"I believe that this is a message to me that I need to show what I’m capable of and there’s no room to under perform here.” - Shamar Bailey
Firemen, like fighters, are cut from a different cloth than most of us. Shamar Bailey is both, and like his buddy and fellow Indianapolis firefighter Chris Lytle, he believes the danger inherent in both professions takes a backseat to the adrenalin rush of the job.
But you can’t escape that danger, so when a fire raged in downtown Indianapolis a week before Bailey was set to leave for Las Vegas and the opportunity of a lifetime as a competitor on season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter, he didn’t hesitate to run into the building to fight an opponent that doesn’t stop when the referee says so.
“We get as close to the fire as possible to keep it from spreading throughout the structure,” said Bailey of the Indianapolis Fire Department’s aggressive approach to combating fires. When you do that, not even the best equipment can completely insulate you from the heat of a raging inferno. Asked to describe it, Bailey said “it’s like you’re in a sauna, and you’ve got the sauna suit on, and it’s burning your skin. That’s how it feels in there and you know the fire’s a lot hotter than what it actually feels like.”
And this fire wasn’t going down easy, so the chief of the department soon made the call to get his guys out of the burning building.
“The chief ordered us to get out of there after fighting it for about 40 minutes,” Bailey recalled. “The second after I got out of there, I turned my back and that place collapsed. I was that close to being inside a collapsed building versus being on The Ultimate Fighter.”
“Those are the kind of things that you deal with on a daily basis and then you put it out of your mind.”
Needless to say, anything Bailey has faced in his 15 pro bouts thus far or in any fight in the future won’t ever compare to what he does when he’s not competing or in the gym. But he does see parallels between his two worlds.
“You pray, you trust God, and you rely on your training,” he said. “It’s the same thing with fighting. You hope and trust that everybody around you executes their training as well as you do, and you hope to do the same and hold up your end of the bargain.”
With that outlook, it’s not surprising that the recently-retired Lytle took an instant liking to the Delaware native, who entered the gym in Indiana (the state he called home since high school) after graduating college, in search of a way to keep in shape. It became much more than that.
“He (Lytle) is one of the biggest reasons I started fighting,” said Bailey. “The very first time I walked into an MMA gym in Indianapolis, my introduction to the sport was Chris. I rolled with him, sparred with him, and I ended up being one of his workout partners before I even decided to fight. And he was one of the main guys that convinced me to fight because of how I would do with him in the practice room. From there, he also convinced me to try out for the Indianapolis Fire Department, who he works for as well. Since 2006, we’ve been training and working together, and it’s been a great relationship.”
In August of 2006, Bailey made his pro debut with a first round TKO of Jason Cook, and ran off seven straight wins until getting halted in fight number eight by Strikeforce standout Roger Bowling. After bouncing back with four more wins, including a Strikeforce submission of John Kolosci in November of 2009, Bailey was watching his gym mates begin getting calls to fight in the UFC, and he was understandably getting antsy.
“I was definitely getting antsy,” he laughs. “In addition to Chris, I had my buddy Jake O’Brien, Johnny Rees, and Matt Mitrione, and there were 4-5 fighters from the Indianapolis area getting into the UFC. Some did better than others, and I was like ‘where’s my shot, where’s my chance?’”
Two losses, one via decision to Justin Wilcox in Strikeforce and one via cuts against Kurt Kinser, put the brakes on his immediate UFC ambitions, but with that door closed, The Ultimate Fighter door opened, and Bailey entered the TUF13 house as one of the veterans and favorites, as well as the first pick of coach Junior dos Santos. After opening things up with a decision win over Nordin Asrih, Bailey lost a close nod to Chris Cope in the quarterfinals. But in a bout on the season finale card in June, he got back in the win column with a victory over Ryan McGillivray, and the way he sees it, everything worked out in the end.
“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I think everybody knows me as a wrestler and a lot of people don’t think I have the greatest standup. But the bottom line is, I’ve only been an athlete since my senior year of high school, when I started wrestling, and since then, wrestling’s all I’ve known. I just started boxing a little over a year ago, and kickboxing finally, and that’s being added to my repertoire. I’m a fast learner and I think I’m gonna perform a lot better now than I would have if I had gotten into the UFC a couple years ago. Everything has worked out for a reason.”
That doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth sailing, and Bailey has received his share of criticism for his wrestling-based attack, one which – whether you like or not – has been effective, as his shutout of McGillivray proves. And it goes back to that old adage, if you don’t like the way someone fights you, stop him. Bailey, whose intent is to put on entertaining bouts, can understand both sides of the debate.
“The fans have a right to complain,” he said. “Obviously they pay their money, and at the end of the day we’re professional athletes and we’re supposed to entertain them, but if the opponent’s going to complain, then I agree a hundred percent with what you say - ‘do something about it.’ It’s funny to me because if you look at a fight like Charlie Brenneman vs. Rick Story, everybody thought that was an amazing fight, but that was mostly a wrestling match. But when somebody sees a superior athlete dominate somebody with wrestling versus knocking them out, I think they’re expected to be knockout artists, and wrestlers get a bad rap when we dominate somebody else with what we’re good at. I that’s where a lot of the complaining comes from, when it’s a one-sided affair.”
In New Orleans this Saturday night, it certainly won’t be a one-sided affair when Bailey drops down to the 155-pound weight class to face highly regarded Evan Dunham. Dunham is hungry to snap a two fight losing streak, and Bailey is looking for both a win and a willing dance partner. We’ll find out about the end result this weekend, but when it comes to the dance partner, Bailey knows Dunham is coming to fight, and that’s just what he asked for.
“I had hinted that I wanted tough fights and that I wanted to test myself,” he said. “I wanted to fight somebody that I didn’t have to chase around the cage, and when I go to the ground they’re not just gonna hold on to me for dear life. So I was very excited, and I believe that this is a message to me that I need to show what I’m capable of and there’s no room to underperform here.”
Not these days, and definitely not at 155 pounds. If you don’t win and win impressively here, there are a bunch of hungry sharks waiting to take your place. No one knows that better than Bailey.
“Obviously winning is the number one thing and the priority,” he said. “I realize that as fighters, we’re privileged to fight in the UFC, it’s not a right. So in addition to wanting to win, first and foremost, I do realize that there’s a certain product that they’re looking for and they want to promote exciting fighters. They’re not gonna put anyone that’s boring on Fox network cards. I think it takes an athletic fighter and a smart fighter to be able to both win and win in an exciting fashion. And a lot of times, it’s all about the matchups. You get a matchup where his fighting style is not going to be conducive to being exciting, then you just gotta grind out the win. If both styles match up well, then you can make the most of that matchup, and that’s why I’m excited about this fight with Evan Dunham. I think it’s a matchup where there’s either gonna be a quick finish or it’s gonna be an exciting fight.”