Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fighting For His Life

By Ben Fowlkes

This time last year, not many people outside the state of Oregon had ever heard of John Gunderson.

He was a carpenter in his mid-twenties – a simple man living a relatively simple life. He had his family, his two young children, and a calm, stable existence for the first time in his often tumultuous life.

But all that has changed now.

These days he has a new life, a new home, and a new vocation. He’s no longer the carpenter who trains in mixed martial arts as a pastime, fighting in front of small local crowds for a pittance.

Now he is a fighter, a professional athlete, and – some might even say – a rising star.

“It’s a different life, that’s for sure,” Gunderson admitted. “You find out what a pro athlete goes through. It’s a job, but it’s definitely a better life.”

The key to this life was a minimally publicized try-out for Ken Shamrock’s Nevada Lions, a team new to the IFL in 2007. Gunderson knew that Shamrock would have plenty of lightweights to choose from – both on his existing team and through the try-outs – but he believed that if he could just show the MMA legend what he was capable of, he’d win the spot.

The problem for Gunderson was that the try-outs were in Reno, while he lived in Medford, Oregon. So he did what any sensible man would do: he drove all night after getting off work and tried out in the morning on no sleep and no food.

Needless to say, Shamrock was impressed with what he saw, and Gunderson got the spot on the Lions. He even decided to move to Shamrock’s hometown of Susanville, California in order to soak up all the knowledge he could from Shamrock’s years of experience in MMA.

“He’s a great coach,” Gunderson said of Shamrock. “You see him on TV and you think he’s one of these guys who walks around with a chip on his shoulder, but he’s not like that at all.”

Because the try-outs were held only weeks before the Lions’ first event, Gunderson had little time to train with the team. Even so, his first IFL match netted him a first-round submission victory over the Razorclaws’ Josh Odom. This time around he faces a much tougher test.

On April 7th, Gunderson will get in the ring with one of the league’s top lightweights, Bart Palaszewski of the defending champion Silverbacks. Before his recent controversial decision loss to undefeated striker Chris Horodecki, Palaszewski was on an eleven-fight win streak, not to mention he was a star performer on the league’s most dominant team.

When asked what he thinks of Palaszewski and his impressive record, Gunderson jokingly responded, “Who?”

“No, I agree he’s one of the top guys in the league. I’m honest and I’ll say when a guy can fight and when he can’t, and that kid can fight. He can fight standing up and he can fight on the ground. But I still think he’s a very good match-up for me.”

Gunderson says he knows that this fight could be a defining moment in his young career, but he also knows that there is plenty of pressure on Palaszewski, as well. The Silverbacks would be essentially eliminated from the playoffs with a team loss against the Lions, and Palaszewski has been one of the fighters they’ve depended on to get them through the close matches.

“I think there’s added pressure on Bart for every fight, but especially this one,” said Gunderson. “Coming off a loss when he hasn’t been beaten in a long time, I know how much he wants to get a win. They have a great team, and they know if they beat us they’re right back in it. That’s why they put [Sam] Hoger in there for [Mike Ciesnolevicz].”

Gunderson also commented on Palaszewski’s close decision loss to Horodecki, saying that while he felt the decision was a bad one, it exposed some of Palaszewski’s weaknesses.

“[Horodecki] took it to him. Bart’s a great counter-puncher, so you have to be careful how you press him. I’ve got a game plan. I don’t want to give too much away, but I don’t think he’ll be able to stop it.”

One thing that has certainly helped him prepare for this momentous bout, Gunderson said, was the team training with Shamrock and the Lions. Their preparation started immediately after their first bout in January, and has continued with intense sparring and cardio workouts, said Gunderson.

“This is the healthiest I’ve ever been for a fight. I’ve got my family down here; I’m training hard and eating well. If any of us lose, it won’t be from lack of conditioning.”

Having all the time to dedicate to training and preparation for a fight is a novelty for Gunderson, who is used to balancing workouts with long work days constructing bridges in Oregon. Now that he can focus on the task at hand, fans will likely get chance to see exactly where he stands in the IFL’s very competitive lightweight division, and Gunderson knows it.

“This is going to be the most important fight of my career, not just for me but for my family,” said Gunderson. “I’m going to be ready.”

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