"Victory is reserved for those willing to pay its price."
Many MMA fighters tout a certain nickname or catchphrase, but few truly embody it's meaning like Cole Escovedo. First, he was called "The Triangle", which is easily explained by the way he ensnared 8 of his first 11 MMA wins by that particular technique. He is now known as "The Apache Kid" as his father is a full-blood Apache Indian.
Most importantly, his motto about victory, quoted above, has a very real meaning to him. Facing adversity is the quintessential fabric of combat sports, but Cole Escovedo has endured a life-altering contraction of staph that paralyzed the lower half of his body and resulted in the doctors predicting he would be lucky to even walk upright again. The tragedy also occurred at a highly inopportune time in his fighting career.
Escovedo had finally worked his way up to the big leagues of the WEC, and authenticated his skill by becoming the promotion's first featherweight champion. With a strong 11-1 record, and after earning the WEC belt and successfully defending it, Escovedo hit a rough stretch of road in the form of a three-fight skid versus acclaimed WEC 145'ers in Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, and Antonio Banuelos.
His battle to wrest his health and ability to walk back from the severe staph infection then ensued. Almost three years later, Escovedo showed that regaining his ability to walk was only the tip of the iceberg. "The Apache Kid" re-ignited his career by dropping to bantamweight and finishing 3 of his next 4 opponents, earning him a shot under the bright lights of the DREAM banner in Japan.
As the significant underdog that many expected to serve as nothing but an American appetizer for resilient Japanese scrapper Yoshiro Maeda, Cole rattled off a flawless combination of kicks that left Maeda napping on the canvas for a dramatic upset and the biggest win of his career.
Cole Escovedo and I cover what his first experience fighting in Japan was like, the shocking outcome of the Maeda fight, what the future holds for the man who continually defies the odds, and much more.
Tell me about your first experience with Japanese MMA: what were the biggest differences you noticed fighting overseas versus fighting in the states?
CE: "The venue size was noticeably different than anything I've fought on before. The Yokohama arena sits like 17,000 and there was close to 10,000 there on fight night... the most I've ever fought in front of before was around 3,000 for an outdoor show in Lemoore. And the crowd is way better; much more respectful and educated than the average U.S. fan. You didn't have every drunk in the crowd yelling, 'punch him in the face!' or 'quit humpin' him!', and they were very quiet unless someone was going for a finish of some kind.
The production value of the show was incredible--it was like being in a video game, probably the first time I was actually smiling backstage waiting to fight. I was so excited with the level of appreciation the fans had for us, I actually wanted to put on an exciting fight for them. And finally the level of organization from DREAM was on point with everything. If they said, 'be here at 1:30', they meant 1:30, not 1:31, not 2:00. Weigh-ins started at 12:30 and 45 seconds (laughs), that's how on-point they were. I wasn't waiting around for hours to weigh-in like I have at other shows on a regular basis (granted sometimes its the fighters missing or the athletic commission's fault) but they were very, very organized. There didn't seem to be a question that I couldn't get an immediate answer for."
So you feel you were treated a little bit differently by the promotion, and the fans as well?
CE: "As I stated before, the difference was ridiculous: the fans loved us, they literally pulled you into the crowd just to touch you. One lady handed me her kid (he couldn't have been more than like 4-years old) to take a picture with him, some hung over the railings by their feet just to get a 'high-five' from you as you walked by. It was awesome! Some were waiting in the hotel lobby that night with developed pictures for you to sign as well as all morning before. [The fans were] much more respectful and appreciative of what we do as fighters."
Were the fans and people familiar with you over there?
CE: "I think some of the more hardcore fans knew who I was, just as here some overseas fighters may not be as well known by the average fan. The media seemed to know more about me and my surgery and career before I arrived; they all seemed very interested as to how I was going to approach fighting Maeda. I think they were shocked to find I was treating him like any other opponent. They all expected me to do a triangle-finish. I think they were a little disappointed with the KO." (laughs)
You put away Maeda with a beautifully set-up combination of a low-kick followed by the fight-ending high kick. Is this a combination that you specifically train, or were you just "feeling the flow"?
CE: "It's something I'm sure you've heard a million times, but--I'm honest when I say, 'yes': I use that move regularly in sparring. I even use it from my back to break my opponents posture and go for the head kick; I either land it or they back off to avoid it, and I'm back to my feet. I think it was an easier set-up though with Maeda being southpaw as his lead leg was more open to my power leg."
Was the low kick intended to be a distraction to get Maeda to drop his hands?
CE: "Like I said earlier, it was seen (I think) as a fake by some, but I intentionally landed the first kick to open up his base and off-set his balance. So it was less of a distraction as it was part of the attack itself, because whether he ignored the kick or not, it was still going to open him up, whether he liked it or not."
Going back to the beginning of your career, I mentioned to you that I first watched you back in the "Ultimate Athlete" event where you were triangling everything with a pulse. You kicked-off your career at 7-0, with 5 of those 7 wins coming by way of the triangle, earning you the nickname "The Triangle". I'm assuming your original base was BJJ? Tell me how you got started in martial arts, and how that lead to full-blown MMA?
CE: "I've been involved in martial arts since I was 6. I actually received a black belt in freestyle Karate at the age of 16. I didn't start BJJ until then after going with Dan Camarillo to a open-weight submission tourney in Bakersfield, and watching him own guys over twice his size, I was later introduced to his brother, David Camarillo, and Ralph Gracie.
It wouldn't be until a couple years later after completing my training in the police academy that I would start my MMA training as a way to stay in shape in between interviews with various police departments. I was only 19 at the time and was repeatedly told I was too young to be a cop, so after a year or so of that, I got discouraged and moved solely to MMA as I was a quick learner and realized there was easy money to be made for something I used to do in parks around town for fun when I was younger."
At 16-4, your career is pretty interesting. You finally lost your first fight to crafty grappler Bao Quach, putting you at 7-1, and then you continued to excel to 11-1 while
working your way up the WEC ladder and becoming their first FW champion before losing 3 in a row to top-notch opposition in Urijah Faber, Jens Pulver, and Antonio Banuelos. Then, you dropped off the radar screen for almost three years. How difficult was this to handle mentally after being nearly flawless for your entire career and finally snaring the belt?
CE: "My first loss was an eye opener, as it was a decision loss--I was still yet to be finished in a fight. I think the 3 in a row really got me to rethinking my training and maturity as a fighter. I had gotten by so long on just natural talent, I never took training very seriously, and paid for it greatly. The time off because of the surgery in my back gave me plenty of reflection time to decide where I wanted to go with my MMA career, if anywhere at all. Losing that many times in a row is very discouraging though. It takes mental toughness that some people have or they don't. I've always been a firm believer in you have it or you don't! Champions aren't made... they're born!"
You had a devastating case of staph that kept you out of competition, and changed your life. Give me the quick background on this.
CE: "As for the surgery, it was about 3 years ago that I contracted a staph infection in my left forearm, and it was grossly misdiagnosed by the doctor I saw, and spread to my spinal cord and left me paralyzed from the waist down, and required surgery to fix--and even that was a gamble, thus why the neurosurgeon was sure I'd be lucky to walk right again, but surely thought the chances of me fighting ever again were like 0%. And yet, here I am. I'm currently in the tail-ends of a lawsuit against the doctors and hospital that didn't do their jobs and allowed the staph to get to such a life threatening stage."
Throughout all of this, did you know that you were just readying yourself to improve and rejuvenate your career, or did you consider not coming back, or not being able to?
CE: "I spent a large amount of that time simply trying to walk again, to be honest. I had everyone telling me that I'd be lucky to walk again so I had plenty of motivation from within. Once I knew I would be returning to fighting, I made the most of my time waiting for a fight by training smarter than I ever had before; and it was obvious in my return fight and the 5-0 record I've made since that return, with 4 finishes and 1 decision that I honestly feel (had I not been sick) I would have finished him as well.
I always knew I would walk again and fight again if I wanted to. It was just a matter of 'how bad did I want it' and how hard I was willing to push myself to accomplish that goal. Everyone gets knocked down, but the real fighters, the real champions are the ones who will always find a way to get back up again and again."
You re-emerged in 2009 and finished three-straight opponents leading up to the Maeda fight, a run which was culminated by a very impressive submission over the tough Jeff Bedard. What was your mindset coming into the first fight after your long layoff? Were you nervous and feeling the pressure to perform well, or more confident and relaxed?
CE: "I was very nervous. More nervous than any fight up to that point in my career, because along with everyone else, I was wondering to see what would happen. Would my body perform or break? I had immense confidence going in though, as I had trained harder for that fight than any other fight in my fighting history... ever. But I made the decision that I was going to fight again and be champion again no matter what it took, or die trying (cliche, I know).
I dont think I really felt pressure from anyone around me as they all supported my decision to fight again, even if some didn't agree with it, but I see life as simple: why not fight if I'm good at it, and can support my family? Because someone could run a red-light and kill me just as easy, or I could slip in the shower and break my neck, so what am I to do? Stop driving and showering? (laughs) So the only real pressure came from me and my desire to show the world that I went nowhere. I was simply sidelined and I feel I've proven that 5 times in a row now."
You've fought some elite competition over the years that includes a handful of major power-punchers, such as Banuelos, Faber, Pulver, and some excellent grapplers, like Quach and Bedard. Who hit the hardest?
CE: "Pulver. He clipped me and I didn't even know I was goin' down."
Who had the slickest ground game?
CE: "Honestly, no one I've fought, as I've pretty much subbed anyone who went to the ground with me. I've run into a lot of good anti-sub games though, but I've never been in any trouble of getting subbed by an opponent."
Overall, who do you feel was the most talented opponent that you've faced?
CE: "Faber, and he's only gotten better since we fought. I feel he was just about to really take off when we fought."
Tell me how the deal with DREAM came about? Did they approach you, or vice-versa?
CE: "I was approached by a middle-man type booking agent who was contacted by someone who books fights for DREAM. I got a text on like the 4th asking if I was interested, and then knew I was fighting on like the 7th, and who by the 10th. (laughs) Really, really short notice. I think I was on a list of potentials and they felt I'd make for the most interesting fight off that list for Maeda. So they gave me the opportunity and I jumped."
Can you share any information about the contract you signed with DREAM? How many fights, how the cash compares to your past income, etc.?
CE: (laughs) "If I had any info, I'd share it. The Maeda fight was a one-fight thing. I think I impressed them though, because they are supposed to be sending me a contract for two more fights, and the pay was the same as for my TPF title fight; but with the contacts I made, I'm confident the pay will be better than the last fight, and from what I hear, better than what the WEC is paying some or most of the 135'ers." (big smile)
Did any DREAM officials or personnel have any comments to voice about your demolition of Maeda after the fight?
CE: (laughs) "Actually, from what I've heard and seen in post-interviews, the suits avoided mentioning my fight at all. I think I surprised all of them. I was like a 30-40 point underdog going into that fight. I think I impressed the Strikeforce headcheese Scott Coker; he was ringside and said 'hi' to me after in the locker rooms. But the fact that they mentioned another contract... I think I made the fans happy so they wanna bring me back."
What does the future hold now? Do you have an opponent in the works, or do you know when you'll next be participating in DREAM?
CE: "I am waiting on who I'll fight in my TPF title defense scheduled for July 9th in Lemoore, CA., at the Palace Casino, but I'm hoping I get a fight somewhere before then. I wanna stay active. As for DREAM, I'm assuming one of the other bantamweights sitting ringside at the fights will be a future opponent."
Is there a particular bantamweight on their roster that you would like to fight, or really, anyone in the MMA world that you would like to get your hands on?
CE: "I've never been one to ask for specific fighters to fight. I've always fought who was put in front of me and will continue to do so. I'm disappointed that doing what former WEC champs Chase Beebe and Miguel Torres were unable to do in stopping Maeda still hasn't moved me into the top 10 or the WEC for that matter, so I pretty much wanna fight whoever I can to stay in the fans interest, get me paid well, and put me in the top 10. WEC, or DREAM, or wherever... I don't care. Pay me and I'll fight."
Let the fans know what we should expect from "The Apache Kid": one or two more fights in DREAM, setting up shop there and becoming the DREAM champion, or perhaps venturing back to the WEC?
CE: "Like I said, I have a belt to defend that I plan on keeping, unless I have to vacate it for some reason (laughs),and I'd love to have the DREAM belt as well in due time. Of course being a newbie in that org, I'll have to earn it like everyone else, and the same for the WEC. I wanted Miguel's belt when he had it, so now I want Cruz's belt--but honestly, whoever pays the best is where I wanna fight. I do this to pay my bills and feed my family and am good at it, so my services will go to the highest bidder to showcase my skills and talent."
That's all I have for you, Cole. Do you have any closing comments, message to the fans, thank-yous, etc.?
CE: "Just wanna thank my team at VICTORY MMA & BULLPEN MUAY THAI in Fresno, my girl Jess (G-RAFF) if you see my DREAM shorts, and my usual sponsors for their continued support: ATHLETIC BODY CARE.COM, CAGE RADIO.COM (MOTS)-MAR at MADBEATINGS.COM, TITLE MMA, STRENGTH-SYSTEMS.COM, GLADIATOR MOUTHPIECES and SIERRA SPORT & RACQUET CLUB in Fresno that houses our team. And ALL the guys who helped me get ready: Jorge, Anthony, Seo, Ted and the rest of my very supportive team. Thanks guys."