PFL heavyweight contender Brandon Sayles has been in the United States Army for almost 20 years, so when it comes to MMA heroes he could do a lot worse than “Captain America.”
Also known as “The Natural,” retired legend Randy Couture has inspired countless fighters to strap on the four-ounce gloves since he made his debut at UFC 13 over two decades ago. That list includes Sayles, an Army Combatives instructor at Fort Benning in Georgia who is now poised to make the 2021 PFL playoffs.
It’s been a series of stops and starts in the fighting career of Sayles (6-1), who faces Denis Goltsov (26-6) at PFL 6 in Atlantic City, N.J., on Friday, but after scoring an upset win over Mohammed Usman in May, he finds himself in the thick of the league’s heavyweight championship picture.
Making it even better? He gets to do it in front of Couture. The six-time, two-division UFC champion currently serves as commentator for the PFL and he’s been encouraging Sayles to pursue his MMA dreams for a while now.
“I’ve had the opportunity, luckily, to meet Randy,” Sayles told MMA Fighting. “He’s a big supporter of the troops and he comes down to Fort Benning a couple of times a year and when he does he always talks at the combative school and I’ve been there a few times to meet him. More along the lines, we got to talk a little bit more and joke because he’s always asked, ‘Hey, when are you gonna make your big run? When are you gonna do this thing?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, we’re trying.’
“The job of soldier comes first and luckily right now where I’m at and the support that I have with my command, where I’m at in my career, I’m having the opportunity to compete on national television. Randy’s always been a big supporter of the troops and I’m thankful for everything he has done and continues to do for us. It’s been awesome.”
The PFL has given Sayles a big jump in recognition following a three-year break from competition due to a hand injury that required two surgeries (knocking him out of a 2018 Dana White’s Contender Series booking against Greg Hardy), plus the postponement of the 2020 PFL season due to COVID-19. His win over Usman—the brother of UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman—took place on the PFL 3 main card, which was broadcast on ESPN.
Rubbing shoulders with UFC royalty and having your fights seen nationwide could make any athlete’s ego grow, but Sayles credits his coaches and his military pals for putting things in perspective for him.
“The guys that I keep myself surrounded by keep me pretty well-rounded,” Sayles said. “Being soldiers, obviously, you don’t let it get to your head and when it does, they bring you down really, really quick as far as, ‘Listen man, you’re still one of us.’ Everybody’s really good at specific times when they’re fresh, so keeping me humble is a big part of my team’s mentality because as soon as you lose that, you start to—The people that you surround yourself with, if they can’t recognize you and then they don’t trust you anymore, then you start to lose a lot of friendships along the way.
“That’s the most important thing, it’s always been friends and family for me first and that’s the guys I have around me. They’re not hired help, they’re my brothers in arms. I consider them family and so it is a bit surreal, sure, but I kind of made sure that I didn’t let that opportunity get in the way of the goals that we have as far as the team.”
The other big gap in Sayles’ record from 2012-2017 was due to the now 40-year-old dealing with hip issues in addition to injuries he suffered while on deployment in Iraq. He also dedicated much of his time to instructing his fellow soldiers, finding that his pro MMA experience helped him to become a better teacher.
With just seven pro bouts under his belt, Sayles was originally booked to fight former UFC champion Fabricio Werdum at PFL 6 until Werdum was forced out of the bout due to swelling in his brain. It was disappointing news for Sayles and his team.
“Absolutely,” Sayles said. “To test your skills against the caliber of athlete of a former UFC heavyweight, a grappling phenom such as Fabricio Werdum is kind of the pinnacle of what a competitor can strive for. We were definitely hoping we’d get that matchup and when we did we were super excited. I understand that injuries happen, I’ve been put in that category.
“So was I disappointed? It was more of that’s kind of how it goes, opponents change. My coaches and everybody else were a little more disappointed, but I know that’s part of the sport.”
Sayles is three wins away from his own championship, the culmination of a journey that will undoubtedly thrill Couture, one of MMA’s greatest late bloomers. As the last heavyweight fight of the PFL regular season, Sayles will likely know his playoff fate by the time he walks out to face Goltsov, but even if the other fighters in his division find success on Friday, Sayles controls his destiny. Win and he’s in.
That’s usually easier said than done for Sayles, who admitted that his competitive fights are a result of his tendency to rely on his opponents to get him fired up.
“You always try to look for improvements and me getting hit a lot is never the game plan,” Sayles said. “For whatever reason, sometimes me getting hit turns that switch on, the competitive nature in a fight. I’m not saying I do it on purpose.
“Obviously, [my coaches have] joked, ‘Hey, this is what we’re gonna do. We’re just gonna smack you around quite a bit before you get out there and go from there. It’s jokingly, but obviously it’s 100 percent on me that at that point once the bell rings to kind of turn it on and I’m hoping after the last fight I can get to that point a little sooner than me taking as much damage as I have.”