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Johnny Eblen, the latest undefeated prospect Bellator MMA has added to its roster, will make his organizational debut at Bellator 218 on Friday at the Winstar World Casino in Thackerville, Oklahoma. The 27-year-old enters the event feeling as though he has fully prepared for an important step up to MMA’s major leagues.
Eblen, 27, understands the opportunity to compete under the Bellator flag brings with it increases in pressure and degree of difficulty. However, his first start in the Scott Coker-led promotion will come under more manageable circumstances, as he fights inside an arena that holds only a few thousand fans; and instead of facing a top middleweight contender, the Kansas City, Missouri, native has been paired opposite Chauncey Foxworth, a journeyman with a 5-7 record.
Though his entire professional career has taken place inside the Shamrock Fighting Championships organization, Eblen feels the regional circuit has readied him for the transition to Bellator.
“I think that Shamrock FC definitely prepared me,” he told Sherdog.com, “especially for this venue. It’s not an arena. It’s definitely a step up in competition and venue size, but it’s a subtle step up. It’s not a giant step up.”
Eblen recently got a taste of what a giant step might look like when the American Top Team representative accompanied then-Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder Tyron Woodley to the cage for his UFC 235 co-main event against Kamaru Usman. The excitement of the moment had an effect on the young fighter.
“I kind of got nervous walking out with him,” Eblen said, “but once I was out there, the nerves were gone [and] I just kind of got used to it.”
Although Eblen expects some nervous energy on fight night, he believes that once the cage door closes, the fighter switch will turn on and the focus will set in.
“I think no matter what, as soon as that cage locks, I just lose those nerves,” he said. “Once they announce my name and we touch gloves, it’s on.”
Eblen, who wrestled collegiately at the University of Missouri, has finished each of his first four opponents in the first round, three of them by technical knockout. He draws confidence from the work he has put in at American Top Team over the last two years and from executing techniques and game plans. Growth in MMA took time under wrestling coach Steve Mocco and former trainer J.P. Reese, especially as it pertains to the finer nuances of striking.
“The sparring on the feet, it took a little while,” Eblen said. “It took about a year until I was actually comfortable. Now I don’t tense up in sparring like I used to. I think they did a good job with me [by] slowly working me into it. I don’t even care if I get hit; it’s more of I get aggressive when I get hit. I tend to … if you hit me, I’m going to come even harder. I’ve been working on relaxing more, so if I get hit, I need to stick to my game plan.”
In an effort to broaden his horizons, Eblen has sought knowledge from those who have experienced all the sport can throw at them. Along with Mocco and Reese, current head coach Din Thomas and former Strikeforce champion Muhammed Lawal have imparted their years of wisdom on him. Thomas and Lawal have educated him on the inning workings of the business: “Mainly just knowing your worth, knowing the right fights to take and knowing when to make the jumps [to better competition and bigger promotions promotions] -- being more conscious about the decisions I make now, so my career ends up better in the future.”
Eblen fell in love with MMA through the lessons he has learned and the successes he has achieved. His passion for the sport far exceeds what he experienced as an NCAA Division I wrestler.
“I really don’t hold wrestling near and dear to me,” Eblen said. “I really don’t give a s---. I did it because it helped me get an education, and I was pretty damn good at it. I think I’m actually a better MMA competitor than I was as a wrestler.”
For many rising prospects who train at powerhouse gyms like American Top Team, holding out for an Ultimate Fighting Championship contract has become the norm. However, Eblen felt the only path to the UFC involved either an eye-catching appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series -- which is far from a guarantee -- or staying on the regional circuit to keep racking up victories. Neither scenario had the appeal of what Bellator could offer him: a multi-year deal and the chance to be further groomed for success. The promotion has employed similar strategies with fighters like Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, A.J. McKee, Patricio Freire and Michael Chandler.
“I kind of liked the fact that Bellator signed me to a two-year deal for six fights just to kind of build me up and work with me, get me the right fights, get me decent money and then work from there,” Eblen said. “I’m definitely making a lot more money with Bellator. It’s not life-changing, but it’s going to make me a little more comfortable than I was a year ago.”
The fact that the Bellator middleweight division has a dearth of contenders also proved appealing, as an impressive run of consecutive wins could conceivably put a fighter in title contention sooner rather than later. Eblen does not want to look that far ahead but acknowledges the possibilities.
“Yeah, it’s a possibility depending on how I perform,” he said. “Obviously, I’m just worried about taking one day at a time. Whether it happens this year or at the start of next year, I really don’t care. I just take one fight at a time.”