The 2004 ESPY winner for "best athlete with a disability" captured the attention of the nation en route to a 35-16 high school amateur wrestling record.
Next, he looks to defy the odds yet again by tackling the world of MMA. I spoke to the 23-year-old about the scrutiny he has received for deciding to compete in MMA and why the details surrounding his debut have been kept under wraps. The full interview is below.
Ariel Helwani: When did you first decide that you would want to compete in mixed martial arts?
Kyle Maynard: I had been exposed to it through one of my best friend's dad who was just talking to me about how he had seen UFC 1 with Royce Gracie just wrapping guys up and he didn't really know how he did it. It was just that he was dominating these larger opponents, and I got a kick out of that because, as a wrestler, it's a lot more force against force and the size of your opponent really does matter a lot. Jiu-jitsu is a lot more fluid and size doesn't matter as much, and being a smaller guy, as soon as I got exposed to the art of jiu-jitsu, I just fell in love with it. I really didn't start training hard myself until my wrestling days were done after my first year wrestling at Georgia and at the end of 2004, early 2005 is when I started training jiu-jitsu at the HardCore gym in Athens. Since then, I have kind of bounced around all over the place.
AH: Two years ago, the Georgia Athletic & Entertainment Commission denied you an MMA license. How devastating was it to hear, once again, that you can't do something?
KM: In July of 2007, I met with the commissioners and off the record – not off the record for you, but to me – they really gave me the impression that a license to fight was going to be a formality. The head commissioner told me that it was inspiring what I was doing and literally told me that he was going to be there cageside when I actually competed. I don't know if it was just the public pressure, or what that changed their mind, or if they actually thought about it for more than five minutes. I have no idea. But when it came around three weeks before my first scheduled fight, I was denied. That was extraordinarily discouraging because I had poured so much into the preparation for that. You know, it was just heart breaking when it didn't come around. It really kept me out of the gym for about six months. In the interim, I started working towards starting my own gym and we opened up in December. It was a great experience. Then, I had talked to (David) Oblas (the promoter of Maynard's fight) about coming back in and making an attempt at round two in Alabama. You know, just do it in an unsanctioned state that way I can get that first one under my belt and hopefully build a little bit more of a legitimate case that I would be able to, in fact, defend myself in a fight.
John Amis, AP
Chris O'Meara, AP
Ed Suba Jr, Akron Beacon Journal/AP
Bill Kostroun, AP
Harry Cabluck, AP
Lorri Glawe, Storm Lake Pilot Tribune / AP
Andrew D. Bernstein, Getty Images
Darryl Norenberg, WireImage.com
Mark Thompson, Getty Images
Louis DeLuca, Getty Images
AH: So, is your goal to take the footage of your fight on Saturday to other states once this is over to prove to them that you should be granted an MMA license?
KM: You know, my biggest goal is to just go out there and do it. I think that that could be kind of the cool consequence if I did have a good performance. I think it could help bolster my case, but by no means was it my first intention to try and send a huge civil right litigation nor is it really on my agenda now.
AH: When it was first announced that you would be officially making your amateur MMA debut, the majority of MMA fans and media reacted negatively. Were you aware of this, and if so, how did that make you feel?
KM: I am well aware. I am one of the bigger MMA fan boys. You know, I read all the blogs and forums all the time. I'm online constantly just trying to keep up with the community because I am such a huge fan of the sport myself. I read a lot of the comments that were made in 2007 and it really hurt. You know, it struck a deep chord in me. At that point in time, it was one of my biggest motivations, you know, to prove the naysayers wrong and I think that that was a weak motivation. I knew it was going to happen again once we announced this fight, so I intentionally changed my home page and haven't gone back to visit the (MMA) sites. I have really been kind of detached from the media which kind of stinks because I love reading people's educated opinions about, you know, the "Shogun" (Rua) - Chuck (Liddell) fight or the Anderson (Silva) - Thales (Leites) fight. So, I am just kind of ready to go back to normal after this dies down again. But I understand people's concerns. I think it's a little bit of fear mongering to think that I am going to send this sport back to the dark ages. I think that there's a much bigger likelihood that exists that I will be able to go and bring this to a larger uneducated market than we've seen before. I'm not saying that I can do that single-handedly, but I am going to be one piece in that just the same as a guy like "Mayhem" Miller who's got a show now on MTV. I think that's an awesome thing because it's showing some of the classy fighters and a different side of the sport. I think that's what I am trying to do, too.
AH: This is certainly uncharted territory for the sport, so can you shed some light on how you plan to defend yourself from strikes or submission attempts?
KM: You know, without going into too much of my game plan, I am never going to be an Ernesto Hoost-level kickboxer; I assure you of that. But one of the biggest misnomers I have seen is that people think I can't strike. I got arms that end right above my elbow and I have had an over 400-pound butterfly press. I assure you I can strike (and) I can defend myself. As far as the grappling goes, I got my blue belt about two years ago and I'm training with a world champion, Paul Creighton, who's fought BJ Penn. So, as far as conditioning goes, I think I've got the upper hand. I'm fighting in a bigger weight class than I have ever competed in before, but I still feel pretty healthy. You know, in high school I wrestled at 103 (pounds) and this fight is going to be at 135. I have been able to put on the weight as efficiently as I could without losing too much speed and mobility. So, I feel confident. The cards are there for me to go out and have a pretty awesome performance ... I think that one of advantage I have is that I have got the ability to prepare for (his opponent) in any different situation and he really doesn't have a clue what I am going to bring to the fight.
AH: We still don't know the identity of your opponent. Are you able to make that information public yet?
KM: Not yet. We are still keeping it under wraps until the weigh-ins.
AH: Why is that?
KM: I don't want to take any chances that anyone is going to try to get in this kid's ear or his family's or whatever. I think that that would be a pretty bad thing. You know, I am honored that he would take this fight with me; I truly am. I think it's a courageous and noteworthy thing to do and I would be the first one to tell him that.
AH: Have you spoken to your opponent?
KM: Not yet, no, but I plan on getting a chance to speak with him at the weigh-ins and hopefully after the fight. This was like the third opponent that I have had. Others guys have dropped out due to injuries and that's been tough because at first I was preparing for specific opponents and their strengths and weaknesses, but now I really don't know.
AH: I recently spoke to the promoter of the event, David Oblas, and he told me that you still hadn't figured out how you will wear the MMA gloves. Has that issue been resolved now?
KM: Yeah, I've got it figured out now. I just had to modify the way they go in and tape the gloves. I've got to train with them, so I am pretty confident that it's not going to be a concern.
AH: Will there be any special rules in place for this fight?
KM: No, other than I will be considered a grounded opponent so there won't be any kicks or knees to my head, but that's it. No elbows in the fight, I believe, either. Pretty common amateur rules. But there will be strikes to the head on the ground, so in a way, it's actually even more of a risk than if I would have fought in Georgia, because (in Georgia) it would have effectively been a jiu-jitsu match with body strikers. This is just new territory for me, for the fans and for the people covering it, so I think it's going to be exciting. I'm thrilled about it, really. I used to get pretty big anxiety before wrestling tournaments and what not, but right now I am feeling really confident and ready to go.
AH: Is your goal to try and make it as a professional mixed martial artist?
KM: (Laughs) You know, my goal is to go out here and perform in this fight. I think that this is going to be one step in the right direction towards whatever the heck I want to do in the future. I think this summer I am going to plan a trip to climb Mt. Mitchell up in North Carolina. You know, I love athletics and I love challenging myself and this is one step to go towards that. Right now, my motivations are not to be a world champ. And you know, I wish I could approach it with that full-time ability to train and commit to it, but between the gym and the motivational speaking, it's been incredibly tough to stay on top of it and train for this fight and that's one reason why I am coming down (to Auburn) almost a week early to just kind of get away from that.
AH: Is your family supporting your decision to compete in MMA?
KM: Yeah, they're 110% behind me. I've got three younger sisters and they are all coming to the fight and bringing friends. My two grandparents on my mom's side that are local in Georgia, they love me dearly and the last thing in the world they want to see is me getting hurt, they're coming down to support me. My dad wrestled all the way up through college, so he understands at least that aspect of the sport and I talk with him probably a couple of times a week about strategy. And mom has been very supportive of this and just excited that I am going to have that chance to go out there and realize this dream.
AH: Have you received a lot of requests from other mainstream media outlets to talk about this fight?
KM: Yeah, some of the newspaper media as well as ESPN and Associated Press. But you know, I am not too worried about it. People have this misconception that I am doing this to get attention, but I'm doing this for me. If I could do this in a back alley with my trainers and an opponent in a safe environment, I would almost take that alternative. It's not my goal to go out here and start a media uproar.
AH: Honestly, are you fearful at all that something could go very wrong on Saturday night?
KM: Yeah, definitely. I mean, not fearful of me going out and getting hurt, but like any fighter that goes out there and takes the risk of getting hit square in the button and getting knocked out in 30 seconds. I think that that would prove a lot of people right that didn't want to see me do it. But short of that happening, I feel like if I can go the distance or better with this, it's going to prove to a lot of people that cliché saying that you can't judge a book by its cover is the truth. I have a hard time looking at myself from this perspective, but I think that I have kind of become a good example of that.
AH: Do you have any last words to those people who are against your involvement in MMA?
KM: To the people that have said negative things, and there are people that have gone as far as saying offensive things, I really don't have any desire to change their opinion of it. I frankly don't care because I think that it's my right to go out there and do it. But to the people who believe in me, and I think that there has been a considerable amount that have voiced their approval and excitement for it, I think that they know that I wouldn't just go in and jump in if I thought that I was going to get massacred. I am a pretty competitive guy. I am not going to do something that I don't have a really good chance of winning.
AH: Any prediction on how your fight will end?
KM: You're the first one that has asked me that. I think that there will be a finish. I feel confident that I will finish the fight. I don't want to take the chance that it's going to go to the judges' scorecards, and I feel ready for it. I have sacrificed a lot time-wise for this and I feel like I could go out there for twelve minutes and push myself to do just about anything I want
Kyle Maynard's amateur MMA debut will be shown live on Internet PPV on Saturday, April 25, at 9PM ET. For more information, check out www.KyleMaynardFight.com.