It may be a little strange, but no one is going to doubt AJ Dobson when he says that as a kid, he was the only one in school talking about former UFC lightweight Gleison Tibau on Monday and not the usual sports stars making headlines in Ohio.
But there’s more to the story.
“When I was growing up, in middle school and high school, in that awkward phase of just trying to find yourself, MMA really helped me out,” said Dobson when asked what keeps him in the game through the good, the bad and the ugly. “It gave me a direction to look towards. Everyone was talking about Terrelle Pryor and all these people and I'm talking about Gleison Tibau. (Laughs) So this (fighting) is just me kind of giving back. I love whenever I see kids in the gym that want to take a picture with me or want to talk to me about MMA; it warms my heart because that's what I loved when I was a kid. I loved seeing all these guys on the screen and emulating them, so it's me giving back for MMA filling me up.”
Dobson’s dedication to the sport is starting to pay off. One of the top prospects on the regional circuit, the Brooklyn-born Columbus product was invited to compete on season five of Dana White’s Contender Series in the fall of 2021, and less than five minutes into his bout against Hashem Arkhagha, he had a submission win and a UFC contract.
That was the good. The bad came five months later when he suffered the first loss of his pro career, dropping a three-round unanimous decision to Jacob Malkoun.
“I still think about it all the time,” Dobson said of the defeat to the Australian grappler. “A loss always hurts, but what allowed me to get through that was the fact that I was legitimately injured. I had a bucket handle meniscus tear for like four years. So, for the last three fights, I've had to deal with that. I think that's why I'm a lot more cheery now because now I'm a hundred percent. I can actually run, I can do roadwork, I can wrestle, I can do all these things again, so it's almost like I'm falling in love with MMA again, versus having to substitute certain exercises so I don't further injure my knee. But I would love to get that one back, for sure.”
That will have to wait, and that’s where the ugly comes in, because Dobson estimated that it was a 17-hour flight to get to Abu Dhabi for his UFC 280 bout against Armen Petrosyan. But he doesn’t care. He gets to fight, he’s healthy, and he’s looking forward to returning to the win column. And that’s all good for the 30-year-old, even if it’s tough to sit back and smell the roses when you’re preparing for a fistfight.
“It is hard to live in that moment because of training and everything like that, but this is an experience that I definitely appreciate, and something that I do every once in a while is sit back and go, ‘Wow, I've been training for so long and we're finally here.’ That's what kind of gets me through training. I haven't taken a break too much, so it's easy to get mentally burned out, but when I sit back and look at how long it's taken and where I've been and how far I've come, it definitely makes the days go by a lot faster.”
Not the flights, but enough about that and let’s hear more about that knee injury.
“I tore my knee in 2016 or 2017, and I just had to suck it up,” said Dobson, who basically fought his entire pro career with one bad wheel. And when you’re surrounded by legitimate tough guys like Mark Coleman, Matt Brown and the late powerlifting legend Louie Simmons, a young fighter can almost feel sheepish to admit being less than one hundred percent.
Dana White’s Contender Series: Next Level | AJ Dobson Part 1
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Dana White’s Contender Series: Next Level | AJ Dobson Part 1
“When I first tore it, he (Simmons) would tell me the stories about when he broke his back and broke this or broke that,” Dobson said. “All these injuries that these guys would have, and they would just suck it up, train what they could and still break records. So, I was kinda pulling from those guys. I just have a bucket handle meniscus tear - it's all right; put a knee sleeve on, rub some dirt on it, it will be all right. (Laughs) It's just that ‘Work through it’ mindset that I've always been surrounded by.”
When you go 6-0 with 1 NC on a bad knee, it comes down to, if it ain’t broke that bad, don’t fix it. Eventually though, Dobson’s performance was being hampered and he wasn’t able to work on the areas Malkoun exploited, so it was time to go under the knife. And eight months after that fight, Dobson is ready to see what it feels like to fight with all the tools at his disposal.
“Cleaning of the meniscus usually takes 15 minutes but, for me, it took almost 40 minutes because it was so entangled in there,” said Dobson. “That's how damaged it was. So the fact that I can run, that I can take a step without feeling like there's rocks in my knee, I'm over the moon. I can't wait to fight at a hundred percent.”
Fight fans will be watching closely, too, especially his parents, one of whom wouldn’t mind seeing him pursue a different line of work, and the other who is ready to go a few rounds with his baby boy.
“My mom still can't digest it,” said Dobson. “She says, ‘What are you doing, when are you gonna stop? You should retire.’ So it still takes some convincing of my mom, but my younger cousins love it. I love the look on their face whenever they know I've got a fight or when they see me. It's all worth it to me.”
As for dad…
“He loves it. He's always giving me tips, but he's a traditional karate guy, so he wants me to do the traditional style. I do Muay Thai, so he's trying to get me to more of a karate style.”
But does he say that if he was 20 years younger, he would be doing some damage in the Octagon?
“Oh yeah,” Dobson laughs. “He always says I still gotta spar him.”
As affable as they come, Dobson probably lets dad down gently without letting him know that this isn’t as easy as it may seem. Nobody is aware of those hardships attached to the fighting life quite like this middleweight prospect, who knows of no place he’d rather be than in the Octagon this Saturday.
“In a weird way, I hate to sound so cliche about it, but the pressure's off and I just want to have fun now,” he said. “I'm healthy, I had a nice, full camp of doing all the roadwork that I can, and I'm happy to go out there and just be me and flow.”
UFC 280: Oliveira vs Makhachev took place live from Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on October 22, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!