At 27 years old, Brad Riddell has lived one hell of a life. He’s already held a world championship in kickboxing, for one, and has fought and beaten some of the greatest strikers that kickboxing and muay Thai have ever produced. He’s travelled the world, throwing hands, feet and elbows across Thailand, China, Burma, Australia and the Philippines just to name a few, and long ago made combat his full-time job. And now? He’s starting again. At the “bottom of the heap” to use his words, looking out at the frontier of mixed martial arts with the intention of dominating that too.
Riddell’s martial arts journey started at 14 after his brother exposed him to muay Thai highlights on YouTube. After becoming engrossed in the sport from the comfort of his home, he eventually built up the courage to attend his local gym in New Zealand’s South Island, and began competing as an amateur, ultimately abandoning his second sport of Rugby and giving his full focus to combat.
After having four amateur fights, one of which netted him a regional title, Riddell was forced to move to Auckland in 2011 after the Christchurch earthquakes. It was a blessing in disguise, as it put him with the orbit of the famed City Lee Gar gym, the launching pad to a decorated career in kickboxing and muay Thai.
“My city had a massive earthquake,” Riddell told Sherdog.com. “That was pretty devastating down there. I used to work at hotels so they sent me up Auckland. I was just working at the time. I went down to a local gym, City Lee Gar, it was at the top of this building, this apartment block. The first level was a travel agent, the second level was a gay porno mag store, I was walking up the stairs like ‘this is weird’. There was this little door for an apartment. This old Chinese guy had turned his apartment into a gym. The lounge and everything was ripped out. It was all mats and bags in this little room. There was 10 guys training, all monsters. There wasn’t really anyone who didn’t fight. They were all professional fighters. I thought I’d stumbled upon a gold mine.
“It was $15 cash a week,” he continued. “Man, that place taught me how to fight and fight fast. They were all way better than me. There was [multiple time K1 and muay Thai champion] Shane “Choppa” Chapman, famous kickboxers. I just jumped in the deep end with them. They gave me the work-ethic and willpower that I have today.”
Riddell -- who goes by the moniker “Quake” in homage to the disaster in Christchurch -- earned his spot with his new stable of training partners, and soon after turned professional, competing 13 times in his first 12 months. Following in the footsteps of famed New Zealand kickboxers like Mark Hunt, Jason Suttie and Ray Sefo, would go on to compete upwards of 70 times in the succeeding years. Along the way, he beat the likes of John Wayne Parr, Steve Moxon and Fernando Groenhart and picked up New Zealand, Commonwealth and Oceania titles en route to capturing the World Kickboxing Federation’s middleweight strap.
Riddell also dipped his toes into MMA in 2013 just as his kickboxing career was taking off, picking up a KO/TKO win over Gi Gean Key in Burma. But when asked to recount his debut in the sport he now orients his life and career around, Riddell admits that it wasn’t exactly by design.
“My first MMA fight was by complete accident,” he laughed. “I was in Phuket training out of a gym called 'Lion Muay Thai' and the guy at the time as I didn’t know… he was a little bit dodgy, but he seemed like a good guy. He told us that we had a muay Thai fight up in Burma with MMA gloves. I was like ‘oh yeah, sweet, sounds good’. My mate said I should do it. I was a bit strapped for cash at the time and I was getting like 700 bucks, which is good for Thailand.
“We get there,” he elaborated. “We’re in the rules meeting, and they were like ‘when you guys do takedowns….’ Me and my other mates were like ‘what? What do you mean takedowns’? Turned out we got tricked and we were fighting MMA. That was my first MMA fight.”
Some time after his accidental debut in MMA, Riddell crossed paths with Eugene Bareman, City Kickboxing’s celebrated elder statesman who is today credited for building up a generation of New Zealand martial artists, including current interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. It was an encounter that Riddell regards as pivotal to the second act of his kickboxing career and ultimately his transition to MMA.
“Eugene was ahead of the game, doing strength and conditioning,” Riddell recounted. “I used to shoot up there a couple times a week, do a workout with him in the morning, sometimes go spar... He actually popped over to Thailand with Israel before Israel had a fight in China. I was fighting on the same card; they came over a couple weeks early. [Eugene] held pads for me and helped me train. At that time I was a really static, walk-someone-down, beating people through power and will power.
“[After training with Eugene], he had me ripping all these angles,” he continued. “All this faking and feinting and shifting. These pivots… I was like ‘shit!’ I thought I knew a fair bit about fighting. He taught me for two weeks and I went and had the fight. I ripped this dude up with angles. Then John Wayne Parr hit me up [in 2016] and said ‘yo, I want to rematch you. I was like ‘yep, sweet.’ I had a think about it when I was in Phuket. But I decided to train with Eugene; see what happens in this fight. I fought Wayne and I put him down like eight times. I just rolled through him. I was like, man, I need to train with this dude and this team.”
Riddell made the jump over to City Kickboxing, and at Bareman’s insistence began rounding out his MMA skillset. In August 2016, “Quake” dipped his toes back into the land of four-ounce gloves, and since then has been moonlighting between the two sports. In 2019, he’s already had four fights – three that went his way in MMA, his lone kickboxing bout ended in a narrow split decision loss.
“I used to do a little bit of grappling and wrestling in Phuket,” Riddell said of his pre-CKB MMA training. “Believe it or not there’s a phenomenal wrestling team there at Tiger Muay Thai. Two American brothers run it, the Hickman Brothers. They taught me how to wrestle pretty well, a couple other guys taught me how to grapple. I came home and I did a little bit with Euge. But every day he would pester me to do grappling, to do the MMA class. I was always like ‘nah’ and try to leave after kickboxing. He was just on my case, 24/7. Eventually I was like ‘fine, I’ll do this sh-t’. I started training a little bit. I had a couple of fights, and I was like, this is actually pretty fun.”
Riddell’s conflict, between rounding out his career in muay Thai and kickboxing and building on his promising 6-1 MMA record, is a recurring theme throughout the interview, and makes sense only be reference to his fundamentally competitive nature. He wants to get back his muay Thai and kickboxing losses and book-end his career as one of the greats, but is also impatient about following in the footsteps of teammates Adesanya and Dan Hooker, who are leading New Zealand’s assault on the UFC rankings.
“I feel like as long as I’ve been doing this, the goal has been to become a complete martial artist,” he said. “I want to be a black belt. I want to fight in the UFC. I want to be one of the best there is. The UFC’s that podium that defines you as one of the best. If you’re one of the top 10 fighters, those one-percenters. One of 10 people in the world, one of the best fighters. That would be such a crazy feeling.”
One thing that has surprised Riddell about the transition to MMA is the different outlooks of its competitors compared to his muay Thai. Having become acculturated in the “anyone, anywhere, anytime” ethos that predominates in the striking-only domain, he’s been frustrated with the lack of suitors inside the cage.
“I feel like in kickboxing and muay Thai, people want to fight all the time, and they want to fight the best,” He said. “They’re not thinking about a win or a loss, they’re thinking about the challenge and that test of their skill. I never had people back down from me in kickboxing, no matter how many fights I had, no matter how much bigger my name was getting. I never backed down from anyone either. And then going into MMA, I just had this idea that it was going to be the same.”
“What was a pain was actually the kickboxing record – that made it so difficult to get fights, for quite a long time,” he continued. “There was nearly a year gap where I just couldn’t get an MMA fight. Izzy had the same problem. Because everybody wants to protect that zero next to their name. Coming against someone who has 80 odd kickboxing fights is a huge risk, a huge risk.”
When asked to write the script for his next 12 months, Riddell sees a number next to his name and another Australasian fighter on the map.
“A year from now,” he continued “I’ll be pretty deep in that lightweight division. I’ll be making some really good waves. I reckon I’ll be quite a threat. I’m built for that division.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.