Having recently served as a sparring partner for the first American heavyweight boxing titlist in nearly a decade, Raphael Butler has acquired a sense of what it takes to be a champion.
The Bellator MMA heavyweight was in camp helping Deontay Wilder ahead of his last two fights, including the WBC champion’s ninth-round knockout of Artur Szpilka in Brooklyn on Jan. 16.
“His camp are awesome people. They really take care of the sparring partners. They don’t treat the sparring partners like they’re pieces of meat,” Butler told Sherdog.com. “They actually try to take care of the guys and make sure that they want to come back. I enjoy every time that I go down there.”
Wilder sports an impressive 36-0 record, with 35 of his victories by way of knockout. While the Tuscaloosa, Ala., native has received criticism for facing soft opposition -- not unusual in boxing -- Butler said “The Bronze Bomber” lived up to the hype in the ring.
“It’s a real good experience. Wilder is one of those guys that people give him a lot of slack... But, being in there with him, I found a new respect for him,” Butler said. “He really does work hard. He’s trying to learn every aspect of the fighting game. And he does hit as hard as his record says he does.”
Butler compiled a 35-12 mark over the course of his own professional boxing career that ended in 2011. These days, MMA is his focus, but the experience with Wilder could help in that regard as well, especially with Butler scheduled for a pivotal matchup against Tony Johnson at Bellator 148 on Jan. 29.
“For me, I feel like, being a boxer, I have to still remember that I’m a boxer and get that boxing work in. That was a good experience for me,” he said. “Being in the gym with a world champion, regardless of what sport it is, just being around that presence, it definitely gives me more motivation.
“The more world champions I train with, the more high-level fighters I train with, the more I feel like I belong here and I belong where they’re at.”
Butler is 9-1-1 during his MMA tenure thus far, with all of his victories inside the distance. Most recently, the man known as “The Silencer” choked out Josh Diekmann in 64 seconds at Bellator 134. So far, Butler’s reputation is that of a finisher, but to take the next step in a wide-open division, he realizes that he will have to triumph in unfamiliar territory.
That starts against Johnson, a wrestler with American Kickboxing Academy ties who grinded out a split-decision against former heavyweight champ Alexander Volkov in his Bellator MMA debut.
”I don’t expect for every fight to go the way that I would like it to go. I appreciate the fact that this fight is going to put me out of my comfort zone a little bit, if I let it I guess,” Butler said. “I definitely have the opportunity to make this fight go like I want it to still, but it’s all up in the air right now. I’m just gonna see what happens during fight night.”
Butler’s ultimate goal, of course, is to be able to have a belt to take with him the next time he’s invited to spar with Wilder. A victory over a promising prospect such as Johnson would be a major step in that direction.
“Hopefully this fight puts in the position where I can start making a run for the title. That’s obviously the end game of all this. I think beating a guy like Tony Johnson, who just beat a former champion, will put me in that position,” he said. “People know me for my finishes, and they like to see a guy fight for the title who wants to try to destroy everybody they put in front of him. That’s what I try to do, I literally try to break the people that I’m fighting. I think people want to see that, especially at heavyweight.”
Butler already has the confidence that only going toe-to-toe with the best in the world can provide. Now he just has to assemble the resume to go with it.