Jesse Taylor on vying for the inaugural WSOF middleweight title: “This is the next stepping stone.”
Most MMA fans were first introduced to Jesse “JT Money” Taylor in 2008 during Spike TV’s seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rampage vs. Team Forrest. He came into the show with a respectable 6-2 record, using his wrestling base to overwhelm his opponents on the show en route to becoming a finalist opposite an extremely green Amir Sadollah. Then, as a result of one night of bad decision making, he was out of the finale. Less than a month later, he made his sole appearance inside the octagon, submitting to CB Dollaway, the man who had replaced him – and had been submitted himself – in the finale.
Taylor resurged in October later that year at Welterweight, taking out UFC veteran Drew Fickett by first round TKO. It was the first win in a subsequent seven-fight streak that saw him tear through multiple organizations including Total Combat, King of Champions, Shark Fights and Dream. Following a brief but unsuccessful tenure in Strikeforce, he has gone 12-4 and has parlayed his current six-fight win streak into a World Series of Fighting contract, complete with entry into a tournament which will crown their inaugural middleweight champion.
When a WSOF rep got in contact with me about doing an interview with Taylor ahead of this Saturday’s World Series of Fighting 7: Karakhanyan vs. Palmer, I was elated. A fascinating and unique character in the often template-dominated world of mixed martial arts, he marches to the beat of his own drum, reciting bad, obfuscating poetry and never taking himself too seriously. A stalwart member of Team Quest, he’d been mentored through the years to be mentally tough – but to avoid putting on false airs – by a cast of legends that include Dan Henderson, Randy Couture and Chael Sonnen.
More than ever before, Taylor stands on the precipice of stardom, and we’re talking about a guy who has headlined or co-headlined every event he’s participated in for the last three years. Of course, this was different than that. He’ll be fighting in the co-main event, against an extremely dangerous opponent in Elvis Mutapcic, for an organization that, after only seven cards, has become one of the top three in the world. They were originally scheduled to face each other back at WSOF 6 in Coral Gables, however the fight was scrapped due to some controversy involving Mutapcic’s cornermen and an undisclosed bottle of pills. Finally, after months of anticipation, he’ll finally get that fight.
An introductory question – standard fare: It’s less than a week away from fight night. How is he feeling?
“I’m awesome, man – I’m feeling good,” he answers. “I’ve been through a lot this fight camp – like always, it feels like – but I think that’s what makes you tougher. Physically, I feel great. Mentally, it’s coming together. Spiritually, I’m feeling good. I’m ready, man. I’m ready.”
What does he mean by a lot of stuff?
“Oh you know… I’ve got a fighter’s life, man, that’s for sure,” he says. “Situations, problems, financial stuff, heartbreak… all that good, juicy stuff. But it makes you stronger in the long run. Things are coming together. All that kind of stuff, it makes me a better fighter, and that’s what life’s about. I want to portray that in my fight coming up and kick this guy’s ass.”
If Taylor speaks with a degree of confidence, it’s because he’s earned it. He’s been the middleweight champion of four separate organizations: the aforementioned Total Combat and King of Champions, as well as Cage Warriors and K-Oz. When asked where the WSOF title fits in with his prior laurels, he minces no words.
“This is the next stepping stone,” he says. “This one is definitely a step above – and one that’s in my grasp. Those were all great accomplishments, but the World Series of Fighting is a much higher pedigree. There’s tougher guys, it’s a bigger show and it’s going to put me in the national eye, in the big picture; so I’m looking forward to getting that belt. I think in MMA – as long as your body holds up – the older you get, the better you get. You’ve just got to have the right mind frame and kind of age like a fine wine, you know? I feel like I’ve always had the talent, I’ve just been a slow learner and now it’s all coming together for me.”
Speaking of getting better as one gets older, there is no more lauded an elder statesman in the sport of mixed martial arts than Dan Henderson, who for years has served as both Taylor’s coach and mentor, and with whom Taylor shares a brotherly relationship. Like Henderson before his most recent fight with the hot-streaking Vitor Belfort – in which he was finished by strikes for the first time in his 16 1/2-year career – Taylor has never been knocked out (something he claims is equal-parts attributable to smart fighting, a hard head and luck). I ask after his longtime mentor, how he’s recouping and what his plans going forward are.
“Dan’s a warrior,” he says, not missing a beat. “He always bounces back and he’s in great spirits. I think it’s one of those things where – if you watch that fight – he just got caught. It happens to everyone. He made a simple mistake, he knows that, and he paid for it dearly. Nine out of 10 times, who knows how that would have gone? He’s humble, like he always is; he’s still pissed off, of course. I kind of want to follow in his footsteps and be like him – be even better. He makes you really want to be a champion.”
As detailed before, his own progress towards attaining another championship was derailed as a result of the dubious goings-on backstage at the promotion’s last event back in late October. Through countless seasons of The Ultimate Fighter, fans have become intimately knowledgeable about the draining nature of the week leading into a matchup – the agonizing weight cut, wrought with starvation, and the emotional toll the anticipation of the bout can sometimes have on a fighter. How pissed was he, then, to have been backstage, less than two hours from seeing his efforts and sacrifice come to violent fruition, to have the fight cancelled due to no fault of his own?
“It was a weird situation.” he says. “I was just so stoked to fight, my nerves were up – it’s a mental rollercoaster, the fight game – and I guess it was more of a ‘what the fuck’ kind of moment, excuse my language. I didn’t understand what was going on.”
Taylor was given his “show money,” something he says he respects and appreciates, but he stresses that, although monetary concession is nice, his goal is the victory and, eventually, the championship.
“I go there to win. I go there with the confidence and the belief that I’m going to get that ‘win money’ too – and I sure could’ve used it!” he laughs. “It sounds like it wasn’t [Mutapcic’s] fault, and I have no hard feelings for the guy, but I’m just tired of hearing about him. I’ve been training for this guy for months now and I just want to get out there already and get it over with.”
Training at a gym with the worldwide renown of Team Quest has countless perks, one of them being the high possibility that the opponent you’re scheduled to face has fought against one of your stablemates before. Such is the case with Jesse’s current opponent. Team Quest member and fellow middleweight “Smilin’” Sam Alvey – himself a former TUF cast member – is nine months removed from facing Mutapcic at Maximum Fighting Championship (MFC) for the middleweight title Though he lost the fight by decision, he rallied later this year and captured the belt – vacated by Mutapcic upon his departure to WSOF – in an outstanding bout he finished with a rare fifth-round TKO. One of Taylor’s main sparring partners, Alvey’s knowledge his been invaluable during this double-length training camp. He also works well at mimicking Mutapcic’s style despite being slightly less orthodox in his technique.
This extended training camp – and to a larger degree the fact that a great majority of Taylor’s fights have occurred outside the United States – has undoubtedly put a considerable amount of strain onto his other full-time job: being a dad. The father of two sons, Alexander and Nikolaus, he hopes that his tireless work ethic in the fight game (he’s never taken a break, fighting every year, multiple times a year since his 2006 pro debut) will be appreciated once they are older.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard,” he confides. “Anyone who says it’s easy is kidding themselves. It’s very hard, but I know that down the road – even as my oldest son is getting a bit older – they’re going to appreciate that. They’ll say, ‘My dad, he sacrificed a lot, there were times he wasn’t there, but he sacrificed it for us, to provide food on our plate and to be a champion.’ You have one time in your life to do something like this and I think that my kids will definitely appreciate that when they get older.”
Every mixed martial artist remembers July 6, 2013, especially those fighting at 185 pounds. It was the night when the unthinkable occurred: in only the second round of their scheduled five-round title match, Chris Weidman knocked out the longtime middleweight champion and pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson “The Spider” Silva. Considering Taylor has fought the bulk of his career in that weight class (apart from a pair of isolated excursions into welterweight and light heavyweight), I have to ask him for his thoughts on the game-changing knockout and, more importantly, who he has in the rematch.
“I was surprised at the knockout, that’s for sure – I’m sure everyone was,” he muses. “I know Chris Weidman, and he’s tough. I don’t know if he’s going to knock him out again, but I can see Weidman grinding him out or submitting him. It’s just a bad stylistic matchup for Anderson.”
Back to the matter at hand: how does “JT Money” see his fight this Saturday going? Which route does he believe will be his surest to victory, where he matches up most favorably against an opponent like Mutapcic who, to date, has only ever lost twice and has never been finished?
“I think I have the element of surprise,” he says. “A lot of people know my wrestling style, but what happens when I start boxing with him? Who knows? The main thing is, I want to finish him in a round or two and make a statement. If he gets past that first round he’s not going to want to go back in there with me in the second round.”
Jesse Taylor has matured greatly since most of us were introduced to him a little under six years ago. He’s grown as a fighter and as a person, both mentally and spiritually.
“Fighting’s a pretty good example of it, but life’s tough,” he says. “You’ve just got to keep on going. You’re going to have many pitfalls and downfalls, but you’ve got to stay positive and roll with the punches.”
He’s been working on developing a source of income outside the fight game as well, becoming part owner of a clothing and art startup called 3 Lyttle Byrds – a titular riff on the classic Bob Marley song – which he hopes will provide additional financial options for him in the future.
Before we get off the phone, I have to ask:
“Are you still doing any poetry?” I ask.
“I am doing a little poetry,” he fires back immediately. “I’m a wanted poet – I still do some poetry.”
“Do you have any on hand, for our readers?”
He sure does:
Untitled by Jesse “JT Money” Taylor
In the twilight in the night’s fright
Under the stars, bright
I hope to put on a very good fight