Boetsch knows he’s a work in progress

The awe was evident in Joe Rogan’s voice as he tried to describe what he had just seen in the cage at UFC 81.

Tim Boetsch had just used David Heath’s head like a soccer ball, bouncing it off his knees five or six times before he grabbed Heath around the shoulders and spiked him into the canvas.

Rogan, a color analyst on the UFC’s television broadcast and a standup comedian who is quick with a barb, sounded stunned by what he’d seen.

“Look at this,” Rogan exclaimed. “He just … rag-dolls him to the ground. David Heath was stunned just from that.”

Indeed, Heath was all but out from the spike, which caused spectators sitting on that side of the cage to wince. Terrell Owens hasn’t spiked a football with as much force after an important touchdown.

Boetsch’s victory over Heath stunned many veteran mixed martial arts observers, who had never heard of him previously. He’d only begun fighting slightly more than a year earlier and was suddenly pummeling an experienced fighter with ease.

None of what he did, though, surprised Wade Fatool. Boetsch’s father-in-law is 50 and described by his son-in-law as a freak of nature. He still dominates many of those who are willing to get on the mat and wrestle with him in his hometown of Sunbury, Penn.

When Boetsch came to him in 2006 and said he wanted to become an MMA fighter, Fatool figured he had the perfect way of showing him the error of his ways.

“I’d boxed a little in college,” Fatool said. “I wasn’t a star or anything, but it was in intramurals and I at least kind of knew my way around the ring with gloves on.”

Sure enough, on the first night they boxed, Fatool was grinning devilishly at the end of their session as Boetsch was wiping blood from his nose and mouth.

They went at it again three nights later, as the first night was not enough to convince Boetsch, a four-time state high school wrestling champion in Maine and a solid collegiate wrestler at Lock Haven, of the folly of his plan.

This time, though, it was Fatool who got a lesson, and an eye-opening.

“I could barely lay a glove on him,” Fatool said. “He’s a fast learner. For as much of a brute as he looks, he’s pretty smart in there and figures things out.”

It’s a big leap, though, from beating your 50-year-old father-in-law in a sparring boxing match to taking on the best in the world in MMA, but Fatool was convinced that Boetsch would be successful because of his phenomenal strength, his wrestling ability and his determination.

Boetsch, who will fight submission specialist James Lee in a three-round light heavyweight bout at UFC 88 on Sept. 6 in Atlanta, got into MMA at the urging of his ex-college roommate and one-time IFL star, Mike Ciesnolevicz.

Ciesnolevicz had already turned pro and was training at the famed Miletich Fighting Systems camp in Bettendorf, Iowa. Boetsch had helped him prepare for some of his fights and Ciesnolevicz knew he’d be good at it.

“I knew he’d be good at it if he tried it,” Ciesnolevicz said. “He had that great wrestling background and his work ethic was so strong. I knew if he focused all of his energy into it, he could be very good at it.”

Ciesnolevicz might have a career as a talent scout once his own fighting career is over. Boetsch took him up on the offer to fight in a couple of amateur fights at a bar in Iowa and won both in less than a minute.

Suddenly, that job Boetsch had as a counselor didn’t seem so appealing.

“I’ve always been a competitive guy and I had kind of gotten away from it,” Boetsch said.

“I smashed two guys in under a minute and I got the urge to get back to competing.” A month after his amateur debut, Boetsch was a pro. And he was delivering the same kind of results. In the smaller promotions he debuted in, there were few who combined his raw power with his intensity and wrestling ability.

He’d won his first six fights against no-name competition when he got what could have been the break of a lifetime. The International Fight League was looking for an opponent for Vladimir Matyushenko to compete in its semifinals on Aug. 2, 2007, because Matyushenko’s original opponent fell out.

Boetsch was happy to oblige, but there was one hitch: He got the call three days before the fight. It wasn’t exactly the way he wanted to debut against big-time opposition. He had no time to prepare. He had no time to game plan.

He just had to get in and fight.

And though he lost a decision to a far more experienced fighter, he came to a realization. “It really opened my eyes, because I was so raw and really didn’t know much about what I was doing and here I was hanging right there with a guy like Vladdy,” Boetsch said. He got the bout with Heath as a replacement, though he had six weeks to prepare. And though UFC fans had little knowledge of Heath, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva nodded confidently when asked about him.

Boetsch pummeled a guy who by all rights should have dominated him. Though he became severely winded and gassed out in a loss to Matt Hamill in Denver in April, Ciesnolevicz has little doubt that once he gains the experience most UFC fighters have, there are going to be a like more bouts like the one against Heath.

He spent several weeks in Las Vegas training on submissions and submissions defense with Frank Mir and Robert Drysdale and is slowly beginning to evolve into the fighter Ciesnolevicz said could wind up as a major factor at light heavyweight.

“Honestly, the sky’s the limit for him,” Ciesnolevicz said. “He really could reach the top at 205 once he gets the experience. He’s like an infant as a fighter right now. But when he gets the experience, he’s going to be so difficult because he’s a bad matchup for so many of those top guys.

“This is MMA and there really are no sure things, but I really believe Tim can have a great career because of his unbelievable power and his wrestling and the way he works at it. When he’s winning fight after fight in a couple of years, don’t be surprised. There are a lot of guys out there who, if they got the chance, could shock a lot of people and Tim is definitely one of them.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Aug 14, 2008