Thursday, March 1, 2007

Rex Holman – One for the Over-35 Crowd

By Thomas Gerbasi

As a 38-year old, I’ve got to root for guys like 37-year old Rex Holman. Why? Well, let’s face it, once you hit your 30’s and those aches and pains after any physical activity increase, it’s nice to look at one of your own competing in perhaps the world’s toughest sport and doing well, beating back those young kids and showing them how the ‘old’ guys do it.

It gives you hope.

And hey, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to live vicariously through someone else while re-living your own glory days, however brief they may have been. But when it comes to Holman, a former Division I National wrestling champion for Ohio State, whose glory days are a lot better than those of the rest of us, he’s not just taking a victory lap in his athletic twilight years by taking a stab at mixed martial arts. He’s in this to lock horns with the best of the game.

“As far as where I want to be, I want to be the best,” said Holman, who makes his UFC debut this Saturday night in Columbus against Matt Hamill. “I won’t lie about it; that’s the only reason I’m doing this. Will that happen? I don’t know, but I think I can be competitive with anybody. Whether I can beat anyone remains to be seen because I’ve only fought five times. I have been improving quite a bit and gaining confidence in my ability because after making that initial changeover I had a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear. But that’s the biggest thing I’ve been able to work on as an athlete - getting out there, competing, and putting those feelings aside, because it’s really just about the competition.”

It’s been that way for the ‘Big Dog’ since he first started wrestling in the fourth grade. From those early years, he went on the win the National championship in 1993 (along with teammate and former UFC heavyweight champ Kevin Randleman), place in the Olympic trials, spend some time in the Army, and generally keep his wrestling game as pure as possible. Sure, when the MMA boom started among wrestlers after the success of fellow Ohioans Randleman and Mark Coleman, he got curious, but some early sessions with another Ohio State standout, Nick Nutter, in the late 90’s calmed that interest quickly.

“I was pretty much a wrestling purist, and I just wanted to wrestle,” said Holman, a native of Columbus. “I had flirted with the idea (of fighting in MMA) back in the late 90’s and I actually trained with Nick Nutter quite a bit; he was a heavyweight at Ohio State, an All-American. And when I went on the mat, I was comfortable with takedowns, comfortable with submissions for the most part because they weren’t that advanced at that time, since I was working with a wrestler. And then he’d say ‘hey, let’s put on the gloves and box,’ and it was a free for all. (Laughs) I didn’t know what I was doing there. I was getting hit, I didn’t like it, and at that point I don’t think I was willing to learn anything else.”

But by 2005, Holman had hit a wall with wrestling and he needed an outlet for his competitive spirit. So at 35, he decided to give MMA another shot.

“I was still wrestling and I was frustrated with it, and I said ‘this looks like fun,’” he remembers. “These other guys were having fun and I wanted to try it. I knew that once I developed a skill set and once I had confidence, that this was something I wanted to do. It was a function of me changing my way of thinking. I conditioned myself so much in wrestling that everything was centered on wrestling that I didn’t know if I was willing to open up my way of thinking at that point.”

He did though, but not everyone was on board. Did anyone from his family and friends wonder if this new endeavor was a little bit off the wall?

“Everybody,” laughs Holman. “Not one person supported me to begin with. Everybody was like ‘huh? What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ I just wanted to do something with my life, and this gives me the opportunity to move on and grow. But at the time, my wife wasn’t supportive. My dad was kinda neutral on it. He said ‘if you put the time and energy into it and figure things out, you can be good at anything.’”

Holman took that advice and hit the gym, helped by another Ohio State product and future UFC fighter Sean Salmon. By September of 2005 he made his pro debut with a first round stoppage of Josh Whitt in a show in Ohio dubbed the ‘Rumble at the Rodeo’. He would get submitted in his second bout, but has since put together a three-fight win streak, and when a spot opened up on the UFC’s first show in Ohio for a fight against ‘The Ultimate Fighter 3’s Hamill, a Division III national wrestling champion, he got the call and quickly accepted.

“This is ideal for me to fight in Columbus, Ohio, because I can pretty much keep my same habits and be in an environment that isn’t strange to me,” said Holman, one of the rare fighters who gets to fight at home in his UFC debut.

There will be skeptics though, wondering if a 37-year old former wrestler with just five fights to his name is ready for life in the UFC and ready for the rigors of a pro fighting career. Holman believes he is ready and knows that experience, smarts, and technique can make up for youth in the right circumstances.

“It’s a pretty even playing field in the UFC, so I definitely think I can compete,” said Holman. “I’m still physically strong. I might not be what I was in my late 20’s, early 30’s, but I’m still in pretty good shape and have had minimal drop-off.”

And if he’s looking for any inspiration, all he needs to do is look further up UFC 68’s card to see the name of the seemingly ageless Randy Couture, who has done his best work since turning 37, and who, at 43, is challenging for the UFC heavyweight title in Saturday’s main event.

“Randy’s a role model for me because he’s a guy I competed against way back in college a lot, and he’s one of those guys where you can just tell by his attitude in general that his desire to compete is so deeply ingrained in his person, that that’s who he is,” said Holman of Couture. “He embodies everything about wrestling and fighting that’s good to me. So I look up to Randy with a lot of respect and admiration because he’s a guy who is still competing and who does a great job of maintaining his physicality and being strong and conditioned.”

He’s also someone Holman wouldn’t mind working with after Saturday’s bout.

“I’d really like to get with a Randy Couture, someone who’s a former wrestler that could watch me wrestle and say ‘hey Rex, there’s a couple of things you need to do a little bit differently,’” said Holman. “That’s also what I’m looking for after this fight, to see if someone’s interested in helping me develop as a fighter and who has a wrestling background but made a successful transition into MMA.”

Rex Holman is in the midst of that transition, and we’ll see on Saturday how successful he’s been so far. And while he’s not making predictions, he’s confident that things will work out for the best.

“I always assess and evaluate after a competition, but it’s my belief that I’ll have a real solid first performance and learn from it,” he said.

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