When most top fighters are reaching their peak in camp, Bobby Lashley, who meets Josh Appelt in Bellator's co-main event on Friday night's Spike TV event from Memphis, was busy doing something completely different in his second job as a pro wrestler.
Lashley (14-2) was once being groomed by Vince McMahon to be the next big star in pro wrestling nearly a decade ago, in what now seems like a surreal lifetime ago. His big push was being managed by Donald Trump in the "Battle of the Billionaires" WrestleMania match in 2007 where the loser of the bet between Trump or Vince McMahon (represented by another wrestler, Umaga, who passed away many years ago), would get their head shaved bald. While McMahon controlled the script, Trump was never going to let his head be shaved and the outcome was obvious. Still, the show drew the most pay-per-view buys, 1,250,000, of any non-boxing event in history up to that point in time. Lashley won, and Trump escaped with his unique hair intact.
But Lashley had a falling out with WWE management shortly after, and both sides reached an agreement where neither would disparage the other. Since that big match, Lashley has bounced around pro wrestling and MMA. He's now 40, and while he's now an eight-plus-year veteran, he's still really an untested heavyweight. He's strong and as physically impressive looking as anyone in the sport. Unlike most former amateur wrestling stars of his age, he still has the quick reflexes and takedowns. As far as the rest of his game, nobody knows because most of his opponents haven't been able to stop his takedowns. Both of his losses, one in 2010 and the other in 2012, were fights he was winning until he was beaten more by exhaustion than any opponents.
Since dropping weight, that hasn't been an issue. And even at his age, and particularly given his size, he's still surprisingly quick.
He noted recently doing some movement drills with Joseph Benavidez, one of the fastest fighters in UFC, that Benavidez came to him after and said, "Holy S***, I was expecting you to be strong but I never thought you'd be able to make like a lightweight."
"Part of it is strength and conditioning training, but some of it is the luck of the genetic draw," Lashley says. "When I see guys close to my age, I never think they can move like I move."
A lot of his quick wrestling comes from his background. Most wrestling heavyweights were always big guys and learned to wrestle a power style. Lashley started wrestling in high school as a 112-pounder, went though some growth spurts but still was recruited to wrestle at 157 pounds in college. When he showed up as a freshman at 195, he wrestled as a 177-pounder and won three NAIA national championships.
Since signing with Bellator two years ago, he's 4-0 with all wins by stoppage, but his biggest name opponent was James Thompson. Friday is yet another showcase fight. Lashley has a history of strong quarter hour gains for Spike TV whenever he fights, stemming from his pro wrestling name.
"I think it'll be he typical thing," Lashley says about Appelt. "He'll come out and swing hard and swing fast. This is his Rocky story. He may not get another shot."
Lashley's training was broken up by going to Orlando from Oct. 2-9 to do television tapings for TNA Wrestling, which has been his home for years. TNA has struggled badly since losing Spike TV at the end of 2014, but as far as wrestling itself has gone, this was Lashley's best year as a performer. He was pushed as the dominant world champion of the brand, with the idea that he's a proven real fighter that nobody could beat. His big improvement came in interviews, formerly a weakness.
He dropped the championship on Oct. 3, but will be on television weekly on Pop TV over the next few months of already taped material in matches attempting to get it back.
Unlike in the past, when the wrestling company would promote his fights, and Bellator would promote his wrestling, with the companies on different networks, his fight has barely been mentioned on the wrestling show, although his status as a fighter is constantly talked about.
To save costs, TNA tapes a couple of months at a time. The timing didn't help Lashley, who was doing physically taxing main event caliber matches nightly during the week he normally would have been doing his peak fight training. Worse for him, the tapings were delayed because of the Hurricane Matthew hit Orlando in the middle of their tapings week and they had to shut down for a few days, extending the tapings longer than originally planned.
"I had one fight that was like that," Lashley says. "Before my first fight in Bellator, I had a match with Bobby Roode and got all busted up. It is challenging taking going this close and the hurricane pushed the tapings back. But I had a boxing coach with me. It's not like I was missing workouts. We didn't have anything in the mornings so I could get a good cardio workout in early and some ground work in."
"That being said, it takes a toll on the body," he says of doing so many hard matches condensed into a short period of time.
A big part of his focus now is on recovery.
"I've been doing a lot of stretching and a lot of yoga, and I feel so much better after a hard training day," Lashley says. "I stretch a lot at night and then I wake up the next morning and feel incredible. I'm pretty light right now and train doing more functional movements.
"It's been a long time since I did the meathead bodybuilding style lifting. I haven't done that in a long time. I'm doing more athletic training, lactic acid building."
Most athletes who have tried to do MMA and pro wrestling have said you can't do both at the top level at the same time. Even Brock Lesnar had taken three months off pro wrestling when he returned to the UFC in July. But Lashley, at 40, has done both for eight years now.
"It just depends on what you want to do, " he says. "It depends on the kind of person you are. In the wrestling world, some guys like to go out and celebrate, but that's just not me. After a show, I get something to eat and go to my hotel room and get sleep. I treat work like work. You have to have a lot of discipline to do it. If you don't have the discipline, (doing both) will kill you."
C.M. Punk made a very celebrated move from wrestling to MMA, but he left wrestling completely and trained for two years before his first fight. Ryback, a hugely muscular 290-pounder, has at least talked to Bellator, although no deal has been made. Unlike Lashley, neither had a combat athletic background.
"I don't know Ryback," he says. "Punk put himself in a situation that was a little tougher. The thing is, you don't know how good that kid (Mickey Gall) is. He's technically undefeated. Punk went for it. Sure, money was a big factor. Some of the guys (in wrestling) who want to make the transition -- a guy like Shelton Benjamin (a two-time All-American wrestling heavyweight at Minnesota) was a tough guy, but in general they (the amateur wrestlers) would have a better chance."
Lashley is looking at maybe two more years of MMA, but said he's going wrestle "forever," or at least until his body won't let him.
Even though Bellator needs to crown a heavyweight champion, and he, Matt Mitrione and Cheick Kongo are the company's three biggest name heavyweights, he doesn't seem motivated by the title as much as proving something.
"At the end of the day it's about the money," he says. "If I was offered a shot at fighting for the title, going for the title, or fighting Fedor, I'd go Fedor all the way. As far as a shot against Kongo, the money is important. If winning the title means making more money, then that's what I'm going for."
Lashley noted while throwing around Fedor Emelianenko's name as being tops on his wish list that he has no knowledge that the former Pride champion is close to any kind of a deal with Bellator.
"But I'd like to fight someone to prove something to the naysayers," he says. "I'd much rather fight somebody who is a bigger name, like Fedor, then fight for the championship. He's Fedor. He's an enormous name and I always looked up to him before. He's an amazing fighter and I'd love to step in the ring with him. It would be unbelievable."