“After the first couple wins, I said this is a piece of cake. I’ll just stay in shape and keep getting better. And my confidence just slowly built.”
For his first UFC.com interview, Kenny Robertson had a few minutes to spare, literally.
Free from “10:30 to 11:09” on a Wednesday morning, the Illinois welterweight wasn’t being smug or looking to avoid media coverage. That was actually the time he was able to fit in an interview over the course of a daily routine that includes a full day in class as a teacher of woods and drafting at Metamora Township High School, a stint after school as a wrestling coach, and then full attention to his night job as a professional mixed martial artist preparing for his UFC debut this weekend against Mike Pierce.
“It’s difficult,” says Robertson, but at the same time, his rigid schedule makes every minute count and adds a layer of discipline that has helped carry him to a perfect 10-0 record thus far.
“Sometimes it does help,” he said, referring to the benefits of leading such a regimented life. “I can’t miss practices. But it kinda sucks because every part of my life is pretty much scheduled right now, so I don’t have any free time.”
Even this week’s trip to Vegas will eat into his paycheck from his teaching gig, as his vacation and sick time has been used up already, but he’s not complaining, and in school, being a pro athlete does have its perks because there aren’t too many students who are going to talk back when Mr. Robertson tells them to be quiet and settle down.
“They listen pretty good most of the time,” he laughs.
A native of Spring Bay, Illinois now living in East Peoria, the 26-year old is the latest Eastern Illinois University product to make it into the Octagon, following Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, heavyweight Mike Russow, and former UFC fighters Matt Veach and Ryan Thomas. Former WEC bantamweight champ Chase Beebe and PRIDE vet Clay French also called EIU home during their college years. With a group like that, it’s clear that the wrestling room there was quite the hotbed for producing MMA talent.
“I think the wrestling style of the head coach, Ralph McCaussland, really transitions well into MMA, and I think once we had Hughes it got a lot more people interested in the sport there and everyone was doing it,” said Robertson, a three-time NCAA qualifier. “There’s a huge list of fighters that came out of there because it (MMA) got popular, and it was a smaller campus, so it was a fun activity to do.”
Robertson recalls the first few times Hughes, then the UFC welterweight champ, visited practice and gave the EIU wrestlers a dose of tough love on the mat.
“He showed up to a couple practices here and there, and he’d come in and kick the crap out of us,” laughs Robertson. “I remember being a freshman, working out, and there were three studs on the team and he came in and beat the crap out of them.”
Seeing Hughes in action both in the gym and on television provided a spark for Robertson when it came to mixed martial arts, but it wasn’t something he decided to take seriously until after graduation.
“I had it on the backburner when I was in college because I was really focusing on wrestling. I said I’ll play around with it when I was done. And even then, I knew I’d get a couple fights in but I never knew if I would come along this far. I do remember watching the UFCs and thinking dear God, their wrestling is just horrible. (Laughs) This is just embarrassing.”
Has it gotten better over the years?
“It’s gotten a lot better. You don’t see so many people just trying to lift a lot. You see a lot more dumps, and singles to the doubles and stuff like that.”
In March of 2008, Robertson made his debut with two wins in one night that lasted a combined 1:16. By the midway point of that year, he was 5-0 with five finishes and thinking that there might be a future for him in the sport.
“After the first couple wins, I said this is a piece of cake. I’ll just stay in shape and keep getting better,” he said. “And my confidence just slowly built.”
Following an August submission of Ultimate Fighter veteran John Kolosci that lifted his record to 10-0, Robertson got the call to the UFC, but a broken toe forced him out of a UFC 123 bout against Pascal Krauss in Germany.
“I think it (the postponement) made me more mentally tough, but I was pretty pissed off,” he said. “I was sparring and I kicked and I stumbled a little bit. I was like ‘man, what the heck?’ I finished the workout but I just couldn’t do anything. Then I went to the doctor and he said it was broke. I don’t want to say it was heartbreaking because I knew that I’d be in a fight again, but it was very frustrating because of a little thing like your big toe.”
And despite the unbeaten Krauss’ impressive showing in his debut against Mark Scanlon last November, many observers believe that Robertson has gotten an even tougher assignment in veteran fellow wrestler Mike Pierce. The change in opponent barely causes a ripple in Robertson’s preparation though.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. “I just gameplanned for both of them a little bit differently. I like both of those opponents to have and anytime I get to fight, it’s kind of a big deal.”
Of course it is – who wouldn’t want to miss a couple days of school in the dead of winter for a trip to Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend? But Kenny Robertson’s visit to Nevada isn’t for pleasure; he’s here on business, looking to add another win to his record and a few thousand more fans to his bandwagon.
“Hopefully they think I’m a tough guy,” he said. “I want them to see that I’m more than just a wrestler, and that I’m not boring to watch.”