Normally, when an elite athlete decides to try their hand in another arena, curious eyes focus in on the spectacle, eager to see the results.
Michael Jordan’s 1994 summer vacation with the Birmingham Barons made headlines, while two of the biggest stories of the MMA year-to-date have been the arrival of Herschel Walker and James Toney into the sport. Saturday night in Victoria, British Columbia, the Armageddon Fighting Championships will host the debut of another potential crossover star.
Brazilian jiu jitsu superstar Robert Drysdale will step into the cage at AFC 3: Evolution, taking the first step in his career as a mixed martial artist. While his transition from the world of grappling isn’t garnering Herschel Walker levels of attention, Drysdale was ready to write this chapter on a bigger stage more than a year ago before a serious setback threatened his career.
Drysdale was going through the audition process for Season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, ready to compete with the cast that included Kimbo Slice and many fighters still plying their trade with the UFC today. Everything was going as planned.
“I was at the tryouts for The Ultimate Fighter,” Drysdale began, recalling the situation that stalled his debut. “Everything was going well, or so I thought. I had an MRI done and a particular health issue came up, and it threw me off track a little bit. It prevented me from getting on the show, and for a while there I thought I wouldn’t be able to fight anymore.”
The problem, which Drysdale chooses not to specifically identify, required more than eight months of medical exams and procedures, but has been resolved to the point that the 2007 ADCC Absolute Division winner has been clear to compete again. With his list of credentials and the well-known clientele that frequent his gym, how does Drysdale end up under the radar, making his debut in Victoria, British Columbia?
“Well, I train with John Alessio, and I know he has refereed for the AFC,” the multiple-time jiu jitsu world champion started with a laugh, obviously having been asked the question a time or two in the past few weeks. “He brought it up a couple times a while ago and I said sure.
“Then I was in Los Angeles one time and bumped into [AFC co-owner] Jason Heit. He approached me and asked if I would be interested. I told him to shoot me an email and we could talk about it. I had been waiting for a long time, I really wanted a fight, Jason made me an offer, we spoke and I signed a four-fight deal.”
The first of those four potential fights comes Saturday night, as Drysdale faces Bastien Huveeners (8-2-1), a tough Vancouver-based fighter who enters the cage riding a six-fight unbeaten streak. While he could have easily had faced another fighter with an “NR” on their resume, Drysdale was looking for a bigger challenger and one less angle for the media to misinterpret.
“My original idea was to face someone with maybe three or four fights,” offered the 28-year-old Las Vegas native. “Bastien really wanted this fight, so I said let’s do it. While I think experience counts, I don’t get intimidated by that. You could be facing a guy [with no record] who could be the next big thing. You don’t know.
“I had this other guy who wanted to fight me who was 0-1,” Drysdale added, “but if I take that fight, it kind of looks like I’m getting hooked up. Sure it’d be a perfect first fight, but it’s would kind of look like [AFC co-owner and matchmaker] Darren [Owen] was throwing me an easy fight and just wanted me to win.”
Whenever a grappler of Drysdale’s level makes the switch to MMA, comparisons are inevitable. While contemporaries and former opponents like Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza and Roger Gracie have crossed over and had some success, it’s Marcelo Garcia’s name that often comes up as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a jiu jitsu player as they attempt to enter the cage, and that is something Drysdale doesn’t agree with.
“I think people are very unfair with him. Every time someone has this conversation – why a jiu jitsu guy is not going to do well – Garcia’s name comes up. Give the guy a break. It was his first fight. He went up a weight class, fought a very experienced fighter (Dae Won Kim), and he won the first round. He got cut in the second round and everyone acts like he got his ass kicked. Rolles Gracie in the UFC is a better example of what we’re talking about.”
While he admits the transition and success of “Jacare” and Gracie certainly played a part in his decision, Drysdale credits the rise of close friend and long-time training partner Demian Maia with convincing him that he too can find success outside of submission wrestling circles.
“We trained together for so long that I always thought if Demian is doing it, there is no reason that I shouldn’t be doing it,” admitted the SUFFER Apparel sponsored fighter. “Honestly, I didn’t think he would do well at first. I hate to say that because he’s one of my best friends, but he doesn’t have that aggressive nature. He’s that old school jiu jitsu guy who is all about technique and is going to make guys tap without punching them.
“I think of myself as a heavier version of Demian. We have a very similar style. I watch his matches and I know what he’s going to do next, just because we’ve trained together for so long and it’s the same thing I would do. We have similar reactions, but I would say I’m far more aggressive. I’m not sure if that’s going to work out for me or not,” Drysdale concluded with a laugh.
While his crossover from jiu jitsu champion to elite MMA competitor may not be garnering a great deal of attention now, don’t be surprised if you see Robert Drysdale inside the Octagon by this time next year, his signing surrounded by much fanfare and publicity.
We have a feeling things are going to work out just fine, starting Saturday night in Victoria.