WSOF Champion Steve Carl on Challenger Rousimar Palhares: “He Has the Ability to Beat Anybody on Earth.”
For a moment, the silence in the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables, FL was so potent it was almost unbearable. Four rounds and a little less than a minute into their scheduled five-round contest – which would determine not only the World Series of Fighting’s inaugural welterweight champion, but the first champion in the WSOF, period – and Steve Carl had Josh Burkman in what looked to be a rather tight triangle choke. The audience in attendance, recognizing the position, collectively held their breath in anticipation.
And then veteran referee Troy Waugh intervened, separating Carl and Burkman, who by then was unconscious.
The crowd erupted.
Steve Carl was the WSOF welterweight champion.
The Little Tree Stump
This Saturday, at WSOF 9: Carl vs. Palhares, Carl (21-3) will also be the first WSOF champion to defend their belt when he faces WSOF newcomer Rousimar Palhares (15-5), a Brazilian leglock specialist who brings with him into the decagon what could be viewed as a considerable countermeasure to Carl’s submission-favoring offense (16 of Carl’s 21 wins came by way of submission; similarly, 11 of Palhares’ 15 wins were by tap-out). It will be Palhares’ first fight outside of the UFC since December 2007. The Zuffa-owned organization cut him from their roster after a vicious first-round heel hook win over Mike Pierce, deeming him a liability due repeated instances of holding onto submissions for too long (the fight, in which he ignored several attempts by the referee to release his hold on Pierce, was actual his first back after being suspended for elevated testosterone levels).
This controversy surrounding Palhares, and the fact that he is being granted an immediate title shot in his first fight with the World Series of Fighting, doesn’t escape the 29-year-old Carl, however he insists that none of it matters much anyway; the belt itself, at least to him, is an afterthought.
“A lot of people have been asking, since I’m defending the first title, being the champion, if there’s more pressure,” says the Team Harddrive member. “Honestly, no disrespect, but I couldn’t care less about the belt. I’m fighting Rousimar Palhares. That’s who I’m fighting. That’s what’s on the line. That’s the way I’m looking at it; it’s about me and the guy I’m getting in the cage with.”
Many fighters, when discussing the controversial Palhares, speak of his propensity for unsportsmanlike tactics, pointing to what are now several instances of dangerous in-cage behavior (Jon Fitch made headlines when he said that a matchup with Palhares would be the first fight he’d outright turn down in his career). Carl holds that, yes, those concerns are valid ones, but they do nothing to take away from the fact that, despite Palhares’ sometimes unscrupulous combative conduct, he is nonetheless extremely talented at what he does.
“If he wasn’t world class, nobody would be afraid of him,” Carl puts it succinctly. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a dirty fighter if you can’t beat me. The fact of the matter is that he has the ability to beat anybody on Earth and he’s a dirty fighter. That’s what scares people. They know he has the ability to beat them and he’s going to hurt them.”
One must wonder, then, in light of the fact that Palhares is at his most dangerous while grappling with his opponent, if Carl intends on doing his best to circumvent the ground game altogether and focus more on striking with “Toquinho.” In past interviews, he has spoken of never having a defined strategy entering into a contest, that he just fights the fight that’s in front of him, however knowing what he knows about this specific opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, perhaps that’s changed.
There is no game plan,” he says. “There’s no set strategy. Obviously, I have switched a few things up in my game, in my mind, but that just involves what I want to do positionally. Where I see that he’s a bad style matchup for me, if I fought the way I normally fight is – I like to scramble, to get into weird positions – all those scrambles give him an opportunity to dive for the legs. I tightened my game up a lot. It’s going to be one of those fights where I might not shoot for the takedown at all or I might put him right on the mat. I just don’t know. I’m going to go out there and just start fighting and what I see is what I’m going to do.”
A Penchant for Submissions
Of the Iowan’s 16 submission wins, an incredible 14 of them have come in the first round. Aside from being undeniably impressive and uncommon a track record to have, it’s indicative more so of an opportunistic fighting style that leaves opponents little room for error. The old “zig when he should’ve zagged” idiom comes to mind, as fighters who face Carl enter the cage often already disadvantaged in their awareness that they may not last longer than five minutes with him. He attributes it to his pace; that, and his little-known secret weapon – the deceptive striking power he holds in his hands.
“I get in there, start going and I’m just going too fast for my opponents,” he offers. “They make mistakes, and I capitalize. Actually, starting off in my career, I was mad because I would almost have the knockout. Once you start hitting someone hard, they open up. Your finish is there – your submission is there – and I would take it, finishing these fights by submission. I started getting mad because I didn’t want everyone to think I was a submission guy. I wanted them to know that I could punch, too. After a while, I just started to embrace it, go ahead and let everyone think that’s I’m just some BJJ guy, that all I’m going to do is try to choke you out. You’ve got to be a complete fighter and I think I’m just smarter, a little bit, on the mental side. When I see an opportunity, I don’t pass it up for that big knockout; I try to take the win.”
One would naturally assume, then, on account of his high submission rate, that he had gone through rigorous mat training – likely with traditional, respected and world-renowned BJJ masters – and that he held no less than a black belt in the transformative martial art. That assumption would be resoundingly erroneous.
“I’m a Brazilian jiu-jitsu no-belt,” he says, laughing. “I don’t even have a white belt.”
He’s got to be fucking kidding. What, then, does he train?
“I train how to fight.”
“I started training at the Grappler’s Lair in Belton, Texas when I was in the Army, and I trained down there for about a year with John Moore,” he explains. “My number one training partner was TJ Waldburger, and I basically just trained no-gi jiu-jitsu. After that year, I got into a really bad car accident and had to relocate back to Iowa where I took a year and a half off to rehabilitate myself to get back in the cage. Almost all of my technique came in that first year. Actually, I soaked in most of it in the first six months.”
So, essentially, because he never trained in the gi, he was never awarded any belt rank.
“I mean, I’ve put a gi on every once in a while in somebody’s apartment or something and I’ll jump in there, but I don’t grapple in the gi ever. I just train no-gi jiu-jitsu.”
If you ask Steve Carl, his career is at an all-time high. He’s gone unbeaten in the WSOF, stopping all of his opponents en route to capturing the title and, with Jon Fitch prepared to face the winner of Saturday’s main event, he has never had as bigger stage upon which to perform.
“I’m in a great point in my career where I’ve finally gotten that spotlight to show my skills,” he says. “Just to know that some of the top guys in the world are going after me, that they want to fight me, is awesome. It’s an honor. I’m at the place where everyone wants to be.”
With that being said, however, he holds that he doesn’t derive any added excitement or motivation from the added attention. Likewise, he insists he feels no more pressure than he did when he began fighting eight and a half years ago.
“At this point, I don’t let outside forces influence me at all,” he says. “It’s just another fight. It’s just the next one. You know, 20 years down the road, it’s not going to matter so much how excited or how scared I was. What’s going to matter is what I do at the moment. Did I seize it? Did I let it slip? Thinking too much about what’s going on, giving into your emotions – whether they be fear or excitement – those are just hindrances to your performance. I choose to go out there with a clean slate and fight.”
When I called Steve Carl at our scheduled time (I believe it was 3:30 p.m. ET), he seemed a little distracted. I knew he’d done roughly six or seven interviews the day before (I’d listened to a couple in preparing my questions for him), so I offered him an out – maybe he’d prefer to take the day off and speak with me tomorrow or the next day. No, that wasn’t necessary, he said. He was actually out to lunch with a couple of his sponsors. If I couldn’t reschedule, however, he’d step aside for however long it took and do the interview with me.
Of course I let him go, telling him I’d call him back in an hour. He thanked me and we hung up.
Steve called me back roughly fifty minutes later and gave me a great interview. He treated every question with thoughtful consideration despite the fact that I’m sure he’d heard several versions of the same question in the days leading up to our particular interview and that he’d hear them a thousand more times before he stepped in the cage with Rousimar Palhares on fight night.
Eighteen minutes into our talk, I asked him this, word for word:
What is something that you’d like people to know, specifically, something that you haven’t been asked that you wish someone would? Give me a question to ask you.
“That’s a tough one… you kind of stumped me on that one,” he answered.
Best question I asked all interview, I joked.
“It’s not really a question, but the biggest thing people probably don’t know about me is, I’m the guy next door,” he said after a spell. “If you we met and nobody around knew who I was – if nobody recognized me – the last thing you would guess about me is that I’m a fighter. I’m just the guy next door. I like to have a good time. I get along with everybody. I avoid drama. If somebody’s starting a fight or trying to fight me, I talk them out of it, walk away or I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, you’re absolutely right. You would’ve kicked my ass. I want nothing to do with you, sir. I’m sorry.’
“I do martial arts – I really got into it – to feel more confident in myself, and I realized that, in doing so, being in there competing is one of the scariest things in the world. Overcoming that fear is what helps you grow as a person. That’s what got me addicted to this sport. No matter what, that fear that makes you feel alive is always there and it’s something you always have to overcome, to be the master of your own body and your own mind.”
Steve Carl (Twitter | Facebook) is defending his World Series of Fighting welterweight title at WSOF 9: Carl vs. Palhares on March 29th at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Las Vegas in Las Vegas, NV. The main card will air on NBC Sports at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. The undercard, which begins at 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT, will stream live from the WSOF website.
- BankUnited Center
- Brazilian jiu-jitsu
- Combat Sports
- Coral Gables
- Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
- Jesse Scheckner
- Jon Fitch
- Josh Burkman
- Las Vegas
- Las Vegas Nevada
- Mike Pierce
- Mixed Martial Arts
- MMA Owl
- Rousimar Palhares
- Steve Carl
- The Joint
- The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
- TJ Waldburger
- Welterweight Title
- World Series of Fighting
- WSOF 9
- WSOF 9: Carl vs. Palhares