
Since his fight with Galvao, Warren claims he has stopped wrestling altogether to focus his training on the other elements in the sport. He has worked extensively on his standup with Marc Montoya, a muay Thai coach at Factory X Muay Thai and MMA in Colorado. He claims he has also moved a jiu-jitsu black belt into his home to improve his ground acumen.
“We focused on understanding the sport better,” Warren says. “Every single day I’m in the gym for an hour, an hour and a half, hitting pads and understanding how to move. It’s been a lot of work. I never put so much time into anything besides wrestling. This is the first time that I feel comfortable enough in any position in fighting to finish the fight. At my level -- to have that kind of confidence and to have the skill set to go behind it -- it brings me to a new level of confidence.”
Montoya, who is certified by the United World Muay Thai Association under Kru Vut Kamnark, has seen a significant jump in Warren’s striking ability since they first met through a mutual friend.
“When he and I got together, we pretty much just started from the basics,” Montoya says. “The progression in the last few months has been phenomenal. Being a really good athlete and also just having the will to want to get better and win is probably his biggest asset.”
On a scale of one to 10, Montoya believes that Warren has gone from a one to a “seven-plus” in his standup over the last few months. Previously, Warren was a mostly one-dimensional fighter that got by on “just sheer will and heart” in his victories. Montoya thinks some of those close calls probably served as eye-openers.
“You’ve seen him in a lot of the worst situations a fighter can be in and overcome those. I don’t think that when he fought previously he was a mixed martial artist,” Montoya says. “I think what he did was he actually learned [from] what he experienced and said, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got to step this up and turn myself into a more well-rounded fighter.’”
If Warren proves to be as quick a study on fight night as he has during practice, 2012 could be a busy year for featherweight champion. Depending on how Warren fares in the bantamweight tournament, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney predicts that he could fight as many as seven times in the next year. It is a staggering figure for a high-level, modern-day mixed martial artist, but Warren figures that if he gets the opportunity to compete that much, things must be going well.
“I’m physically in the best shape I can be in right now with my hands and on the ground and in fighting mode. For me, every single fight gets me better,” he says. “Right now, I’d be happy to be able to fight seven times. That’d be good for my bank account.”
Even if Warren had been able to compete in the Beijing Games, he does not believe his career arc would have changed much. The only difference is that the wrestling itch might have been satisfied.
“I would have won the Olympics and I probably would have fought [MMA] right after that,” Warren says. “It would have been a closure for wrestling, so it would have been over for me. But, mentally, it wouldn’t have changed much -- maybe put me in a better financial spot. My plan was to still fight. That was always on the horizon. It just kind of jump started a fighting career by six to eight months probably.”
Warren still uses motivational ploys before fights, but referring to himself as “The Baddest Man on the Planet” was never meant to offend anyone. If he had gotten his way, people would be calling him the “Neon Tiger.” Warren says he gave the nickname a trial run while fighting in Japan but never could get it to stick.
“I’m an extremely mental athlete,” he says. “I understand how strong the brain is -- if you can get that on the same level as you, then you’re unstoppable. I say a lot of things mentally to get myself going, and I continue to keep it going until it kind of gets the nerves out of me. It’s more of a focus, not an arrogance but a confidence level that I give myself.”
Perhaps that is why Warren does not backtrack when asked once again why he thinks Vila might be his worst opponent to date. If Warren can make himself believe that, it might make the fight a little easier.
“He’s got great wrestling skills; [that is] one thing I will not talk bad about. He’s won a lot. Mentally, physically, that’s really tough to do, but he’s 40 years old. I understand what age does, so we’ll see,” Warren says.
To become a two-division champion in Bellator, as well as an Olympian, Warren will have to get better with age. He turns 35 on Halloween.
“It’s gonna mean a lot to me,” Warren says. “It’s gonna be another goal that I’ve put in front of myself. I usually do a really good job of setting goals and reaching them.”