As he trains for an upcoming fight against an undetermined opponent, Urbana graduate Matthew Semelsberger of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is the first guest of the new year on The Final Score podcast.
Semelsberger chats with host Greg Swatek on how he got into the wild world of cage fighting. So far, he has a 9-3 record in professional fights, including a 3-1 mark as a UFC welterweight. What goes through his mind and what is he feeling as the octagon door shuts, and it is just him, his opponent and a referee inside an eight-sided cage with a battle for physical survival looming?
He candidly shares details of his interesting life story. How did he wind up working on the back of a garbage truck? Plus, what it is like to legally be able to punch someone in the face? And can his mother watch his fights?
Prior to that, FNP sports writer John Cannon stops by to talk with Greg about the winter sports season in Frederick County.
What follows is an excerpt from their conversation. It has been edited for space:
Swatek: Tell me what it’s like to legally punch someone in the face.
Semelsberger: It’s pretty good, man. I’m not gonna lie. Not that I am like a super violent person, really. But I am a competitive, sporty person. So when I found out about a sport where you could punch people in the face and not get in trouble for it, I was pretty hooked.
Swatek: Well, what does it take to be a UFC fighter? What sort of makeup do you have to have as a person? A lot of people think these guys have a few screws loose, and you have to be crazy. Do you have to be crazy to do something like this?
Semelsberger: I think so, like a little bit, but not too crazy. Because if you’re too crazy, then you’ll get derailed before you even get a chance to fight at a high level, you know, so [you] kind of have to have a balance of it a little bit. And I would say more of, like, the attitude. So if you have a great attitude, and a willingness to learn and be humble, that’s definitely a huge part of it. Because you’re gonna have to learn for years and years and years, and just kind of work at your craft. So you’ve got to be patient. And at the same time, you definitely just kind of have to love the sport. Whether it’s jiu-jitsu or boxing or MMA where everything’s involved, you just have to be kind of passionate about it, man. … The physical part of it is important as well, obviously. You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be fast. You’ve got to be athletic, so you can’t not [have those assets]. You’ve got to have the physical to back everything up mentally.
Swatek: Take us all through fight night experience in the UFC when your music hits and it’s a packed arena and you’re making your way toward the octagon. What’s going through your head?
Semelsberger: Well, one, if I’m in a good headspace, I’m just super grateful to be there. I’m happy to be there. But it’s not a happy-go-lucky like I don’t realize what’s about to happen. I’m focused. I know exactly what’s about to happen. So it’s kind of like, walking out you have this feeling that you know what you’re heading into, and you know it’s big, and you know it’s gonna be epic, but at the same time you’re extremely happy and extremely grateful to be heading that way — as scary as a fight can be. Because, trust me, man, there’s a fear factor. And again, I’m going back to the whole balance thing, you got to be balanced. But it’s good to have a little bit of fear, be a little bit scared, but you definitely can’t let it overtake you. It’s a good servant but a bad master.
Swatek: When the fight starts, is the whole outside world just out of your mind? You don’t hear a thing, you don’t see a thing, you’re just so locked in on that fight that the outside world is basically not there?
Semelsberger: Yeah, and there’s levels to it. Like walking out [to the cage], I’m almost, when I’m in a good headspace, I’m almost already in that tunnel vision, in that zone. And then as the fight begins, it gets more narrow, more narrow, more narrow, and then you know, obviously in the chaos of the fight, it’s only gonna [increase].
Swatek: Is what goes through your mind surviving? Not literally surviving, but just getting through a guy that is trying to take your head off?
Semelsberger: Yeah, it is survival, for sure, 100 percent. It is a survival game. But at the same time, it’s like, we’re entertainers, and we’re paid to go out there and to be aggressive, and to press the action. So that’s very much in like the forefront of my mind as well, as a fighter. So it’s like, you know, surfing that wave and finding that balance between survival and domination, you know what I mean? So, it’s a crazy game, and it’s why I love MMA so much. It’s such a be-all, end-all type of game, like the most dangerous game, obviously, we have. It’s a professional sport, and we have [rules] in place. And it’s as safe as it could be. But in the end of it, man, it’s like the most dangerous game, really.
Swatek: The entertainment factor that you just mentioned, does [UFC president] Dana White talk to you about that? Your coaches talk to you about that?
Semelsberger: Yeah. But it’s not like they harp on it. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to be smart in there. You could go in there and just start throwing everything in the kitchen sink at them and then ended up, you’d be opening yourself up to get caught by someone who’s slick and someone who’s precise with their shots. … They’re definitely not gonna say, do everything you have to do to win. Like, forget everything else. Now that’s definitely not the way you want to really take it, but there’s fighters who are kind of like that, you know? [Fighters] who just want to fight to win, and it’s more of like a survival thing for them, I guess. … But for me, I like I taking pride in defense, especially because I played defensive back in college [at Marist]. … I was a safety, so I love defense, man, and that grew from football, playing defensive football. But at the same time, I love being aggressive, and I love being offensive, probably more than defense.