The names of former wrestlers fill the UFC Hall of Fame: Blatnick, Coleman, Couture, Frye, Hughes, Liddell, Ortiz, Severn. It’s the discipline that can make or break a fighter in the Octagon, and the one hardest to excel at.
Dennis Bermudez, former Bloomsburg University wrestler and current UFC featherweight contender, has never stopped embracing the grind of the room.
“I love wrestling,” he said. “That’s my first love.”
That doesn’t mean he’s going full tilt like he did when he was a Top 25 Division I competitor in school. It’s a different approach these days, especially at 30 years old and with other aspects of mixed martial arts to deal with while in training camp. But once it’s time to go, “The Menace” goes, and you will never convince him that wrestling isn’t the premier discipline for success in MMA.
“Wrestling is probably the most energy-consuming aspect of mixed martial arts,” Bermudez explains. “If you take a break in wrestling, you’re getting taken down, or you’re getting tilted or you’re gonna get pinned. If you take a break in jiu-jitsu, you could lay on your back. In striking or kickboxing, you can step back and circle, you could do nothing. But wrestling, it’s constant touching, pushing, pulling, driving. And the guy that’s more consistent and has the most pressure wins.”
That pressuring style has earned Bermudez nine UFC wins and a No. 9 ranking in the 145-pound weight class heading into his main event bout against “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung, on Saturday. But it has hurt him at times as well, and walking the line between aggression and recklessness is what he’s currently working on.
“I remember my first loss during my streak to Ricardo Lamas, I think I lost that fight because I was over aggressive and kind of threw caution to the wind,” he said of the 2014 submission loss to Lamas that snapped Bermudez’ seven-fight winning streak. “I was trying to get into his face right away and it was to a fault. Over the last two fights, I’ve been picking and choosing when to apply pressure and when to be a little more strategic with my attack.”
The result? Back-to-back wins over Tatsuya Kawajiri and Rony Jason that have him back on the upswing in a wild division that is getting even wilder with the return of “The Korean Zombie.” But at this point, Long Island’s Bermudez isn’t overly concerned with particular matchups that will lead him to a title shot. He just wants to get himself good enough to be able to beat the featherweights at the top.
“The only thing you have control over in a fight is your cardio,” he said. “Everything else, it’s a fight, and everybody’s different. In my head, when people ask if I’m going to train for a certain opponent, yeah, but barely. (Laughs) My goal is to be able to beat everyone in the world. I’m training to be the best in the world, not just training to beat ‘The Korean Zombie.’”
So how is that process going thus far?
“The game is constantly evolving, and everyone is getting older,” Bermudez said. “Time waits for no man, so as you get older, you get to make adjustments about how you recover, how hard you can train and at what intensity. I can’t train now like I used to when I was 24 – I’ll be burned out. So it’s about being smart and listening to your body.”
With that out of the way, he can concentrate on the fight. And unlike most of his peers, Bermudez admits that fight night isn’t a time to be giddy and light-hearted. He’s getting into a fight with someone trained to beat him up, and he treats that prospect accordingly.
“I’m just trying to win and I’m trying to survive,” he said. “When you’re in the cage all your senses are heightened and it’s about survival – kill or be killed. With that being said, I’ve been working with Henri Hooft a little bit and his style of fighting is called ‘KISS.’ Keep It Simple, Stupid. (Laughs) It goes back to when I was in high school and my coach told me, ‘When you keep moving, good things happen.’ So the goal is to keep moving and keep it simple and I’ll come out on top.”
Listen to Bermudez and Dana White on this week's UFC Unfiltered
But before that, when Bermudez is called from his locker room and is standing in the staging area waiting for his name to be called, the work is done, it’s just about time to fight, and he flashes back to his time on The Ultimate Fighter, when roommates Johnny Bedford and Dustin Pague told him something he never forgot.
“They would say, ‘You don’t have to fight, you get to fight,’” Bermudez recalls. “And I think about that every time I go out there. I don’t have to fight. I have the opportunity to fight. This is what I want to do. There are a lot of people who want to be in my shoes right now, so seize the moment, seize the opportunity, take advantage, have fun.”