Wessel is ultimate underdog in debut
Interview by David L. Hudson
Imagine receiving a call to fight in the UFC for the first time on the organization’s biggest show with less than two weeks’ notice. Then imagine that you have only been training in mixed martial arts for a couple of years with no prior martial arts background. Add to that the danger that your opponent is a world-class kickboxer who has trained under “Mr. Perfect” Ernesto Hoost.
If you can absorb those daunting circumstances, then you might have an inkling into the insights of Mike Wessel, the epitome of the ultimate underdog. Called to replace Mark Burch on short notice, Wessel is not intimidated and relishes what he realizes is the opportunity of a lifetime. The former Arena League football player and University of Arkansas football strength and conditioning coach possesses explosive power and excellent conditioning. He recently took time to speak with Fightnews about his upcoming UFC debut, athletic background and other topics.
How does it feel to have a fight in the UFC and perhaps the organization’s biggest card of the year?
It feels great. Any UFC event is a major, major event and this is one of the biggest cards of the year. I am super excited as I have already accomplished one of my major goals. Now, I want to accomplish my next goal, which is to make sure that I win.
You face a tough opponent in Antoni Hardonk. How do you assess your challenge?
He is a very tough guy with a resilient heart. After watching several of his fights, I’ve noticed that at times it looks like he’s out and comes back. He can take punishment and is never out of a fight. I respect his heart. He is very good at what he does and so am I. I think we match up well and it should be a great fight.
I read where you spar with Terry Smith, a heavyweight boxing contender. How much do you work on boxing?
I train every Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday with Terry Smith for several hours a day. He gives me a lot of tips on what he sees in the Octagon from a boxing and striking standpoint. I work on a stand-up game quite a bit. I enjoy learning from Terry; I mean he is 30-5 as a professional heavyweight boxer. I work with Terry and my boxing coach Boris Washington.
What are your strengths as a mixed martial artist?
I love the ground and pound – I mean who doesn’t. I would say my best assets are my conditioning and my ability to recover. I don’t get tired that easy. I also have good power and explosiveness. I have a good stand-up game and a lot of heart.
What do you think you most need to improve?
I always work on everything - you have to in this sport. Nothing is ever perfect so I try to work on everything. I would say that the area in which I need to improve the most is my jiu-jitsu. I’ll be going down to ATA (American Top Team) and hope to roll around with the likes of Jeff Monson soon.
What is your preferred style of fighting?
I want to improve my BJJ but really I love to stand and bang. That is what the fans most want to see. I want to give people a good show.
I read that you played football for the San Diego Riptide in Arena ball. Could you talk about your football background?
I played two years with the San Diego Riptide – an Arena Football af2 team for two years and then I played for a team in North Dakota for one year. I had a couple of tryouts with NFL teams but that did not work out.
Where did you play college football?
I played at a small school called the University of St. Francis in Indiana.
How did you come to be the strength coach for the University of Arkansas football team?
It happened when I was in North Dakota as a coach after I had quit playing football. I met Coach Houston Nutt (then the coach at the University of Arkansas, now the head football coach at Ole Miss). He watched me coach and saw my enthusiasm. He told me to give him a call if he could ever help me out. Sometime later, I learned of the opening for the strength coach at Arkansas and gave him a call. He said: “Mike Wessel, sure I remember you. What can I do for you. … Oh, you want that job. Let me make a call and get back with you.” Next thing I knew, I had the job.
When did you start at Arkansas?
I started two and a half years ago when Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (NFL running backs for the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys respectively) when in their sophomore years. I left there in January 2008. I still stay in touch with Coach Nutt and cheer him on at Ole Miss. He’s a great guy.
What prompted you to try your hands (and feet) at mixed martial arts?
It was boredom and the love of competition. I always want more for myself out of life. I had a friend who taught kickboxing and I loved that and it took off from there.
Did you have a martial arts background?
No, I played football my whole life. I’ve made it here just on hard work and determination. I’m green at it and much is new to me but I absorb things quickly.
How did you land in the UFC?
I served in the corner for Ultimate Fighter Rolando Delgado who co-owns the gym that I train at along with Matt Hamilton. I was in Rolo’s corner at the Finale show [on December 13th] when I met Dana White and Joe Silva. I went up and introduced myself and told them if they ever needed a fighter on short notice anytime I would be ready. I explained to them that this was my fulltime job. A few days later my manager gets a call from Joe Silva and now I’m here.
Many people speak of the “Octagon jitters.” Is that something you are aware of or is a fight a fight to you?
A fight is a fight to me. I’m used to playing in arenas with packed houses. Plus, I’m scared shitless before every fight because I don’t want to lose. I put more pressure on myself than anyone else could put on me. I also realize that most fighters who take fights on short notice lose. But, if I fight my fight, I think I’ll be fine. I am a very focused guy.
I’ve been told that you are very explosive and powerful. Do you think you might have an advantage there?
I’ve played football for a long time and I’ve got a big ass with much hip explosiveness. I’ve lifted for a long time. I mean look at Brock Lesnar and how he used his power and explosiveness to his advantage.
Speaking of Lesnar, were you surprised that he defeated Randy Couture?
Not really. I love Randy to death and appreciate how he always comes back in his career when people count him out but Brock is such a powerful, strong guy. No, I was not surprised.
What are your remaining goals for your MMA career?
Like everybody else, I want to win a belt but I just worry about the now. I want to do this and do it the right way. I want to fulfill myself. I want to stay in the UFC for a long time.
Do you mind being the underdog?
I love being the underdog and I hope they boo me. People don’t expect as much from the underdog.
I think you will see two big guys going at it and slugging it out. Whoever lifts up their chin first is going to go down. I don’t predict fights as I think that can be disrespectful to my opponents.
Any message for your fans?
Thank you, thank you so much to all my family, fans and supporters.
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David L. Hudson Jr. is a feature writer for Fightnews.com and the author of Combat Sports: An Encyclopedia of Wrestling, Fighting and Mixed Martial Arts. Click here