Our one-on-one interview with Bellator fighter Ian Butler whose recent move to Southern California from St. Louis and new contract with Bellator may bring promising things in 2015.
In late November of last year, Southern California-based mixed martial art promotion Bellator MMA travelled south to San Diego for Bellator 131, which was headlined by veteran fighters and bitter enemies Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar. With the fight season coming to a close, Bellator pushed all of their chips in the pot and held a well-organized, exciting and star-studded fight week that included a Fan Fest, which included appearances by Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture, and Royce Gracie, open workouts and a several press conferences with the promotions biggest stars leading up the big event.
Days leading up to the event, Dave and Busters, one of Bellator’s biggest sponsors, held open workouts for the media and fans. I arrived early to the open workout and grabbed a perfect spot near the mats excited to catch a glimpse of Melvin Manhoef, Joe Schilling and Tito Ortiz. With a very light crowd in attendance and the big name stars still en route, the open workout started with a young fighter named Ian Butler. As expected in the year 2015, I went directly to my phone to research Butler as he wrapped his hands. While my internet cycled and I anxiously waited to learn more about this young fighter, I looked back at Butler and noticed a legend wrapping Butler’s hands. It was Dean Lister. This just became interesting.
As Butler and Lister began to move around on the mats, my interest was at an all-time high. Knowing very little about Butler at that time, I didn’t know what to expect from Butler on the pads, let alone the fight that was only three days away. And with Dean Lister in his corner, my skepticism about Butler was quickly turned to comfort and intrigue.
I watched closely as Lister held pads for Butler and the young man started to fire off straight rights and short hooks. At times I would catch Butler glancing around the workout area seemingly taking it all in. At the beginning, his face showed his nerves. But slowly, as the pads began to thud and his feet swiftly moved across the mat, Butler began to show a smile backed with a powerful thrust from every punch and kick. That is when I looked back at my phone to learn more about Butler. I had to know what this kid was all about. And then, I came across a video.
As Butler and Lister rested momentarily, preparing to roll with each other to end the workout, the video ended. I closed the link and remember feeling several random emotions. I am a sucker for a good story. And I am a fan of individuals who take adversity head-on, overcome it and create opportunities from the unfortunate situations they unwillingly have faced throughout their lives.
If you don’t know Ian Butler’s story; you should. Butler grew up homeless on the streets of San Diego and dealt with a family history of drug abuse that left him in the worst place a young teen could possibly be. It wasn’t until he ended up being taken in at a local Salvation Army that he found a home, eventually being adopted at the age of 14 and relocating to St. Louis. It was there in St. Louis, that Butler found wrestling and his career as a fighter truly began.
After a short session on the mats, Butler was done with his open workout. I remember Butler looking around towards the area I was standing. Lister leaned into Butler and advised him to introduce himself to the media. Butler shook my hand first and I told him that he looked good. I also said good luck. A real professional in my situation would have said more. But I was still a bit flustered from the video I watched. I regrouped while the next fighter came to the mats, but remained uninterested in anyone else.
Shortly after, Butler, Lister and two other people were heading to their cars. I left the media section and introduced myself. I let Butler know that I would love to do an interview and he happily agreed. “Great,” I said and we planned to meet the following day at the Bellator Press Conference.
The following day I arrived to the press conference early in hopes to find Butler. I couldn’t find him, but I noticed that there was a large media contingent setting up for interviews. Expecting the likes of Tito Ortiz and Stephan Bonnar to be the subjects of the interviews, I grabbed a seat near the press table. Within moments, I noticed Butler approaching the line of media members. Before I can make it to Butler, a media member said to me, “so did you hear about that kid’s story?” Of course I did, I thought. At that point, Butler’s story had been communicated to all of the media members and Butler soon became the big story of the day.
In Butler’s own words, the publication of his story created a fun environment that made him one of the most interesting stories of the week. “The media stuff was crazy. I’ve done interviews before and I am not shy in front of the camera, but it did take over my life for that week. I was game though. It was fun and I really enjoyed it,” Butler told me.
Not only did Butler’s story take center stage that day, but in a commendable move by Bellator, the surging promotion moved Butler’s fight up to the main event of the preliminary fights. This was a show of support Butler was grateful for. “After the story leaked out during press week in November, Bellator really put a lot of PR behind me and supported me on such a big card with legends of the sport. And I was right there with them. I will always be grateful for that,” Butler said.
Butler and I were unable to get together that day as the media tornado abruptly sucked him in and occupied his entire day. We messaged each other later that night and being a man of his word, Butler promised me an interview somewhere down the road. He told me, “I am coming back to Cali next year we can do an interview then,” and he thanked me profusely for supporting him. I have looked forward to that interview for three months, and two weeks ago Butler contacted me upon moving back to California for an interview. I happily obliged.
Ian Butler’s story is well-documented now. His past presented challenges and adversity some of us will never know, or can even fathom. Through it all, Butler never wavered. And when times were tough, the kid with the million dollar smile always stayed positive, knowing that one day his time would come.
“I don’t think my story will ever truly be behind me,” Butler tells me. He continues, “It will be tied to me for life and I think it will continue to come up during interviews, but honestly if I am can inspire people through my story then I did my job.”
Now a permanent resident in California, Butler is confident that he is receiving the best training possible and slowly building his reputation as a rising star in MMA. According to Butler, recently moving to California was a requirement of taking the next steps in his MMA career. He even received some advice from one of the world’s best fighters while teaching a class in St. Louis. “When I was working at UFC Gym in St. Louis I met Donald Cerrone and I asked him how he got to where he is today. And he told me that you need to continue to learn from different coaches and gyms. Even my coach in St. Louis told me that it was time for me to take that step,” Butler said.
With a smaller MMA scene in St. Louis, his coaches advised him to seek out an area that of the country that treated MMA like its number one commodity. “My plan wasn’t necessarily to come back to California. I love my gyms and training partners in St. Louis, but Bellator is a top notch organization with world-class talent that I am going to be facing my entire career. I need to be out here with the best coaches and fighters in the world so I can continue to improve,” Butler explains. With his godparents residing in the area, Butler set his eyes on San Diego and never looked back.
“When I first came out to San Diego I stopped in at Alliance and had a good experience, meeting Brandon Vera and other fighters. Alliance is a great gym, but I came upon Victory MMA one day and met Dean Lister…and the rest is history,” Butler said.
Even a novice MMA fan knows the name Dean Lister. And if you have lived in San Diego for any amount of time, you are well aware that Dean Lister is a local legend on the mats and in the cage. When Butler arrived at Victory for the first time he made an instant connection with Lister.
“Dean (Lister) was actually preparing for his Metamoris bout against Josh Barnett when I met him. He asked me where I was from and he invited me to roll with him while the cameras were here doing a story for Metamoris,” says Butler. “We rolled for 30 minutes and that same day he started helping me with my first professional fight. For him to take time out of his schedule like that . . . I can’t beat that. It was a blessing,” Butler continues.
Butler was signed to Bellator in the fall of 2014 and he immediately reached out to Lister and Leben. “One of the best parts of last year was when Chris Leben and Dean Lister really invested time and energy into me as a fighter. They told me I have potential and skill, and they told me that I needed to be here to get to the next level,” Butler said.
Having to travel back to San Diego for the Bellator fight, Butler arrived weeks before with a plan to finalize his training with Lister. He even leaned on his coach for a warm couch and some irreplaceable conversation about the fight game, mental focus and his future in the sport. “Dean is great man, I have stayed at Dean’s house when I needed a place to stay. And after my Bellator fight, I learned to appreciate Dean so much more because not only is he a great fighter, but he is a great teacher,” said Butler.
Butler lost a tough fight to Joao Paulo Faria, a well-respected black belt in jiu-jitsu at Bellator 131 in his first fight with the promotion, however, he knows that a loss serves as a learning experience as well.
“I was really proud of myself despite the loss. I love to fight. It was a good experience and you can’t buy that experience. Johnny was a big name, especially in the jiu-jitsu world and I am actually a huge fan of his. People really saw who I was because I put up a fight and landed some nice shots,” says Butler.
Despite the loss, Butler made an impression on Bellator President Scott Coker. After an exciting year for Bellator, a year in which the promotion made some major changes, 2015 promises even more. Butler recalls his first encounter with Scott Coker and smiles ear to ear as he tell the story.
“The first time I met Scott (Coker) I introduced myself and immediately he knew who I was and said that he was excited to see my fight. Scott is such a student of the game and he knows so much about the sport. I really enjoy being around Scott and am blessed to have a relationship with him,” he said.
So what’s next for Ian Butler? Bellator’s May 15, 2015 card right here in San Diego. You couldn’t plan it more perfectly.
“Stay active, plain and simple,” Butler tells me. “I hope to get five fights this year, even if that includes a jiu-jitsu tournament in between.”
Our interview lasted roughly one hour, but for the first time since I could remember I didn’t feel like it was an interview at all. There wasn’t a script. I didn’t have a list of questions. I simply talked fighting with a young fighter who appreciates his place in the MMA world . . . a place he has earned through a life of adversity where that adversity has paved the way for future success.
“My story put me on the map, but my skills are going to keep me there,” Butlers leaves me with.
Special thanks to Ian Butler and Victory MMA for taking the time for this interview. Follow Ian Butler on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/iansilverbackmma?fref=ts and Twitter @SilverBack_MMA.
Ian Butler would like to shout out his sponsors Quest Nutrition, Quest Training, Xtreme Training, Virus, Brutal Gear Clothing, FitMedic, and all of his fans from St. Louis to San Diego and everywhere in between.
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