Poll a group of MMA experts on what individual art makes up the best base for the sport, and there’s a pretty good chance that old-fashioned amateur wrestling will be your leading vote-getter. And it’s certain that a solid wrestling game – or, at the very least, decent counter-wrestling – is necessary for success in the pro ranks. Yet for every elite wrestler like VFC 56 bantamweight title challenger Raufeon Stots (7-0) who successfully transitions to MMA, there are plenty of top-notch grapplers who find that the same level of success eludes them once strikes and submissions are added to the equation.
So what is it that separates the wheat from the chaff when amateur wrestlers try to make the transition to professional fighting? Personal qualities are certainly important: the drive and work ethic to succeed, a solid chin, and luck avoiding injuries all play a huge role in any wrestling convert’s development in the fight game.
But just like most things in life, success is also about who you hang out with. To be the best, it helps to be around the best – and that’s one area in which elite amateur wrestling talent and top MMA prospect Stots had a huge edge from the get go. It’s one thing learning the fundamentals of fighting from a competent local instructor or a regional pro; it’s a different matter altogether to receive your introduction to the sport from a former UFC champion like Jens Pulver.
“When I was wrestling up at college in Nebraska, Jens Pulver came in to work on wrestling so I worked with him. After meeting Jens I started doing his jiu-jitsu and kickboxing classes, and before long he convinced me to take a fight. That’s how it all started.”
Meeting up with Pulver on the University of Nebraska-Kearney campus proved to be a pivotal moment for Stots, who persevered through a difficult upbringing with the help of wrestling but had always had thoughts about trying out MMA.
“I always had this in the back of my mind, ‘I can do that (MMA). I think I can be very good at that.’ I had that itch early on when I was wrestling in college and so the transition was pretty natural.”
“I won nationals twice so I was getting to the point where I knew everything and I was reaching my peak in wrestling. MMA was a new challenge, to get better at something I had never done before and become elite at something I hadn’t done before.”
Just as he had done with wrestling, Raufeon dove headfirst into his new undertaking and began learning the various techniques and skills that complement the wrestling aspect of MMA. It quickly became apparent that Stots wasn’t just another amateur grappler looking to adapt his existing tools to win fights. He was a driven, successful, born-competitor who was bent on mastering everything there is to know about the fighting arts. During Stots’ early days Pulver was there to provide guidance every step of the way, and the lightweight legend has continued to play a strong role in Stots’ development.
“To this day I consider Jens Pulver to be like a big brother. He is my mentor, and he gives me a lot of advice about MMA and about a lot of stuff in life. I talk to him every other week.”
“Out of everyone I’ve known in the sport, Jens Pulver influenced me the most.”
People on the Midwestern MMA scene really started to take notice as Raufeon plowed his way through foes early in his amateur career, which included a TKO win in his first 135 pound bout at Victory FC 43 and an amateur title with Kearney’s local Dynasty Combat Sports promotion. That’s when another former world champion stepped into the picture and gave the rapidly developing Stots a key piece of advice just as he was considering embarking on his pro campaign.
“Pat Militich talked to me and suggested that I check out the Roufus gym. He said ‘if you’re looking to go to the next level, I trust Duke Roufus to take you there.’”
Stots heeded the Hall of Famer’s wise words and packed his bags for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of the famous Roufusport MMA Academy. For a mastery-seeker like Stots, Roufusport is the perfect place to be. It’s hard to think of a more impressive pair of grappling advisors for an up-and-coming prospect than Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren, and who better to learn standup skills from than the likes of Anthony Pettis and former kickboxing champion Roufus himself. Thus far Stots has developed quickly in the company of those talented coaches and teammates, as he adds more tools to his growing skillset each time he steps into the cage.
“I definitely want to be great at everything … Right now I am evenly versed in every part of the game besides wrestling. One day I would like to be able to impart knowledge on others, but before I do that I have to get to black belt status. I am eager to do that. I’m excited to do that.”
The presence of Anthony and Sergio Pettis has been particularly important for Stots’ development, as the prodigally talented brothers are close to Raufeon’s weight class and make the perfect training partners leading up to fight night.
“Sergio is closest to my weight, so I do a lot of work with him and get a lot of rounds in with him. But I get rounds in with Anthony, too. He has been the champ, fought for two different belts. There is a lot of knowledge he is able to give me in the rounds we do. I really appreciate what I learn from them, it’s awesome.”
After a perfect fourteen month, six fight run to start his professional career, Stots took a step up to the outer fringes of elite-level competition in his most recent outing against wizened veteran Jeff Curran (36-18-1) at VFC 53 last November. By the time that fight came around Raufeon was buffeted by a substantial amount of hype, and Stots proved that he is no longer just a wrestling specialist by peppering the 55 fight veteran with strikes from distance en route to a 30-27 sweep on the judges’ scorecards.
With any notable success in MMA comes a new and more imposing challenge, and that’s exactly what Stots has earned at Friday’s VFC 56 in the form of Victory two-division titleholder Rob Emerson (19-11). While Curran’s bout with Stots came at the very tail end of a mid-level professional campaign, the 35 year old Emerson is much closer to his prime abilities and he has shown a remarkable capacity to adapt and keep improving over his fifteen year career, which actually started with a debut loss to Stots’ mentor Jens Pulver back in June 2002. While Stots respects what Emerson has done in the sport, he thinks that the former TUF 2 competitor’s best days are indeed behind him and that this is the perfect opportunity to pick up a huge win against a quality name.
“Emerson is really well rounded, a UFC vet, a guy who has fought some of the best in the world. He’s a really good opponent.
“Comparing his fights in the past to now, he used to be explosive and really fearless. I don’t feel like he is there now. I believe he is past his prime, but he is still dangerous. One of the most dangerous fighters I have had to face, so I’m excited about that, but at the same time there is a lot of stuff I can take advantage of. His striking doesn’t really impress me, he is good but not great – and that’s how I feel about his whole game. Good, not great. He had his time, it’s mine now.”
No pre-fight interview would be complete without a prediction, and Raufeon is pretty sure that “The Saint” won’t be able to last all five rounds with him – or even make it into the championship rounds. This time out Stots plans on finishing the veteran using his newly polished striking skills instead of falling back on his grappling pedigree.
“I’ve been really working on my power so I’m going to knock him out with my hands. I’m thinking before the championship rounds, round 2 or round 3.”
“I think the threat of my takedowns will open up my striking a lot, because if he doesn’t respect my takedowns then I’m obviously going to take him down and beat him up. Then maybe he gets up and he is forced to respect the takedown, so then I will then light him up on the feet.”
Assuming the 28 year old Stots pulls off the victory this weekend he will be sitting pretty with an 8-0 professional record, the Victory FC bantamweight belt, a pair of wins over former UFC competitors, and plenty of hype behind him as the next big thing in the bantamweight division. That might seem like a lot of pressure to most people, but Raufeon has trained his whole life to succeed in just that sort of pressure-packed environment.
“I have competed on the big stage a lot, so nerves are a big waste of time. I plan for the chaos and I’m okay with the chaos.”
— Victory Fighting (@VictoryFighting) April 10, 2017
If all goes according to plan for Raufeon Stots, then soon enough the pressure will escalate to even greater levels when he finally receives the UFC call-up that he’s dreamed about since those encouraging early sessions with Pulver back in Nebraska. And there’s no doubt in Raufeon’s mind that he’s completely ready for the big show call-up just two years into his pro career.
“I’ve been chomping at the bit for a while and if the UFC comes, I’m ready. There was a time I felt I wasn’t ready for the UFC but now when I say I’m ready, I’m ready to beat whoever they put in front of me.”
“After this fight it would be awesome if I got a call from the UFC but if not, I’m looking to stay busy. I can’t wait, if I want to claim to be the best I have to go out there and continually prove I’m the best against the best competition.”
Witness the next step in Raufeon Stots’ progression from elite prospect to top-level contender when he battles Rob Emerson for the latter’s VFC bantamweight belt in the main event of VFC 56, streaming live this Friday on UFC Fight Pass. Plus the show’s co-main event features another key title tilt as electric striker Kassius Kayne Holdorf defends his welterweight title against UFC and Strikeforce vet Yuri Villefort (click here to read about Kassius’ story leading up to the biggest fight of his career).
Raufeon would like to thank Combat Corner, Brothers Moving and Storage, Downtown Omaha Massage, and GreenBelly for their support!