Brian Ebersole probably laughs a little, or maybe a lot, when the phrase “overnight sensation” gets attached to his name. Sure, the difference in attention on a mainstream level is night and day from where it was before he stunned Chris Lytle at UFC 127 in February and became one of the most visible rookies on the UFC roster. But nothing that took more than 11 years and 63 professional fights, in addition to countless more years and matches on the wrestling mat, could ever be called overnight.
So don’t get offended if Ebersole smirks at such a description of his sudden arrival on the UFC stage. If anything, the most surprised party of the bunch is the man himself, who when asked what his reaction would be if someone told him a few years back that in 2011 he would be coming off a win over Lytle and preparing for an August 6th bout against Dennis Hallman on the UFC 133 main card in Philadelphia, he simply says, “I would have probably partied a little bit more. I was too busy working myself to death to try to get here.”
Fate has funny ways of intervening though, and despite his years of toil in the game and a seven fight win streak compiled in his adopted country of Australia, he didn’t get his call to the big show until Carlos Condit got injured and Lytle needed a legit opponent in Sydney. Ebersole was legit, and he just happened to be living and training in Australia. Deal done. Who would have thought that was the way to get in the UFC? Not Ebersole.
“I figured I would fight for the UFC before I was done,” he said, “I just didn’t know what I was gonna have to do to get there, whether it would be diplomatic, be ignorant, pull a Chael Sonnen and talk s**t about everybody, I didn’t know was I was gonna have to do to get attention. I figured as long as I kept winning, I’d be all right. I’m in the gym two, three times a day, every day, so I was doing everything I could to do everything proper. I told them two years in a row that I was in Australia, ready to go to Sydney, and the way I got in was the way I got in. Now I’m just hoping to get some traction and stick.”
If he fights the way he did against Lytle, that shouldn’t be an issue. Unorthodox, quirky, relaxed, yet brutally effective, Ebersole fought as if he had been in the Octagon for years, and after walking away with a unanimous decision win and a Fight of the Night award, the fans embraced him as one of their favorites almost immediately. Was it the “hairow” he shaved into his chest?
“I think it’s the almost 70 fight thing and not being in the UFC,” said Ebersole. “I think a lot of people wondered why I never got a shot earlier, and once I did get a shot, they went ‘man, this guy’s gonna be fun to watch because he knows what he’s doing. He’s always gonna give a fairly tough fight.’ And from the looks of it in my first fight, I think a lot of people realized that I’m not afraid to take five seconds from the heat of battle and entertain and have a bit of a laugh before I step back into the fire.”
You would think that to be a risky strategy, especially in the UFC, where a loss or two can lead to an ouster from the organization. And after fighting for so long to get here, you almost couldn’t blame Ebersole if he wanted to play it safe and grind out a win over Lytle. But he didn’t.
Or did he?
“I was absolutely cautious,” he said. “That was a cautious fight from Brian Ebersole. I kept my distance from the dangerous Chris Lytle. Heck, I tried to wear headgear in the ring, that’s how cautious I was.”
He doesn’t even chuckle at first, but then can’t help himself before continuing.
“I think I can open up a lot more, but I think that’s the case for a lot of guys in the UFC. Some guys open up almost ignorant with their hands, but as a wrestling-based guy, there’s a lot more I can do wrestling wise to be entertaining and to try to gain positions and things like that or to even make the pace of the fight faster. That was a pretty slow paced fight for me.”
It’s almost hard to fathom another fighter quite like Ebersole, whose age (30) doesn’t seem to fit with his experience level. And while he jokes about it, he has certainly earned each year on his fighting calendar the hard way.
“Especially when I haven’t shaved, people definitely think I’m a bit older than I am,” he said. “I assume people think I’m nearing 40, but the truth is, my first three years of fighting, I had 36 fights. I averaged a fight a month, so the Midwest scene definitely allowed me to jump in and have a play a lot, and that came with both good and bad. The bad is that I saw the worst side of a lot of promotions, and the things that could go wrong with a promotion definitely did, and I took losses where I shouldn’t have even took the fight. Not that I physically couldn’t compete, but I probably wasn’t training right. When I first started I was just wrestling. I wasn’t fighting, so it really was my style versus whatever style they brought, and I didn’t have much violence in me and I didn’t have very many submissions.”
He toughed it out though, and those that survived that circuit learned plenty about themselves. Ebersole was no different, but then again, he already knew that he was tough. He can thank wrestling for that.
“I went to a college wrestling room where Matt Hughes was the assistant coach and got my ass beat,” said Ebersole, who wrestled at Eastern Illinois University, Hughes’ alma mater. “If that wasn’t the way to earn my scholarship and get my education, who knows if I would have pitched a fit or not. I just realized that I have to be here, so I’m gonna make the best of it.”
Ebersole didn’t graduate from EIU, but while he was there, he began to develop a style that would eventually become familiar to fight fans.
“When it came to wrestling, I was never the really, really strong guy that just stood in the middle of the mat and pushed people around,” he said. “I was always that guy that was kinda dancing on the outside looking for openings, and I kinda used that in and out game with level changes to open up my shots. So I’m definitely not the physically strongest guy; I don’t have that gymnast power where they can make themselves into a really small ball and they’re an immovable object. There are a few guys who are a bit like that. Matt Hughes and (Josh) Koscheck both come to mind where they can make themselves really small and just push in and you can’t do anything about it. But if I do that, I get walked over. So I need to use that timing mechanism, that element of surprise, and that’s very much integrated into my striking game as well. I’m not gonna go out there like Mike Tyson or a Matt Hughes type wrestler. I’m definitely gonna have to keep myself moving, and I’ll entertain myself and I hope I can entertain the fans with some things that they haven’t quite seen before.”
Not everyone is entertained by Ebersole though, and after his win over Lytle, UFC heavyweight Matt Mitrione had some words with his fellow Midwesterner.
“I need to have fun when I fight,” said Ebersole. “I told Matt Mitrione after he yelled at me at the UFC hotel after the fight about being disrespectful that I wasn’t trying to show anybody up or be disrespectful; that’s just the way I fight. It keeps me loose, and if I can keep myself entertained and happy, I keep on rhythm. I don’t see too many people that go to a dance club and have a crazy, serious look on their face, and that’s kinda how I feel – that’s me dancing, that’s my art. So I’m always gonna be fairly loose and playful, even if I’m getting hit or losing a fight by decision at the time. That’s how I keep my rhythm and myself going. When I tighten up and I look like I’m nervous or being reserved, there’s probably a reason for that; it’s probably because I’m worried about the guy or I felt something, whether it was power in his hands or the wrestling that he has that slowed me down.”
But as entertaining as a fighter can be, eventually, you have to put together enough wins where the big show will take a look at you. By the time Ebersole was two years into his pro career, he was just 11-6, and while he wanted to hit the UFC, he had no idea how to do it.
“I didn’t have a definition of what success was or a path set for me,” he said. “I was just doing it to do it. I didn’t know how to get into the UFC, I didn’t have a manager, I just did my own thing, and it was a way for me to compete. I had my wrestling career cut short due to an incident that got cleared up about nine months later, but I missed the whole wrestling season and that kept me from going back to the team. So I felt cheated out of part of my career, and I took blame as well knowing that I caused myself a bit of an issue. So I found a way to make up for that, and competing in MMA was that way.”
Eventually though, the losses began getting outnumbered by the wins in bigger and bigger numbers, and when he went out to California to train with the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) in 2003, Ebersole didn’t just have a competitive outlet anymore; he has a career.
“I was drifting for a long time, and then I got the chance to move out to California, and I guess I had the delusions of grandeur and things like that, hoping for two and three thousand dollar paydays and maybe the UFC thing, and I went on faith and went and did it,” he said. “It didn’t all go smooth and I messed up in California a bit and didn’t take advantages of all the opportunities that I had, but it came good in the end and I had great training and some awesome experiences as far as fights go.”
Australia would be where he truly made his mark though, and his residence down under was the catalyst for his entrance into the UFC. So much for an overnight success, right? But Ebersole isn’t one to dwell on what could have beens. He doesn’t even resent seeing some fighters who had just a fraction of his experience get Octagon shots before him. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t watching everything that went on in the sport since The Ultimate Fighter helped launch the UFC into the mainstream in 2005.
“I don’t compare it (his story) with anybody else’s story,” said Ebersole. “But when I do look at other kids that have five, six, seven fights and it’s almost like they’re entitled to something, they think they’re owed by the sport. To put it in Aussie terms, that’s when I crack the s**t. That bothers me. They don’t know what people really had to do to get in the game and I hear fans and other people say, ‘well, Brock Lesnar only had two fights (in the UFC) before he got a title shot.’ Well, they’re taking a lot out of the fact that Brock Lesnar was one of the best high school and college wrestlers there was, and then he did the pro wrestling thing, which earned him a lot of fans, so then there’s the business side. You can’t put a value on something like that. But it’s a little bit different. I know that these wrestlers have had hundreds of matches and won dozens of tournaments, they put their time in. But the kids from the boxing or jiu-jitsu background that haven’t quite put it in like that, and they feel entitled, it’s a bit interesting.”
Few fighters coming into the sport these days will have stories like Ebersole’s. They will walk into a gym and learn mixed martial arts as a whole, and by the time they’re ready to turn pro, a few impressive wins on the local circuit will likely get them a fight with some sort of television exposure, and after a few more fights like that, they may get that UFC call that a lot of veterans waited close to a decade for. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it marks a prosperous time for the fighters and the sport. But there’s something to be said for those fighters who came up the way Ebersole did, in an era where if you had talent and five fights, you were cleaning the spit buckets, not hawking your latest t-shirt.
“The guys that had the superstar attitude or that attitude of entitlement, they got that beaten out of them pretty quick back then,” he laughs. “Now you get guys with that attitude and they go to a gym and they get touched up in sparring and they don’t return. They’ll just find another gym and become the bully of that gym.”
Ebersole recalls his days at AKA.
“We sparred three times a week and wrestled five rounds after that,” he said. “It was probably my fault for being the 200-205 pound mark all the time as a middleweight, and I had to spar with the heavyweights sometimes and they don’t exactly tone it down on you. (Laughs) Especially if you’re competing with guys that big, if you’re actually hitting them and stinging them, you can’t complain when they whack you back, even if they’re bigger than you.”
Yet as crazy as these stories are, they made Brian Ebersole a fighter. This Saturday, he will fight in the United States for the first time since March of 2007, and he will do so as a UFC fighter. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s also been worth the wait.
“It’s gonna be a bit emotional because I have a lot of people coming out there,” he said. “I got three wrestling coaches from my youth coming out there, one of them’s gonna corner me, and I’ve got some family members and some friends coming up. I embarked on this journey a long time ago when I left college without graduating to go chase a career in this sport, so to be able to come back to the US in a big show like this gives me that level of success and it validates my career, not just to me, but more so to my family and friends that thought I was crazy for going out and fighting every month.”
Brian Ebersole - A Fighter's Life
"I think a lot of people realized that I’m not afraid to take five seconds from the heat of battle and entertain and have a bit of a laugh before I step back into the fire.” - Brian Ebersole