This is number ninety-two in Jack’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature veteran MMA heavyweight, Paul Buentello. Buentello is a former King of the Cage champ who fought Andrei Arlovski for the UFC heavyweight championship and Alistair Overeem for the Strikeforce heavyweight championship. Though he lost those fights, “The Headhunter” has had a number of significant and impressive wins in the UFC, Strikeforce, Affliction, and elsewhere. In his most recent fight, at legacy FC 22 back in August, Buentello dropped to light heavyweight for the first time in his career, and he was victorious with a TKO win over TUF 10 competitor, James McSweeney. It’s been a long road, but Buentello still seems to have some miles yet to go. Please enjoy the conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports, and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Paul Buentello: I really got exposed to it kind of late in life. I got into Karate and Tae Kwon Do and got to like a Yellow Belt I think, or maybe orange or something, and I did some “Toughman stuff.” But when I saw the USWF and those types of fights in my hometown of Amarillo, that was what really took my interest to the next level. My sports and competitive background was in baseball, so fighting was really like learning "on the job."
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fights, the tournament at USWF 4 back in 1997, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
PB: For me it was just a chance to compete and to get in there and go after somebody. Of course we were all prepared back then! We would train once or twice a week by touching our toes and then swinging for the fences for twenty minutes. We thought we were ready to go! The sport has just evolved so much since then, but back when we started, we didn’t know how much we didn’t know.
JB: Prior to your UFC debut, you had nearly thirty fights and had fought for several organizations. You eventually became King of the Cage's heavyweight champion, and after you defended the title, you entered the UFC at UFC 51. That night you knocked out Justin Eilers. How important was it to you that you had made it to the UFC and that you got that big win? How did it compare to winning the KOTC championship?
PB: Being in KOTC, I, of course, had always been working towards the goal of making it to the UFC. Winning the KOTC title was one more step closer to that, and at the time, it was the biggest "stepping stone" show to get into the two biggest organizations. I really believed that I belonged in the UFC, but the matchmaker, Joe Silva, had made comments about how I was too fat and not in shape and stuff. That got back to me, and my buddy, GoldenBoy (Jason Leigh), got on the UG and started a big campaign to get me in the UFC. Word got back to Joe about what he "allegedly" said. We talked, and there was some backtracking, and all of that eventually got me in. When I KO'd Eilers, I intended to retire after the fight, win or lose. My goal was to get there, not to win a title or stay for seven fights. When I accomplished that, I figured that I would retire and go build cabinets and roof houses. It was the pinnacle of my success and I figured that’s where I wanted to end it. Of course, I continued, but that’s how important that fight was to me.
JB: After another win in the UFC, you fought for the heavyweight championship. What was the build-up to the fight like for you and how did you handle the tough loss to Arlovski?
PB: It was a fast and furious kind of experience. The build-up was not great and it happened really quickly just because of the lack of depth in the heavyweight division. If you remember, I had just KO'd Justin Eilers, and then he went and fought for the title against Arlovski for his next fight. I think that he was the only guy to ever come off of being knocked out in a promotion and then immediately fighting for a title. At that same show that he fought Andrei, I won against Kevin Jordan and actually won the "TapouT" submission of the night. So in terms of build-up, it was like they looked up and said, "Paul has won two in a row with finishes. He has to have the next shot." For the longest time, that division was the "Tim and Andrei Show."
It’s funny that the fight with Andrei is now one of the things that I'm most known for. If you look at the footage, Andre threw that shot to set up a level change and a takedown. He was already midway through the double-leg when it connected with me. He even told me after the fight that he didn’t like how hard my jab was so he was trying to shoot and got lucky. That started the trend of strikers wanting to wrestle me.
I remember that about two weeks after the fight, I went to hang out with one of my coaches, Brad Barnes, who was training in Houston at the time. We went out to eat at “Hooters,” which was one of the only places you could go hang out to watch the fights before there were free fights on TV. Brad's wife, JoAnn, asked the waitress if we could get one of the table setups, with my picture and all the stuff from the fight that month, to take home. The girl’s response was, "Oh wow! You are the 15-second knockout guy!" Needless to say, she did not get a tip. That fight, I think, defined me for a long time, but now people have moved on and see it for what it was. It was bad luck, bad timing, and good strategy from one of the best heavyweights at the time.
JB: You came back after that loss and got another win in the UFC before leaving the organization to fight for Strikeforce, and then Affliction. You were an excellent 5-1 over your six fights in those two organizations. Your only loss was to Alistair Overeem for the Strikeforce heavyweight championship. What was the highlight of that period of your career, and how did it lead to you eventually returning to the UFC for two more fights?
PB: Yeah, the comeback fight was good for me confidence-wise and to show people what I was about. People had touted Aldana as like a Paul Buentello version 2.0. He was big and muscular, had KO power in both hands, and supposedly had good takedown defense. I think he was like 6-0 with all KO's in under two minutes. It felt good to open up and show that I was versatile in that fight. That helped to get my stock up after coming off of a loss.
As far as Strikeforce, and even the Affliction stint, I had some great highlights for them too. Basically, I went 8-2 between the UFC, Strikeforce, and Affliction, beating MMA legends like Gary Goodrich and Tank Abbott and taking out some "next big thing" types like Aldana, Carter Williams (a K-1 champion who also shot on me), and Baby Fedor.
I think that any time I fight I always have a chance of getting back to the UFC because they know what I’m about. They know that I will go out and trade and get after it and try to finish people. It has just been unfortunate that I have had these "K-1 level" strikers that want to shoot on me. They want to secure a win instead of putting on a show that would secure both of our careers.
JB: You just recently made your light heavyweight debut with a TKO victory over UFC vet, James McSweeney, at Legacy FC 22. What led to you dropping to light heavyweight and how do you think that you performed?
PB: It was something that I had been talking about with Brad Barnes, who I mentioned earlier. He and his gym's co-owner and head coach, Bruno Bastos, had worked with me for my Mike Cook fight and two fights in Russia. When I spent some time in camp with them, I was 3-0. They have helped a lot of guys with similar styles, and Bruno has worked with Cro Cop, Stanislav Nedkov, and King Mo. It was a good place for me to train. So Brad had told me for years to do it, and then when he said I was booked for the fight, it was time to put up or shut up. So I went to their gym at 256 lbs., and six weeks later, they weighed me in at 206. I think that I can make a splash in the weight class and have some interesting and fan-friendly fights.
As far as my performance, I think I am one of the very few people who ever got a body-shot KO on a guy on his back trying to up-kick! Again, I have had some amazing coaches, like Andy Fong at AKA, and with my new respect for the gi in BJJ, from Bruno, I was never in danger. McSweeney was another "K-1 level" kickboxer who shot on me not once, but twice. This new weight just made me feel more mobile on the ground and more energized.
JB: You are on a four-fight win-streak. Ideally, what's next for you in your fighting career, and are there any other particular fighters that you would like an opportunity to fight?
PB: Ideally I will be finishing up my work with Legacy with some exciting fights to make them happy. Then I will go to the UFC, see what I can do there, and finish like I had intended when I made my UFC debut. That Maldonado vs. Beltran fight interests me. I got dibs on the winner, and we can go get a “fight of the night” check after!
JB: You are a true veteran of the sport and you have certainly seen a lot of promotions come and go. What do you think of what MMA has become and do you have any concerns for the sport or its athletes at the moment?
PB: It’s so much more a sport now than a tough guy contest. There used to be tough dudes that just went in and fought no matter who the opponent was. You would fight in an exhibition in a barn or on a barroom dance floor where they put a cage up. Guys didn’t care. They went out and slugged it out against everyone. Now it’s about taking the right matchups, strategizing more for each individual fight, and cross-training to an extent that we would have thought was just overkill back then. Now it’s the standard.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
PB: My mom in Amarillo and family there have always been there for me and supported me. My daughter, Samantha, has been a driving force because I, of course, need to win so she can go shopping for more school clothes since she is a teenage girl. All the coaches from the beginning, like Leon (my old striking coach), and the guys that were able to remain supportive from AKA, Andy Fong, Albert Martinez, Brad Barnes, Bruno Bastos, just so many people.
JB: Last question, Paul, and thanks for taking the time to do this. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
PB: I think it means that you have to hold yourself to a performance standard. At this stage in my career, I consider myself an athlete that is a fighter, but not a martial artist. I know that is going to change over time and I want to embrace it, but right now being a fighter for me is to be real. Be genuine with people, make friends, have fun with those people, and have experiences that you can turn into stories for the rest of your life.
Images courtesy of Rachel Austin.
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