Brian Ebersole's road to MMA's big show had more twists and turns than that of Crash Davis, the career minor leaguer who only gets a taste of the majors in the baseball movie "Bull Durham."
After a lifetime of wrestling and a decade spent fighting all over the world, a late injury to Carlos Condit opened up a spot for the 30-year-old Ebersole at UFC 127 in February against Chris Lytle. The card was in Sydney, Australia, where the Bradley, Ill., native lives.
After a career mostly on under-the-radar shows and officially 62 professional fights (the number is likely closer to 70 since he's fought on so many small shows) Ebersole wanted to make sure that, win or lose, he just wasn't another no-name walking to the cage to get hammered by a genuine UFC star.
Once, Ebersole came to the ring with a chain around his neck, acting like a dog as a huge female bodybuilder "walked" him. Another time, on a major Strikeforce show, he ordered pizza on his cell phone during his entrance to the cage, to be delivered after the fight.
He felt confident stylistically with Lytle, a knockout artist, because Ebersole (47-14-1, 1 no-contest) had never been stopped by strikes in his career, with his losses either coming by decision or submission. Ebersole won a unanimous decision and picked up a $75,000 Fight of the Night bonus.
The win bought Ebersole a ticket back to the U.S., where on Saturday night in Philadelphia, he's on the main card against a fighter with the same level of cage experience, Dennis "Superman" Hallman (50-13-2, 1 no-contest). Don't expect the usual level of clowning because Ebersole is aware that Hallman poses a strong submission threat on the ground. About the only concession to entertainment he's planning is a contest in which fans send in designs, the best of which he will shave into his chest hair the day of the fight.
"I put a lot of calls and emails in to [UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva for the previous two years," said Ebersole. "I tried to get on UFC 110 [the company's 2010 Sydney debut], I made a push to get on 'Ultimate Fighter' Season 13. I made a push to get on UFC 127. I actually tried to get a fight with Lytle on UFC 110, but they said 'We already signed [Brian Foster].' I really put myself out there, and one day, the email finally came back."
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Ebersole had been so frustrated that he had his manager, Justin Lawrence, ask UFC why he wasn't being considered. He worried that it may have been of a 2006 suspension in California for allegedly staging a fight or because he was close with noted Zuffa critic Frank Shamrock, or that years back he argued on message boards that UFC was a monopoly and not the right thing for the sport.
"They said it wasn't that, they said, 'We've got too many fighters, and not enough fights,' and nothing came back. Then, we got an email 10 days before UFC 127, asking me if I could make weight."
Ebersole began wrestling at age five. His passion for fighting blossomed as a teenager when he and his friends watched the early versions of UFC on pay-per-view. He learned about grappling from his parents, when Renzo Gracie came to Illinois and they attended one of his seminars. As a high school wrestler, he'd constantly get into arguments with local guys taking martial arts classes over which was better in a fight, wrestling or traditional martial arts.
"I'd get into grappling sessions with guys who didn't wrestle and I found success," he said. "I'd get into arguments, and we settled them on front lawns all over town. They'd tell me they could knock me out, and I'll tell them you can't knock me out before I take you down."
Watching those early shows lit a fire.
"Even during wrestling season, I wondered how I'd do," he said. "I'd see the grapplers doing fairly well. Some of those guys were terrible up through UFC 8 or 9. Even at 16 or 17, there was one guy in every UFC that I thought I could beat.”
Ebersole ended up wrestling at Eastern Illinois University, where future UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, who was starting his career fighting on small Midwestern shows, had been a two-time NCAA Division II All-American and at that point was an assistant coach.
After a few years of fighting in the area, he decided to make the move to San Jose, Calif. and train at the American Kickboxing Academy. This was before AKA was a smooth team. "Crazy" Bob Cook, who now manages the fighters, was struggling, working in construction and at a bar. AKA and Frank Shamrock went through a divorce and Ebersole sided with Shamrock. Ebersole figured if it didn't work out, he'd return home to coach high school wrestling.
Money was tight, as the cost of living in California was a lot more than he expected. Ebersole had the best people around to train with, but couldn't afford it despite working long hours. He noted that in Australia, he's not around the same caliber of training partners, but he's now being paid to coach and train, so it's a far better situation.
He got what appeared to be his first career break in 2006 with the formation of the International Fight League.
"I got the IFL contract and was set to make some good money if I won a few fights," he said.
On September 9, 2006, just before he was to start with the IFL, Ebersole was scheduled to fight on the first MMA show at San Fransisco's legendary Cow Palace. When his original opponent pulled out, the promoter called him and said he found a replacement, Shannon Ritch.
"I was thinking, this will be the easiest $5,000 I've ever made," he recalled, noting he had beaten Ritch in the first round in a 2002 fight in Monterrey, Mexico. "He can't beat me. He knows he can't beat me. And he's just here to take a payday. So I clowned, and tried to make a show of it. The commission didn't appreciate my entrance, or my fighting style. A minute and a half into the fight, they were yelling at Frank [Shamrock, his cornerman]."
Ebersole figured he would be in no danger against Ritch, so he decided to entertain the crowd doing moves that you normally wouldn't see in an MMA fight. At one point he did a cartwheel guard pass, which Kazushi Sakuraba used in Japan. California State Athletic Commission executive Armando Garcia, who was new to the sport, was not amused.
Ritch was in over his head and tapped without a submission being applied. After the fight was over, Garcia suspended Ebersole indefinitely for participation in a worked fight, and the win was changed on his record to a no-contest.
What actually happened was more akin to what Muhammad Ali would do against overmatched opponents, trying to put on a show to entertain the audience in a fight in which he felt no danger. With the suspension, Ebersole's IFL deal was off the table and he couldn't fight in the U.S. He didn't even know how long it would be before the commission would figure out it wasn't a worked fight.
"I had an offer to go to Australia after signing the IFL contract and the offer was still there," he said. "I fought Kyle Noke in Australia. With my future in California up in the air, I figured, why not stay and fight twice in Australia. So I stayed around for two months. I got offered a job in Australia. I came back to California, packed my bags, and headed back."
Since moving to Australia, he's won 12 of 13 bouts, with the only loss coming to Bellator middleweight champion Hector Lombard, who fights one weight division above Ebersole's current welterweight status.
Hallman's biggest threat to Ebersole is on the ground. With Ebersole never being knocked out, and Hallman's five KO wins in a 66-fight career, it is the submission game, where Hallman has 38 wins, including two in less than a minute against Hughes, that is most concerning.
"He's going to want to wrestle me, but with his age and previous cardio issues, I don't think he wants to do a heavy scramble type of match," said Ebersole. "If he does get on top, I have to make him work hard. He has really good submissions, so if I'm scrambling, I may have to give up top position and then try and rework it and get back on top from there.”
"Obviously, I need to win this fight, but I want to have a little bit of control of my schedule and how my career plays out," he noted. "I'd like to finish my career, be healthy and fulfill what I can do and then go on to a successful coaching career."
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