After a controversial loss at the hands of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in May 2010, Jason Brilz will be looking to once again have his hand raised inside the Octagon tonight at UFC 129.
A professional mixed martial artist since 2000, Brilz racked up 15 victories before being signed by the UFC in late 2008.
Inside the Octagon, Brilz has notched wins over Brad Morris, Tim Boetsch, and Eric Schafer, while dropping split-decision losses to both Eliot Marshall and, most recently, Nogueira at UFC 114.
Currently, Brilz is slated to take on Vladimir “The Janitor” Matyushenko at UFC 129 in Toronto.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Jason Brilz about his early days in wrestling, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s late wrestling program, and his upcoming bout with Matyushenko.
What inspired you to get into wrestling in the beginning?
It was mainly my uncle. Growing up in North Dakota, you either play hockey or you wrestled and I could never stop on my skates, so I started wrestling [laughs].
Do you remember your first match?
Yeah. I think I was in second grade and I got cross-faced and cradled. I remember I cried the whole way home and I had a bloody nose and a fat-lip.
Where you passionate about it right away?
I didn’t like it initially, just because I got hurt. But I stuck with it and after that, I just enjoyed it immensely.
What do you think made you gravitate towards it?
My uncle used to wrestle, too. We’re pretty close—he’s only four years older than me, so he’s like a big brother. He was always wrestling.
Did he wrestle at a high level, too?
He wrestled up to high school. I believe he qualified for the state tournament and then went into the military.
What inspired you to try your hand at mixed martial arts?
I was missing competition, so after I was done competing at the college level, I was coaching and doing some tournaments and stuff and a buddy said, “Hey you should try this.”
What were your first impressions of MMA?
Ah, rowdy [laughs]. Pretty crazy. It was something that I wasn’t expecting; I didn’t realize that there was so much technique involved, initially.
I knew there was a lot of technique in wrestling, but there’s a lot of technique in Jiu-Jitsu and in boxing. It was almost overwhelming at first, but it was a lot of fun learning.
Were you expecting to go in there and, kind of, dominate with your wrestling skills?
No. I just enjoyed competing. When I wrestled, I wasn’t even varsity on our college team—I wrestled a couple varsity matches here and there and I placed in a couple tournaments—but there was always someone better than me on my team; I think we had two national champs at my weight and a three- or four-time All-American while I was there.
It was tough just to make the team. I never thought my wrestling was overwhelming by any means—I think it was my desire to compete and to win.
Do you think your wrestling has helped you a lot in your mixed martial arts career?
I know it has. It has. Just like, you know, how a boxer is going to say how his boxing background helped him in mixed martial arts. It definitely gives me a nice edge.
Is it a psychological-edge, too?
Yeah. You know, you push your body through a lot in wrestling—much more than in other sports; especially back in the day, with the weight-cutting. It was horrible how we used to have to cut-weight and you’d still have to wrestle.
The only way to make it was if you were mentally-strong, and if you weren’t mentally-strong, then you weren’t going to last long in wrestling.
What’s your mindset as a collegiate wrestler?
You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get it done. There are no shortcuts; you have to make weight and then you had to perform. You had to do what you had to do.
How much weight did you cut, back in the day?
I used to wrestle at 167 ... From the start of the season, I’d start at 210.
Do you think that took a toll on your body?
Yeah. It’s horrible. My first five years of competing, I fought at heavyweight in mixed martial arts, because I refused to cut any weight. I was only walking around at 215, so I could’ve easily cut down to 205 no-problem. But, you know, I was like, “I’m not cutting a single pound.”
Do you think that hurt you?
No; I think it helped me, actually. I enjoyed fighting those heavyweight guys. They were big and strong and I’d walk out there and these guys would be 40 pounds heavier than me and three or four inches taller and they’d hit like a truck. I would just go out there and compete.
In the beginning, was mixed martial arts something that you thought you could make a living off of?
No. I was making 50 or a 100 bucks for my first couple fights, you know? It was more of a supplemental income.
Why did you get into firefighting?
My brother-in-law is a firefighter and a couple of guys that I train with are firefighters, too.
Is that something that you always had an interest in?
Yeah, pretty much. You talk to any young kid and they say, “Oh, I want to be a firefighter or a police officer,” you know? That was always lingering in the back.
Initially, I wanted to get into medicine, but I realized that I couldn’t do a lot of things that I still enjoyed doing—like coaching, wrestling, and all of that stuff. I was in school and I thought, “Well, you know what? I’ll teach.”
I was in school for quite a while—while I was coaching—and I was getting my teaching credentials and I was like, “You know what? There’s no way that I can go from coaching college down to coaching high school.” I didn’t see how I could do that.
Why is that?
It’s the mindset of the high-school kids compared to the mindset of the college kids; it’s a completely different mindset. Sometimes you talk to the coaches and they say that they get about 80 kids out at first and then half of them leave and then you have to kick out another 20, so you end up with a good, solid 20-crew. I’m not going to do that, you know?
I have 30 kids at the college level that want to be there, that are going to listen to me, and have been recruited by a top coach already. I don’t want to deal with all of that drama stuff; I just want to go out there and coach these kids and make them better wrestlers and better students.
How long have you been coaching for?
Since 2000 or ’99—about 12 years.
Is that a rewarding job for you?
Yeah, I love it. We just won our third consecutive national title and that night they cancelled our program.
So, my coaching days are done at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but we’re still looking for other places to go...They’re moving to Division I, so they’re dropping their football and wrestling programs to better align themselves with the league that they’re going to.
How do you feel about that?
I think it’s probably one of the dumbest moves ever [laughs]. Personally, I don’t know how you drop a national-championship program as an athletic director—especially a program that has won six national titles in the last eight years—we’re pretty much self-sufficient; our budget hasn’t changed since ’79 and we raise all of our own money.
For them to drop it is just ridiculous. I don’t think they thought it all the way through; I think it was a rash decision and it’s going to hurt the school in the long run. But, that’s just my thoughts.
Do you think your squad could compete at the Division I level?
Oh, yeah. Easily. We had two of our guys beat two of the guys that were in the national finals in Division I. Our guys could compete in Division I, but the thing is; you have to sit out for four years—there’s no post-season play, nationals, or conference titles for four years.
More or less, all of the sports are going to be club-sports for the next three years and then the coaches will start recruiting, everyone will redshirt for a year and then they’ll be able to compete at the Division I level.
Sure we could’ve, but not many guys would stick around and wrestle just for the fun of it; you have to have something at the end.
What’s the rational on the administration’s behalf?
Money. It’s always about money.
And you think they’re going to regret that?
Oh, definitely. You know, their mission statement at the University of Nebraska is to help promote the community by providing a university for the kids of Nebraska. They’re really pushing golf and soccer and hockey. There’s not one Nebraska high-school that offers hockey.
There’s, I think, 60 schools that offer soccer and 30 or 40 that offer golf. On the other hand, there are over 250 schools that offer football and wrestling. In reality, you’re cutting down your chances of having kids come to their school.
You’re going to have to bring in kids from out-of-state. It will be interesting to see how many Nebraska kids come to UNO to play soccer and to play golf. There’s not going to be that many.
If you want to play hockey in Nebraska, you’ve got to have some money and those kids go off and play in Minnesota or Michigan. It is what it is.
How did you learn of this news?
They called us the night of our national-meet. We were out celebrating and the athletic director called up the coach and said that they were dropping football and wrestling. It was about an hour after we won it, so it was pretty bad timing.
That is bad timing. What do you think motivated that?
They said that the newspaper was running an article the next day, so they said that they wanted to let us know so we wouldn’t be blindsided by the newspaper. I think it shows the character of our athletic director and of the administration.
Where do you plan on going next?
Our coach is taking most of our team down to St. Louis. I’ll probably go down there a couple times during the wrestling season to help out, but other than that, I’m not sure.
We’ve got a couple coaches that are putting together a Greco and a freestyle club, so I’ll probably help out there.
What does being in the UFC mean to you at this point?
It’s unbelievable. Especially on this card—people recognizing you—it’s very cool.
Is it at all overwhelming?
Sometimes. What was overwhelming was the first week after I took that fight with ‘Lil’ Nog’; I wasn’t prepared for all of the interviews and that type of stuff—there were a lot of long days, you know? I still have my life at home. My wife still works and I still work and I’ve got to find time to train, I’ve got the kids.
Do you feel that you won your match with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira bout?
It was based on the first-round. I thought I won the second and I thought he won the third, so it all depended on who won the third.
How did you score it?
I scored it as a draw. My whole thing was to go out and perform, and I think I did that.
Do you look at it as a victory?
Yeah. I definitely do. It got me another fight in the UFC, it got me on pay-per-view, and it got me a ‘Fight of the Night’. Some of those things are things that I’ve always wanted; not everyone gets to do those things. It was a win-win for me.
How much do you feel you’ve improved since entering the UFC?
A ton. Every single fight I’ve improved more and more. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about being in the UFC is; it’s motivated me to get better every fight, because every fight, I’m fighting someone better and better.
How are you feeling going into your upcoming bout?
I feel great; I feel really good. I’m ready to go. I’ve put in a lot of work—a lot of hours.
What problems does Vladimir pose to you?
Just like any fight, he’s big and he’s strong, he’s well-versed, he’s a good wrestler—pretty much everything [laughs].
Do you think he has anything to offer you that you haven’t seen before?
I haven’t seen his wrestling in a fight. I’ve competed against very good wrestlers before, but never in a fight situation. That will be interesting—I’ve never fought anyone with his wrestling background.
What do you think his game-plan will be going into the fight?
I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ll let you know after the fight [laughs]. I try not to think about it too much; I’m going to try and go out there and dictate the pace and impose my will.
What would a win this weekend mean to you?
It would mean a lot. Any time you get a win is nice.
Assuming you win, where do you see yourself in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division?
You know, out there somewhere. It’s such a stacked division—the belt changes hands a couple times a year—so, on any given night, anyone can go out there and win.
Realistically, how far do you think you can go in this sport?
Realistically, I have no idea. That’s, sort of, why I’m still doing it, you know? I can see myself fighting those top guys and winning. It would be sort of silly to go out there and fight those guys if I didn’t think I could win.