Do not let Tyler McGuire’s nice-guy personality fool you. Those who stand across the cage from him tend to get taken down and beaten up.
The 32-year-old prospect has taken one of the more interesting paths into mixed martial arts. McGuire was born to and raised by a single mother in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. She lived out the work ethic that would push him toward professional sports. He always found success in athletics as a child, and after competing in multiple sports in high school, McGuire chose to play soccer at Iowa Wesleyan University.
“I played soccer for four years, and since I had one more year of college academically, I played football my fifth year,” McGuire said. “I was the punter and kicker and scout team All-American wide receiver.”
McGuire graduated with a degree in education but still had an itch to compete in something. His wife -- she was his girlfriend at the time -- introduced him to her cousin, Gabe Lemley, who trained at Miletich Fighting Systems in Bettendorf, Iowa, and fought professionally in MMA. McGuire started training at Lemley’s house and made it a bucket-list goal to fight in a cage match just once in his life. He trained every day for three months and took his first amateur fight in 2012.
“I took my first fight, [and] I won that fight in a minute,” McGuire said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that is stupid. I just trained for three months and fought for one minute.’”
A few months later, McGuire won his second amateur fight. Again, it took roughly a minute. He went on to win an amateur title while fighting on only two days’ notice and carried his momentum to a 6-0 record before he joined the United States military.
“I joined the Air Force in 2012 to become a SERE specialist, active duty,” McGuire said. “The training pipeline took me two years to complete.”
SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and McGuire’s job was to bring men and women home safely, no matter the scenario. He still serves as a staff sergeant and teaches SERE -- a fact which led to a career-altering opportunity in MMA. After two years of training and upon receiving his certification, McGuire’s job brought him to Spokane, Washington, where he met Rick Little, the head coach at Sikjitsu. The gym was home to Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans Michael Chiesa and Sam Sicilia.
“Once I became established and certified, my friend took me to Sikjitsu, and they were not accepting new students, so they put me through the ringer,” McGuire said. “After holding my own and showing up the next day, I was part of the team.”
Even though McGuire was accepted, he admits he was somewhat intimidated by the talent present at the gym, especially after not training for more than two years.
“I walked into the gym and Mike Chiesa and Sam Sicilia are in there training,” McGuire said. “I didn’t talk to either of them for six months unless they talked to me out of respect.”
After six months of training, McGuire was ready to compete again. However, because he was already 29, Little told him it was time for his first professional fight.
“He told me I was ready to go pro and I did not really believe him,” McGuire said, “but I did turn pro, and here we are.”
McGuire won his first professional bout by first-round technical knockout on April 3, 2015. He has since rattled off 10 more victories -- seven of them finishes inside one round -- to push his record to 11-0. Meanwhile, McGuire needed to travel to Hawaii for his master’s certification in SERE and took the opportunity to train at United MMA. There, an encounter with the Lee family changed the course of his career yet again. After McGuire flirted with the idea of signing with the UFC, he crossed paths with another major MMA organization.
“The Lee family welcomed me and helped train at their gym,” he said, “I trained with Christian Lee and [current One Championship women’s atomweight titleholder] Angela Lee, and that gave me my introduction to One; and I really liked how they portray MMA.”
The company offered McGuire the opportunity to compete at One Championship “Pursuit of Power” on July 13 in Malaysia. He expected a low-profile fight since it would mark his promotional debut, but to his surprise, he was awarded a slot in the welterweight grand prix. One had put together a four-man tournament after welterweight champion Ben Askren announced his retirement. McGuire leaped at the chance and soon discovered the identity of his semifinal opponent: 75-fight veteran Luis “Sapo” Santos.
“I thought they were going to give me a warm-up fight but they told me I was going to fight Luis Santos, and I was like, ‘Holy s---,’” McGuire said. “He fought a teammate of mine back in the day and beat him in 13 seconds.”
McGuire cashed in on his opportunity and sprang the upset on Santos, riding heavy pressure and his grappling skills to a unanimous decision. Next up: a date with Zebaztian Kadestam for the vacant welterweight crown at One Championship “Warrior’s Dream” on Nov. 17 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Motivation will not be an issue.
Those who have seen McGuire fight on a regular basis know that he wears an “Autistic Kids Rock” T-shirt every time he competes -- a reminder of a cause about which he remains passionate. The shirt pays homage to the time he has spent working with autistic children in the Iowa school system. McGuire felt the pull from special-needs students while student teaching in Iowa, where he helped create one of the state’s first educational programs that specifically helps children on the autism spectrum.
“The main reason I wear the shirt is that one of the kid’s parents I worked with gave me the green shirt after helping their child,” McGuire said. “I always wear it for awareness, and since thousands of people come to my fights, why not try to spread positive awareness?”
It seems the message has resonated with the public.
“After every single fight, a dad, mother, brother, a cousin will come up to me and tell me a personal story on how autism affected their life,” McGuire said. “A mother came up to me crying because it meant the world to her.”
McGuire clings to the short-term goal of capturing the One Championship welterweight title but feels as though he fights for more than just himself and a belt. He fights for the Air Force, his teammates, autism awareness, his wife Cyndi and his 3-year-old daughter Kennedy.
“This isn’t going to last forever,” McGuire said. “I just want my wife to look back and be proud to call me her husband and my daughter to look back and be proud to call me her dad.”