LOS ANGELES — When J.W. Kiser makes his national television debut on Saturday night at Bellator 214, where he’ll face Jake Hager — a.k.a. former WWE champion Jack Swagger — in a heavyweight main card bout, it’s a fair bet that most of those tuning in on Paramount Network will say something to the effect of, “who?”
And Kiser is OK with that.
“I’m a B-list fighter, I know this,” Kiser told MMA Fighting. “I’m not going to pretend to be this big star. I come right out of the local circuit.”
They’re also going to see that the 41-year-old Kansan has a professional record of 1-1, and assume that he’s just been brought in as, to use a pro wrestling term, a “jobber” — a guy who was brought in specifically to lose.
So why did Kiser become an unexpected star of Thursday’s Bellator 214 media day, laughing and joking and telling stories for anyone who would approach him with a camera or tape recorder?
For Kiser, simply being here is a victory in and of itself. As is the potential opening to something bigger, should he pull off the upset.
“Hypothetically speaking, I go out and knock him out in 30 seconds, things are going to open up for me,” Kiser said. “I’m here not for money. Don’t tell Bellator, but I would have fought Jake for free. I’ve never fought for money, all my amateur fights, and the small pro circuits don’t pay shit. I’m not here for the money, this is about everything I’ve worked for over the past 26 years since I had my first boxing match when I was 14 years old. Everything I’ve ever done and ever enjoyed doing, this is the pinnacle. This is what is going to define me.”
For every fighter who gets a crack at the big-time, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who try to make a go of things at the amateur level, taking a lot of lumps along the way, making no money, and never getting that one elusive break others get.
In Kizer’s case, that meant an amateur boxing career that started at age 14 and included 30 fights, and then compiling, according to Tapology, an 11-8 amateur MMA record in bouts mostly held in Kansas and Missouri.
But he finally found himself in the right place at the right time after earning a first-round stoppage win in his second pro bout in December.
And while it would make for a good storyline to say the guy who has had 50 amateur fights resents Hager coming in from the get-go and getting a big push off his WWE days, Kiser is having none of that. He knows Hager is a former NCAA All-American wrestler and isn’t about to dismiss him as a phony just because he’s spent time in the scripted version of combat.
“All the respect to Jake, All-American from Oklahoma. That’s something,” Kiser said. “The Olympic-level wrestlers I’ve seen get in the cage, some of them can handle getting punched well and they win fights, and some of them can’t handle it, man. Getting punched in the face with four-ounce gloves is a difficult thing. It took me awhile to learn it. I have no doubt he’s a warrior and we’re going to get blood.”
Beyond that, though, Kiser believes that his amateur experience is going to give him an advantage when things get down and dirty. As he sees it, while Hager has real wrestling experience, going from college wrestling to pro MMA without amateur seasoning is like going from high-school football to the NFL without playing college ball.
“You need that amateur step up, it’s like going from high-school ball to the NFL,” Kiser said. “The speed of the game is so much quicker than sparring. You don’t really understand. It took me 10 fights. I have 50 amateur fights from boxing to MMA, and then I’ve got two professional fights.
“When you don’t know how to breathe in the cage,” Kiser continued. “You cannot teach it, there is nothing you can do to teach what it’s like in there. You can train your whole life in MMA fighting. When it’s time to go, and you’re both bleeding and you’re both tired and you see this guy he’s still f*cking coming at you, it’s a battle of wills, a psychological battle.”
Maybe Kiser will win that psychological battle. Maybe he won’t. Maybe this leads to something or maybe this is the end of the road. Either way, Kiser will be able to tell his grandchildren somewhere down the road that he fought on national TV at the Forum, on the same spot where Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton once threw down. And that, in and of itself, justifies his journey.
“This is the Madison Square Garden of LA and the iconic Forum,” Kiser said. “I’m pumped. I’m so excited for that. My wife, I think most MMA wives, this is nerve-wracking to them. In a way they’re in there with us. Rocky and Adrian, ‘I was in there with you,’ it’s true. So she’s pushed me to retire. We talked about [me] being 41 years old, we talked about it. Her and I, I said let me take some pro boxing fights. I just want to have something at the end of my career to say ‘I did it,’ and like win or lose I walk away with pride in myself. I feel like I made it now. And now is my chance to take it a step forward.”