Kevin Syler spent his childhood pretending he was fighting in front of thousands of fans. Little did he know that his imagination would give rise to a profession.
The 24-year-old first expressed interest in mixed martial arts as a young boy growing up in Bolivia, where his older brother, Bentley Syler, became obsessed with boxing and kickboxing.
“I spent hours and hours watching fights,” he told Sherdog.com, “and we would even arrange big imaginary fights with my brother in my house, pretending it was in a big stadium with a huge crowd and for titles.”
Syler started his formal martial arts training at the age of 12 in order to kill time. He was joined by his siblings at a boxing gym in Bolivia, and once Syler got a taste of the action, he was overcome by the desire to learn. He started boxing three times a week, upped it to five times a week and eventually moved to kickboxing.
“I always enjoyed watching MMA as a kickboxer,” Syler said, “but I didn't want to train it because I thought I was already good enough and that I could defend the takedown.”
After a few jiu-jitsu classes, Syler was quick to realize that he needed to improve his ground game to compliment his standup skills. When MMA exploded in popularity, he knew which sport attracted him the most. Upon coming to the realization that he wanted to pursue a career in mixed martial arts, Syler joined his older brother and moved to Coconut Creek, Florida, to train at American Top Team.
Syler embarked on his amateur career as an 18-year-old in 2012, winning his first fight by TKO. “El Nino Bala” racked up a perfect 7-0 record before turning professional.
“I wanted time to develop, not only skill-wise but physically, too,” Syler said. “At 18 years [old], I figured I wasn’t ready to turn pro just yet. I took it slowly, won all my fights, won an amateur title and then turned pro at age 20.”
The bantamweight graduated to the professional ranks in April 2014, as he submitted Cleveland Mclean with a second-round rear-naked choke at a More Than Conquerors event in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Three future UFC competitors -- Sabah Homasi, Michael Graves and Michel Quinones -- were also on the card. After pushing his record to 3-0, Syler returned to Bolivia in 2015 and began traveling to American Top Team for his training camps.
“I’m still with ATT, even though I haven’t been able to train there as often as I would like to,” he said. “From 2012 to 2015, I trained nonstop at ATT, and it just took me to another level. It was just grueling those three years.”
His decision to move back home has not had any negative effects on his career. Syler finished his next three opponents and currently sits at 6-0. He last fought under the Combate Cotas MMA flag on June 10, when he put away Damian Ruiz with a guillotine choke in the second round. Syler believes he has the tools to become one of the top bantamweights in the sport.
“I’ve always hated being realistic with my goals,” he said. “When I see a great fighter doing great things, I want do that. While others attribute that greatness to a few special people, I just believe anyone can achieve whatever they want if they want it and if they love it, that’s it.”
Syler was fortunate to grow up with Bentley, who competed on Season 1 of “The Ultimate Fighter Latin America” before reaching the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Having a fellow mixed martial artist in the family has been invaluable. Syler always had someone to learn from and look up to.
“It was huge; he got me to do this,” he said. “He motivated me, pushed me to dream big, [taught] me everything he knew. He’s always been in my corner. When I moved to ATT to train along with him, I got really good, and we became the main training partner for each other.”
Bentley made his Octagon debut at UFC Fight Night 62 on March 21, 2015, losing to 2008 Olympian Fredy Serrano by third-round knockout. The experience left a lasting impression on Syler.
“I was able to corner him for that UFC fight, which helped me to see what it was all about.” he said. “Now that he’s not fighting, I’m proud of what he achieved being the first Bolivian fighter in the UFC. I hope I can take that with me and take it further.”