MMA Fighter With Prosthetic Leg Seeks Opponents
Ernie Paulson, a 32-year-old home designer and lumberyard salesman who lost his left leg below the knee to cancer as a teenager, is a rare breed of athlete. He fights mixed martial arts — the combat sport of punching, kneeing, kicking and choke holds — when he can find an opponent.
"I still run into the same thing over and over again: I get guys who don't want to fight me because they don't want to lose to a guy with a prosthetic leg," he said.
Paulson is training for a welterweight bout later this month at a King of the Cage event on the Lac du Flambeau Chippewa Reservation, some 50 miles from his northern Wisconsin hometown.
"Unfortunately, I am viewed as inferior. That ultimately is what drives me to fight," he said. "People really don't view me as adequate for being in there and that really upsets you, especially when you have worked so hard to be good."
Paulson said he keeps fighting because he wants to be an inspiration to others who have lost limbs.
Officials with the Association of Boxing Commissions say they know of only two other severely disabled athletes — one from Georgia, the other from Nebraska — who have fought in mixed marital arts bouts.
Nick Lembo, chairman of the association's mixed martial arts committee, was unaware of any disabled competitors being licensed among the 40 states that regulate the sport.
A fighter with a fake leg would have difficulty getting medical clearance for a bout in the regulated states, Lembo said.
"I think the obvious concern would be: What happens if he is struck there? What happens if he is kneed there? How much weight can that take?" he said. "Is it fair to the opponent because you are eliminating the maneuvers that he is typically able to use?"
Paulson, who owns a karate school in Rhinelander, has competed in different formats of martial arts for six years. He has a 2-3 record in mixed martial arts cage fights as a professional. All his fights have been in Wisconsin and Michigan, neither of which regulate the sport.
"All together, I have probably made about $1,500," he said, laughing.
His fake leg looks as real as possible — it's padded, with a skin-like covering and a foot carved with toes — and the joint is covered with a sleeve.
Paulson, who shaves his head and once considered fighting under the nickname "Pirate" because of the peg leg, walks with a slight limp. He said he fights "one-sided" because he can't push off his left leg as well as his right leg, in part because of no feeling in the foot.
"Whoever I fight, I offer to meet with them beforehand to let them inspect my leg, let them kick it if they want because I don't want anyone getting up after I knock them out saying: 'I really was scared of that thing. I really didn't know,'" Paulson said. "I want a fair fight. I sure as hell don't want someone to come out and take it easy on me because they are worried about that."
His opponent on July 18 — Rick Stettner, 26, of Kenosha — is making his professional MMA debut.
"I was kind of weirded out by it at first," Stettner said about fighting a one-legged opponent. "But he is just another person. I am not overlooking him because he has a disability. I respect him greatly for doing what he is doing. I am just happy to have an opponent, period."
Stettner, who has a 4-1 amateur record, said he won't change his strategy much.
"Obviously, I am not going to do leg attacks on his prosthetic leg," he said. "Everything else is fair game."
Wally Jernigan, director of the Nebraska Athletic Commission, said a Nebraska man whose left leg was amputated below the knee was allowed to fight in a mixed martial arts bout in May 2008.
"He looked good for a while and just ran out of gas and lost the fight," Jernigan said.
Paulson said he fought at the northern Wisconsin Indian casino this spring, a bout promoted as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.
He lost in 2½ minutes. The fight hardly lived up to its hype, he said.
"It is a fine line when you go from an athlete to a sideshow kind of thing," Paulson said. "I realized getting into this game that people will market me any way they can and use that to make money."
Paulson said the July 18 event is a big deal for him because it will be replayed as an edited pay-for-view event on television in the fall.
He wants to show that people with prosthetics can compete against able-bodied athletes.
"A lot of people wear prosthetics, wondering what they can do," Paulson said. "There are lot of people sitting in hospital rooms or at home with fresh amputations wondering what will I be able to do with this thing. They may get to see something that may motivate them or get them to say: 'You know what. I guess it doesn't matter if you got a fake leg because that guy just kicked that guy's (expletive)."
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