Pain is part of the game for local MMA fighter

Chad Vandenberg, right, has a punch blocked by his opponent during a mixed martial arts bout at the Bellator Fighting Championships Thursday at the Power and Light District in Kansas City, Mo. A Bonner Springs native, Vandenberg is one of numerous young men in Kansas City giving MMA a try. Enlarge photo

June 24, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO. — The gash on his nose, scrape across his forehead and cut under his eye give the impression that Chad Vandenberg has had a rough evening.

The grin he sports tells another story.

Sure, his body throbs and the damage to his face is very real, but it’s typical stuff for the up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter.

It’s Thursday, June 17, and Vandenberg — nicknamed “The Kansas Kid” — is relaxing at the elevated press table shortly after his bout at Bellator XXII in downtown Kansas City’s Power and Light District. About 30 minutes earlier, the Bonner Springs native kicked off the evening in the first bout on the undercard of the event. He lost to Iowa-based fighter Jared Downing via tapout with 1:35 left in the third period as a crowd of about 1,000 fans looked on.

Now, Vandenberg is sipping on a cold bottle of water and soaking in the atmosphere.

“When I first started doing this, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t feel anything,” Vandenberg says. “My adrenaline was going so much that when I first started as an amateur, I didn’t feel nothing. Your adrenaline is going so high and you’re living off the crowd.

“Now, I’m so calm and collected that I feel everything. If he hits me, I feel it. When he elbows me … I caught an elbow right here in the eye, I caught a couple punches to the lip and my lip’s swollen … I feel it, but it’s part of the game.”

The pain, the roar of the crowd, the simple ability to compete, Vandenberg loves it all. And love is a must in the world of mixed martial arts where the body takes a daily beating.

Vandenberg’s love of the sport has been strong since he was first introduced to it in 2007.

A 2003 BSHS graduate, Vandenberg excelled on the football and soccer fields as well as the wrestling mat. After high school, he earned a scholarship to kick for the football team at Coffeyville Community College where he played for two years. He took the next year off and then decided to get back into shape.

He started working out with longtime friends and Basehor-Linwood High School graduates Cody Bell and Matt Dukes, as well as then-BLHS wrestling coach Travis Phippen. Phippen had extensive MMA experience, while Bell and Dukes were still learning the sport.

After a brief introduction, Vandenberg was hooked.

“I started working out with them just to work out and learn the game a bit,” Vandenberg says. “I went to a couple fights and was like ‘I can do that.’ Ever since then, I’ve been doing it.”

Thanks to Phippen’s connections to MMA, Vandenberg launched an amateur career and used his wrestling experience to carry his way through fights. Some nights he battled at the Beaumont Club in Westport, other nights it was at Whiskey Tango in Grain Valley, Mo. He even traveled to a tournament in Iowa. He learned something new with each fight.

After about 25 bouts, he moved on to the professional circuit.

“I had a decent amateur career for the little wrestling background that I had,” Vandenberg says, “and now I’ve stepped it up a little bit and now I’m here.”

Vandenberg’s pro career has been met with mixed results in the cage. At 135 pounds but 5-foot-10, his height gives him an advantage against most opponents. He has a few knockouts and a 5-3 record. Still, he admits he has a lot to learn.

“I might have jumped into the big leagues a little too soon, but it tells me where I am. I’m not going to know unless I get there,” he says. “I’m not going to know how good I am — how good I measure up to people — if I keep fighting scrubs.”

Tough fights have taken their toll on Vandenberg. On this night he has some minor damage to his face, but wrestling tactics were utilized for most of the match so additional injuries were minimal. He hasn’t always been so lucky.

“I had a broken hand and had to have a plate put into my hand with five screws, and I still fought eight times last year,” he says, “but it took a toll. I fought in December and then I took a boxing match in January, and this is my first fight back since January.”

Preparation for the Bellator fight took on the usual routine for Vandenberg. He makes sure to work out at least three days per week when a fight isn’t scheduled, and then about six weeks prior to a fight his training increases to five or six days per week. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent practicing at the K2L Grind House gym in Lee’s Summit, Mo. In addition, he does daily conditioning at 68’s Inside Sports in Overland Park.

“Training’s 10 times harder than the fight,” Vandenberg says. “I get beat up every day at practice. Granted we have a little bit bigger gloves on, we go a little softer, but the only thing training doesn’t leave is the marks on you because you don’t have the little gloves on and we don’t elbow at practice.”

Vandenberg knows practice can’t prepare him for everything. He said he’s facing more fighters whose skill sets are so advanced that it is hard to dominate a match with a more singular approach such as a jiu-jitsu or wrestling-heavy strategy.

“When I started as an amateur three years ago, I was a strong wrestler and I dominated,” he recalls. “If you were a strong wrestler back then, you dominated because nobody really knew the different aspects of (MMA). Nobody really had stand-up. Now everybody knows everything. When people ask me ‘How did you train for this fight? Did you do anything different?’ I say, ‘not really, because I know he knows everything.’”

Although he’s still a small-time professional fighter with a day job working for a screen printer, Vandenberg has a growing fan base that was one of the most vocal at Bellator. He says he sold more than 150 tickets for the event, and about 40-50 people follow him when he fights out of town.

“It’s everybody that knows me and supports me,” Vandenberg says. “If you look up (to the upper balcony), everybody in the white shirts — the white shirt that I have on — they’re all family members and good friends. My mom’s up there in the corner, my dad’s up there in the corner, my sister’s here, my whole family. They don’t miss a fight. They go to every fight. My girlfriend’s up there, and she’s completely supportive. It helps out a lot.”

On this night, however, the fight didn’t go Vandenberg’s way. For all of the hard work, preparation and spirited crowd support, he still ended up with his third professional loss. The frustration stings a bit, but he knows he’ll bounce back. The motivation is evident in his voice. He’s going to enjoy watching the rest of the evening’s fights, but it’s clear he’s already itching to get back to work in the gym.

“Nothing against any other sport, because I love playing every sport,” Vandenberg says, “but I love this because this is a sport where you go in there and it’s mano-a-mano and whoever’s standing at the end, whoever didn’t tap out, whoever didn’t get knocked out is the winner.”

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