To say that the inaugural season of Professional Fighters League has been a bumpy ride for Jason High would be quite the understatement. His 0-2 season record does not truly tell the tale of the bizarre, unforeseeable twists and turns with which “The Kansas City Bandit” has had to contend this summer. Now, however, the cosmos has finally seen fit to cut the man a break, and he intends to take full advantage.
The 36 year-old lightweight faces fellow Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Johnny Case on Thursday at PFL 7 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At stake is a berth in the PFL playoffs, which start in October. Even knowing that PFL’s final regular-season event was a catch-all card for fighters in need of a make-up fight and other loose ends, the call came as something of a surprise, as High was presumed to be eliminated from playoff consideration after his loss to Natan Schulte at PFL 5 on Aug. 2. It also came on very short notice.
“I found out on Monday [Aug. 20], so not too long ago,” High told Sherdog.com. “I knew there was the final regular-season meet and… I wasn’t expecting to get the call, but I kind of was, too. I’d say it was a surprise, but it’s a nice surprise.”
For a man who has endured some decidedly unpleasant surprises this season, it is clearly a good feeling. High’s scheduled opponent for PFL 2 in June, Rashid Magomedov, was forced to withdraw from the fight, and Efrain Escudero stepped in on a week’s notice. Escudero missed weight by seven pounds, which seemed somewhat excusable given the time frame-- that is, until he came in even heavier for his next bout at PFL 5 and was scratched from that bill entirely. Worse yet, their match ended in a fiasco when referee Josh Stewart stopped the fight while High was caught in a guillotine choke, despite not having clearly tapped out. High maintains he did not submit, while Escudero claims he did. The Illinois athletic commission, in the absence of conclusive evidence, elected not to intervene after the fact, leaving the result a technical submission win for Escudero, who was not even eligible to win standings points due to his failure to make weight.
In light of that series of events, one might understand if High felt a little cursed, or at least felt he was due for a run of good luck. However, the veteran seems completely disinterested in dwelling on it, much less feeling sorry for himself.
“[The season] has been interesting, that’s for sure,” High said. “I wouldn’t mind getting a couple of breaks, but I’m not going to count on it, you know?”
Even after High found out he would be fighting at PFL 7, the name of his opponent didn’t come for two more days. Fortunately, he was already at least somewhat familiar with Case’s work.
“I know a little bit about him,” High said. “I’ve watched a few of his UFC fights. He seems like a solid fighter. Tall, rangy guy, decent hands, OK grappler, so I’m looking forward to a tough fight.”
Fortunately, High was as close to ready as one could be for such an unexpected booking; when the call came, he was still in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has conducted his last few training camps at Jackson-Wink MMA. High credits the coaching staff and plentiful supply of training partners with keeping him in peak form.
“There are a ton of young guys here who are up and coming, always eager to work out, so I’m working with them” High said. “I work with [Mike Winkeljohn], Frank Lester, [Brandon] Gibson, get some work in with Greg Jackson and some of the other great coaches here. It’s fun, for sure, and a great learning experience.”
High is no stranger to the coaching side of the sport himself, having opened an American Top Team affiliate in his native Kansas City several years ago. As he closes in on his 30th professional fight and his 37th birthday, High sees teaching and training as part of his future, but acknowledges the challenges that come with being an active fighter as well as a gym operator.
“I’ve had a gym open now for about six years, and it’s not as easy as it would be if I were just running the gym,” High said. “But it’s definitely worth it to see some of these guys come up and claim their own careers. I definitely enjoy it and look forward to keeping that part of it up once I’m done fighting.”
Before any talk of a full-time coaching career, though, High must face the tasks in front of him: the fight with Case and, if he wins, a berth in the PFL playoffs. The million-dollar purse for the winner of each division has made Professional Fighters League the talk of the sport for hardcore fans, and the fighters themselves have been open about the motivation of the grand prize. After all, it is more than any fighter on the PFL roster has earned for one fight, and more than many of the younger competitors have earned in all of their fights combined.
High admits the seven-figure pot of gold at the end of the playoffs has its allure, but stops short of other veterans like welterweight legend Jake Shields, who stated that a PFL tournament win and million-dollar check might be an opportune moment to leave the sport on a high note. Even as he displays an obvious hunger to qualify for, and win, the PFL lightweight playoffs, “The Kansas City Bandit” speaks of career rejuvenation and redefinition, rather than an exit plan.
“It’d be easy and at the same time kind of difficult to retire after a million-dollar payday,” High said. “I would never put anything in stone, but it would be kind of poetic to go out on top like that. But who knows? I’ve got my eye on the million for sure, but with all these setbacks, it’s just a great opportunity to finish out the year strong.”