The real heroes of MMA are the fighters at the bottom; the men who toil and sweat not for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but for the chance at fame and for the sheer love of fighting, men like West Virginia's Ryan Shank.
Shank is a 5-0 amateur fighter who was scheduled to make his pro debut this weekend at the North American Allied Fight Series (NAAFS) in Cleveland, Ohio.
The trials and tribulations of big time professional fighters like Georges St.Pierre and Anderson Silva are well known, but the plight of local, regional fighters aren't discussed as extensively because it doesn't garner page views, clicks, and therefore advertising revenue.
But the struggles and triumphs of men like Shank deserve to be covered.
So what is the hardest part of a burgeoning pro fighter's job?
"Cutting weight," Shank joked when he spoke with Bleacher Report.
"Just getting—when there’s not a fight on the horizon, going to the gym and busting your ass…just working hard to work hard and improve. I think a lot of guys have trouble with that. I don’t know, I’ve never had that problem myself. I try to approach each workout as a learning experience."
Shank has been learning about the martial arts for quite some time. His passion started with wrestling, but was further kindled by Pride Fighting Championships.
"I’ve wrestled since the 6th grade" he said.
"I would remember watching Pride, like coming home from school and Pride would be on FOX sports net and I just really really liked it."
Pride got him focused on MMA, but it was an injury that ultimately helped Shank choose MMA as his path.
"I wrestled two years in college and I knew I wanted to do it after I got done wrestling but I was hurt almost all last year and I didn’t get to wrestle much and I just spent most of the time watching jiu-jitsu videos and fights and stuff and thought ‘why not just go for it?’"
Unfortunately for Shank, he lived in West Virginia, which doesn't exactly have a reputation as a hotbed for mixed martial arts. In fact, the state just had their first professional MMA event earlier this year.
A state with sparse MMA training has the detriment of offering little in the way of training partners.
"The amount of training partners is kind of a trouble. I do have 3 or 4 regular guys that I train with that are good. But, ya know, only one or two are fighters. So it’s not like I get to train with them everyday. It’s not like I’m at a gym with a fight team or fight team practice," he said.
At this point, some might just scoff at his problems and tell him to go to a bigger, better training camp. But that's part of why life as an up and coming fighter is so difficult; decisions like that aren't easy to make.
"I’m kind of in that process right now. My best friend lives in New York and we’re possibly gonna move in and get an apartment up there and go to either like Renzo’s or Serra-Longo and train up there." he said.
"What’s making it hard is you know, for me, New York City is an expensive city to live in. Loyalty is a big thing and I don’t want to leave the people who were there from day one—even though I would try to come back here to West Virgina as much as I could. Just leaving the familiarity of where your from…to just pick up and leave and go to a new city with new training partners and you don’t know if it’s gonna work out and if you’re gonna gel with the guys in the gym or butt heads. It’s just the unknown. I guess it scares a lot of people."
The fates of all regional and local fighters are part of the unknown. That is why the amateur fighters are the real heroes in a sense. Ryan Shank and his ilk help to grow the grassroots of the sport and are the very future of the sport.
When they fight, there is no guaranteed paycheck for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are no big "fight of the night" bonuses, there are no locker room bonuses. There is a pittance that barely covers training and travel expenses if it covers them at all.
Yet men like Shank endure to fight another day and, in spite of all odds, rise up to become something more.
Yet Shank will have to wait. Another struggle fighters in his position face is fights being delayed or outright canceled.
As mentioned above, Shank was scheduled to make his debut Saturday but, several days after the interview was conducted, Shank announced via twitter that his opponent was injured and had to pull out.
Before departing, Shank wished to thank the people who made his life as a fighter possible.
"All my training partners, my trainer Butch Hiles, he’s really helped me along in BJJ, Combat Corner for sponsoring me. Even though right now it’s just gear, that’s still money saved and that’s a tremendous help for someone who’s just started to get into making money to fight."