The name, the location, the career, everything about the kid was as All-American as it gets. Growing up in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Jake Butler was a star athlete who excelled in school and graduated from Princeton before moving on to a high-paying job in Manhattan. It was the American Dream, a Normal Rockwell painting come to life. Yet why couldn't he shake his unhappiness with the way his life had turned out?
Walking into the office on Monday mornings, he would be already counting down the hours until Friday afternoon. Even now, years later, when you ask him what exactly his job entailed, his voice slows down, his cadence lowers. He doesn't care to revisit it.
"Towards the end I was pretty miserable," he said. "I spent most of my time trying figure out what I was going to do next."
For a time, he didn't know what that was, but he knew he wasn't meant to live life behind a desk. So he up and quit his lucrative job without any clear direction on what exactly he was supposed to be doing with his life.
He found his clarity on a surfboard.
After leaving the rat race behind, Butler traveled to Bali to ride some waves, and fell in love with Southeast Asia. In particular, Singapore stood out for its modern feel and international vibe. In that way, it was similar enough to New York to make him feel at home, yet different enough to fascinate him.
At the same time, he found himself missing competition as much as he had the day he hung up his wrestling singlet and shoes. Butler had grown up on the mats, had been an All-American in junior freestyle wrestling, was a two-time captain at Princeton and competed in the Division I championship tournament.
"I don't know that I was ready to give it up when I left university, but there was a lot of pressure coming from university to get a good job and use your degree," he said. "I kind of regret I didn't go into training and continuing it on. So I still felt the urge to train and compete."
All the while, he'd been keeping an eye on mixed martial arts. As a kid, he was in the same wrestling club as Frankie Edgar. He also knew Kurt Pellegrino and Nick Catone from the area. In college, he'd wrestled people like Phil Davis, Chris Weidman and Jake Rosholt. He would watch these people he knew fight on TV and wonder why he wasn't doing the same thing.
And then he wondered why he wasn't doing anything about it. That's when the plan was hatched. He'd always thought about getting into coaching, but what if he could coach and train at the same time?
He knew that Southeast Asian martial arts were heavily reliant on striking, but weak on wrestling. It could be the perfect solution for both. Armed with the idea, he reached out to Evolve MMA chairman Chatri Sityodtong, who like Butler, holds an Ivy League degree (in his case, an MBA from Harvard). The two hit it off, and realized it was a match.
Butler moved out to Singapore in Jan. 2012, and from the beginning, his goal was to fight professionally. He realized he was up against time. At that moment, he was already 29 years old.
"I think I need to move quick and pick things up quickly," he said. "I definitely don't have the luxury of slowly learning things, striking and all these other techniques. I put a lot of effort into training, outside training, studying tape and watching fights, and doing everything I can to speed up the learning process."
Butler moved right into working with the pros. Early on, there were some days that were so frustrating that he asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Mostly, he just worked on trying not to get drilled. But little by little, improvement came.
After just over a year of training, at the age of 30, Butler made his pro debut. At ONE FC 7: Return of Warriors, he made short work of Antoni Romulo, winning by TKO in just 2:36.
"It was awesome," he said. "I've been in a lot of wrestling matches and won some big ones but that was highlight of my competitive career. It was awesome. It'd been a while since I got that competitive high."
He'll chase it again on April 5, when he fights Swain Cangco (5-1) during ONE FC 8: Kings & Champions at Singapore Indoor Stadium.
"I'm not really trying to look too far ahead, but I'd just like to keep on winning," he said. "I think I can do pretty well. I'm not going to set a specific end target for my career. I'm enjoying training and competing. I still have the drive and motivation to work harder every day so as long as that's there, and as long as I'm able to keep wining, I'll keep doing it."
When he made the decision to leave behind a sought-after career, Butler was going against the grain, but his family and friends supported his decision, and maybe that fits his story perfectly. After all, the All-American boy was doing something as American as it gets: following a dream.