In 2009, Bentley Syler’s father traveled from his home in Texas to watch his son fight. Syler had been training and competing for a bit in his home of Bolivia, but this would be the first time his dad would get to see him fight live and in person.
"He was living in the states again, and very ill," Syler tells FOX Sports.
"He had emphysema and was thinking of retiring and spending his last years in Bolivia. So, he was making the trip to see how he felt in that type of climate, to see if he could breathe well. He went on vacation and saw my fight. He really liked it, but I was kind of nervous that the adrenaline might do something to him. He went through it, though, and the next day asked me, ‘what do you want to do with this? You’re pretty good at it.’
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"At the time, I was still in school and hadn’t interned yet, and I hadn’t made the decision to make a career out of fighting. My father asked me, ‘do you want to make it to the UFC?’ I told him that I’d love to, but that was kind of far from where we are right now (laughs). He told me, ‘well, I think you can make it.’"
A week later, Bentley’s father died. With one last boost of encouragement and faith from his father, Syler continued his training, and soon came up with a plan.
That conversation with his father has been on Syler’s mind a lot, lately, as he heads into his UFC debut on Saturday, in Rio. The TUF Latin America competitor was in a unique position when his father saw him compete.
Syler wasn’t just a young MMA fighter, trying to rise through the ranks. He was also a medical school student.
The doctors among you, and even those of us who have known people who went through medical school, will find it utterly astonishing that someone could combine full-time med school with MMA training and an active fighting schedule. At first, Bentley just did it for the love of it, though it presented challenges to his academic life, and sleep schedule.
Syler found the sacrifice worth it, however. So much so that, during his final internship year, Syler decided that after finishing medical school, he would put his career as a doctor on hold in order to pursue one in MMA.
"It was really hard, especially during my year of internship," he remembers.
"You have those on-call nights when you have to stay at the hospital at night. At first, it was hard. It was a struggle. There was a point where I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ But, you know, I loved this sport so much that I decided I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of it. No matter how tired I am, I told myself that I’m going to train every day."
So, instead of going into the medical workforce as a doctor upon completion of medical school and his internship, Syler moved to Florida to live with his brother, and train at the American Top Team. "I got my diploma, got insured, got everything all legal, but never entered the workforce as a doctor," he says.
"I made the decision to pursue MMA full-ime in my internship year, when it was hardest. I realized how much I loved MMA by how much I was willing to give up for it, and how hard I was working to do it. So, the idea came. Plus, when I graduated I was 28. I knew the time was now. I couldn’t wait anymore if I wanted to make it to the UFC. I have the rest of my life to work in science and medicine. If I wanted to make it to the UFC, I had to do it now."
Syler found an easy transition to living in the U.S. since he had his middle brother to live with, and because he chose the "very Latin" area of Miami. His decision to focus on fighting also paid off.
Eyes on the prize
Syler racked up five straight wins as a pro, winning four of them by either KO or submission, and made it to the The Ultimate Fighter reality competition television show. Now that he’s on the verge of fighting his first official UFC bout, Syler is still focused.
Though he joyously recounted the story of his father encouraging him on to try and make it to the big leagues of MMA, even though he was in medical school and just an amateur fighter at the time, thinking back too much on that can be overwhelming. There certainly is an inspiring poetry to a father traveling across the world to support a son and prod him towards his dreams, shortly before his own death.
And, Bentley knows that his father would be proud of him, right now. However, more than anything, Syler has a fight in front of him, against a man who has trained all his life for the same dream.
In fact, Syler and opponent Freddy Serrano have trained together in the past, so they know each other well. Bentley calls Serrano a "strong wrestler," and "tough."
That’s where his attention and mind must be, right now. Later, hopefully after a victory, Bentley can afford himself the luxury of more reminiscence about how far he’s come.
"There’s a lot of emotions going through," he admits.
"The whole happiness of being able to achieve the dream. At the same time, I can’t let all the emotions do anything to me, and overwhelm me. It’s just another fight. I can’t add any extra pressure onto the fight. I know my father would be extremely happy, right now. He probably is, wherever he is."