Monday, July 14, 2008

O'Brien's Battles Continue

By Michael Pointer -

Earlier this decade, mixed martial arts began making a dent in the American sporting consciousness.

As soon as a young Jake O'Brien saw it, he figured his combination of superb wrestling skills, brute strength and quick hands would be a devastating force in the sport. He wanted to try it.

"It's why I wrestled in college," said O'Brien, a three-time state champion at Franklin Central High School who later wrestled at Purdue. "I knew the wrestling would help with the fighting. It was something I always planned for."

After a fast rise through the sport was slowed by an injury, the 6-3, 230-pound O'Brien (10-1) still chases his dream of winning the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title.

He will fight Cain Velasquez (3-0) on July 19 in Las Vegas as part of a UFC Fight Night Card. Spike TV will televise the bout.

"His style will be tough because he's a very good wrestler too," said O'Brien, who lost to Velasquez in a collegiate match when Velasquez was at Arizona State. "He's an up-and-coming guy they're trying to build up, and I've built a name for myself.

"We're young guys. We're both the future in the division."

O'Brien was a terror at Franklin Central. Even as a sophomore, he dominated the 215-pound division, which usually is the domain of older, more mature wrestlers.

"He had an extremely quick shot on his feet that was just unstoppable," said Todd Kendrick, O'Brien's coach at Franklin Central. "People used to say all you had to do was stop his shot. Well, saying and doing are two different things."

Kendrick also knew O'Brien had an interest in mixed martial arts. O'Brien would spar with his brother, Josh, and Franklin Central teammate John Wolf.

O'Brien headed to Purdue, where he redshirted for one year and wrestled for another. But he was declared academically ineligible the next season and left school.

"I went there to wrestle and kind of had a bad attitude (toward studies)," O'Brien said. "I just got fed up with it. This (mixed martial arts) is what I wanted to do."

Those close to him knew it would be next to impossible to convince him otherwise.

"I wanted college to be the primary focus," Kendrick said. "But I can't say I tried to talk him out of it."

O'Brien began his career with 10 straight victories, many at 8 Seconds Saloon in Indianapolis. He made the jump to the UFC, the top organization for mixed martial arts, in his eighth fight, and beat Kristof Midoux via technical knockout in November 2006.

Two months later, he won by unanimous decision over the highly touted Heath Herring to improve to 10-0 and appeared to be closing in on a title shot.

"For a heavyweight, he's got extremely fast hands," said Pat McPherson, O'Brien's trainer.

Even before the bout against Herring, O'Brien noticed he was losing feeling in his right arm. Doctors said he had a pinched nerve in his neck, which was pushing a disc onto his spine.

O'Brien underwent surgery and was out of action for more than a year. The injury sounds serious in such a violent sport, but O'Brien said his doctors cleared him to return.

He and McPherson now merely shrug it off.

"In this sport, everyone gets hurt," McPherson said. "I think he's back mentally. He doesn't worry about it much anymore."

O'Brien lost by technical knockout to former heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski in his return bout on March 1 in Columbus, Ohio. But he said the experience left him feeling confident.

"He's one of the top three or four guys in the world," O'Brien said. "It wasn't a setback at all."

McPherson noted a loss isn't nearly as devastating in mixed martial arts as in boxing. Arlovski himself is 15-5.

O'Brien has trained in recent weeks at the Ultimate Cobra Wrestling Club just off Pendleton Pike in Indianapolis. The facility is an industrial area and has no air conditioning. Even with fans, sounds of cars rushing by on I-465 nearby are easy to hear. There's little of the glitz and glamour he hopes comes his way down the road.

A victory next Saturday might put him back on track for that. He admits it won't be easy against an opponent with such a similar background.

"The toughest thing for me is another good wrestler,'' he said. "I like to take guys down. If he's a standup guy, he's usually easy to take down."



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