Trainer Mike Reilly has seen a lot of fighters come and go through his garage, but Brett Rogers really made an impression.
When Rogers stepped into the five-car garage Reilly converted into an MMA gym, he was hard to miss at six-feet-five-inches and 280 pounds. But more than that, he lacked the big-guy arrogance of other men his size.
“When he came to do this, his primary thing was, ‘I’ve got a wife and three kids,’” Reilly told MMAWeekly.com. “I’ve gotta provide for my family.”
Rogers was stuck in a split-shift job at Sam’s Club working 40 to 50 hours a week, barely covering his expenses. He grew up in the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago, had heavy hands, and never backed down from a fight, but that wasn’t putting food on his table. His talents needed shaping.
“When he first started, he couldn’t afford to train most places,” said Reilly.
So Reilly took Rogers under his wing, nurturing the fighter’s existing gifts and working to develop a solid ground game, which would surely be needed if he ever wanted to become known. There was a struggle to get Rogers in the groove of a professional fighter.
“I’d be saying, you gotta train more, and he’d be like, ‘I’ve gotta work more,’” said Reilly. “It became a real focus for me to help him to where he could do this and make a life.”
After his fourth straight victory, Rogers began getting offers from bigger organizations, including the UFC. Reilly, however, wanted to take it slow.
“He would have had a good shot at getting in the UFC or on ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’” said Reilly. “But he wouldn’t have been ready.”
Instead, Rogers signed with EliteXC and racked up another three stoppage victories against Ralph Kelly, James Thompson (where he was a 3-to-1 underdog), and Jon Murphy. As expected, Rogers made an impression with his ferocious style and Mohawk.
But Rogers got put on the shelf after calling out Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson at the post-fight press conference for EliteXC’s CBS network debut, and it was back to Sam’s Club. He sat out for almost a year.
Things turned around when Strikeforce acquired his EliteXC contract and put him to work in April, where he quickly knocked out Ron “Abongo” Humphrey. Then there was the 22-second knockout of Andrei Arlovski, which cemented Rogers as a legitimate threat in the heavyweight division.
Fans and pundits thought Rogers could really be something – if the ground game he shirked in competition was sound enough to keep wrestling-based heavies at bay.
On Saturday, Rogers faces the Mount Everest of MMA feats – a fight with Fedor Emelianenko in the main event of Strikeforce’s CBS network debut.
Most believe the fight is far from competitive if Emelianenko gets Rogers to the ground. Not surprisingly, Reilly disagrees.
“People don’t realize, when he gets on the ground, he gets up,” said Reilly. “But if he stays on the ground, he has a lot of tricks and submissions.”
Reilly joked about Rogers tearing through his training partners in preparation for the fight, though he clarifies that Rogers has control when he needs it. If someone pushes him in the gym, though, Rogers won’t back down. Or more specifically, he won’t let them get back up.
When it comes to the ground wizardry of Fedor, Reilly says Rogers' size will be a major asset in the fight.
“His suplex – nobody has ever seen it in a fight – is insane,” he said. You’re 10 feet in the air. When he suplexes you, it’s for real; you should pack a parachute.”
Rogers has promised to pressure Emelianenko like few have done before, and Reilly has taken him to several different gyms for perspective on climbing the mountain, including sessions with the Russian’s friend and would-be opponent, Josh Barnett.
Whatever happens on Saturday, Reilly maintains his commitment to giving Rogers his dream.
“This is what he wants to do for a living,” said Reilly. “He wants to train, and be a professional athlete, and make a living. So how do we make that happen?”
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