Central Oregon. A teenage John Gunderson has talked his mother into make the hour’s drive to the closest boxing gym around, only to find out that it had closed two days earlier.
Undeterred, the 16-year old kept asking around until he found a refuge among the beaten up heavy bags, speed bags, and rings. The die was cast, and he would rarely find himself outside of a gym over the next 15 years.
Over the course of that time, he’s had plenty of success, first as an amateur boxer and then as an amateur and pro mixed martial artist, but the memory of the first time he stepped into a competitive ring still remains as vivid today as it did then.
That night, he and his gym’s team took a two hour trip to an amateur boxing meet, but a snowstorm scrapped three of his teammates’ bouts. He was going to be the only one representing the gym against an opponent with a 4-2 record.
“I remember going out there and throwing the wildest punches,” recalls Gunderson with a chuckle. “It was just like a street fight, but I won.”
He pauses, then continues.
“If you just suck it up, there’s nothing you can’t do.”
Fast forward to June 19, 2010. Gunderson, 0-1 in the UFC, has a pivotal bout against once-beaten Canadian prospect Mark Holst. It’s pivotal because in the competitive UFC lightweight division, two straight losses can cripple your ability to move up the ranks. Gunderson is unbothered by such a prospect, but what is a bother is an injured arm that has kept him from sparring in the final week and a half of training camp. He doesn’t let the injury affect his mental game though, and as far as pre-fight nerves go, he has none.
“I know why I’m fighting,” he said. “I fight because I love to fight. I would probably fight even if I wasn’t getting paid, just because I love it so much. (Laughs) I always have, ever since I was little. There’s just something about it.”
And on that June night in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, Gunderson put thoughts of his injury aside and fought for 15 minutes, taking a clear cut three round unanimous decision win in the process.
“I heard a lot of positive things about how good he (Holst) was, and he was – he was really tough,” said Gunderson of the victory. “And what makes that win even sweeter and better for me is that I went into that fight having been hurt the week before. But I was coming off my loss at UFC 108 (to Rafaello Oliveira), then going all the way out to Abu Dhabi (for UFC 112) and Paul (Taylor) getting sick the night before. Then we rescheduled the fight and he got sick again and there were so many things, and I just wanted to fight. I wanted to get in there and prove that I belonged in there. I just needed a good amount of time to prepare myself. So getting in there and performing the way I did, I felt like I completely dominated the fight. I got a little tired in the third round because I hadn’t sparred for like a week and a half because I hurt my arm. And I learned a lot from that fight going 15 minutes. I feel like I got my foot in the door, and now I just really need to go out there and impress.”
The win was a long time coming. After earning a UFC contract with a three fight win streak in 2009, Gunderson dropped a decision to Rafaello Oliveira on January 2nd, and then saw two bouts with England’s Paul Taylor scrapped (one the day of the fight). It made the playing field ripe for the type of mental tricks that can break a fighter, but Gunderson is made of sturdier stock, and when he says that he’s a fighter, that’s more than just a job description; it’s his way of life and the way he thinks.
“I could like somebody, but if I could get away with punching them or slamming them for those two hours in the gym, that’s my sanctuary,” he explains. “That’s my church, and I love to be in the gym and I love to fight. There’s times when I’m exhausted and I don’t want to be in there, but I go in there because I have to because when I make that walk into the tunnel, I want to know that I’ve done everything possible to prepare for this fight. And if I feel like I have, then I almost always win.”
In 30 pro fights, the 31-year old Gunderson has had his hand raised 23 times. That’s quite a resume, but it even pales in comparison to the one sported by his opponent this Wednesday night in Austin, Texas, Yves Edwards, who returns to the Octagon with a 38-16-1 slate. That’s an ‘old school’ matchup right there, and Gunderson knows what he’s up against when he steps in there with the master of “Thug-Jitsu”.
“He’s a pioneer of the lightweight division,” said Gunderson of Edwards. “This is the first time I’ve fought somebody with almost twice as many fights as me. The guy’s been around, he’s fought the best of the best, and when I was watching him, he was head kicking people, knocking them out, dropping them. He’s phenomenal, and you can’t count a guy like that out. He’s a great fighter, but you know, I’m a great fighter too. I may not have the exposure that he has, and I may not have the fancy finishes that he has, but at this point, I feel like I’m better fighter. And I can say it all I want, but next week we’re gonna find out.”
That’s the beauty of it. All the records, wins, and accolades mean nothing when the bell rings.
“No matter what, this is a fight, and eventually, you’re gonna have to fight in there,” he said. “Whether you get lucky and can sub somebody real quick or you knock somebody out, eventually, you’re gonna fight someone that you can’t do that to, and you’re gonna have to fight. And when you go back to that corner after the round and you know that you’re in a fight, you’re gonna have to man up, and if you’re not a fighter, you’re gonna fall under that pressure. That’s where you find out and where you dig down deep – you’re gonna have to look yourself in the mirror the next day.”
And John Gunderson always knows the man he’s looking at. He’s a fighter.