It was mid-2009, and the hatred of thousands pulsated around Steve Carl. He was a stranger in a strange land, a USA East representative sent to Bulgaria's Mladost Sports Hall to lose to the local team as part of M-1's 2009 Challenge Season. It was Carl's first fight out of the country, only a funny thing happened that chilly spring night in Bourgas. USA East rocked Team Bulgaria, winning every match, and by the time it was Carl's turn to make that walk, he could sense something else among the boos -- fear.
Fear that Carl would push the crowd's night one step closer to hopelessness. And that, he says, was the first step.
"I was really afraid. But then right before I went out to fight, I finally cracked and just kind of let it all go," Carl recalls. "I'm halfway across the world. What did I have to lose?"
Carl submitted Ivan Ivanov in three and a half minutes, cementing USA East's perfect night.
The second step came two years later. Carl was one of eight entrants into Bellator's season five welterweight tournament, and the nerves had run roughshod over his thoughts. A 6-foot-1 monster, Douglas Lima, seethed across from him, while the small-town guy from Belle Plaine, Iowa shriveled inside his own head. He accepted defeat without even giving himself a chance.
Afterward, once the self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat had come true, Carl, incredulous at his own hysterics, made a promise to himself.
"I let all that worry and I let all that fear go," he says. "I'm not a fighter by heart. I got into this sport to become more confident in myself. The most terrifying moments of my life have been walking to the cage.
"After every one of those fights, I was mad at myself that I let that fear creep in. It's been a battle trying to overcome that, but I've overcome it. Now it's exciting to see what I can do."
All Carl has done since that somber night in an Atlantic City dressing room is put together the best stretch of his career. Six fights, six first-round submission finishes. 12:54 total minutes of cagetime, and a level of confidence that has never been higher.
The remarkable streak culminated in Carl's 92-second destruction of Tyson Steele -- a performance so impressive, it rocketed Carl into his present state.
"I went in there and just kind of walked through him. I almost felt embarrassed," Carl says with surprising sincerity. "The second that fight was over, I felt embarrassed. I didn't feel happy. He was completely overmatched. That's not how fights are supposed to go. They're supposed to be fights. You're supposed to earn it, you're not supposed to just be given it."
Carl is now scheduled to meet another overlooked man riding a hot streak, Josh Burkman, at WSOF 6. The promotion's inaugural welterweight strap will be up for grabs, and Burkman is the unquestioned favorite. After all, it was a mere few months ago when the underdog 33-year-old choked Jon Fitch unconscious in 41 seconds.
In that vein, Carl isn't surprised to be ignored. He's the quiet Midwesterner fighting out of a local gym, Team Hard Drive, while Burkman is everything he's not -- the UFC veteran who starred on a reality show and dated a ring girl. A man with a taste for the theatrical.
"I come from a no-name town, a no-name camp," Carl says. "A lot of guys look and they say, ‘Oh, this guy fights for this big name camp?' All of a sudden they're not even looking at that guy anymore. They're looking at Greg Jackson or Duke Roufus.
"I don't have that name. I only have my own, and I haven't been given the greatest exposure to everybody, so I expect them to underestimate me.
"There's not even a fraction of the pressure (on me)," Carl continues. "If the whole world expects me to win, then what choice do I have but to win? If I'm the underdog and the whole world thinks I'm going to lose, there's nothing to worry about. You go in there and win, and prove them all wrong."
The fight game is often strange. What gets one athlete noticed may not necessarily apply to another. Carl isn't the first fighter to prefer to keep his nose to the grind instead of making bombastic proclamations. Yet his results continue to speak for themselves.
Now he flies to Coral Gables, Florida, back to the east coast where his career turned around in a moment of darkness. For Carl, it's a way to bring this all full circle. It's simple, really. If dominating Steele wasn't enough to push him into the public consciousness, then he'll just have to make a bigger statement on September 14.
"It is (frustrating)," Carl acknowledges, "But at the same time, I don't really mind it a whole lot. I'm not in this for fame.
"My entire career, I've never been very high on the self promoting. I didn't really even go out and get sponsors. I always figured that I just take the fights, I win the fights, and everything will just come your way. I found out, that makes the road a lot longer, but it makes the journey that much sweeter."