“I’ve been able to come back and have two straight wins in the UFC, now looking for my third straight. I’m healthy and finally feeling great." - Aaron Simpson
What a difference a year has made for Aaron “A-Train” Simpson. 2010 barraged the Phoenix-based middleweight with adversity; 2011, meanwhile, has treated the Renaissance Man to better days.
“I’ve been able to come back and have two straight wins in the UFC, now looking for my third straight. I’m healthy and finally feeling great,” the 37-year-old pronounced Monday, days before Saturday’s undercard clash with veteran Eric Schafer at UFC 136.
It is a pivotal test for Simpson, who had racked up an 8-0 pro record in 2010 before his surging career was deflated by losses to Chris Leben (via TKO) and Mark Munoz (by decision). While many fighters try to adopt a short-term memory of defeat, Simpson took the back-to-back setbacks especially hard. Other woes compounded his hurt, some beyond his control.
“I had a staph infection in my elbow,” he said. “It was limb threatening -- if not life threatening -- but I didn’t realize it at the time. I had it cut on and then I had a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line IV that I was on for a couple weeks, and I was on some pretty potent antibiotics. The PICC line ran straight to my heart.
“I also had a knee surgery and my wife had some health issues, too, so last year was a rough year for me. It took me a while to get out of that funk.”
Simpson has shaken off that funk on the strength of decision wins over Brad Tavares and BJJ black belt Mario Miranda. At an age when many fighters are slowing down, Simpson feels he’s following in the footsteps of Randy Couture and Dan Henderson.
“I’ll fight as long as my body will let me, as long as I’m hungry for it,” he said. “At 37 I still wake up in the morning and enjoy what I do. I can train as hard as I did when I was 20 and still have a smile on my face. I get beat up by young guys every day but compete with them and still have a need for it. All in all I feel great and like I can compete with anybody. I just have a lot more responsibilities with family and other things than I did when I was 25 so it’s about time management and discipline.”
Wherever Simpson goes, a trail of excellence seems to follow. He was a straight-A student in high school and college. He racked up a 142-1 record on the wrestling mat in high school, won a state title in track & field, twice earned All-American wrestling honors at Division I Arizona State University and twice placed Top-5 at the U.S. Olympic Trials. He graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and has coached a number of top wrestlers at the D-1 level, including UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, light heavyweight contender Ryan Bader and UFC vet CB Dollaway.
“I bring a skill set that I have been sharpening since I started wrestling at age 4,” Simpson said. “Now I get to see where I stand on the biggest stage in MMA. I’m looking forward to stepping in the Octagon and letting my hands fly. It is not about just fighting in the UFC -- it is about executing my technique and imposing my will and ultimately getting my hand raised one fight at a time. This is just another journey in my life that I am putting everything into. It is a process of discovering what it is that I am made of. It is a chance to test myself.”
Simpson has served notice that foes who fixate on stopping his wrestling do so at their own peril. He has one-punch knockout power and six of his nine victories have come via TKO or knockout. Yet Schafer (14-5-2), another brainiac who graduated magna cum laude from college with a biology degree, is uncommonly sturdy. The burly Wisconsinite, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under renowned instructor Pedro Sauer, has won five of his past seven and hasn’t been finished in nearly four years.
“If he takes you down he’s pretty tough on top and he’s also dangerous on the bottom,” Simpson said of Schafer. “He’s a hard-nosed, experienced dude that doesn’t shy away from a scrap. He’s a big middleweight, dropping down from 205 pounds. He’s fought some of the UFC’s best so he’s not to be taken lightly.”
Simpson, who typically walks around 200 pounds, said he has focused on keeping a little more size than usual for this matchup.
“I’ve always been so light in all my fights,” he said. “Brad Tavares was big, Leben was big, Munoz was big… all those 85ers are. I just feel that I’ve been a little smaller compared to everybody else. Eric is also a big dude. Hopefully that weight cut will wear on him a little bit. We’ll find out.”
Coming in beefier may not be as easy for Simpson as it is for others; he is a passionate vegetarian, driven by matters of his conscience. Jon Fitch and Jake Shields are other well-publicized vegetarians and Mac Danzig is vegan. Simpson was asked whether he feels a bond or affinity toward fellow vegetarian/vegan fighters.
“It’s not a real big deal to me,” he said. “I like watching Jake Shields fight. I think he’s impressive when he gets a hold of somebody and takes ‘em down. To see the abuse he’s taken and then coming to win, that’s very impressive.
“I’ve always rooted for Mac just because I thought he was a cool dude. Then he went and fought (Matt) Wiman (last Saturday), who I’ve talked to and who is also an awesome individual. So it was tough to decide who to cheer for. I’m just happy to see they both had a great fight.
“It’s not really a vegetarian thing why I root for them, they’re just good people. If they were a-holes and vegetarian I couldn’t root for ‘em.”
His strong stances against animal cruelty and advocacy for vegetarianism have caused some to label him a “pacifist.” He doesn’t expect to perform like one Saturday inside the Octagon.
“I’ll step in there, probably take him down and knock him out,” Simpson predicted. “That’s the plan. But I’ll probably do something crazy. Maybe he’ll take me down and then I’ll throw an armbar on him and submit him.”