On eve of UFC debut, fighter says MMA made him ‘a better person’
ST. LOUIS — As UFC bouts go, the featherweight bout matching Alex White and Estevan Payan is nothing out of the ordinary. It is one of six preliminary bouts that will follow three early prelims and precede four bouts on the main-event card at the Amway Center in Orlando.
Just another Saturday night of UFC on FOX (and FOX Sports 1).
But not for White. For the 25-year-old who fights out of Farmington, Mo., this is the opportunity he’s been waiting on and working toward for years.
"It’s the UFC," White says. "This is a different level. Fighting in the UFC has been a big goal."
White’s road to his UFC debut has been harder than most. As a child, he almost died on a family trip — to Orlando, of all places — when he mistakenly drank gasoline out of a lemonade bottle. Doctors were not sure he would survive but White came through, though his vocal cords were scorched and he was left with a slight speech impediment.
White was a year out of high school not doing much with his life when in late 2008, after a shift at McDonald’s, he walked into Joe Worden’s gym and asked what he could do to pay for training. White had been a standout runner at South Calloway High School in Mokane, Mo., but his only fighting experience had been dealing with bullies who made fun of the way he talked.
Since graduation, his main extracurricular activity had been partying. About as close as he had come to MMA was watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. But when his mom mentioned the gym, White decided to check it out.
"Before that, it was all about parties, about being drunk and all that," White says. "Having fun is fine, but you want discipline. I wanted to see how far I could push my limits. I’m happy my life went this way. MMA has helped me become a better person."
Worden didn’t initially know what to make of the shy, skinny teen, but it did not take too long to see that White possessed special skills. "And he was all heart," Worden says.
The coach has an eye for talent. Since walking into Worden’s gym, White has gone 15-0 in amateur MMA bouts, 12-0 as an amateur boxer, 1-0 as a professional boxer and 9-0 in pro MMA events. Only one of his pro MMA fights has not been decided by submission or knockout.
The only reason White isn’t undefeated is because of a kick-boxing match he lost in Russia last year. The defeat actually was more of a technicality than a TKO because White, after taking a knee in the first round, didn’t follow proper protocol to prove he was OK. That he was fine did not matter to the officials.
"No one else in the place spoke any English," Worden says. "It was pretty crazy."
White is getting his shot at the UFC because another fighter backed out. Because he already was training for a boxing match next month, White was in good enough shape to accept the short-notice fight when the call came April 2. While making the UFC is like reaching the major leagues of his sport, it also means stiffer competition. In Payan, White says will be taking on the toughest opponent of his career in any discipline.
Payan, 32, enters the octagon with the added incentive of needing a win to keep his UFC career alive. He has lost his past two fights and, as White points out, three straight losses often means the end in the UFC. White, of course, has his own motivation. If he wants a career in UFC, he needs to put on a good show.
"I just have to keep pushing, keep grinding," he said. "Don’t let off against him."
Such determination has paid off so far, but his biggest fight is still to come.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.