Every diehard MMA fan knows about the skills of hard hitting Californian Rob Emerson, who has been one of the top lower-weight competitors outside the UFC since his most recent appearance in the big show in 2010. After a 2-1 run in Bellator that saw him top the likes of recent main eventer Joe Taimanglo, Emerson established himself as one of the top stars in Omaha-based Victory FC by crushing reigning bantamweight titleholder Shawn West in June. This Friday at Victory 54 the champ will look to add another belt to his collection at the expense of current 145 pound kingpin Ryan Roberts, broadcast live on UFC Fight Pass. Rob took the time to catch up with CombatDocket and tell us about how he’s changed his approach to the fight game, his future UFC aspirations, and his mindset going into his upcoming championship fight.
Emerson was originally scheduled to take on Midwestern grappler Darrick Minner in a 135 pound VFC title defense, but when that fight fell through a chance to fulfill a dream materialized: “I dreamed about winning two titles the night after I saw Conor collect his two world titles. I went to bed that night and I woke up four times and two times it was to wring out my shirt because the dream was so real, and both times it was the same dream – I had two belts strapped on my shoulder. And I looked in the mirror the next morning, put my bantamweight belt on my shoulder and said you know what, I want two belts.”
It didn’t take long to start the process of realizing that dream; just two days later, VFC president Ryan Stoddard called and offered him a chance at dethroning long-reigning Omaha local Roberts at Victory FC 54: “It just fell in my lap. It’s like the universe aligned to give me an opportunity and of course I’m not going to say no.”
While Emerson has been at or near the top of the MMA game for over a decade, his recent move to Arizona to train with revered coach John Crouch and the MMA Lab has paid dividends for his mental approach: “I’ve always been my biggest adversary, always been my biggest opponent. I’ve struggled with ADHD and OCD, so that obsessive compulsive negative thinking I’ve always had in my career. Now I see the power of positive thinking and visualization. I think it’s the biggest aspect missing in this game and I think in combat sports in general you really get to see the human heart and the human will put on display. You see these guys who believe in themselves perform and do the things they visualize, and it’s amazing. It’s adding a lot for me in this sport, I get to go out there and I visualize what’s going to happen so much that it manifests itself for me. With my OCD thinking, now I use it as a weapon and now I’m so confident going into these fights because I really believe in myself for once.”
That positive outlook should come in handy at VFC 54 when Emerson takes on a stocky, well-built grappler and power puncher in defending champ Roberts. But Emerson doesn’t think that Roberts’ game will pose any problems that he hasn’t solved before: “A lot of the guys out there in Iowa and Nebraska grew up wrestling and a lot of them have that style. As do most guys in the sport, MMA’s a pretty new sport and I’d say 85% of guys’ style is wrestling, takedowns, and submissions. The guys that are very clean sharp strikers that hit very hard, those guys are few and far between. There’s only so many sprinkled throughout the divisions. And I really believe I’m the toughest, most talented guy Ryan Roberts has fought thus far, not to take anything away from him. He’s a game opponent, he’s been in the game a long time, he has a lot of experience, he’s very muscular, he’s very strong. With that being said it takes a lot of oxygen to run those muscles and he’s getting a little bit up there in age, he’s 38, he’s a little bit older than me so we’ll see if he’s done his work and done his conditioning for this fight because I have sure done mine.”
With a win this Friday, Emerson will re-emphasize his status as one of the dominant 135/145 pound fighters in the U.S. regionals. And he sees this fight as the perfect opportunity to earn a ticket back to the big show in 2017: “I’m gonna knock this guy out and hopefully it catapults me back into the UFC with a bunch of hype behind me. I would love to fight John Lineker, I would love to fight Cody Garbrandt. These are the fights that I want. I want to give the fans these fights. Before I walk away from this sport I want to be in fights that people show their friends, tell them to ‘watch this fight!’. I really believe I can get in there and headline cards with guys like Garbrandt and Lineker, and I believe that I can knock those guys out. I bring more weapons to the table than them. A lot of those guys are just heavy punchers and I’m a heavy puncher, but I also have kicks, knees and elbows. I’m really excited to get out there Friday and put it on display, to back up everything I’m saying, and I’m really interested to see what doors are opened for me after I collect this second belt.”
Many longtime fans will remember Rob’s time on the Ultimate Fighter Season 5, where he faced the likes of Nate Diaz and Corey Hill, and recall battles like his Fight of the Night-winning Double-KO barnburner against Gray Maynard at that season’s Finale show. But a lesser known, and even cooler, fact about Emerson is that his professional debut came in a 2002 regional main event fight against Jens Pulver, in the fight immediately following Pulver’s UFC title victory: “You know, the first fight I had was against Jens Pulver – right after he beat BJ for the first UFC lightweight title. He was my idol, man. I had his fight magazines and posters on the wall and that’s a guy I idolized. And sure enough I end up fighting him at 19 years old. The nerves that I had to overcome at such a young age and on such a high level, I’ve never experienced those nerves against anyone I have fought since then.”
It’s been 14 years since that crazy debut fight, which saw Emerson take the world champ all the way to the final bell. And it’s clear that part of the secret to Emerson’s ongoing success is a pure love of MMA: “I’d like to thank all the fans for their support, for supporting our sport. It really is the best sport in the world. MMA has given martial arts a new life. MMA has given a platform to a lot of smaller athletes. To do something athletic before MMA came around, it was baseball or football and if you’re 5’8 like me you’re screwed. So I’m just so happy and honored to see where the sport has grown and I’m really excited to see what happens in the future. I’m very excited to go out there Friday and in 2017 with this mental game that I have in my back pocket now. I honestly feel unstoppable, like there are no bantamweights or featherweights in the world that can finish me. I think I’m the hardest hitting guy in these divisions, and I want to get out there and show you guys what I can do.”
Don’t miss VFC 54 as Rob Emerson vies for a second Victory FC title against defending featherweight champ Ryan Roberts. The card also features a battle for the vacant welterweight strap that pits rising Hawaiian finisher Maki Pitolo against Nebraskan knockout artist Kassius Kayne. VFC 54 comes to a screen near you on Friday, December 9th at 9 PM EST/6PM PST, only on UFC Fight Pass!