Combat Conversations: John Salter is Quietly Knocking on the Door

 

Since coming to Bellator in early 2015, John Salter has been quietly advancing as a middleweight contender. He has a professional record of 13-3, and is on a five-fight win streak, with the last three of these in Bellator. In his thirteen professional victories, he has never gone to a decision, winning seven fights by knockout and six by submission. So the quiet rise has nothing to do with his style. Instead, the rise has been quiet because due to injuries and having planned fights fall through, he has only fought five times in the past five years. On Friday night, he meets Kendall Grove (23-16) in the co-main event of Bellator 181. An impressive win might just move him into position for a title shot.

Salter comes from a grappling background. He started wrestling at twelve years old, and won a state championship in high school. In his college career, he wrestled for Lindenwood University, and won the 2007 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) 174-pound championship in his senior year. After that, he moved on to other pursuits. As he explains it, “I was pretty ready to move on to something else. I had another year of eligibility in wrestling in college. My plan was to go back, get my masters’ and wrestle one more year, and at the last second right before graduation I decided I wanted to be done with wrestling and jump into jiu jitsu and MMA and move forward there.”

Lindenwood 2007 NAIA Finalists, Salter second from left. (Photo credit: Roy Sykes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

The addition of jiu jitsu to his existing wrestling began the previous year. “I started right after my junior year of college,” he says. “So about that three-month span while I was back home in Birmingham, Alabama before my senior year in college I started doing jiu jitsu. I really think that took me a long way as far as staying in shape and keeping on the mat before my senior year, so I was able to jump right back in and not miss a beat to get ready for my last year of wrestling in college. As soon as I graduated, I was right back in to jiu jitsu again.”

Even though he was still very new to jiu jitsu, he decided to enter the North American Grappling Association (NAGA) tournament. It might seem pretty ambitious, but really, it was just something to do. “To be honest with you – this may sound kind of dumb – but I saw the NAGA tournament, they were giving out belts for the winners of the expert division, and I was like ‘Hey, I want a belt.’” says Salter. “So I went over and competed in that, and actually had Douglas Lima in the finals of the first tournament I ever did. I believe he was a purple belt at the time. I had been doing jiu jitsu all together about three and a half or four months. I won that tournament, and there was another tournament, Cosca Grossa, that everyone was talking about where they were giving out money, and I was ‘OK, I’ll go do that. I want to make some money.’ In the finals of that, I had Roan Carneiro, or ‘Jucao’, who had a pretty good run in the UFC. I beat him in the finals, and that’s when I started realizing ‘OK, I think I can be pretty good at grappling.’ Then really I went quite a while without competing in jiu jitsu after that because I started fighting more often.”

After concentrating on his MMA career for close to ten years, Salter recently found himself with no fight scheduled, so he took the opportunity to get back into tournament grappling, competing in – and winning – the 88 kilogram division of the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Western US Trials. This qualified him to compete in the ADCC World Championships this September in Finland. As he tells the story, “I thought I was fighting Alexander Shlemenko in April, and when that fell through, my friend called me and said ‘Hey, did you know the ADCC West Coast Trials is about a week out? So you could enter that, fly out here, stay with me and compete.’ So I said ‘OK, I might as well do that.’ I had some pretty tough guys in that, a lot of leg lock guys. I ran into Josh Hinger and D.J. Jackson in the semifinals and finals, who are both black belt world champs. So, a pretty good tournament, tough matches that I feel like I got a lot of experience out of it, and confidence on the ground.”

John Salter defeats DJ Jackson to win the ADCC West Coast Trials (Photo credit: @JCSalter_MMA Twitter account)

Going back to the start of his MMA career, he was primarily a grappler in his amateur and early professional fights. “My first amateur fight ever, I’d probably been doing striking for maybe two months. I just took the guy down and beat him up, and that’s pretty much how my amateur career went,” he says. “I was striking, but I really didn’t have any confidence in it. I would even say my first pro fight I didn’t have any confidence in it. Then I trained with some other strikers from other gyms, and had somebody finally convince me that I could stand and I could throw with people. My second pro fight was a perfect time. I fought Roberto Traven who was an Abu Dhabi champ, so it was one of those where ‘OK, I’ve got to stand with this guy.’ I had a coach who convinced me that I’m ready for that. That was great timing for me, and ever since then I’ve really enjoyed boxing and kickboxing as much as anything else.”

About six months after the Traven fight, he had compiled a 4-0 pro record and got a short-notice call to fight in the UFC. Salter had only been a professional mixed martial artist for a year, and it turned out to be a case of too much, too soon. He had three UFC fights in 2010, winning one and losing two. “It probably wasn’t the smartest thing,” he says in retrospect. “You know, it was good experience, but when I fought Gerald Harris I think I had been training for two years, and he had thirty-something fights. And I just wasn’t ready for that. I went out there; I won the first round of that fight. I took it on short notice and I was in terrible shape and ended up losing the fight in the third round, but it was kind of a confidence builder. Dan Miller was kind of the same thing. I was in shape for that fight, but I went out there and felt pretty confident in the first round, but then got caught in the second round.”

A slower rise might have been a better short-term plan. “I wasn’t ready,” he states. “I wasn’t at those guys’ level. I shouldn’t have been in there, and I should have taken my time climbing up, but still at the same time it was great so early in my career to get the experience with guys like that.” Being thrown to the sharks so early in his career did give Salter some long-term benefits, however, allowing him to learn lessons that most fighters don’t confront until later. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from a fight was the Dan Miller fight. Toward the end of the first round, we hit heads and he cut me over my eye. It turned out it wasn’t a bad cut at all. But in my mind, I thought it was the worst thing ever, and they were about to stop it. I was freaked out about it and I went into that second round thinking ‘I’ve got to finish it right now.’ Staying calm in a tough situation. I think that taught me a lot about that. Had I stayed calm then, I think that was a fight I would have won, so I think that was the one I learned more from than anything.”

After being released by the UFC, Salter fought for a variety of promotions before landing with Bellator two years ago. Along the way he had a neck injury that slowed his career progression. “I had the neck surgery before I fought Dustin Jacoby, so before I ever fought in Bellator,” he says. “After the Jacoby fight, I had a few issues here and there, but I’m good now. I haven’t had my neck bother me in years, so I’m definitely ready to go there.”

After the Jacoby fight, Salter had his signature Bellator win to date, defeating former middleweight champion Brandon Halsey in June 2016. It was a bloody striking battle, capped off by a quick ground exchange that saw Salter submitting Halsey in a triangle choke late in the first round. Now 3-0 in Bellator, Salter feels that a win over Kendall Grove will put him in line for a title shot. “I definitely think so. I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t. I’m the one guy where everything Bellator has asked me to do, I’ve done, and when they put somebody in front of me, I fight them and I finish them. You know, this is just one more time that I’ve got to do it, and then I definitely think I’m right there and ready to fight Carvalho.”

John Salter vs Brandon Halsey, Bellator 156 (Photo credit: Bellator.com)

After suffering some injuries, his training methods have evolved over the past few years. Like many other fighters, John Salter now trains in a more controlled manner, avoiding the high intensity sparring that was common in the past. “That’s one thing that I think we’ve done really well here in North Carolina with Derek Brunson, Jamie Pickett, Cory Crumpler, and a handful of other guys,” explains Salter. “What we’ve done is we spar, but we’re not trying to kill each other. Take it easy to the head, try not to get injured. Just guys who care about each other and want each other to get better. I think that’s a big thing that’s going to help us all have longer careers.”

In addition to seeing the benefit of reduced injuries, Salter also feels that this lower-impact training actually hones fighting skills better than the old methods. “I spent a lot of my career sparring like it’s a fight, and trying to take each other out. One thing that happens when you do that is you don’t try anything new. You stick with what you know is going to work because you don’t want to take the damage that you’re going to take if you mess up. But when you’ve got a guy who is hitting you at 50% power, you’re a little more likely to try something new and see what will work for you in the future.”

Along with this, Salter doesn’t obsess over tailoring his training regimen based on who he’s scheduled to fight. There are some adjustments, but the basics remain the same. “You know, really no matter who I’m fighting, I pretty much do the same way. I strike every day and I grapple every day. Because you never know when somebody is going to drop out or get hurt and you’re going to fight somebody else. At the end of the day, your whole career is about getting better, so no matter what, I want my striking to get better and I want my grappling to get better. So I’m always working both.” That is not to say that he goes into a fight without some tactics and techniques geared toward his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. “I definitely game plan. I do change up things a little bit, like who I’m training with, who I’m bringing in, how I want them to act. But at the same time, I can’t spend all my time worrying about what someone else is going to do. I’ve got to worry about my offense and make sure that it’s effective.”

The fact that Kendall Grove is exceptionally tall for a middleweight made finding training partners to replicate Grove’s style the most difficult part of Salter’s preparations for Friday’s fight. “That’s been the issue, finding guys with his reach who are athletic and who know how to fight,” he says. “I’ve got a guy here who is 6’ 6”, so he can mimic everything that Kendall does. He’s a good grappler, a good striker. So that’s been great. I went to Nashville for a week. They’ve got a 6’ 6” grappler there and a 6’ 5” striker there, to make sure that they could simulate Kendall. I’ve had multiple black belts from different places come in to train with me who are long, to give me that kind of feeling that he’ll give on the ground to prepare for him.”

In assessing how he expects the fight against fellow BJJ black belt Grove to develop, Salter says, “He’s definitely going to be tough on the ground, especially since his length gives him something most people don’t have. It’s going to make it a tougher fight on the ground than most of my fights have been. On the feet, it’s the same way. His length is going to give me a lot to worry about. I’ve got to really work on cutting angles, moving my head a lot, and not getting caught when I can’t reach him. But I think my athletic ability, and I think I’m just a little better at every aspect of it, and I think it will take over pretty quick.”

Now that he’s prepared to deal with Kendall Grove’s size advantage, Salter is confident he has the skills to win. “I think with him, the hardest thing about a tall guy like that, is if you do get in good position, they’re so good at recovering: recover their guard, pushing you off, getting back on their feet. I think that’s the hardest thing to deal with with a guy like him. I think the hardest thing he’s going to have from me is just my ability to dictate where the fight is. If I want it to be on the feet, it will be on the feet. If I want him on his back, he’ll be on his back. That’s going to be the hardest thing for him.”

As he moves toward the goal of fighting for the Bellator middleweight belt, Salter hasn’t neglected other parts of his life. He has successfully balanced the needs of his MMA career with those of his family life. Since he began training in mixed martial arts, he has switched camps a few times, and his wife was always involved in the decisions. “I moved to Nashville for great training out there, and I am still under the same jiu jitsu instructor that’s in Nashville, Shawn Hammonds. I love it out there. Our pro team kind of started falling apart, so I had to sit down and talk with my wife about going somewhere else. I got the opportunity to go run the jiu jitsu program at Dethrone Basecamp in California, so we went out there and had a great pro team out there. My wife and I are both from the Southeast, so after about two and a half years up there we decided we wanted to get back close to the Southeast. Her job gave us a couple of different options of where we might go, so we ended up here in North Carolina. We love it here and I’ve got great training here with these guys.”

He’s also prepared for a career after MMA, earning a real estate license. This has come in handy when the vagaries of fight scheduling have left him without an opponent for long periods. In those times, he can use his real estate knowledge to provide a supplemental income. “I definitely stay busy with that,” he says. “But my number one job is training for fights, so it does get frustrating when fights aren’t happening. I don’t know why the three fights that I had lined up, I never did get an answer on why they didn’t happen. So that was frustrating, but at the same time at least I’ve got something to make some money on the side, and when I retire from MMA, real estate will be my fulltime job.”

That’s just a fortuitous sideline for now, though. “For fighting, my goal is to be the Bellator champ, and I want to hold that title as long as possible. I’ve looked up some records for how long people have held the title in Bellator, and I want to break those records.” Once he leaves MMA behind, he says his goal is simply, “For life, me and my wife has a good, long Christian marriage, make that a success in life.” He seems on track to work toward both goals.

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