Minnesota's Ben "The Baker" Neumann returns to the cage on Saturday night, March 23, for Driller Promotions/Sterling Entertainment Group's Havoc at High Five 5. He'll be competing in the main event of the 10-fight card which is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. CST at the High Five Bar & Grill in Burnsville, Minn.
Neumann spoke with Bleacher Report MMA at the weigh-ins about his opponent, Steve Merth, who is making his return to the cage after over three years out of active competition. Although Merth hasn't competed since 2010, his reputation precedes him, at least in Neumann's eyes.
"I’m always trying to get tough fights from Jeremy [Bjornberg] (Driller Promotions matchmaker), so this is a very tough fight," he said. "It’s my first opponent who’s a really strong wrestler. Those guys are always tough even if it’s not on the ground; they’re just mentally tough guys. You have to break those guys. You have to submit them; they’re not going to quit on you.”
Because it has been awhile since Merth last fought, Neumann did admit that it has been somewhat difficult to prepare for his task on Saturday night.
"This one is kind of tricky because I don't think he's fought since 2010, so I don't know if he's been training hard for three years, if he took two years off and has been training for one year," he said. "I've only been training for about six years total, so imagine the fighter I was three years ago. It's very different from the fighter I am now.
"He seems like more of a wrestler and a boxer, doesn’t seem to throw a lot of kicks but, of course, that could have changed over the last few years.”
Neumann noted that the difference in his opponent's skill set could be drastic and explained that he, himself has been through a mental overhaul over the past year.
"I’ve never been in a fight outside the cage," he said. "You couldn’t get me to fight outside of a cage. I was robbed at gunpoint once and at one point during it, I was thinking about taking the guy out. Then I thought, ‘Do I really want to kill someone over 100 bucks?’"
The mental switch needed from being a "nice guy" outside the cage to becoming a fighter in the cage didn't come naturally for Neumann. He comes from a self-defense background, and being the aggressor is something that has taken time.
"In my first few fights, I think I trained a lot more than my opponents and so it didn’t matter too much that I wasn’t able to flip the switch," he said. "Then I got to opponents that were a little harder and I think I was putting myself at a disadvantage, not being ready to commit to finishing. If I have a heel hook, not wanting to break the guy’s leg…I need to be ready to break his leg."
Those who have met Neumann would tell you that he is truly one of the most courteous, gentle human beings in the entire sport. Although that has certainly helped him build one of the biggest fanbases in the state, he also knows that it has made things a little more challenging for him inside the cage.
“If you’re a nice guy outside the cage, I think it’s harder sometimes," he said. "Other people are holding back, in general society, from trying to hurt people. Whereas me, I’m trying to bump it up a level when I go in there. So I think they have it easier in that respect.”
That "nice guy" attitude may have played a big part in the back-to-back losses Neumann suffered in 2012 at the hands of Billy Christianson and Cody Pasquale. While he was physically prepared to fight, his mental game might not have been where he wanted it to be.
“I think I lost two fights where I had the skills to win those fights and I didn’t," Neumann said. “But I felt very focused for my last fight and I think I’ll have that focus again.”
At 27 years old, Neumann is still growing as a martial artist and is committed to becoming a more well-rounded competitor between fights. Unfortunately the schedule he's been on of fighting about every four months has not left quite as much time for him to improve certain areas of his game as he would like.
“I do want to take a short break, maybe six months, before my next fight," Neumann said. “For my next six months, I really want to work on my flexibility because I feel like I’ve really limited myself. I’m flexible in some areas, but for my kicks, height and speed is limited because I have poor hip flexibility."
Although he has a goal of eventually reaching the national level of the sport, Neumann is in no hurry to get there before he's ready.
“My goal is to fight until I’m 35, 36…that’s like seven or eight years," he said. "I’d rather not make it to a big promotion right away if I’m not ready yet. I’d rather develop and feel that I’m unstoppable.”
A big step toward that goal of fighting for a larger promotion would be a win over local legend Steve Merth on Saturday night. Merth's time out of the cage is a big wild card in this one, but Neumann does think he at least has something to go off of.
“It seems like he’s more comfortable from a very close standing space, tight boxing. I’m more comfortable from a distance," Neumann said. "So if I can keep him at range and use my length, I think I can frustrate him outside. Then if he gets in close, I’m comfortable on the ground, too. I have no idea where it’ll finish, but most likely on the ground. I’ve never knocked anyone out before, so it’ll probably be on the ground somewhere.”
"The Baker" nearly sold out the High Five Bar & Grill with friends and family ready to cheer him on, but those interested in watching the event are invited to watch the free live stream of Havoc at High Five, beginning at 6:30 p.m. CST on March 23.