This is number fifty-one in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re pleased to feature veteran MMA fighter, Mike Ciesnolevicz. Ciesnolevicz was a pivotal part of the IFL’s most successful team, the Pat Miletich coached, Quad City Silverbacks. Ciesnolevicz also went on to fight twice in the UFC. He has not been as active recently, but he is scheduled to be fighting again this summer. 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?
Mike Ciesnolevicz: I watched lots of martial arts movies as a kid. Even though I was a big kid, I was always fascinated with the idea of skill and technique overcoming just size and power. I appreciate the technical side of fighting the most. My dad introduced me to a guy who really changed my life and gave me the ability to follow my dreams, John Korab. He is a very intelligent guy with an uncanny drive and determination to learn and evolve. He really rubbed off on me in that regard. He was also a Karate instructor to the legendary, late, Joe Lewis, "Greatest Karate Fighter of All Time." Joe Lewis said he was the man who really taught him how to spar. I was lucky to be able to learn from a guy like that in my youth. Without him, I don’t know if I could have made it out of my small town to high levels of professional MMA fighting.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fight, back in 2004, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
MC: My first professional fight was actually in 2003, in Reality Fighting 5, in Atlantic City, NJ, at Boardwalk Hall, against Romeo Gray. For some reason, it’s listed as amateur although it was a pro fight. I did the licensing, I got paid, the whole nine yards. I was very prepared for the fight. I moved to Philadelphia, and lived with one of my friends and a very technical BJJ guy, Danny Ives. I woke up and boxed at Augie’s Gym in Philly, five times a week at 7AM, with my trainer, a former pro boxer, Robert "The Wiz" Hill. In the afternoons, I did some strength and conditioning on my own, and at night, Danny and I trained very hard in no-gi grappling. The fight was against a guy who, at the time, was only a stand-up guy. He had a Karate and Tae Kwon Do background. I went out there, took the guy down, passed his guard, mounted him, and won by TKO in the first round. I trained so hard in boxing for that fight, but Danny Ives, Robert "The Wiz" Hill, and I laughed the whole way home that I didn’t throw one punch standing! The most important thing was getting the win and exposing my opponent’s weakness.
JB: Early in your career you spent a few years fighting for the legendary IFL, where you a member of the equally legendary Quad City Silverbacks. What were some of the highlights of that time and what did you think of that format for MMA?
MC: I absolutely loved the IFL. It was a great concept and I really wish it would have worked out. My personal opinion is they tried to go too big too fast. I would have fought my whole career in the IFL if it was still around today. I really felt at home there and I was really upset when the league faded away. The highlights were the bonds I formed with teammates, coaches, and even staff. We did everything together. It was like a family atmosphere. We had a lot of good times. It didn't hurt that we were the most dominant team in the league also. The Silverbacks won two out of the three world championship tournaments held at the end of the seasons. I also did quite well in the IFL as an individual. I qualified for the grand prix at the end of the season, which was the top four guys in each weight class among all the teams. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to compete for the championship belt due to a deviated septum and nose surgery.
JB: You made your UFC debut at UFC 95, in 2009. What was that experience and that submission victory like for you?
MC: I tell people this all the time, it was like any other fight for me. It might have been the only fight in my career where I wasn't nervous. I stepped up on short notice and fought at heavyweight so all I had to do was show up and fight. I didn't have to cut weight or think about the fight everyday for two to three months. I had a solid two weeks to prepare for the fight. I called up Tim Sylvia and Ben Rothwell and asked them to show up every day and they did. They were both the same size as my opponent, Neil Grove. We worked on a game-plan every day and the fight went 100% like we planned. The last thing Pat Miletich said to me before I went in the cage was "baseball slide under that guy and get a hold of his leg." I did it, and it worked, and I was kind of in shock that everything went so smoothly. I went into that fight with a partially torn ACL, and I knew I was going to have a lot of problems taking Neil Grove down or kicking. He was 6'6” and I am only 6', so I wasn’t looking to box with him. Really, what you saw out there was my only option to win that fight. I felt very accomplished, stepping up and taking on a giant like Neil while I had a torn ACL, and pulling off the win in that fashion.
JB: In your second fight in the UFC, you lost and were then released. Have there been discussions between you and the UFC since then and how do you think you would do against their current roster?
MC: From the time I was cut by the UFC until now, I know I am still on that level. I have trained with dozens of UFC veterans, professional fighters, black belts, etc., over the years, and more than held my own. The only thing different is injuries. I get injured a lot more now than I used to. You have to train smarter instead of harder sometimes. Once you go over the 30 mark, you have to adjust your training. You can’t train like you are 23 anymore. This is a rough sport on the body and I have been training martial arts for 18 years.
I have to be honest. I do not really have a desire to compete in the UFC again. I am a martial artist and that’s what I enjoy. The UFC was just a small part of my journey. I spent my whole career trying to get in the UFC, and once I was there, I realized that it’s not what it’s about for me. The UFC has changed a lot from my perspective. The UFC is just not the place for me.
JB: You've only fought twice since 2009, but both fights were victories. How have you developed as a fighter over these last few years and who have you been training with?
MC: Skill-wise I have grown a lot the past few years. I have been on a journey to really learn and better myself. I am always trying to look at different fighting styles and techniques and how they would work in real situations. I love to break down techniques and the small things that happen in a fight that a lot of people don't see. One day, I want to teach martial arts and have my own school. I think I have had some great coaches and experiences over the years. I know I can teach all aspects of mixed martial arts at a high level. I see some guys today who are supposed to be high level coaches that really don’t have the background or experiences that justify that. That’s one of the reasons I always liked having Pat Miletich as my coach back in the day at MFS. I picked his gym because he has been through the wars, the wins, the losses. He knows what it’s like to be in the heat of the battle and I respect that. For me, it is easy to get behind someone who has been in the trenches. When people would question Pat during brutal MMA practices, he would always say, "I would never make you guys do something I haven’t already done myself," and that hits home for me.
JB: You are next scheduled to fight in July, at Victory Fighting Championships 40. What do you think of the event and the matchup? And what do you think is ahead for you after that fight?
MC: Like I said before, I have had a lot of injuries the past few years. This fight, for me, is about getting back in there and overcoming the injuries and proving to myself I can overcome adversity. Sometimes it is good to have your back against the wall and see what you are made of. This could be my last fight. I just don't know. I am going to take it on a fight by fight basis. I am not going to put pressure on myself, and I no longer have the sense of urgency that I used to have. I do this now because it is something that I still enjoy as a sport. Ultimately, if all goes well, I would like to fulfill my contract with the World Series of Fighting.
JB: You're a veteran of the sport, and you've been through years of growth for MMA. What direction are things headed in for the fighters in your opinion?
MC: Recently, Jacob Volkmann and John Cholish have both spoken out on fighter pay, and I can't say I disagree with them. The lion’s share of the revenue should be going to the fighters. When you are in the UFC, which is supposedly the NFL of our sport, then you should not have to hold two to three jobs and struggle to make ends meet. Ken Shamrock has been speaking out recently on this subject also. I know Roy Nelson has spoken out in the past about not being able to afford to pay to train for fights. When you look at boxing, and see guys make twenty, thirty, forty million dollars a fight, it really makes you scratch your head. So you are telling me Anderson Silva would have to fight like seven times to make what Mayweather makes for one fight? The UFC might pay the fighters better than other organizations because they are big fish in a small pond with no real competition. The problem is that they don’t pay the fighters relative to what they make as a company. They don’t pay fighters enough to make a decent living. There is no retirement fund or anything to take care of these guys after their careers wind down. A lot of these guys are going to sit on the porch punch-drunk and not able to walk due to all the injuries at the end of their careers. The UFC claims to have made seventy millionaires, which is great, but that’s over the course of a lot of fights, and that money is going to run out eventually also. Very few people that have ever fought in the UFC are set for the remainder of their life. Most of these guys are going to be broke, sitting at a bar drinking, telling people how tough they used to be. It’s just the reality of what is happening in our sport. I hope these guys, who continue to fight in the UFC, will get the money they deserve and be able to take care of themselves and their families in the long-run.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and fighting, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
MC: My parents always allowed me to follow my dream of being a professional fighter. The only stipulation was that I had to go to college and get a degree. Once I got my degree, I could follow any path I wanted. It was a smart move now that I look back on it. My teaching degree has helped me as a part-time job throughout my whole fighting career. My brother has always been very supportive of my career path also. Really, my whole family has been supportive of my martial arts journey.
As far as outside of training, I like to travel with my wife, Valerie. We just went to Hawaii for the first time this year. We have recently gotten into taking advantage of our surroundings and hiking Mount Charleston, just outside of Vegas. We are big dog lovers and spend a lot of time with our pets. Like I have stressed throughout this interview, I am a martial artist, not just a fighter, so I enjoy going to practice and it is something I do on a daily basis. I have really been into training Brazilian Jiu-jitsu with the gi lately, under Sergio Penha, here in Vegas. He is definitely the greatest Jiu-jitsu man I have ever met, a true pioneer and a legend in his sport. I’m lucky to be getting such a high level education with him, and I hope one day I can pass on the knowledge in my own gym.
JB: Last question, Mike, 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?
MC: I have always enjoyed fighting and testing myself. I look at it like a physical chess match. Technique, strategy, skill, and intelligence mean a lot more to me than just physical size and brute strength. I am a big guy, but when I train, I don’t use my size and strength. I’m the heavyweight who tries to match skill with the little guys. I hardly ever use my strength or full bodyweight when I am training BJJ. A lot of the small black belts like to roll with me for this reason. If I use my full bodyweight, and grab a Kimura on a guy who is 150 lbs and rip his arm off, what is the point in that? However, if I can set a trap for the guy, and catch him using skill, it is something that makes me feel much better about my progress. I know I can use my size, strength, and weight if all else fails, but I shy away from that in training.
Being a fighter is not as important to me as being a martial artist. I love the arts, and I have studied every style imaginable over the years. My journey started in martial arts, went into the world of professional fighting, and is now slowly shifting back to martial arts for my future. For me, it has always been about the journey.
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