George Sullivan is a heck of a nice guy. So why did so many folks on the New Jersey MMA scene want to pick a fight with him?
“I don’t know, I’m a humble, respectful, quiet guy,” he laughs, knowing that he had the last word when he was the recipient of some trash talk before fights against former teammate Greg Soto, Julian Lane and Brandon Becker.
“That’s where ‘The Silencer’ thing came from, all the guys that talked s**t that I fought,” he said, explaining the origin of his nickname. “Greg Soto, Julian Lane, Brandon Becker. That was three s**t talkers in a row, so they gave me the nickname ‘The Silencer.’”
He got it because he knocked the trio out, making him one of the east coast’s most exciting welterweights, but one that’s still flying under the radar heading into his Saturday bout against Tim Means, even though he’s won his first two Octagon bouts, decisioning Mike Rhodes and knocking out Igor Araujo. It makes you wonder if he really got his nickname because he’s so quiet.
“I feel like if you’re in control of your thoughts and you just have fun fighting, you’re more dangerous than some of these guys,” he said of trash talking. “(Featherweight contender) Conor McGregor’s a genius, he’s good at it. But I’m not a talker. I just like to shut people up.”
He has the tools to do it, and even though he’s a purple belt under former UFC standout Kurt Pellegrino, it’s his fists that he likes to end things with, and with 11 knockouts thus far, he has built a reputation for hitting harder than most 170-pounders, something he discovered early on.
“I was actually hitting the bag one day and one of my coaches, Dan Fischer, came over to me and he’s like ‘dude, you’re one of the hardest hitting guys I’ve ever seen, but you’re not doing it right,’” Sullivan recalls. “He started showing me that old Cus D’Amato / Mike Tyson way and I picked up on it real quick. They say you can’t teach power, but if you already naturally have it, you can be taught to control it. I think after I knocked out the seventh guy, I was like ‘I think I’m a knockout artist.’”
And everybody loves a knockout artist. So it was a surprise to many that the 34-year-old didn’t get the call to the UFC until January of last year. Sullivan has no problem with the timing though, as he believes it came at the right time.
“I think back in the day when I wanted to get the call, I was actually not ready,” he said, pointing to a 2011 loss to Elijah Harshbarger as a turning point for him. “I had no wrestling, and he didn’t even hit me the entire fight. All he did was take me down and it woke me up. I learned how to weight cut, I got a wrestling coach and a strength and conditioning coach and I haven’t lost in four years thanks to that loss.”
That four-year unbeaten run has seen him win eight times, five by knockout, and despite approaching his mid-30s, he feels better than ever, especially now that he can be a full-time fighter.
“Now that I don’t have to work and I can train full-time and teach people, I love it,” he said. “I love being a fighter and I love how I’m still learning at 34 years old. I’ve done more this fight camp than I ever have and I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in. This is my first 11-week fight camp, so I feel unstoppable. Seven weeks was my longest camp previously, so this is very exciting for me.”
Of course, what would the fight game be without a wrench thrown into the works. In Sullivan’s case, the wrench was original opponent Kenny Robertson withdrawing due to injury, opening the door for Albuquerque’s Means to step in.
“You’ve got to be ready to fight anybody,” he said. “I went from fighting a 5-foot-9 boxer/grappler to a 6-foot-2 Muay Thai guy, so it’s completely the opposite, but I have some great Thai schools around me that I’ve been working with and I just changed my sparring around. You’ve got to be ready for change. You don’t even know what the guy’s gonna do when the bell rings anyway. I really don’t look at tape, I let my coaches do that for me, and I just go by my instincts.”
And in reality, Means may be an even more favorable matchup for the Red Bank, New Jersey native, simply because “The Dirty Bird” is always down for a good stand-up scrap.
“That’s what I’m hoping for,” Sullivan said. “I’m hoping my power is too much for Means. He’s very technical and he can pick you apart, but there is no doubt in my mind that I’m the stronger, harder-hitting guy. Anybody I touch goes to sleep, so I’ve got to rely on my technique and my power. Means is a sharper striker, but Robertson was a little bit more dangerous overall because of the grappling aspect, because if you do get tagged you have to worry about the submissions as well. I don’t really see that threat from Means. I see him more as trying to finish me like I would try to finish him.”
Sounds like a little Fight of the Night action might be going down.
“I don’t back down from anybody, so he doesn’t have to worry about that,” Sullivan said. “If he wants to throw, there’s not a person I wouldn’t go hit for hit with. I might not be the cleanest striking guy, but most power punchers aren’t clean. We just look for that kill shot.”
If Sullivan can move to 3-0 in the UFC on Saturday and do so impressively, it will be one step further up the ladder and to an even more secure future for him and his family. He’s earned this opportunity, but that doesn’t stop him from feeling grateful for it, so as he’s having the best run of his professional life, he hasn’t forgotten where he came from, creating an anti-bullying program called “Silence Bullying.”
“My father was in prison for nine years and he died young, so I was made fun of for having no father and because I was raised by all women,” Sullivan said. “I was made fun of for him dying, and kids were cruel. Then we lost our house. I went through all the things that some of these kids go through. And then I happened to bully two kids that I still remember to this day. I never forgot their faces, and I’ve called them up apologizing. So just to see what it did to me, being bullied made me almost become a bully for a short period of time, and I stopped. I woke up. And I think these kids have more to deal with now because of social media. They go home, they’re still made fun of. They go on their phone and they’re made fun of. They look at forums and Facebook, and I think they need guidance. So I go to these schools, I speak to these kids, and they see a guy like me that could bully people, but instead he’s the nicest guy on the planet and a world-class athlete and fighter, so if he can show respect, I can show respect.”
Sullivan tells of being on his honeymoon in Maui when he was asked to speak at a local school. One of the teenagers he encountered had a best friend who killed someone to get into a gang and was serving life in prison. Two months after Sullivan’s talk, the teenager called him. He was in a football academy, had gone back to school and had changed his life.
“It’s unreal the response I get and I’m honored that these schools accept me to come in and talk to them,” he said. “It means a lot to me, because these kids hurt each other out of fear, and it’s sad. It makes me cry sometimes and I’m not afraid to admit that.”
Bullying is a problem that isn’t going away, but if people like Sullivan can make a connection one person at a time, it’s a start. And you can bet that as soon as he finishes business with Means on Saturday, he will keep trying to make those connections. But for now, he’s got fighting on his mind.
“I can’t wait to fight,” he said. “This year, I want to break into the top ten and I want to show everybody that my coaches can create a world champion.”