E-Interview with Amateur Fighter Steve Keaton

In the up and coming world of mixed martial arts, oftentimes the fighters we hear about, the fighters we follow and the fighters we see on t-shirts and new action figurse, are guys like Chuck Liddell. Fighters like Liddell often get the biggest financial benefit, win or lose. His devastating KO loss to Rashad Evans notwithstanding, Liddell managed to bring in the highest salary for the recent UFC 88event, a flat fee of $500,000.

TV portrayals of fighters rarely show the whole picture. UFC event countdown specials give us the picture of fighters who can afford to train full-time and have a stable of trainers, nutrionists and health professionals at their beck and call.
Bloated payrolls for some organizations like clothing-company-turned-fight-promoter Affliction can lead casual viewers to believe that a million dollar payday for a main event MMA fighter is normal. The numerous sponsors' logos splattered all over fighters' shirts and shorts can make viewers think that all fighters walk around tripping over all the people who want to sponsor them.

Not only are those things not true for a number of professional MMA fighters - those exaggerated ideals give hardly any consideration to some of the hungriest fighters in the game. Those ideals lend barely any credence to the fighters working the hardest to get their big break. Those ideals don't even seem to take into account the largest contingent of fighters that make up the MMA world - amateur fighters.

Too often, though, we overlook or don't even know about all the amateur fighters - grinding it out, working hard, doing what they can to promote both themselves and the sport.

If you have a couple minutes, take that time to read this (my first in a series to help promote the local MMA scene) to introduce yourself to one of these guys - Steve Keaton, an amateur fighter out of Lexington, Kentucky.

(That's Steve, rocking a t-shirt with the Four Seasons logo.)

Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Steve - let's jump right into it.

What initially inspired you to get into the fight game?

I've always been a huge fight fan. I grew up a boxing fan sitting on my dad's lap watching tuesday night fights on the USA network. In 1993 when the UFC came out I was blown away with the styles and match ups. I can remember ordering the first UFC on pay per view and seeing this skinny Brazilian guy dominate much bigger opponents. As it was in eastern Kentucky there weren't any opportunities to have that kind of training. It was until my last year of college in 2005 that I took my first Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu class at Eastern Kentucky University. After that I was hooked, moved to Lexington from Richmond enrolled at 4 Seasons Martial Arts Gym and haven't looked back since.

What is your current record?

My current record is 3-1 as an amateur.

In what promotions have you fought?

I've fought in the Southern Fighting Network which is actually a promotion I helped form with some friends of mine and the Kentucky Fighting Challenge.

What is your training background and in what do you currently train and where?

My primary art is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I currently train at 4 Seasons Martial Arts Gym in Lexington, KY

Do you have a job in addition to fighting?

I work two bartending jobs at Buffalo Wild Wings and The Chase..a small bar in downtown Lexington owned and operated by one of my BJJ instructors and former Shooto fighter Chris Heflin.

Are you able to do a typical “training camp” before a fight, and if so, how long does that generally last?

Work keeps me pretty busy but it allows me plenty of time to train. My work schedule stays pretty much the same so I am able to maintain a regular training schedule as well. Typically I like to have at least 6 weeks of time to prepare, preferbly more before a fight.

What’s an average day of training like for you?

At 4 Seasons we have a fairly experienced and very knowledgable aresenal of coaches and classes to train with and in. Since Brazilian jiu jitsu is my base I do quite a bit of rolling in the gi with a fair amount of no gi submission wrestling. When I have a fight scheduled my days typically involve a lot more full speed sparring and work in the cage that we have at our facility.

Who do you typically train with before a fight?

When I have a fight coming up I usually do a lot more training with some of the more experienced guys at our gym. It varies from one end of the spectrum to the other as far and weight. I'm fortunate enough to be able to train with highly skilled and experienced professionals as well as smaller younger faster amateurs. So that blend of training pretty much prepares me for whatever I may encounter when I step in the cage. We have Mike O'Donnell as our head coach who is a King of the Cage veteran and also happens to be a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt under Carlson Gracie. So there is no shortage of skilled training partners to choose from at 4 Seasons.

What kind of mental preparations do you go through for before a fight?

I generally like to work quite a bit with a fight coming up. It helps me keep my mind off things and keeps me out of trouble and focused on my training and my opponent.

Is there one particular training aspect you single out as being more important than the others?

Cardio. It doesn't matter how many stripes you have on your belt or how heavy your hands are, if you run out of gas in there the fight is over. Period.

What is your normal pre-fight routine?

If I have to cut a lot of weight it usually involves spending a lot of time on the bike or in the sauna. But usually the day of the fight I spend the mornings alone to focus and the afternoon with my friends, training partners, and coaches to help shave the nerves.

At this point in your career, if there’s one fight you could do over again, which would it be?

My last fight was my first loss so that is definitely one I would love to have back. But I was able to recognize the mistakes I made leading up to and during that fight and learned from the defeat.

To date, what do you consider to be your biggest achievement in fighting?

My biggest achievement was definitely the SFN's inaugural show March Massacre last year here in Lexington. My partners Lee Jacobs and Donnie Prater were able to put together a respectable and entertaining fight show that we, the fans, and the fighters could be proud to be a part of at a time when a lot of promotions were running some less than honorable events.

What is your favorite technique?

Being one of the more inexperienced fighters at 4 Seasons I spent a lof of time on my back in the guard so I grew pretty fond the Kimura, which is a shoulder lock, and the triangle choke.

What is the Southern Fighting Network?

The SFN is a fight promotion I helped put together with some close friends of mine, Lee Jacobs, Donnie Prater, and professional wrestler Eric Darkstorm. A year earlier I competed at a local promotion and had to walk to the cage on a dirt floor in a cattle ring. It was embarassing and degrading. I vowed to myself to work hard and eventually put on a show that I could be proud to invite fans and fighters to be a part of. March 2nd 2007, we held our first event at the Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington. All the fights were competitive and exciting to watch capped off with Ultimate Fighter contestant Allen Browning defeating a very game and very tough Stu Hassler from G-Force fight team out of Cincinnati. We sold out the building and I walked out that night proud of the show we put on and hopefully so did the fighters involved.

It seems like fighters are being sponsored by companies from all industries – at any given event, you’ll see logos for mortgage companies, energy drinks and the ever present Condom Depot emblazoned across a number of fighters’ asses – do you think this kind of exposure helps or hurts the sport?

I wish I could say it didn't hurt the sport, but in a way it does. Which is sad. MMA is still fighting for mainstream acceptance and I know recently a company that turned down a sponsorship for a friend of mine that is gonna be fighting for the UFC in December because they feel MMA is still "too controversial" to become involved with. Many of these fighters hold day jobs and any sponsorship they can secure is hard to turn down because they really really need the money. Thats why you see some of the sponsor logos on shorts and shirts worn by the fighters. They just don't have the luxury of turning down the money from Joe Bob's Porn Emporium and other similiar types of businesses.

As an amateur fighter, do you find that you have a harder time finding sponsors?

Somewhat. Sponsorship is all about exposure and not too many amateur events are televised so bigger companies arent as willing to shell out the cash that some fighters need. But for the most part any MMA related clothing or equipment comany has always been very helpful in providing sponsorships even if its a small banner or free or reduced priced gear. Its getting bigger more mainstream companies involved thats the difficult part for an amateur.

As an amateur fighter, do you find that you have to do a lot of self-promotion to get your name out there, and if so, what kind of things do you do to achieve that goal?

Absolutely. Amateurs don't always get the kind of exposure as the professionals for obvious reasons so it involves a lot of self promoting to get your name out there. For me its a little easier because working in a hugely popular sports bar like Buffalo Wild Wings I have a unique opportunity to interact with the public that some fighters dont usually have.

Who is your agent and/or manager?

Lee Jacobs is a close friend of mine who handles a lot of my sponsorships etc. Mike O'Donnell from 4 Seasons Martial Arts Gym handles most of the match making and supervises my training as well as that of my teammates.

Do you have aspirations of turning pro? If so, how long, or after how many more fights do you think it will it take to do that?

That's the dream I suppose. I've always wanted to have at least one pay day as a professional fighter. I'm still working towards that and hopefully after a dozen or so amateur fights I'll be able to make that dream come true.

How do you feel about organizations like the American Fight League (AFL) out of Louisville, Kentucky?

I like the organization that the AFL possesses. They have always been involved with and held quality MMA events in the area and the gentlemen involved were very helpful in regards to the show I helped create with the SFN.

Do you think that promotions like this that start on a local level will ever be able to compete with organizations like the UFC?

Its hard to say. It seems like anyone who tries to butt heads with the UFC usually ends up on the losing end. Which is sad because as long as MMA is structured the way it is with promotion companies and exclusive contracts we will never see the best fighters fighting each other. Until there is a universal governing body that oversees the sport of MMA and fighters have the opportunity to compete against the best competition available it will never be taken seriously as "mainstream" and you will never see the fighters making the kind of money boxers make which is what I think many of us in the game wanna see.

A number of websites publish the fighters’ salaries after events along with the winners of bonuses such as the UFC Fight of the Night, KO of the Night and Submission of the Night bonuses, and they do it with a disclaimer that the figures don’t include costs of medical examinations, travel and the like – what kind of expenses do you deal with as a fighter that most people wouldn’t know about?

As an amateur so far I haven't had to deal with any huge expenses such as CT scans and other pre-fight medical examinations. A lot of people don't know but for a professional fighter it can be a task to get that kind of stuff paid for before the fight. That's why sponsorships are so important because not everyone is getting Chuck Liddell type endorsement money that pays for pre fight expenses. A friend of mine told me when he fought in the UFC he paid his own air fare, hotel, received one extra ticket to the event for his wife, was denied a request for any other extra tickets and on top of that had to pay for his pre fight physical and history as well as any scans and other medical clearance needed to fight.

In your opinion, who is the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world?

Anderson Silva certianly seems to be the man for right now. But as unpredictable as MMA can be that could change the next fight. He just seems to be clicking on all cylinders right now, standing and on the ground. Fedor obviously has the skills but with the lack of marquee matchups for him he doesnt get a lot of credit but he is definitely up there in my opinion in the P4P debate.

Who are some fighters, past or present, that you admire?

Wanderlei Silva is first and foremost a fighter that I admire. He has always been a fan first kinda fighter. Never turning down a matchup whether it was in his best interest or not. The guy has fought and defeated some of the best fighters in the world. When he stepped up and fought Mark Hunt in Pride I was amazed. Seeing him come to the UFC was great because I knew he would perform and put on a great show and so far win or lose he has. I admire the Gracie family for providing an opportunity for people like me to view and train for MMA. Kazushi Sakuraba is most definitely a hero of mine as throughout his career has never looked away from a fight and always been entertaining.

The sport seems to be getting more exposure and as a result, becoming more accepted across society – where do you see the sport in five years?

In five years the sport is gonna be completely different. The game from promotion to training is evolving every day. In 5 years I think we will all be watching the best and most finely tuned athletes in the world competing against each other. MMA will be respected as a sport instead of the butt of jokes and ire of uneducated polititians.

What kind of hobbies do you enjoy in your down time?

Spending as much time as possible with my son, playing cards, just basically whatever life throws at me.

How do you your family and friends feel about your fighting career?

Most of them used to think I had lost my mind when I started training. The girlfriend I had at the time walked out on me and I was left pretty much with nothing. At my first fight I think most of my friends and people I knew were there to see me get beat up but now I think people in my life have realized this is something I love to do and can be very good at given the time. As matter of fact a few months ago when I was out with some friends to watch a UFC pay per view and ran into that ex girlfriend with a group of her friends there to watch a sport she once told me I was an idiot for getting involved in. I think given time and a fair shake MMA is something a lot of people will eventually fall in love with.

Thank you for all this, Steve – is there anyone you’d like to thank?

I wanna thank you for this opportunity I've really enjoyed it. I also wanna thank my friends and training partners for all the support I've been given over the years. If anyone is ever out at Bw3's definitely stop by and say hello. Thanks Again and God Bless.

You can find Steve on myspace here and you can find Four Seasons on the web here.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

First off to my boys Steve and Preview great interview! Very well handled and very professional. A special thanks to Steve for the shout outs and kind regards. Im always here to lend a hand or get that extra support we need to continue in this game. To other fighters if you need any advice on how we have been obtaining sponsorships or meeting with the big wigs, just drop one of us a line. And next time my man Steve fights you all better be there supporting Scooba-Jitsu. Namaste- Leebo Jakes