DAZN is the exclusive streaming partner of Bellator MMA. You can sign up for a free trial here.
Undefeated welterweight prospect Austin Vanderford will make his Bellator MMA debut in the opening slot on the Bellator 215 main card this Friday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Although he admits to some pre-fight jitters, the Alaska native believes he has prepared for a pivotal moment in these early days of his career.
“There’s always nerves,” Vanderford told Sherdog.com. “The way I’ve always thought [about] life is, if you’re not nervous about something, or competing, then you don’t care enough to even be there.”
The 28-year-old has been a practitioner of wrestling since the age of 5. Over the years, he has become proficient in the sport, winning two high school state titles and twice earning All-America honors at Southern Oregon University. For Vanderford, the nerves are just a byproduct of his addiction to competition. Although his upcoming bout represents his first for a major mixed martial arts promotion, it is not his first brush with MMA’s major leagues. “AK-47” competed on Episode 5 of the second season of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series in 2018. He submitted Angelo Trevino with a rear-naked choke in the second round, but the effort did not earn him a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While he had high hopes entering fight, he knew there were no guarantees.
“That’s about as nerve-racking as it gets,” Vanderford said. “Of course, you go into it and have certain expectations, and if that doesn’t happen, it’s a little bit heartbreaking, but at the same time, I knew for me, whether I won or lost the fight, my plan was to get back in the gym and start training right away, whether that be for a UFC fight or anywhere else.”
Anywhere else wound up being an Oct. 19 appearance under the Final Fight Championship banner. There, Vanderford netted another quick finish, as he knocked out Edmilson Freitas in just 98 seconds. It moved his record to 6-0 and led to a call from Bellator -- an opportunity he remains “so crazy thankful for.”
Vanderford appears to have legitimate potential, which is oftentimes enough to draw industry attention. However, the spotlight that shines upon him does so a little brighter, as he is married to UFC women’s flyweight Paige VanZant. His critics have openly questioned whether or not his relationship with VanZant has led to the opportunities he has received. Vanderford believes his track record, not his marriage, earned him his first Bellator contract.
“Of course, there’s all this talk and people say s---, but I don’t put that to thought as much as people might think,” he said. “You can’t take away the things I’ve accomplished. To date, I haven’t lost a fight, I won nationals, two-time All-American, I’ve won state twice in high school. These are all things that I accomplished before I was married. I want to be associated with her. She’s my wife. I am happy to be [her husband], so whatever everyone says, it is what it is, but I don’t really pay a lot of thought to it.”
Vanderford will face Cody Jones at Bellator 215 on a little more than two weeks’ notice. While it may seem like a less-than-ideal situation for a young fighter, the self-professed gym rat claims he always stays in shape so he can be ready when opportunities arise.
“I love the sport so much, and I love the possibilities of getting better,” Vanderford said. “I’m an addict when it comes to MMA. That’s the thing, when you’re young and coming up, it’s a good idea to be ready. Who knows if I would have got this opportunity [on the main card] further [along in my career].”
Jones, 26, will enter the cage on a two-fight winning streak. Because of the lack of reliable intel on the South Carolina-based fighter, Vanderford has kept his preparation simple.
“We’re so early in both of our careers, it’s not like there’s a ton of film out on him,” he said. “I’ve seen a couple of his fights and what not. It’s hard to find a ton of tendencies when you’re finding fights from a year ago or two years ago. I err more on the side of what I’m going to go and do what I do. Whatever the record is, it doesn’t matter. This is going to be the toughest fight of my life.”
Vanderford has sharpened his skills under mentors Rick Story and Fabiano Scherner at the Gracie Barra affiliate in Portland, Oregon. VanZant, Chael Sonnen and Ricky Simon all call the gym home, along with Vanderford’s former Southern Oregon University wrestling teammate Eric McConico.
“I love this gym so much, [and] I love this team,” Vanderford said. “All the coaches at the gym, they put us first.”