Photo Courtesy: Hunter Worsham
Following in his father’s footsteps led Hunter Worsham right into the cage.
The 20-year-old fighter faces Zach Underwood in a middleweight bout on the undercard of Strikeforce “Nashville” this Saturday at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., nearly 14 years following his father Cal Worsham’s debut in the sport at UFC 6 in Casper, Wyo.
Worsham’s father, a former correctional officer, was one of the fearless few who answered an ad for the fledgling UFC in Black Belt magazine and became part of the fabric of the sport’s early history. The second-generation fighter was exposed to MMA at an early age.
“I grew up having Don Frye sleeping on the couch,” said Worsham. “To me, he was just Don, my dad’s friend.”
Worsham didn’t realize how big Frye was in the mixed martial arts world until he watched his father fight in the open-weight tournament for the UFC’s 1996 “Ultimate Ultimate” event. Worsham’s father lost his first-round bout against Tank Abbott, but Frye avenged the loss against Abbott in the finals.
When he was old enough, Worsham began training at his father’s gym, Worsham Team X, in Folsom, Calif. Learning under his father, a three-time UFC veteran who’d go on to amass a double-digit record in the sport, had its benefits.
“I got to train with Randy Couture when I was 14,” said Worsham. “He came into the gym and I was rolling around with him. I was lucky to have a head start with that great of a caliber of fighters when I was so young.”
Worsham had his first fight at age 17 on an Indian reservation in California. He was still in high school at the time, and his father trained him for the bout.
“He always told me he did it so I wouldn’t have to, but I always wanted to be just like my dad,” said Worsham. “He wrestled. I wrestled. He played football. I played football. Everything he did, I wanted to do it, but do it better to show pops that I’m a man like he is. I fought a 26-year-old man when I was 17 years old.”
In 2008, father and son appeared together on a Gladiator Challenge card, marking the first time that two generations fought for an established promotion in one night. Both have also held titles within the organization simultaneously.
The younger Worsham said his father taught him how to respect the sport, leading by example. Worsham said his father often only asked his students for the bare minimum to keep the gym’s lights on and the doors open.
“He showed me that the sport wasn’t about greed,” said Worsham. “It’s just about the fight. You don’t come in here to get greedy for the money. You’re here to fight. You’re here for the sport.”
Last February, Worsham caught the eye of Bob Cook, an advisor for Strikeforce who was scouting the local schools surrounding Nashville to fill April 17’s undercard. Worsham recognized Cook right away -- his father had refereed Cook’s first fight in 1998.
Cook said Worsham showed potential and was scrappy, “just like his father.” When Cook found out who the 20-year-old fighter was, he said Worsham was a shoe-in for the event. The elder Worsham, along with Frye and local SSF Submission Academy coach Ron Dayley, will corner the young fighter on Saturday.
Worsham, who won Gladiator Challenge’s 205-pound title last month, has been a member of the U.S. Army for the last two years, stationed with the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky. He’ll deploy for Afghanistan for a one-year tour shortly after his Strikeforce debut. Worsham said he’d like to continue his fighting career when he returns and reach the heights his father did.
“He’s 1-2 in the UFC. He’s fought all over the world, in Japan, Brazil, Russia,” said Worsham of his father. “I definitely think he’s done a great thing not only for our family and the name of our family, but for others out there. He’s the reason I am the fighter I am today.”
Worsham hopes to support his wife and 16-month-old daughter with fighting, just as his father did years ago for him.
“This fight right here, even though it’s just a foot in the door with Strikeforce, I would say it’s more important than any other fight I’ve had,” said Worsham. “I look at it as a way of life, not just a sport. I don’t do it for the TV shows, or the sponsors or for anything else other than to take care of my family. It’s in my blood.”