After getting a late start in the world of mixed martial arts, Neil Grove is looking to make up for lost time.
A black-belt in Goju-ryu karate and a former rugby player in his native-South Africa, Grove made his mixed martial arts debut at the age of 36 in late-2006.
After establishing himself as one of England’s top heavyweights—with wins over James Thompson and Domagoj Ostojic en route to beating James McSweeney for the Ultimate Challenge heavyweight championship in late-2008—Grove made his Octagon debut, a second round submission loss at the hands of Mike Ciesnolevicz, at UFC 95.
In 2010, competing as a professional mixed martial artist for the first time outside of England, Grove entered Bellator FC’s inaugural Heavyweight Tournament.
After disposing of Eddie Sanchez in just over 90 seconds at Bellator 24 and finishing Alexey Olenik in 45 seconds a little more than a month later at Bellator 29, Grove fought Cole Konrad in the final bout of the organization’s inaugural Heavyweight Tournament in mid-October.
Unfortunately for the man they call “Goliath”, Grove was submitted by Konrad, a two-time NCAA wrestling champion and undefeated mixed martial artist, inside the first round of action at Bellator 32.
Currently training for his May 7th bout against Zak Jensen at Bellator 43 in Newkirk, Oklahoma—the first of two qualifying bouts to make a run in Bellator FC’s second Heavyweight Tournament—Grove intends on becoming Bellator’s heavyweight champion in the very near future.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Neil Grove about everything from his beginnings in the sport to training with Josh Barnett to his upcoming bout and everything in between.
What inspired you to try your hand at mixed martial arts to begin with?
I started doing martial arts in 2000—I was about 29 years old at the time—and I started doing a karate style called Goju-ryu. My sensei was also trained by his dad, who was a judo instructor. We also trained in grappling-arts and submissions. I loved the style—it felt like real fighting.
I’ve been very fortunate to have boxing trainers, Jiu-Jitsu trainers, shoot-fighters—all sorts of different guys—coming to our dojo and teaching their arts. In 2005 I got my black-belt and a year later I thought I’d really like to test my ability, because I was born in South Africa—I’m very competitive; I used to play rugby at a very high-level.
To be honest, I had never heard of the UFC, I never knew that there were any clubs teaching MMA or anything like that. We went to watch a live show and three weeks later, I had my first fight, which was in November of 2006—I was almost 36 years old at the time.
Why do you think you gravitated towards martial arts?
Initially I was only going to do one or two fights and my wife was a bit shocked, because I’m not the kind of person that would go out on streets and start a fight.
It was purely the fact that, at that time in my life, I was the strongest I had ever been and I wanted to see how good Goju-ryu karate was—obviously I’ve seen people say that they’re a black-belt and then get smacked around by someone that doesn’t know what they’re doing. I just wanted to test myself, to be honest.
I found myself winning my first five fights, so I kept on going. I had won fights before I reached my first MMA-lesson.
In the beginning stages of your career, who did you look up to in the sport?
Randy Couture. I really enjoyed watching Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Guys like Phil Baroni. Everyone had different styles and I had never done wrestling or anything like that, but I found it very interesting. Most of the time, it was the strikers that I was really keen on watching. Chuck Liddell was definitely at the top of the list.
Is there anyone fighting nowadays that you admire or look up to?
Georges St-Pierre; because he comes from a karate background that is very similar to Goju-ryu. I definitely like to watch Georges St-Pierre fight. Anderson Silva, obviously that new guy; Jon “Bones” Jones—obviously he’s amazing and when you look at his style, it’s a very traditional martial arts style of fighting—the guy is in control of everything he does. Most of the fighters that I really enjoy watching are strikers.
Did you ever think that you would be this successful in the sport?
No. Like I said, I was only going to do one or two fights and I’ll be honest with you; even after my first fight, I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it again.
My second fight was a very tough one and my third fight was a very big fight for me; I got it on two days notice and fought James Thompson—I knocked him out in 10 seconds in front of about 12,000 people in the crowd that night. That was in a big show and it, kind of, put me on the map at the time in the UK.
After your first few fights, when did you realize that this could be a career for you?
I’ll be honest with you; even after becoming English champion in a company called Ultimate Challenge, I wasn’t sure if I could make a career out of it. The money is not that great in the UK and the sponsorships aren’t that good either.
I came into contact with Ken Pavia a year after that and in 2010, he got me into Bellator’s heavyweight tournament and only since then have I been able to say that I’m making enough money to say that I’m making a living out of it.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t making a living in the sport?
I’m a qualified personal trainer and sports therapist—I train people. I’ve been doing that for 10 years and because of my martial arts background I’ve been able to teach people how to defend themselves. The mixed martial arts has helped me teach my clients more. I think if I wasn’t fighting for a living, I’d definitely be teaching.
Do you feel that your time as a teacher makes you a better fighter?
I trained with a company, and the head-coach did a couple of fights and he won. He’s younger than me and I always thought that he could still be a great fighter...I think when you decide to coach, you need to either be a coach and not want to fight—which would make you a very good coach.
Greg Jackson is a good example; he’s a fantastic coach and I think he did fights, but he’s a better coach by not competing. Look, I’m not saying that coaches that fight are bad coaches, I just think, that for me personally, if I’m going to be a coach then I don’t want to be fighting any more.
I haven’t coached—to be honest with you. I’ve gone to clubs and I’ve shown them my ability and shared my knowledge with the guys—that doesn’t really make me a coach.
Is coaching something that you’d be interested in doing when your fighting days are behind you?
Yeah, for sure. I’m still fighting for Bellator and I want to make sure that I’m in the heavyweight tournament this year. I’ve got two qualifying fights and if I win those and win the tournament then I’ll have the opportunity to do what I want to do; have a rematch with Cole Konrad.
He’s a fantastic wrestler—one of America’s best—and I feel that in my fight against him I didn’t show my ability; I was more worried about his way of fighting, so I fell into his hands.
I think once you achieve something like becoming the tournament-winner, it puts you up and people notice who you are, so when you do decide to start coaching people will come to you—rather than just being mediocre or a fighter that hasn’t achieved much yet. I’d like to coach in America, because MMA is so much bigger over here and like I said, if you’ve achieved something, people will want to come to you to learn.
Could you tell me a bit about your life growing up?
As a teenager I was fortunate enough to go to eight different schools [laughs]. My father moved us around a lot...Moving around so much, you learn to adapt to your environment very quickly.
When you go to a new school you tend to get picked on and when we were moving around—I was eight, nine, 10 years old I was getting bullied quite a lot. In the beginning you get up and you carry on but eventually you get up and you start fighting back—you still lose but at least you’re starting to fend for yourself and then by 16, 17, guys weren’t picking on me anymore.
It sort of hardened me and the fact that I’ve played rugby my entire life—it toughens you. When I was 18 I moved to a different city to study. I think moving around makes it very easy for me to adapt. I moved from South Africa to England in 1996 and found myself making a living very easily and very quickly.
I think, because of my upbringing, I’ve learned to make friends quick and pick my friends carefully.
I think a lot of people would think, “Wow—eight schools. You must not have any long-term friends.” But I look at it differently; I’m very happy with the way I was brought up—I’m from a loving-home, I’ve got a very good mom.
I’ve got sisters, so you tend to learn how to deal with women and how to behave around them—I had a good upbringing.
How are you feeling going into this year’s tournament?
I love the tournament format. I think Bjorn [Rebney] has explained it quite a lot on the internet why he likes it, because obviously it gives everyone in the tournament a chance to fight for the title.
With other events, it’s up to the match-making and the bosses get to decide who’s fighting who—anybody can fight for the title, even after two fight you can get a title-fight and win it.
This way, you have to prove that you’re the best by winning—then the winner of the tournament gets to fight the champion. I know of one guy—Eric Prindle—who’s fighting in the tournament.
Like I said, I've got two qualifying-fights. They’re making it hard for me, but it’s worth it...I’m looking forward to it.
How confident are you heading into your bout against Zac?
Confidence comes from your training camp and with time. Right now I’m not thinking about confidence; I’m thinking about a new way of fighting.
I’m training with Josh Barnett, learning new skills and I’m trying to learn as much as I can with him. Confidence just comes naturally and it definitely builds up towards the fight. Before my fights I feel invincible—I can fight anyone. The new thing that I’m learning; catch-wrestling—I’m really enjoying.
How big of an impact has Josh Barnett had on you?
Josh is the nicest guy on Earth. You see him on TV and he’s an entertainer, but if you get to know him he’s a completely different man: he’s articulate, he’s intelligent.
He coaches when he spars with you and he has a really nice way about himself. Every day I go in there, I’m getting something new out of myself and I’m learning something new from him, as well.
Do you feel that there are a lot of misconceptions regarding Josh?
Oh, yes—for sure. Then again, that’s what he’s all about. He’s a showman—that’s all a very big show—and like I said, once you get to know him you see a different side of him. He’s a fun guy—he’s funny, he has a very bad taste in music.
[Laughs] What kind of music does he listen to?
[Laughs] Really noisy, banging music. I don’t know if it’s thrash or metal—I don’t know what it is. I tease him about it all the time. Sometimes we’d listen to jazz music or maybe blues during training and then all of a sudden he comes in and changes it to this head-banging, metal, guitar-playing stuff.
That doesn’t get you pumped up?
[Laughs] You know what? It doesn’t bother me. I’ve been in training camps where there was no music at all—absolutely no music. Music can pump you up; I’ve done wrestling, just doing ground-work listening to blues and getting pumped up.
Why do you fight?
It’s addictive—to be honest. Like I said, when I first started I was only going to do one or two fights, but once you start winning—even when you start losing, after I had my first loss it was extremely depressing and I had to work very hard to get motivated to get back up and carry on doing it, but I find that the fights after my losses are my best fights.
You know the old saying: it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s what you do when you get back up.
There’s no way I’m having two losses in a row. The sensation that you feel after you’ve won makes you feel really good about yourself, you feel like you’ve done something for your fans, I’ve done something for my family and when I fight, I fight for my boy and I fight for my wife and I fight for my fans and I fight for my friends.
Like I said, it’s addictive—people saying how good you are, how much they enjoy watching you fight—that’s why I fight.
How does your family feel about your career?
In the beginning they were very support and then towards the middle—obviously, it took up so much of my time so I tend to work less so I’m making less money—it became very hard for my wife...It’s very hard being away from my family; I miss both of them very much and it’s safe to say that my wife is pregnant again—we’re not too sure about the date but it will be either 14 weeks or 17 weeks.
Congratulations. Having children—especially with one on the way—how motivated does that make you when you step into the gym?
You know what? I visualize the man I’m fighting has got my children and locked them in a cage and I’ve got to beat him up to get them out. He’s standing in the way of providing for my family, so they’re a big encouragement.
Have you thought about how much longer you’d like to compete?
I’d like to compete until my body starts saying, “No” [laughs]. I’m 40 and luckily for me I started really late. Look at Randy Couture; I think he started when he was 34 and he’s still competing—he’s not competing as much—but he’s still competing at 46, 47 and he’s still competing at a very-high standard. He’s an inspiration—if he can do it, I can do it. I think I’ve got a couple of years left in me.
Have you thought about how much longer you’d like to compete?
[Laughs] Well, I’d like to become the Bellator heavyweight champion and stay champion for a couple of years. I’m looking at the heavyweights that are getting singed, and they’re a lot stronger, a lot bigger, a lot better than the guys that were signed last year, but I’ve been learning and I’ve been training very hard. I feel that I’ve got a lot more to offer and a lot more to give.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to your fans while you have this opportunity?
Without my fans, none of this would be possible. Their support has kept me going; kept me want to continue competing and kept me wanting to have exciting fights and exciting finishes—which has really been lacking lately.
A lot of fights go down to the ground and, especially if you’re not familiar with the wrestling-arts and you’ve only seen the sport a few times, you love to see the guys stand up and bang—which is my style of fighting, I like to punch.
As long as I can keep them exciting and make people want to see me fight, I’m going to continue to do it—and without the fans, that’s not possible.