Michael Page’s martial arts career is a journey through which twists and turns have been decided in many cases by the man himself and in other cases by external factors or pure chance. While the undefeated welterweight is a showman who hopes we enjoy the show -- a man who goes by nicknames like “Venom” and “MVP” and dances his way to the cage is clearly no shrinking violet -- he gives the impression of not caring too much about whether his progression from point A to point B is quick enough for the fight-watching public.
When Page squares off against David Rickels at Bellator 200 this Friday in London, just over 18 months will have elapsed since his last fight: a split decision win over Fernando Gonzalez at Bellator 165. The long absence from the cage was neither planned nor desired, but the British karateka stayed busy, making a detour into the boxing ring. Page claims the boxing match was not the reason for the hiatus from MMA, but simply an opportunity that arose.
“[A boxing match] is something I had talked about wanting to do before [the layoff], but it wasn’t something I was making actual moves towards,” Page told Sherdog.com. “No fighter wants that kind of time off, and it definitely wasn’t planned. There was an accumulation of injuries and … politics, I should say, but now I’m just glad to be back.”
The boxing experiment was a success, as Page notched a third-round technical knockout over unheralded Jonathan Castano in October. Page enjoyed the mental exercise of training for and participating in a boxing match and plans to do it again.
“Oh, I’ll definitely [box again],” Page said. “I enjoyed it. For me, it’s just another set of rules. Like when I was doing kickboxing, you could go from one event to the next and the rules are just slightly different. With the boxing match, people asked me, ‘Did you find it hard not to kick?’ Well, no; I see myself as a martial artist. If you tell me we’re fighting under any kind of rules, then that’s what I’ll do -- I’ll train for that. I’d say that I have a bit more fun with MMA just because I can do a bit more, but I definitely enjoyed boxing.”
Page is well aware of the narrative surrounding him; for every fan dazzled by his flashy in-cage movement and outlandishly impressive highlight reel, there is at least one more who complains that he “has not fought anybody.” To be fair, Page’s slate of opponents thus far seems designed for success, and it is rare for a fighter with his in-cage panache and out-of-cage charisma to reach 12-0 without facing some killers. Page sees no reason to apologize for his career trajectory, but he is perfectly willing to explain it.
“Anybody would have loved to move faster [to top-level opposition], but at the same time, I have to be realistic with myself. There are certain aspects of my game, when I first came in, that needed to [develop]. I started training in MMA and had my first pro fight six months later. Even though that fight went well, it didn’t mean I was a good MMA fighter,” Page said with a laugh. “There was still a hell of a lot for me to learn. Then a few more fights after that and I was in Bellator, but there was still s---loads for me to learn.
“I feel like because I’ve been developing in front of the spotlight, a lot of people expected me to have done more by now,” Page continued, “but that’s exactly what I was doing -- developing. Now, if I had rushed things, I guarantee you I would have some losses right now, and there would be no hype around me, not because [some] guy was better than me but just because I wasn’t ready for him yet; but now I finally feel like I’m at a time where my all-around game is developed enough to start pushing [for] bigger names.”
Page’s upcoming opponent is one of those bigger names and represents possibly his stiffest test to date. Rickels, a former Bellator MMA lightweight contender, already helped slow one hype train when he handed prize prospect Adam Piccolotti only his second career loss at Bellator 189. Page respects what Rickels brings to the table but expresses some doubt that a victory will change the popular narrative. In other words, just because his showboating flair may sometimes make it look easy does not mean it was an easy matchup.
“If you look at some of my previous opponents, I think my style might make them seem to be not on par, but some of them were previously in the UFC or went on to the UFC,” Page said. “They were tough competitors, and I didn’t underestimate any of them in spite of how my style might make it look; and with [Rickels], I guarantee you that in the beginning, everyone’s saying ‘Oh yeah, this is Michael’s best challenge,’ but if I take him out the same way I have other people, it will revert back to ‘Oh, he was just another can, he’s another opponent who wasn’t high level,’ and I think that’s just ridiculous to say about him.”
Page knows that there are still unanswered questions about his MMA game, and he understands that Rickels’ toughness, experience and grinding wrestling may allow him to address some of those questions. As with his overall career arc, Page seems neither reluctant nor overly eager to have those questions answered. Those tests will come when they come, and he plans to be ready for them.
“A lot of things about my game are going to be surprising the first time people see them, like my jiu-jitsu,” Page said. “It won’t be a surprise to me or my teammates, because they’ve watched me develop and they see every day in practice what I can do. I know it will be surprising to the majority of the industry, but to me, it’s an MMA fight. If I’m pushed to go [to a particular fight situation], I’ll go there. I might not prefer it, but I’ve trained for it and I’m prepared. I’m still capable of fighting there. I do one armbar and everyone goes crazy, one leg lock and everyone goes crazy. It’s like, do you not believe this is my job? I have to be [learning] all this stuff. I’d be stupid not to.”