Will The Next UFC Champion Come From Naples? AC Shilton July 16, 2014 2702 Naples MMA athlete Mike King is fighting his way to the top. There’s no shortage of drama in the video trailer for the 2014 season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Fists meeting faces in glorious slow motion as a choir sings something with gothic overtones in the background. Meanwhile the occasional, well-placed splatter of blood reminds people that this is the UFC, not the pussyfooting WWE. In the melee of this promo video—between the strobe lights and the yip, yip, yipping of the hyped-up announcers—you can catch a glimpse of Naples-based Mike King. The Ohio native came to Naples to train a few years ago and the move has proven a fruitful one; he’s had nothing but success since. But that’s emblematic of King’s career as a whole: King hasn’t lost a fight since 2008. His rise to the top of the sport has been swift, deliberate and memorable—like a well-aimed right hook. And though he may not have suffered for years at the lower levels, slowly winding his way through the School of Hard Knocks like many grizzled and chiseled MMA vets, he can still dish out the hard knocks when he needs to. Which is why King just may be on track to become Southwest Florida’s next great sports star. A Lover And A Fighter Muscular, but with a bronzy beard and free-flowing hair, Mike King looks more like your low-key, bass-playing neighbor (except that he’s super-ripped) than a trained assailant clawing his way to the top of the world’s most brutal sport. Maybe that’s because King doesn’t consider himself a brute. “I actually don’t really like to define myself as a fighter. I’m actually kind of a pacifist,” he says in complete honesty. There’s not even a hint of irony in his voice as he adds, “It’s just a sport, there are rules; it’s structured. I’m not confrontational at all, I’m kind of a hippie person.” King grew up in a combat sports household. His father coached wrestling for 35 years and got King involved early. In high school King regularly made it to the state championships. But he played football too, and when he entered college at Otterbein University he knew he had to choose one sport to focus on. So he picked football, thinking he’d have more fun. It turned out to be a good decision. It was King’s football coach that eventually talked him into going to his first “bout.” He won it in four seconds. “My coach knew about my wrestling background,” says King. “After that fight, at first I was just doing it for fun. I got into a gym called Buckeye MMA in Columbus, and then I scheduled another fight. We were just sort of testing to see where I was.” King spent the next year training and fighting at the recreational level. He had a fulltime corporate job, which he hated, but needed to pay the rent. He snuck in workouts where he could, but was usually limited to training only three hours a day. To take his career to the next level, he knew he’d need more. Big Hits, Bigger Goals When Mike King steps into the octagon, he seems calm, even contemplative. Adrenaline must be streaking through his veins. It must be. But if it is, King doesn’t show it. “For me, fighting is like a chess game. It’s like physical chess,” he says. “There’s a level of intelligence you need to compete at this level. Sure, there are brawlers, but they’re typically not going to make it to this level.” For King, fighting is observing, reacting, adapting, calculating, plotting. In between, he strikes. His mental approach to fighting is likely one of the things that helped him climb quickly through the ranks. In 2010 he blew through a major amateur tournament, cruising to victory in fight after fight. A supplement company took notice. “At first I had to wheel and deal with people, but once MaxForce [the supplement company] came on board, things got a lot easier. I got a credit card and they basically paid for my training for the next three years. After that, each fight I’d win another sponsor would come forward.” King signed off from his corporate job and started looking for a home base from which to launch his professional career. South Florida has several of the best MMA fighting gyms in the country, which King says is crucial for getting noticed. In MMA whom you know and whom you train with is almost as important as how you fight. In Florida there were options on both coasts, but King chose to work with Marcelo Pereira, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion in Naples. The then 26-year-old King and his longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Bland, packed their things and headed south. House Hunters Right after King’s 30th birthday—(a number considered “old” by almost all fighters)—his phone rang. It was his agent. “Hey man, get in shape,” he said. His agent had secured King an audition for this year’s season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” King was stoked. “It’s the best avenue to build a fan base quickly,” he says. Like any sport, the more fans you have, the more lucrative you are to sponsors. The more lucrative you are to sponsors, the easier it is to make a decent living. “The money in the sport is at the top of the UFC. If you do well and you’re smart, you can set yourself up for life.” Before the audition, King had been worried about “making it” before he got too old. As a 30-year-old, he’d noticed he wasn’t recovering as quickly. He knew he has an expiration date in this sport and each day seemed to take him closer and closer to it. “I do want to have kids and be able to throw the ball with them and not be so beat up I can’t do things,” he says. “It’s fun while it lasts but you have to know when to stop.” This audition was his ticket onto the fast track. “It’s a three-part try out. First you grapple, if you can’t grapple, you’re out immediately,” he says. Of course King could grapple. He made it through that round, then the next and the last. He was in. If you’ve never seen it, “The Ultimate Fighter” is like the worst college frat living situation you could ever imagine. First, you’re living with a bunch of young men (some of which really do seem to enjoy fighting over, well, everything). And according to King, the cleanliness standards are what you might expect from a bunch of 20-something professional fighters. So that’s hard—especially for a 30-year-old who has long outgrown the frat-living stage. But here’s what’s probably the worst part: You actually have to fight your roommates for the chance to stay—even the ones you inevitably end up liking. We’re not allowed to say much about how King does on the show—as of the publishing of this magazine the final episodes were still in production. But we can tell you that King had to make another trip out to Vegas for late-stage filming, so take from that what you want. What King can tell us is that, as promised, the show has helped him gain a big following. In the first few weeks of the show his Twitter account (@MikeTheManKing) went from 200 to 2,000 followers. Recently someone stopped him at a restaurant in Naples to ask for a photograph. King has to admit he likes the feeling of it. If he wins, he’ll walk away with a $250,000 UFC contract and the promise that the UFC will promote him like crazy. If he doesn’t win, it’s hard to know what will happen. Anthony DiSarro, who oversees King’s functional strength and cardio conditioning at CrossFit Redline, has no doubt that King will continue to succeed, even if he’s not this year’s Ultimate Fighter. “All professional athletes have an innate ability acquire new skills very rapidly and Mike is no exception,” he says, adding that King seems to have a drive and a desire that outpaces most. But will he reach the level of success he’s hoping for before he meets his rapidly approaching retirement date? Will his body give way before his goals can be realized? King doesn’t think so. “I use the word ‘journey’ a lot. So far, everything I’ve done in my life has been preparation for this. I’ve put in the work, and it’s accelerated me this far,” he says. He adds that the sport is, “As pure as it gets. You get out of it what you put into it.” Which means ideally he should get everything he’s invested back. Unfortunately though, many of his sacrifices aren’t the kinds of things you can get back: Years of his life, friendships, relationships, the symmetry of his face from a fractured orbital—the list is long. Still, King will keep fighting, keep maneuvering, keep plotting. Like the chess game he compares his sport to, King plans to keep marching forward until he has no moves left. And while losing “The Ultimate Fighter” would certainly put him in check, any chess player will tell you that the King only becomes more and more powerful in the endgame.