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Interviewing a fighter multiple times across a span of months or years offers some unique opportunities. One is the chance to ask a question you’ve asked before and find out if the answer has changed. This is not out of any wish to trip the interviewee up or pick at inconsistencies, and in any event it’s hard to imagine catching Logan Storley, surely one of the straightest shooters in mixed martial arts, in a “gotcha” moment. The appeal is in finding out if the answer reveals any changes in how the fighter views himself, his team, organization, opponents or even the sport itself.
Talking to the 26-year-old South Dakota native and Bellator MMA welterweight contender for a third time as he prepared to take on Ion Pascu in the co-main event of Bellator 215 this weekend offered several chances to re-ask questions, the first of which was how he felt about his last fight. It was a bit of a surprise to hear Storley -- normally a harsh critic of his own performances -- admit to being happy with his last fight, a second-round ground-and-pound stoppage of A.J. Matthews at Bellator 204 last August.
“It felt good,” Storley said. “Things really clicked that night and I got to positions where I wanted to be, wore him out early and got him tired, and then got to really pick him apart. So it was a good game plan, and he definitely felt the heavy pressure on top and couldn’t really do much.”
Storley was able to apply that pressure and dominate his opponent on the ground as well as in the clinch that night in spite of being visibly smaller than Matthews, who has fought at middleweight as well as welterweight. The four-time NCAA All-American credited his wrestling background for that functional strength, explaining it in such a way as to leave the interviewer quietly crossing out his planned question about a hypothetical drop to lightweight.
“A lot of wrestlers, they don’t seem like the biggest guys until you grab a hold of them,” Storley said. “Until you grab a hold of them and feel that power and strength, it can be a little deceiving. You see some of these [college wrestlers] who are 149- or 157-pound guys, and they don’t look like big guys, but they’re powerful.
“I’ve always been the shorter guy, you know, and people ask about me dropping to 155,” he added. “But I train with middleweights, and I’ve grappled with light heavyweights, so I know how strong I am once I get a hold of someone. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, grabbing someone’s arm on the ground and being dominant. So for me, it’s just another day. I always wrestled bigger guys, taller guys, and it’s just something you get used to.”
Another unique benefit of speaking to the same interview subject more than once, at least for interviewers who may be slow on the uptake such as myself, is the chance to pick up on small details that eluded you the first -- and maybe the second -- time. In Storley’s case, it is his tendency to refer to “positions” and “situations” in his fights. In previous interviews it came off as a simple quirk of speech, but this time around it seemed appropriate to ask about the choice of words. Storley acknowledged that the terminology is very much intentional and in explaining, revealed much about how he sees fights during training camp as well as in the cage.
“Yeah, I feel like a lot of people kind of get excited about winning and get ahead of themselves, like ‘I want to do this, and I want to do that,’” Storley said. “But what it really comes down to is breaking a fight down into little positions. If you win that little scramble, if you win those little situations [against] the cage, if you win that mat return -- there are just so many little things. In wrestling, you see one-point matches all the time. So it’s all these little tiny situations that may not seem like a big deal at the time, but that’s what wins the fight or the match.”
Storley’s devotion to talking about positions and situations seems quaint in a sport where so many of his contemporaries are fond of predicting the finish, but it clearly reflects his mentality as a fighter. He is good enough at winning those tiny battles-within-battles that a good argument can be made that he has not lost a single minute of any of his nine fights to date.
Whether that will change on Saturday remains to be seen. Storley stopped short of calling Pascu his toughest challenge thus far, but emphasized that the Romanian by way of SBG Ireland represents a unique challenge.
“You never know. Each guy is a different puzzle and you just have to figure out how to put it together,” Storley said. “[Pascu] is a tough guy, has a good chin [and is] hard to finish. He actually has pretty decent wrestling and is a pretty explosive guy. I watched his fights versus [Ed Ruth] and [Lorenz Larkin] and some of his fights in other organizations. We have a good game plan, and it’ll be interesting to see if he wants to wrestle.”
Storley’s preparations for this weekend’s fight have been conducted at his longtime training home, Hard Knocks 365, where he has been honing his skills while serving as “the wrestler” for a couple of Ultimate Fighting Championship contenders who are preparing for their own upcoming matches with high-level wrestlers.
“This camp, I worked really well with Robbie Lawler, who’s getting ready for his fight against [Ben Askren], so obviously I worked well for him,” Storley said. “And then Kamaru Usman, who’s fighting [Tyron Woodley].”
Former UFC champ Lawler, who is one of Storley’s usual training partners for most camps regardless of opponent, has helped bring Storley’s striking game along. At the same time, the ability to measure himself against one of the most feared hitters in the history of the sport bolsters his confidence. In assessing the development of his standup game, “Storm” is realistic about his skill level and happy to embrace his strengths.
“My striking’s getting better,” Storley said. “I know I can stand in there with the best guys, but I [prefer] to clinch with guys, throw them to the ground and get heavy on top. Make them work, wear them out and then let’s see what they have left in them. I’ll be the first to admit that -- I’m not afraid to come out and say that’s what I want to do.
“I’m not trying to become the greatest striker ever,” he continued. “I haven’t put 20 years into striking, so I’m a lot of hours behind on that, and that’s just the honest truth. But I train with some of the best guys in the world, and one of the best striking coaches in the world, so I know where I’m at.”
Another question to re-ask of Storley -- more of an update, really -- was his take on the ongoing Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix. He has of course been a very interested observer of that tournament, as probably the best Bellator 170-pounder not in the bracket and, if he keeps winning, a likely title challenger for whoever emerges as the new champion. One notable first-round matchup featured a meeting of unbeaten fighters, as Neiman Gracie choked out Ed Ruth in the fourth round of their meeting at Bellator 213 in an upset. Storley’s comments on the fight were all about positions and situations, but the energy in his voice made it feel as though he was game-planning, referring simultaneously to the things Ruth could have done differently and the things Storley himself was resolving to do differently… if and when.
“That was an interesting fight,” he said. “Obviously, I was probably one of the most excited guys to watch it out of everyone, because I know Ed, I’ve competed against Ed, and it was just a very interesting matchup and an interesting fight. Ed, I think, won at least a round or two. But Ed kind of got tired, defending everything. I mean, he got out of two or three positions where I was like ‘Man, looks like it’s done’ and then he got out. I think he controlled the striking well, and he went forward, but he kept getting in situations where Gracie was on his back, not using as much energy as Ed was, and Ed eventually got tired and then got taken down.
“So I was kind of surprised,” he continued. “I thought Ed would win that fight, but that’s why you fight. I’m sure he learned a lot, learned a ton on what to do, and where not to put yourself and how to conserve your energy. Maybe you try and stay on the feet, and only go to take him down late in each round.” At no point in the conversation was it more difficult to tell whether Storley was talking about Ruth or to himself.
Storley has progressed from blue-chip prospect to title contender in his not-quite three years with Bellator. His future appears bright, and while he is happy under the Bellator banner, he was frank about his options being open. The grand prix may not wrap up for another year, leaving Storley fighting other up-and-comers, or perhaps fighters eliminated from the later rounds of the tournament, for quite a while before a title shot became a possibility.
“I’ve got two fights left on my contract,” he said. “I’m going to take care of business Feb. 15 and then we’ll see what Bellator sends my way. Whether we re-sign or I fight the contract out, obviously, I’ll talk to my agent about that, and whatever the best option is, that’s what we’ll do. [Bellator] has been great, I’ve had two televised fights and this is my second co-main event. They’ve treated me the right way, I haven’t been on the sidelines for any extended periods. The UFC is a marketing machine; obviously, it’s very well known by everyone. But Bellator has been getting better and better fighters, and they’re doing a great job promoting things and getting people more well-known.”
Storley paused for a moment and then, unprompted, launched into a series of statements that might as well be his manifesto as an athlete and competitor. It was Storley at his most South Dakotan, his most blue-collar and his most stereotypically wrestler-like, and I suspect that it reflected values that would not change whether I was interviewing him for the third time or the three-hundredth.
“But for me, right now… I don’t care how many Instagram followers I have,” he said. “I don’t care about hanging out with Hollywood people. I don’t care about that. Some fighters do. Some athletes, that’s what they like about it. But for me, I want to become the best fighter in the world. I want to become a world champ. And if other things come with it, that’s great. But that’s not what I’m focused on right now. It’s not about who you hang around with and how many people know your name. It’s about taking care of business."