For David Rickels, a career in fighting started in his hometown of Derby, Kansas, where he was something of a suburban Kimbo Slice, hosting boxing scraps in his backyard. The fights gained enough renown or perhaps infamy there that he once got arrested for providing the venue, and the fights soon after stopped.
As it turns out, that was a good thing, because it led Rickels to kickboxing, and eventually mixed martial arts, where he's currently unbeaten at 10-0 after a 22-second knockout of Jordan Smith in the first round of the Bellator welterweight tournament.
Unlike Kimbo, Rickels didn't gain any underground fame for his backyard fighting exploits, and no video of him exists on the internet, but he still recognizes the time as a springboard to his current success.
"I’ve always been into the whole fighting thing," he told MMA Fighting. "We did it for fun. We used to just brawl in the backyard and see who was the toughest that day. It was the thing to do back in the day. Then I eventually started training for real. I had wrestled for a couple years but I really wasn’t into it that much. I was more into the party scene at the time, unfortunately. But I ended up joining a gym, working hard, and now I’m here."
The opportunity to enter the tournament comes as the first big break of his career. Still, he comes into the field as perhaps its biggest underdog against a group far more experienced than him. Adding to the degree of difficulty, he was dealt a curveball just a week before his scheduled Bellator 63 fight, when original opponent, UFC veteran Brian Foster was not medically cleared to compete.
That left Rickels to fight late replacement Jordan Smith, an issue because Smith presented a problem Rickels had never faced before. He was a southpaw. Rickels had never fought one or even trained with one, and on short notice, he didn't have time to find anyone to help prepare him for what he was going to see.
"Jordan is a technical fighter and I didn’t want to spar guys throwing lazy punches, because that’s not the fighter he is," he said. "When the door closed, a fight is a fight. Lefty or right-handed, I was ready."
For Rickels, the match was something more than one single bout; it was the chance to announce himself as a legitimate threat while the favorites like Karl Amoussou, Bryan Baker and Ben Saunders were watching.
His strategy was simple: shoot the right hand. It didn't take long to fire it off. Smith moved in, Rickels charged forward and clipped him with a hook, and it was over in 10 punches.
"One-hundred percent, I came in ready to make a statement," he said. "A lot of guys don’t know who I am. They’ve never cared to look me up. I don’t think Jordan Smith was sleeping on me as an opponent, but he found out I’m the real deal. I think everyone watching found out I can at least pack a right hand."
In the semifinals, he draws Amoussou, who himself won in an impressive first-round stoppage. Afterward, Amoussou admitted he had never seen Rickels fight before beating Smith. That probably doesn't make him any different than anyone else. Even Rickels admitted there isn't a lot of existing tape of him, something he views as a plus.
"I know what to expect out of the guy but maybe he doesn’t know what to expect out of me," he said. "He’s definitely wild. His style is psycho. I like to think I’ll stay a little more composed, but he’s a beast. He looks freakishly strong. It doesn't matter. He's in for a fight."
Rickels admitted being on "cloud nine" after the win, but knows there's not much time to celebrate in the tournament format. The fight with Amoussou takes place on May 4.
The win over Smith was a good one, but taking out the more widely known Amoussou will truly stamp him him as a threat to the title. Few will expect him to do it. Kimbo came into the sport with renown, but the suburban Kimbo is going to have to earn his the hard way. That's just fine with Rickels.
"Not a lot of people have heard of me, let’s be honest," he said. "But after this whole tournament is done and over with, a lot more people are going to be following David Rickels’ career."