Tyler Toner: Former UFC Featherweight Sits Down for an Exclusive Interview

Ed Kapp@https://twitter.com/EdKappAnalyst IMay 18, 2011

Although Tyler Toner has dropped two straight bouts—including a decision loss at the hands of Diego Nunes at WEC 51—the former UFC featherweight will be looking to get back to his winning ways in 2011.

Prior to dropping his past two outings, Toner, competing primarily in his native Colorado, racked up 11 professional victories in 13 opportunities.

After claiming Ring of Fire’s featherweight championship, Toner was invited to compete in the WEC in April of 2010. During his time in the organization, Toner notched a first-round victory over Brandon Visher at WEC 48 and a loss against Nunes in late September of last year.

After the WEC was absorbed by the UFC, Toner fought once—a decision loss against Ian Loveland at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale—and was subsequently released from the promotion.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tyler Toner about, among other topics, his experience at the first UFC event in 1993, his early days in the sport and his training at Grudge Training Center in Colorado.

Were you involved in any other combat sports before trying mixed martial arts?

I did martial arts my whole life. I started with Tae Kwon Do, I think, when I was five and I competed quite a bit in that. I was actually the national point-sparring champion when I was eight. I did a lot of boxing and kick-boxing in high school, but nothing serious.

What do you think made you gravitate towards martial arts?

I got into Tae Kwon Do when I was younger, because I think every kid wants to be a ninja and I just wanted to follow through with it [laughs]. I did martial arts all the way up until high school, and I think that interest came back when I was in college and I found a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school.

What inspired you to get into mixed martial arts?

I had always been interested in it. My instructor, back in the day, took us to the first UFC and we were interested in that for a while. But when I was in high school, I wanted to do team sports like football. He always told us that if we could find a legitimate Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor, then we should jump right on it, and when I was in college, I went grocery shopping and—in the same strip-mall—I saw Easton Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and popped in. I took a free class and it turned into two days a week, three days a week and then within a month, I was there, probably, every day.

What were your first impressions of the sport?

I thought it was cool as hell [laughs]. Like I said, I’ve always been interested in martial arts and I was into it right away. I jumped into it head first and never looked back.

And you were at the first UFC event?

I was really young and I hardly remember it, but our instructor took us there and told us that Royce Gracie was going to win it all and we thought he was crazy; we were cheering for Ken Shamrock [laughs]. Like I said, I don’t really remember it all that well, but it was cool to be there for sure.

As an aspiring martial artist yourself, was that inspiring to see a mixed martial arts tournament?

Yeah, I think we were just in awe that the little guy was the guy that won the whole tournament. I think, for everyone that watched that, Royce Gracie probably blew their mind by winning that tournament—it was the same with us.

Looking back, did you think that the sport would be as big as it is today?

I don’t know. I always thought it was exciting. My dad has always been into it, and my brother has always been into it. Back when you had to order Pride tapes on the internet, I would order them and all of my friends wanted to watch them, so I knew that there was a lot of interest in it; it just needed more exposure. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s as big as it is, but I didn’t know it was going to happen that quickly, though.

Did you think, when you started training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that you would be able to turn your passion into a career?

No, I didn’t think so—at all. In my first couple fights, I fought for free. I still think, even if I wasn’t getting paid, I would get in there every once in a while. I didn’t think that it would be a career for me, but I’m glad it is [laughs].

When did you realize that you had what it took to make it a career?

I don’t know. I think the first time I got paid, I think I got paid, like, 200 bucks to show and 200 bucks to win and I was psyched about it; I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do it! I kept winning and the pay-cheques kept getting bigger and, by then, I was working and teaching at the academy—which was my main source of income—and I don’t know; I just kept going and it turned into a lifestyle and a career for me. 

What were your goals when you started?

I don’t know; the first time that I fought, I really just wanted to get in there and try it out—put all of that training to the test. But winning an MMA fight is probably the most addictive feeling that I’ve ever felt in my life, so as soon as I was done, I wanted to get back in there. I’ve still got that going today; every time that I win, it’s like a high, and I can’t turn it off. 

How did you come into contact with Trevor Wittman and the crew at Grudge?

Amal Easton contacted Duane Ludwig to come work on our striking a little bit—it was, pretty much, Eliot Marshall and I at the time. We were just looking for another kick-boxing coach and Duane came in and worked with us for a little bit and our games jumped leaps and bounds after just a few weeks. He would take us down to—it was called T’s K.O.—just to get some sparring in with different guys, different kick boxers, and that turned into a meeting place for a lot of guys in Colorado. We started meeting Nate Marquardt there, a couple high-level wrestlers, and it just turned into the spot for all of the top fighters in Colorado to train.

How much of an impact has that academy had on your professional career?

A ton. I think you’ve got to have a great team to be great; I’m training with the best guys in Colorado and some of the best guys in the world. Trevor is a great boxing coach, Duane is a great kick-boxing coach and they’ve got great wrestling coaches and everything. It’s definitely been a blessing to get onto that team. 

How would you describe the environment at Grudge?

We’re all pretty tight-knit. I think Trevor is a bit reluctant to let new people come and train with us; after somebody trains with us once, he has a team meeting to talk about what we thought and discuss how he trained. We’re all pretty close friends. We train there together, a lot of us wrestle together, train Jiu-Jitsu together, do our strength and conditioning together, so it’s a pretty tight-knit group. I consider everybody that trains there a pretty good friend of mine.

Have you experienced an environment like this at other academies in your career?

A little bit at Easton’s, except not everybody has the same goal there. Easton has a pretty varied populous; you’ve got soccer moms in there that are training, as well as pro fighters. The thing about Grudge is that everybody is on the same path and they’re looking for the same things. We go in there and train—which is hard as hell—and we’re buddies afterwards.

To what do you attribute Grudge’s early success?

It’s hard to say. Like I said, it started off because Trevor is a great coach and they have a centralized location, they have a nice facility, so a lot of the top guys in Colorado gravitated there to train and that, kind of, turned into a team. People saw that we were having a lot of success coming out of there, so more successful fighters came to train with us—a lot of the guys from Jackson’s come down to train. I think it’s just a great learning environment with great athletes and great coaches.

What do you feel the future holds for the academy?

More great things, you know? Like I said, we’ve got great coaches and we’re bringing in new great coaches all the time and training partners that are, you know, high-level wrestlers or high-level kick boxers or high-level black belts in Jiu-Jitsu. The team is getting bigger, everyone is talented and everyone trains well together, so I think that just facilitates success.

How often do you coach?

I teach six days a week.

Do you think your teaching makes you a better fighter yourself?

I do think so. It forces you to think about it and break down the technique. It kind of makes you figure out what you do and breaks down the mechanics, keeps you sharp. You’re always yelling at people to keep their hands up, so you’ve got to do the same—you’ve got to lead by example. I think it helps my technique; I think it definitely keeps it sharp.

Is it—six days a week—ever too much?

I think almost everyone would rather have less obligation than more [laughs]. I enjoy coaching. I never go in there dreading going to work. If I can take a day off here or there that’s great, but I don’t think the workload is ever too much. If I’m making millions, then I might be teaching four days a week as opposed to six, but I think I’ll probably be doing it for the rest of my life.

How did you come into contact with the WEC?

The local promotion that I was fighting for—Ring of Fire—is a really successful local promotion, and the WEC follows the fighters that come out of there. I was their 145 champ and I think the promoter was making some noise about me. Also, Trevor Wittman was in touch with Sean Shelby and Reed Harris. Just watching highlights of my fights and having people talk about me, kind of, peaked their interest, so they signed me.

How did you react when you learned that Zuffa had acquired the WEC?

I was psyched. I always enjoyed watching the WEC more than the UFC—I love watching the little guys—but I felt that the WEC never got the exposure that the UFC got. I was psyched for more exposure and higher paydays for the little guys. I think it was great in that sense.

Originally, you were scheduled to take on Leonard Garcia. Was there any hesitation on your behalf in signing that contract?

Yeah, a little bit. He signed first, but he thought that I had already signed. They told my coaches that Leonard had already signed it. I’ve known Leonard for six or seven years and I called him up and I said, “What the hell, man? Why’d you sign up for the fight?” He said, “I thought you already signed.” We talked about it a little bit—we were both coming off loses and neither one of us wanted to put our career at stake, so we said that we’d fight and go out and buy each other a beer afterwards. It wasn’t something that I was psyched about; it was a little bittersweet, but I would prefer not to fight him if possible, you know?

What’s your take on teammates fighting teammates?

I don’t know if it’s a popular opinion, but I think it’s stupid. There are so many fighters out there, so it is avoidable. Leonard is probably the only guy in the UFC that was my teammate, and out of everybody, that’s the guy that I wouldn’t want to fight. I can see if it’s the champ and the No. 1 contender—maybe you can talk them into it—but it’s tough.

A lot of people that don’t fight don’t understand the mental game that you play on yourself, and the fight plays on you. A lot of times, I force myself into hating my opponent before the fight and it’s tough to put yourself in the right state of mind to fight when you know that he’s a good guy, you know that he’s your buddy and you’ve shared those training experiences with him. I think it’s tough and I’m not a fan of it. I’ll do it if I have to, but it’s definitely not my preferred situation.

Were you relieved when Leonard was forced to withdraw from the bout?

Yeah, it was bittersweet; I was psyched that I didn’t have to fight Leonard, but I had gotten over it mentally and was prepared to fight him. With that being said, I’m glad that I didn’t have to fight him. I wouldn’t want that held between us.

Not to put you on the spot, but have you thought about how that fight would’ve went down, had it happened?

Yeah, I’ve thought about it a lot. With Duane Ludwig—who is my kick boxing coach and Leonard’s kick boxing coach and cousin—it was really tough on him and he, right from the time it was announced, was really bummed about it. I asked him if he was going to corner me or corner Leonard and he said that he’s just going to stay out of it. He thought about it for a second and he said, “That’ll be a good fuckin’ fight, though.” [Laughs]

I thought the same thing. We have similar styles—there are definitely some differences—but we both like to stand and I think we’re both tough, so it would’ve been an exciting fight. Once again, I’m glad I didn’t have to fight him.

If you were put in the same position, would you sign the contract again?

If I had to, I would [laughs]. I’d ask them if they had somebody else for me, but if they tell you to fight somebody, that’s how it’s going to go down.

How do you feel about your performance in the UFC?

Terrible, man. That was the worst fight I’ve ever had. I don’t know why, but I just felt that I was off that night. I had a pretty good training camp, but I just didn’t fight well. Everybody has an off night, and, unfortunately, my off night was my first fight in the UFC. I toughed it out—I made sure I didn’t get finished—but I wish I could’ve put on a better show, for sure.

Do you think it was, I guess, big show-jitters that got to you?

I don’t know if that got to me. The first WEC that I fought on was the first pay-per-view in Sacramento and that was, by far, the biggest crowd that I’ve ever fought in front of. I don’t know how many people were there, but that place was packed. The Palms—which is where my first UFC fight was—is a much smaller, more intimate venue, so I don’t think I was overwhelmed by it.

I think the whole situation—the short-notice fight and trying to get over fighting Leonard and the last-minute opponent change—was a little bit tough on me mentally, but I had an off-night. It happens to everybody. Hats off to Ian Loveland—he beat my ass—but I know that I can perform a lot better than that for sure.

Were you surprised when you were released by the UFC?

A little bit, you know? Even though I lost, I feel that it was an exciting fight—I feel that I always put on exciting fights—and I was a little surprised. Even though it was an exciting fight, every time you lose, you’re kind of cringing every time the phone rings [laughs]. Like I said, I was a little surprised, but I was kind of expecting it in the back of my mind. I’ve just got to get a few wins and get back in there.

Do you have any fights lined up right now?

I don’t. We’re working on it. It’s been really tough to find fights, actually since February, and we’ve had a couple fights fall through, but I’m trying to get back in there as soon as possible.

Why do you fight?

[Laughs] I don’t know, man. Like I said, it’s like a drug; winning an MMA fight is a high like I’ve never felt doing anything else in my life. I’m just chasing that and trying to make a good career out of it and be able to put food on the table for me and my wife and my puppy [laughs].

What about when you lose?

It’s the lowest low in the world [laughs]. Every time I lose a fight—it doesn’t matter if I put on a good performance or not—I’m crushed for a couple weeks. It takes a while to get over it, but the win is worth the risk.

Is it the win that’s everything, or is it the actual fight?

It’s a little bit of both. I enjoy a good scrap and I’m having a good time in there for the most part. The training is great; I love interacting with my training partners and coaches. It’s going to be hard to give up this lifestyle when it’s time, but I don’t see that happening for a while, so it’s all good.

Have you thought about how much longer you’d like to compete?

I’ve thought about it quite a bit, but more about what I’m going to do after I’m done. I’m still pretty young—I just turned 28—and I think I’ve still got a lot of learning to do, so I’m going to keep on getting better and hopefully I can keep on fighting for a few more years. But we’ll see how it goes.

What do you plan on doing when you’re done?

[Laughs] I’ve thought about a tonne of different things—my mind is racing all the time. I’ve thought about becoming a firefighter or any type of job where I still get to be active. I don’t think I could handle being stuck behind a desk all day [laughs]. Or maybe I’ll just keep training fighters.

In the meantime, what do you feel you can accomplish in this sport?

I think that my ceiling is pretty high; I’ve got a lot of potential that I haven’t fulfilled yet. I’m really trying to round out my game. I feel that I’m getting better at striking, better at wrestling, better at Jiu-Jitsu every day. I think I have the potential to beat the best guys in the world—I’ve just got to keep getting better and keep on working.

Is there anything that you’d like to say to your fans while you have this opportunity?

[Laughs] Thanks for being a fan. It’ll probably only be my mom and my brother [laughs]. I appreciate all of the support from everyone and in my next fight I’m going to be coming out hungry—keep an eye out for me.