With just 10 days to go before its latest showcase, Bellator MMA made a surprise addition to the lineup of Bellator 210. The promotion’s only two-division champion and self-proclaimed “Baddest Man on the Planet,” Joe Warren, was added to the preliminary portion of the card in a matchup with Shawn Bunch. While the bout announcement came as a surprise to fans and media, it is just another unique moment in a career filled with them.
The announcement that Warren would be part of the show Bellator brings to Thackerville, Oklahoma, this weekend caught many off-guard with its lateness. However, Warren knew about this fight for some time and had long been preparing for it. “I planned on fighting,” Warren told Sherdog.com. “I just assumed that this fight was on, and I guess it wasn’t. I signed a contract a long time ago.”
Warren, 42, will return to the cage for the first time in eight months. Yet not long ago, there was some doubt if he would return to the sport at all. “Last year my focus was to retire. We were talking about, possibly, after my next fight being done.” Warren said. The fighter had come upon stressful times in his life away from the cage. The burdens were great enough to take away from his training and force him to ponder the end of his nine-year journey in the sport.
Yet just like the sport itself, things can change quickly, and he was able to refocus on his fighting vocation. Once he returned to his long-time gym, Factory X in Englewood, Colorado, and got back to work with coach Marc Montoya, he was told his retirement talk should be postponed. “[Marc] told me there’s no reason to. ‘You’re faster, stronger [and] leaner than you’ve ever been,’” Warren recalls. “So, there’s no reason for us to stop.”
Warren agrees with Montoya’s assessment. He has worked with strength and conditioning coach Robert Forster since his days at the Olympic training center, and he believes the science of strength training in MMA has aged well -- just like him.
“We don’t over-train our bodies,” he said. “We do VO2 max [which tests oxygen use during exercise]. We check metabolic rates, where our fat burning zones are and we stay in it.” He also wears a heart rate monitor during training, has increased his water intake and makes recovery a key priority in camp. His equation for success in the cage is: 50 percent training and 50 percent recovery will equal Joe Warren at 100 percent on Friday night.
The Colorado native is doing all he can to stay at a high level at an advanced age. However, that doesn’t mean anyone can do it. In his mind, part of his success past 35 is from the idea that Olympic-level grapplers are just a special breed of human being. “We are a different breed of athlete -- us Olympic wrestlers,” Warren said. “For some reason [we’ve built up] durable conditioning, that we’re just hitting our peaks later in life.”
He points to the team captains during his training at the United States Olympic training facility, men like Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland. All of them started their MMA careers much later than most, and had varying degrees in success well past what’s believed to be an athlete’s prime. “Those guys didn’t even start [in MMA] until later. I didn’t start fighting till 33, so we’re going to keep rolling and see what happens,” said Warren.
That Olympic wrestling pedigree is why he respects his opponent on Friday night and is taking him very seriously. Bunch trained at the Olympic training facility along with Warren during their pursuits to represent the country at the 2008 Olympics, though they never trained with each other. Warren admits the fight won’t be easy, because of the mental toughness bred in that level of wrestler. “They don’t break. They’re mentally tough [and] they train hard. There’s never going to be a point in a match where they break [or] they need to give up. That doesn’t happen with those high-level, top-tier wrestlers,” he said.
Although, he considers the American Kickboxing Academy pugilist an acquaintance and a good guy, he won’t view him differently from any other man standing across the cage from him. “He’s just a body in front of me, in that cage, to get that paycheck,” Warren said.
The simplicity of going in there and getting that paycheck is what’s made Warren’s career so different than most fighters in MMA history. After testing positive twice for marijuana, his dreams of winning gold in the Olympics were upended. Transitioning into MMA was not the plan. He wanted to be a commentator. However, decision-makers in the industry saw no value in a color commentator without prior fighting experience.
With that in mind, and a slight interest in competing in the sport, his manager jumped at the chance to get Warren into the cage. “I was snowboarding in Aspen Snowmass [in Colorado] and I got a call and [my manager said], ‘I’ve got you into a fight.’” Of course, Warren was surprised, especially knowing it was in 10 days and all the way on the other side of the world in Japan, for Dream.
Logically, starting a career on the amateur level would have made sense. However, with his impressive wrestling resume -- consisting of world championships -- and the bravado of believing himself to be the baddest man on the planet, he took the fight, especially when the offer was for $22,000, an enormous amount for a debuting fighter at the time. “I wanted to make some money. I didn’t want to go fight. I was older. So, I wanted to make sure that if I was fighting, I was fighting the right people,” Warren said.
The “right people” is arguable, but Warren faced stiff competition from the outset, as he took on former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champion Chase Beebe in his debut. He would also face Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, Bibiano Fernandes, Georgi Karakhanyan, Patricio Freire and Pat Curran during the first three years of his career. “I got thrown in the deep end with f*cking boots on. Let’s be realistic,” he said with a laugh.
Those years spent fighting opponents with far greater experience and skill, at a weight class too big for him, taught him valuable lessons on what it takes to succeed at this level, and how to properly maintain one’s health through it all. Those lessons are why he eventually landed in Bellator’s bantamweight division, a run that has instilled in him a loyalty to the promotion despite a regime change during his eight-year tenure.
“I’m a family man,” Warren said. “I was a part of the University of Michigan, the Olympic training center, and then I joined Bellator. And I was a part of that family. Those families are with me forever, so I believe I helped start this organization, and I’ve always felt a family feel with it.”
Warren does feel a difference within the promotion since Scott Coker took over the reins of the organization in 2014. “In the old regime I was brought up to help. When we first started, we had to do whatever we could to get people in there. With Fight Master, color commentating, things like that. In the new regime I’ve been just an athlete. They haven’t asked for that entertainment side of me.”
In his view, the events are bigger and more talent-rich than when he was a major face for the organization, and he is fine with that. Although, he does believe Bellator could get even more use out of his overall skills. “This has been different. But I think in the future the best way to use ‘The Baddest Man on the Planet’ is probably on the microphone [commentating] or analyzing fights,” he said.