This is number sixty-two 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 and coach, Mike Van Arsdale. Van Arsdale was an NCAA division I college wrestling champion and fought in the UFC both before and after the Zuffa era began. He was also a coach at Jackson’s MMA and with the Blackzilians, and he was featured on The Ultimate Fighter’s tenth season, on the coaching staff of his good friend, Rashad Evans. 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 Van Arsdale: I have to answer wrestling. People don’t look at wrestling as a martial art, but it is. My first experience with it was when I was in the second grade. They offered a two-week class in elementary school, at St. Mary’s, in Waterloo, where I went. I loved it. I couldn’t wait for school to get out. I couldn’t wait to go to practice. It was a natural thing for me to compete with kids like that.
I remember that the second grade was going against the third grade, and there was a kid in third grade, named Dan Craig. He was the advanced kid that was always stronger than everyone, bigger than everyone. They paired me up to wrestle this guy and I remember that I was afraid. I was nervous. The whole second grade was like, “Oh no, you’ve got to wrestle Dan, you poor guy.” All day I was being teased. The third graders were pushing me when I walked by them in the halls. They were saying, “You’re going to get beat tonight.” So I was like, “Okay. I’m going to get beat.” I thought my mom was going with me and that I’d be okay because I could cry on her shoulder. But my mom had to work overtime. They were factory workers, my mom and dad. Well, my dad was the one who took me. He didn’t say anything on the way over. So I figured I was going to have to beat this guy. And I beat him pretty bad.
JB: You were an NCAA division I college wrestling champion. What made you such a successful wrestler and how much did being a champion mean to you?
MVA: That’s why I won, because it was very important to me to be a champion and to win. I think, probably when I was in eighth grade, I developed this mentality that I wanted to win. It drives you to practice harder. It drives you to really develop your technique, your skills, your strategy, your tactics.
Going into college, I never thought that I wasn’t going to win the NCAA title. I was surprised that I didn’t win it sooner. I remember just being devastated getting third at the nationals. I just told my coach, “Forget it. I’m not wrestling next year. Red shirt me. I got to think about how I lost.” It’s just a thing you have when you’re young. You’re full of energy and your body works really well. You just decide that it’s something that you really want to do. That’s what happened with me. Winning that was very important. I’ll be honest with you. College wrestling was a brutal existence. The way we were trained was that they weren’t ever teaching us technique. They were just putting us in a room with a bunch of tough guys and letting the cream rise to the top. It was important for me and my family. It was like a gift to my family to win all those titles. I did it for my mom and dad pretty much. They worked hard. That was my motivation, to win, and have them sitting in the crowd, and have their son become the best in the country or whatever it was.
JB: What do you recall about your first professional MMA fights, three wins back in February 1998, at the International Vale Tudo Championship 4, down in Brazil, and how prepared do you feel you were at the time?
MVA: Believe it or not, I think I was the most prepared I could be because being prepared for sports is a mentality. It depends on where a person’s mind is at. At that point in time, I was so confident in myself. I was able to go to another level, but I wasn’t going to do it unless someone made me do it. It took me years to go and watch any of that stuff. I sat down and watched some tapes about a year ago, and I looked at the expression on my face back then. I didn’t look concerned at all, but I remember that deep inside I was nervous. But if an athlete can appear to be calm on the outside, there is some degree of calmness on the inside. Even though you might be nervous, or wondering what’s going to happen, you can’t say that you’re afraid. I don’t think a prepared person is afraid. I remember being nervous, but confident that I would win. And I kept looking at each guy, saying to myself, “Well, I know that he’s not more prepared than me. So he’s going to lose.”
It was an interesting experience. I don’t remember doing any tests or anything like that, any physicals. I just remember a bunch of guys being in a room and they were telling us the rules and that there weren’t many. I remember being in my bed, in my shorts and what I was going to fight in, for three or four hours before the fight, just meditating, thinking about how I was going to win it. I don’t think I was ever that prepared for a fight again. No excuses or anything, but later it was mostly just aging and injuries and that sort of thing. That’s what most athletes experience. That’s part of it all. Nobody loses on purpose. I was definitely prepared to fight then and could have taken it to a really high level if somebody pushed me.
JB: During your fighting career, you not only had several fights in the UFC, but you also faced some of the greatest fighters ever, including Wanderlei Silva, Randy Couture, and Matt Lindland. What were the highlights of your fighting days and what memories are most vivid still?
MVA: Winning is always a highlight. So when I lost those fights, that was not very much fun. I always have been one to enjoy the process, the journey. I enjoyed the training, the camaraderie, the teammates, the coaches, just the experiences that you have from doing all that.
I remember in the Couture fight that he was a pretty tough guy. He was well prepared. I just remember thinking that I was going to win no matter what. And then suddenly, the fight was over. I would have to say that I really thought I was going to die. I was not breathing and my body was shot from the experience. I didn’t have a good camp at all, if you could even call it one. It was just because of some of the things that happened to me physically. I maybe had a good week, week and a half of god training, and the rest was just riding a bike and drilling. When you face a guy like that, you have to be ready for a high pace. I just wasn’t ready, but not to take anything away from him. That was probably one of my most memorable fights, when I actually think about it, just because somebody actually took me to, took me over, the limit where I was prepared to go. It all goes back to training and preparation. I just wasn’t prepared to fight him, conditioning-wise.
JB: Your last fight was in April of 2006, but you had been rumored to be fighting again after that. What led to your decision to stop fighting and to transition into coaching full-time?
MVA: Basically, when I was in the army many years ago, I ruptured three discs and they kicked me out. So instead of getting the surgery, I had decided to go fight. I would have one week, maybe two good weeks, and then the pinched nerves would come and I’d be done. I fought those last eight fights like that.
What happened eventually was that I was driving to Colorado, and I couldn’t feel my right arm and I couldn’t use it. So I stopped at a hospital and I spent a little time there. There was a neurosurgeon there, and he said that this was a medical emergency and I needed an operation. They fused three of my vertebrae together and operated on my neck.
Then two years later, I was coaching at Jackson’s, starting to feel pretty good, and I started to think about how I screwed everything up by not really putting in the work. It hadn't been on purpose. I was just not a healthy human being. So in the back of my mind, I wanted to still compete. Physically, I should have recognized, or somebody should have slapped me and said, "Hey, you're done." But when I started feeling better, I thought I should try this again and at least win one more fight. It didn't happen, and that's okay, because I love coaching. I think the fact that I wasn't as successful as I wanted to be as a fighter is only going to lead to great things for guys I coach.
JB: Many fans associate you with UFC veteran, Rashad Evans, and are familiar with you from your prominent coaching role on The Ultimate Fighter, season ten, "The Heavyweights." How did you and Rashad become involved, and what was your experience with TUF like for you?
MVA: I couldn't get a healthy camp when I was at AKA. I don't blame them or anything. I loved going there. I loved having Bob Cook as a coach and I really had a good time with that group of guys, but they train people a certain way. So Nathan Marquardt was one I of the guys I trained with at Colorado Springs when I was in the army, and he had called me up. He told me that I should come and train with him in New Mexico, and that he had found a guy that he thought was a pretty good coach with a small team and a pretty good atmosphere. At the same time, another guy, Ali Abdel-Aziz, told me the same thing. So I figured I'd check it out, and I told Bob Cook what I was going to do. He was fine with it, and I went there. I informed Greg Jackson about my neck and I told him I had a fight in three weeks. So I trained there three weeks for that Babalu fight. It didn't go very well, but I got to meet a new group of guys.
Rashad Evans happened to be one of my training partners. We had some pretty good rolls together and we ran the hills and lifted weights and roomed together. It was a good experience and we became really good friends. Like I said before, the injuries just got ridiculous and I didn't even realize how hurt I was until I quit. Once I stopped, Rashad and Marquardt and a whole group of guys made some calls to me and asked me to help them prepare for their fights and become one of their coaches. So I went down and became an assistant coach at Jackson's and that was how it got started.
TUF was just another experience in the life of MMA. I went to one of Rashad Evans' fights. I think I had coached him for like five fights. But it seemed like once he got the title shot, there were just a million coaches swarming around him. I didn't really get a word in edgewise there. So, at that point in time, I just kind of told Rashad, "Hey, good luck. I got to get out of here." He wasn't too happy about it, but we stayed in contact. Over the phone, he would call me and ask me some things about what he should be doing or how he could have a better camp, and I was trying to give him some help. So my wife and I flew to Vegas, watched him fight to defend his title against Machida. He lost. Prior to the fight, I remember going into the room, and he had a million people in there, coaches, fans, family. I go into his room after the fight, and it's just him and his wife, just kind of sitting there. Nobody else was there and nobody was coming by. It was kind of sad. So I told him if he ever needed anything, to let me know. After that I jumped back on a plane with my wife and I went back to Iowa. The night I get home, the phone rings. It's Rashad Evans, asking me if I'll do The Ultimate Fighter show. I said, "Sure, just tell me when it is, and I'll plan it." Well, it was that day.
So they put me on a plane, and flew me out to Vegas. I knew Trevor Wittman. He was my roommate. And actually, all those guys were cool, on both sides. I had fun with everyone pretty much. To do the show, it was a little different, but we actually did train them as smart as we could. That pretty much meant not training them, but keeping them mentally prepared and as fresh as possible. Anytime you fight that many times in a few weeks, it's rough.
JB: After Rashad left Jackson's MMA to train in Florida, I believe that you went with him and that you eventually were a coach with the Blackzilians. What was that transition like, what was your experience with the team, and how did your time there eventually end?
MVA: What happened was that Rashad left Jackson's gym before, but he didn't necessarily leave their group. He was training with Trevor Wittman at the Grudge Training Center. We did that for two fights. Then, leading up to the title fight with Shogun, we started to go back to Jackson's and reconnected with that whole thing there. It felt really good to both of us. Albuquerque was like a home, and I had lived there a little over two years. So it was kind of like going back home. Everyone was happy to see us, but Rashad got injured. After that happened, after he got injured, basically that fight was done. I was just kind of waiting around because I was basically the coach of just one athlete. I took that job because it was good for him and it was good for me and he was winning. Things were going pretty good.
So, eventually, I got a phone call about the Florida thing, and I went down there and became the head coach of the team. So it was kind of a different type of scenario. It was nothing like being at Jackson's or AKA. It was its own creation. That experience, the team got really big, and it was less simple being coach of that team for me. And because my family was grounded in Arizona, and the team was in Florida, I was stuck with the decision of whether to try and stick it out and stay there or to just stick with my roots in Arizona and the family. So I went with my family of course. That's where we are today. I wish all those guys luck. All the camps I've been at, I love watching the guys fight. I rarely ever have a camp that I cheer against or anything like that. It's more about individuals. I watch fights and I cheer for guys who have a lot of heart, who want to win, and that's it, man. I don't have any animosity toward any of these guys. Like with the whole Jon Jones vs. Rashad thing, I didn't really care much about that or leaving one team for another team kind of thing. I don't hold onto grudges. If it doesn't work out, that's just the way it is.
JB: What are you currently involved with now?
MVA: I left that Blackzilians team in July of 2012, and after I got things set up with my family here, I went on a tour around the country, North America, over to Europe, and I did probably sixty or so seminars. The whole time I was setting up a business here in Arizona. What I'd like to do is just help those who want it, the youth of America. It doesn't matter what sport you're in. It doesn't matter whether you're even in a sport. It's just if you want to get in shape, you want to feel good, you want to become the best you that you can be. I've teamed up with one of the world-renowned strength and conditioning coaches, Tim McClellan. He's a longtime friend of mine. I've known him since 1991. The guy has had hundreds of world champions and national champions and Olympic champions in multiple sports. He's one of the best strength coaches that there is. The way I think about him is that there is nobody that he has ever written a program for that he didn't help. I wanted to broaden my ability to help people. So even though I'm still involved in MMA, and still coaching guys that come to me and want my help, I just wanted to set up a business that would thrive. When I wake up in the morning and go to work, I'm happy. That's what I wanted. Ryan Jimmo, he's an example of one of the guys that I'm still training. Tim and I came up with a better way to train people for a fight, and that's what you're going to see. Anytime you have a new sport there are so many people coming in with their theories, and their nutrition, and their training programs, and all this stuff. And there's a reason why they're not training players in the NFL, the NBA, or Olympic athletes. Maybe they're making something up that looks fancy, but fancy doesn't always win. You might be innovative, but you better have some basis to it. So that's what we do. We stick to the basics, things that work, the things that have been tested, but we also are creators of different ways and better ways to train people for sports and to be healthy and happy for life.
JB: What else do you enjoy outside of training and coaching, and who are the individuals who have supported you most in life?
MVA: I enjoy a lot of things, man. I'm a pretty fun-loving guy to be honest with you. I like nature. I like fishing. Hiking, I like doing that kind of stuff. I don't get to do enough of it. I'm thinking about taking a vacation one of these days. I'm thinking of going up to Canada or something and catch some fish. I enjoy movies. I enjoy my family. I enjoy watching my children play sports. I enjoy the whole process of seeing them learning. I enjoy my whole family life and my wife. I enjoy just getting a cup of coffee. All the little things in life are what really matter. All the hoopla, and the Hollywood scene, and spending money and you got to have this type of clothes thing, all that stuff's not for me, man. I'm just a down-to-earth, hard-working, goal-oriented, driven person, from Waterloo, Iowa, who even at forty-seven feels really good. I think for a while there, maybe a year, a year and a half ago, I was feeling really old. That's gone. I feel really good. I know we're not going to be here forever so I'm trying to enjoy each day for what it is and trying to enjoy each minute.
JB: Last question, Mike, and thanks for taking the time to do this. You have accomplished quite a bit in your life thus far, but what plans or goals do you have for the future?
MVA: I want to give back. I want to help out. My goal is to do something like that. Obviously, I have five children and I've got to take care of them. They go to private school so I have to pay for that. But what I would like to do is maybe start a foundation to help children. I haven't pinpointed exactly what that would be, but when you ask me questions about how I would like to leave this place, what legacy I'd like to leave, it's not about me wrestling for national titles or fighting in the UFC or anything like that. It's about helping others to become successful. In order to do that, you have to have a level of success where you can take care of everything that you need to take care of and then let some of it trickle over to helping others. That's where I'm headed, and I'm really confident right now. I've got a really good group of people that I've met out in New York, and here in Phoenix, and back in Iowa, and around the world. I've got some really good partners that are helping me to set these things up. I'm just looking forward to making it all real.
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