For aspiring light heavyweight Joe Yager (5-1) the journey started almost five years ago in a scorching hot Tucson gym competing in a smoker event. He fought in front of a packed house of rabid fight fans who filed in to watch local scrappers get it on.
With a background as a lifelong wrestler, Yager expected his competitive history to translate into a position as a coach somewhere and didn’t aspire to much more at the time. Then he met Coach Joey Rivera who owns, operates and competes out of Apex MMA.
Rivera had designs to transition Yager and his wrestling expertise towards becoming a mixed martial artist. To hear Yager tell it in his recent interview with Todd Jackson, Rivera has a way with words that leaned him in a direction which he had never really considered an option.
Yager told Jackson, “I was never going to fight in MMA. I am so thankful that one day I ran into Joey Rivera. We got to talking one day and he asked me if I would come in and coach wrestling. I told him I would be more than happy to. A week later he had a fight scheduled for me but I didn’t want to do the fight I was just there to coach and help out. But as Joey tends to do and the way he is, he persuaded me the other way. He is pretty good at that. He came to my house that day, picked me up, and talked me right into fighting.”
While fighting may not have been his first choice, Yager explained how he has never looked back since the first time he took his corner inside an MMA cage.
“When they shut those cage doors for the first time and those hairs on the back of my neck stood up, I just knew this was the place for me.” Yager explained, “I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie and nothing gets the adrenaline going like looking across a cage at someone who wants to take your head off.”
The rest, as they say, is history, and now four-and-a-half years later Joe Yager is realizing a new dream of becoming an elite mixed martial artist. On June 19 he will compete on a landmark fight card as he competes at Bellator 96 in the light heavyweight division.
Competing for Bellator has long been the goal for Yager and his management team. The road has been long and difficult, but he has finally earned a shot in the Bellator cage and is chomping at the bit to make his mark.
Yager talked about his goals and level of excitement leading into his Bellator debut. “Bellator is a great organization and is one of the very elite. It is still growing, and could be as big as the UFC before too long. I believe the opportunities are endless with Bellator. I am so excited that they have given me this opportunity.”
He went on to say, “This is great. I’m excited to be fighting on a big stage. This is a prime opportunity and I have a great opponent.” Yager added, “I’m really excited about fighting for Bellator in particular. I know my teammate Ed West fought on the card for Bellator 91. He got an amazing head kick knockout in front of 1.3 million viewers. So there is a huge opportunity. Just to get my name and my management team U.S. Elite Combat out there, and further put my team Apex MMA out there, this is just great for everybody that I am involved with.”
Being a lifelong competitor, but young in MMA, Yager sees these as really the first steps towards his greatest potential. He said, “This is just the beginning. I feel like my career is really just getting started right now. I have had a lot of people behind me to get me to where I am at today, and I just want to continually get better because I want to be a world champion. This is my time. It is time for all of the hard work I have put and will put in to pay off.”
It starts with a tall order as Yager looks to hand his opponent his first loss inside of a cage. He shared a brief insight on the match-up saying, “About two-and-a-half weeks ago, I got a new opponent. I drew Brandon Halsey (3-0) who is an outstanding wrestler. He was an All-American and just a great competitor. I feel like I’m no slouch either, and I am prepared. I’m coming off my first loss and dealing with a lot of trying times in my personal life. I’ve had seven months of motivation and preparation for this. I’m definitely ready to let it go on fight night.”
Yager added, “To me I think our wrestling is going to cancel each other out in this fight and whoever brings the better striking game into this fight is going to win it.”
His motivation for competition and success is driven by many angles in his life. None more so than the light of his life who came into his world almost three years ago, his baby girl. The proud father beamed with pride when asked about the contrast of being a ferocious fighter and balancing that with being a father.
He explained, “My little girl is my life and everything I do is for her. I picked her up today and we went and swam for a few hours, then went for a run in the stroller, and had dinner and a movie before I put her to bed. The days that I have her it is just she and I. I put everything else aside. I want our relationship to be the best for both of us.”
“She is my passion and everything I do revolves around her. This opportunity that I have coming up could be the opportunity I need to set us up for the rest of our lives.”
This opportunity did not come easily and Yager is the first to speak about the hard work of those around him who helped guide him to this chance he coveted.
He talked about his management team saying, “My manager Donald Royer Sr. has been a good friend. I approached him because I was having trouble getting solid fights and people kept turning me down. That was a good thing because it kept me hungry, but I wasn’t fighting. Don said ‘Let’s get something started’ and he hooked up with Christian Claudio and they started this management team called U.S. Elite Combat, and I was the first one to sign with them.”
In particular, Yager was sure to clarify his appreciation for a dear friend. “Before Don was my manager, he was my friend. He has been there for me through some hard times in my life. He is just such a class act and cares so much about his guys and this sport. So I want to thank him for being a great man, great manager, and a great friend.”
While it may sound a bit cliché, this is the biggest fight of Joe Yager’s life. On June 19, that chat Yager had with Coach Rivera years ago, the motivation of a little girl he didn't know would drive his life for the better, and the hard work of a dear friend will come to fruition as this man digs into his corner on fight night and goes to work under some of the brightest lights this sport has even known.
This will be the moment where all of that motivation and all of those circumstances comes together for Joe Yager to kick the door wide open and seize an opportunity many fighters could work for their entire careers and not achieve.
His aspirations, once humble, now include not only becoming a Bellator champion at light heavyweight but someday moving down to middleweight and earning a title there as well. He intends to become the first-ever champion in two divisions for Bellator, which is a task few men have achieved in any organization.
The first steps on that journey will be taken very soon and what follows is anyone’s guess. Yet Yager feels confident and prepared to make his presence known not only in the Bellator light heavyweight division, but across the organization as a force which will not fade away.
Visit Bellator’s website for more details on how to watch this event.
Many sponsors believe in him and have lined up to support Joe Yager. He asked that we support them by sharing their names here: US Elite Combat, Buffalo Wild Wings - Irvington & I-19 Tucson, Diamond MMA Eric Fletter, APEX MMA Joey Rivera and my teammates, Old School Boxing Coach Valdez, Primero BJJ Joe Solorio, Martial Arts Way- Flagstaff ( George Bell), Mastadon Mouthguards Louie Salazar, 4Le$$ Auto Robert Gainey, Major Ink Tattoo/ Kyle Eaton, Centerline Wraps, Defense soap, Fight2Night Apparel Arnaldo Rivera, Rubberwatch Shop, Arizona Cottons, Royeradvocare.com, Fight church Josh Boyd