It's a familiar refrain we've all heard before: an amateur wrestler converts to mixed martial arts fighter after a career in the singlet has come to a close.
But maybe this time the situation is, well, a little more unique.
Meet Fredy 'El Profe' Serrano. He is arguably the best male wrestler to ever emerge from Colombia. Born and raised in the capital of Bogota, he's captured numerous titles in prestigious South American wrestling tournaments, but is more known for being a 2007 Pan Am bronze medalist at 55kg and competing as an Olympian in the 2008 Beijing Games. Like many other wrestlers before him, now he wants to try his hand at flyweight MMA.
What makes Serrano's case noteworthy is that he is one South America's first world-class athletes with a strong amateur sports pedigree to convert to MMA among the Spanish-speaking countries. MMA fighters have been pouring out of Argentina for years. Peru's Inka FC routinely stages respectable shows (all things considered), but there aren't many documented cases of established, career athletes making the switch to MMA from within South America's Spanish-speaking territories.
Even more noteworthy is the timing of Serrano's retirement from wrestling and transition to MMA. Last week, the UFC announced a landmark television deal with Caracol, one of Colombia's most-watched television channels. The network is home to some of the country's most popular telenovelas, soccer games, news broadcasts as well as popular game and reality shows. Now it's home to four live UFC events a year plus a wide range of UFC shoulder programming.
Serrano's had two fights in his home country, both of which he won, both of which were unsanctioned. And at age 33, time is not on his side. But with his interest in MMA coinciding with the UFC's interest in South America beyond the confines of Brazil, the timing is right for both parties to potentially change the sport's popularity and profile in the region.
On a recent trip to the United States that was funded by t-shirts Serrano's sponsor Ghost MMA sold on his behalf, the Olympian spoke to MMA Fighting with the help of a translator about the state of MMA in Colombia and South America, how popular the sport can be, training with Frankie Edgar and Marcelo Garcia, his competitive goals and more.
Why, at age 33, did you finally decide to take up mixed martial arts?
Look, I've had a career as a wrestler since 1990. So finally, this sport has become the professional outlet of some sports, in this case, Olympic wrestling. So my interests in working in this, really from the beginning as a child were focused on combat sports. This is not very new for me.
Have you formally moved to America? If so, what prompted you to finally make the move?
At this moment, I'm just here for a small trip, a few days. But with time I think it's going to be necessary to be here in the United States. I have to come back to Colombia and make some arrangements. In some time I think I'm going to be living here.
The reasons are a lot. First, I can improve my quality of life. I can showcase important aspects of my career. I'm a children's coach in Colombia, so I think this is very to incentivize getting into wrestling. In a country like Colombia, in reality it doesn't have the commercial marketing that is needed to promote this sport.
Why not move to Brazil where there are also world-class camps?
I work at the Octagon MMA gym and the Ghost MMA store is also located there led by Irvin Rey. So he made a contact with Hector Castro, who at this moment is my representative and manager. The career developed in this direction than towards Brazil. However, I think it has been an excellent decision because this is where we have to be.
So far, what has the training been like here?
This has been the best measurement to know how far I am from being the best. The best in MMA are here in the United States. This week I had the chance to train with Frankie Edgar. I trained with many fighters that are at a very good level. In terms of jiu-jitsu, I have also been at Marcelo Garcia's school.
I have realized what level there is here and what I have to improve, what I have to work on in order to get where I want to be and to improve my game to be able to get into the major leagues, which is want we want.
How did you end your competitive amateur wrestling?
I retired about 6 months ago. I competed in national tournaments in Colombia and that's where I retired. It was very beautiful and representative of my career because I had to take my wrestling shoes off in front of everybody in the colesium.
The audience paid me respect for my career in the sport, so that was my official retirement. I had a career as I said before for 23 years. During those years, I participated in Beijing Olympics. I was a Pan Am medalist. I was the national champion 13 years in Colombia, among other things in my wrestling career.
What motivated you to start wrestling?
I'm blaming my mom. We are from a very humble neighborhood in Bogota. She always wanted us to be busy so we would do something different during our free time. As an unintended consequence, I found amateur wrestling. That was my love and my dream. And from there, a lot of opportunities came up and I went through the process. My mom is to take the blame for that.
I started in a neighborhood called La Victoria, which is in the southeast part of Bogota. There was a gym there and I trained wrestling there until 1997.
My trainer wasn't there anymore after that. I took over the school and as of today am a coach and trainer in the same neighborhood in the same gym.I am still working the children and kids there. I still continue with the work, but now leading the process.
What is wrestling like in Colombia? Where did you do most of your training?
In Colombia, wrestling is not a very commercial sport and there it lacks of financial support. We used to train some seasons concentrated at the home of the wrestling national team which is Medellin. But, we also when we had the chance we traveled to some tournaments, so we had the chance to compete at the Grand Prix in Europe, camps in Romania, for example. And that was a way for us to train and get prepared. But, most of the time I was in Colombia training with the national team.
Wrestling is much bigger here in the U.S. and still it's hard for a wrestler to make money. How did you survive while competing?
I was very fortunate to build my career around training kids, so they paid me a salary for being their coach. This allowed me to have more time to train more. However, in the beginning of my career, it was very hard. I was a father when I was very young, so at 17 with at kid, the responsibilities were big. My love was always wrestling, but I had to work in construction and mechanical work and in my spare time I'd train. Thank God with time, I got to improve my wrestling level and it allowed him to make a living out if it. And that improved my financial situation and quality of life.
Compared to other South American countries, where does Colombia stand?
I know that in some countries MMA is getting really popular. In Ecuador they are putting together some events, I heard in Argentina they are doing something. But I think MMA is still in the early stages in these countries, in Colombia MMA is just staring. However, there are lots of fans and people that are curious about the sport. Obviously my career as a wrestler allows me to get access to a high level of MMA and I and I really want to spend time dedicated to this... the expectations for MMA are high
Are there other wrestlers like you in South America who are considering MMA?
At this moment I don't really know. I understand there are some teammates that are thinking about making the transition from other sports to MMA. But I can say that I'm the first Colombian to have access to a manager in the United States and start a professional career in MMA.
What is the state of MMA in Colombia? Various news reports I've seen from El Tiempo and other media outlets make it seem to be something lewd and violent.
In Colombia some reporters haven't been professionals and have shown MMA like it's something illegal, that it's not a sport and that has damaged the image of the sport in Colombia. However, there are some people that are trying to lead the incursion of the sport in Colombia by putting together serious events. Also, there are some gyms that are working very hard on the training level. But there are also, lots of irresponsible people that are doing events that are opening gyms without having any knowledge and this is creating conflict. People don't really know what is happening with MMA in Colombia. I can tell you that in this sense, the sport is very, very new in Colombia.
Can a fighter in South America outside of Brazil make a living competing in MMA?
No, it wouldn't be possible. The truth is that what they paid at events in Colombia is very minimal and also there are events that get canceled or change dates at the last minute, so it's very frustrating. I don't really think you can make a living out of MMA in Colombia or South America. It‘s a dream to be able to do that, but I don't think is possible at this moment.
How popular can It be in South America?
I think this sport is growing worldwide, not only here in the U.S. The problem is that in countries like Colombia it's moving a little bit slower, but we are starting to make interesting things within the sport . The fact that I'm training here is going to help a lot for the promotion of the sport in Colombia and to portray it in a serious way. I believe in the future Colombia and other countries will be at a very good level with reliable promotional organizations. There will be professionals who will be able to regulate and control the sport. I think it's a fact that MMA is growing and will expand its popularity to other countries.
To what extent is there MMA on television in Colombia today?*
Yes, the best company that is organizing the best and most serious events is called "Striker". Striker has been broadcast some stuff on TV and they're trying to give a different image to the sport. As I said before, the promotion of the sport is very limited, but I think this company is starting to get promotion and gain popularity in Colombia. Also, there has been some media covering some of their events.
On major television channels?
Yes, some little pieces in RCN. Nothing too big, also in Caracol and some other segments in the local news.
Who are some of your favorite fighters?
I'm also very new in the game, and I'm still trying to figure out my style and still learning, but I like very much Frankie Edgar. He is a fighter with lots of heart, something I feel identify with. I also admire the level and technical style of Georges St-Pierre. These two fighters really catch my attention.
At age 33, time is not necessarily on your side. What are your competitive goals in MMA?
Even though I was in the highest level in Olympic wrestling, I never got to step on a podium in a world wide tournament or competition. My expectations in MMA are to get signed by the UFC and eventually get to fight for a title shot.
Lastly, Santa Fe or Millonarios?
Let's say Millonarios, but I don't really like soccer.
*This interview was conducted before the UFC's announcement of a deal with Caracol.
Translation services provided by Luza Bohorquez-Thomas.