DEMPSEY. One name, one word. I first met him at a local gym in January, where I was only doing some Muay Thai training to get into shape. We ended up in the same real estate of the place at one point. “Hi, I’m Dempsey”, was his terse three word introduction. That was it. I’ve never talked to him again. I’ve never heard anyone; fellow fighters, trainer, even the young boy who gave him a high five on his way to The Gladiators of The Ring Light-Heavyweight Championship fight call him anything else. He was the definition of intensity while training. Showing emotion was as foreign to him as showing mercy to his opponents. Somehow, I had to crack the case of this fighter named Dempsey. I had to at least learn his first name.
The interview was set for a Thursday. Jaime Chesney, my partner in crime for this endeavor, called me earlier in the day. “He got cauliflower ear while training,” she grimly informed me. “We are going to meet up with him either before or after he gets his ear drained.” Fantastic, I thought to myself. Not only does the guy look like a natural born killer, but I get to meet, and furthermore question him, after he’s had a sizable hypodermic needle jabbed into his ear.
The beautiful J.C. and my less graceful self pulled into a packed parking lot in Sewickely. We were set to meet at a local bar near the man’s blue collar hometown of Ambridge. Entering through the bar, we requested a quiet table in the corner part of the restaurant section. After ordering the first round of drinks from the cute, attentive waitress, I started to feel anxious. “I’m going to have a quick smoke and wait for him,” I informed my boss.
I lit my cigarette nervously. Before I took my third drag, I saw a silver Ford truck approach calmly down the narrow, cobblestone side street. Instinctively, I knew it was our guy. As he passed by me on the corner, wearing a camouflage cap and sporting a lip full of snuff, he gave me a half wave. He looked every bit of a championship fighter, and then some. The newly-crowned champ was 5 minutes early. The parking lot that was packed for us 10 minutes earlier held only one empty spot for him. He didn’t see it at first. In my sight, he circled the lot. Two teenagers started to run into the street that he had to navigate to circle back into the lot. He graciously waved them to walk by in front of his truck. He spotted the only vacant spot. Instead of pulling in head first, he deftly backed his large truck into the waiting spot. Stepping out of his truck, he fired the chew out of his lip and took a long drink from a Gatorade bottle. Then he set his sights on me. Walking with purpose towards me, he smiled. I was stunned. It was the first time I had seen this from him. “Hey champ,” I said. “Thanks for meeting us.” Dempsey politely reciprocated my greeting. Walking to our quiet table, I couldn’t help but think that this might be a pleasant exchange after all. Then I saw his left ear, and quickly realized the cauliflower had not yet been drained.
“Champ, how about a beer? I’m buying,” I asked him. “No,” he said flatly. “I gained too much weight in Mexico and need to lose a lot before my next fight.” Throughout our interview, he would go on to suck down four ice waters, and not touch the wings that I had ordered for the table. To my happy, relieved, and great surprise, I found the new Gladiators of The Cage Light-Heavyweight Champion to be soft-spoken, humble, and proud of his small town roots. At our table he had become Chris. Chris Dempsey.
IN YA FACE MMA : Were your parents athletes?
CHRIS DEMPSEY : No. My dad was a Marine, and he played football in High School. But he wasn’t a standout.
IYF : You grew up in Ambridge, PA. What was it like growing up there?
CD : I liked growing up there. I know a lot of people that grew up there couldn’t wait to get out, but it made me who I am now. It wasn’t the nicest town, but it’s not like I grew up in the ghetto. It was a nice mix of both, I kind of got the best of both worlds there.
IYF : What other sports were you involved in as a kid besides wrestling?
CD : I played football. I was a three year letterman and a two year starter as a lineman. I got a lot of offers from big Division III schools and some smaller Division II schools. My plan was actually to go to Slippery Rock. They offered me a full scholarship for football and wrestling. But in my senior year of high school they dropped their wrestling program,
and that’s how I ended up at Pitt-Johnstown instead.
IYF : When I first met you, you introduced yourself to me simply as “Dempsey.” I’ve never heard you called by anything else. Why is it just “Dempsey?”
CD : My whole life it’s just been Dempsey. Even in college a lot of my professors just called me Dempsey. So…
IYF : Ok, fair enough.
IN YA FACE MMA: So off you went to wrestle at UPJ (University of Pitt-Johnstown.) Tell us about your career there.
CHRIS DEMPSEY: I was a two-time All-American, both in my junior and senior years. I got to over 100 wins in my career, which is a big milestone. I was pretty excited to achieve that. My freshman year I was two pins away from tying Carlton Haselrig’s record of pins in a season. I was also excited about that.
IYF : Were you on the varsity team all four years of your college career?
CD: Yes. I was red-shirted my sophomore year.
IYF: How and when did you make the transition from American Wrestling to Mixed Martial Arts?
CD: I was the first true freshman to start at UPJ since 1999. When I was red-shirted during my sophomore year, Carlton was already involved in MMA fighting. Carlton was hurting a lot of heavyweights in practice. Not on purpose, just because he was so big and strong. My coach asked me to work out with him. I would work out at our college practices, and then drive straight to Carlton’s gym in downtown Johnstown. I tried to help him get better. When I graduated I moved in with him. Actually, my first amateur MMA fight was three weeks after I got back from Nationals. Carlton is the biggest reason I got into MMA.
IYF: By Nationals, you mean the NCAA National Wrestling Championships. How far did you go?
CD: I placed fifth in the entire country as a heavyweight.
IYF: Now you’re a professional MMA fighter. Tell us about your training regimen. Working out, eating, lifting…
CD: I actually don’t lift at all…
IYF: You’re kidding…
CD: I’ve actually never lifted in my life. I was always strong because I’ve worked construction since 10th grade. Lifting takes away from your flexibility, and in fighting you need all of your flexibility. I work from 7 in the morning until 5 Monday through Thursday, and then go right to the gym to train. Friday I work and then I go to the bar where I work as a bouncer.
IYF: Let’s transition to the fight itself. What goes through your mind as you walk out of the locker room towards the cage?
CD: Just go in there and get the fight to where I want it to be. Try to get the win, however it’s gonna be.
IYF: After more than 100 college wrestling wins, is there still any nervousness or excitement? Or is it just a calm that you have grown accustomed to?
CD: I kind of get made fun of sometimes, because it will be time to walk out, and I’ll be back there cracking jokes with the other fighters. Once I start walking out, I get more focused. I don’t try to get myself worked up. Fighting is, really it’s like a game. Like going out there to play football or basketball. That’s the payoff. That’s the fun part. You train for months and finally you get to go out there and show what you’ve learned and how hard you’ve worked.
IYF: Let’s talk specifically about your most recent fight. It was at Stage AE for The Gladiators of The Cage North Shore’s Rise to Power II. A fighter that was there but not on the card told me that to get to the next level, you need to work on your hand and leg strikes more. Do you think that was a fair assessment?
CD: Definitely. 100% I think it’s a fair assessment. From my fight in April to this last fight I worked a lot on my striking. In my opinion, I’ve gotten a lot better. But I’ve still got a ways to go as well. All I can do is continue to work on it until they’re the best they can be to get to that next level.
IYF: You fought Bellator veteran Lewis Rumsey for the Light-Heavyweight Gladiators of The Cage Championship Belt at Stage AE. What did you know about Rumsey before the fight and how did that affect your approach?
CD: I knew he was going to throw a lot of head kicks, which he did. I knew he liked the front headlock and the guillotine choke. He throws a lot of wild, looping punches because he has a lot of power. He definitely has the power to knock you out. So the plan was to stay tight, and throw down the pipe. To get the fight against the cage and to the ground where I wanted it.
IYF: You dominated the first round and it looked as though you had him close to submitting several times. The people I was sitting with in the crowd were surprised the fight went to the second round, and even more so that it went the distance. How close were you to getting a submission?
CD: I had him in a kimura and I heard his elbow pop when I was working it. He was definitely one of the toughest kids I ever fought. He had a lot of mental toughness. He actually kicked me in the head in the second round and broke his foot. So, he fought after the first round with a broken elbow, and after the second round with a broken foot. So I give him a lot of credit, he is a tough kid.
IYF: The feel of the fight seemed to change for rounds two and three. What advice did you get from your corner?
CD: They just said to stay tight and get it back to the ground in the second. Actually in the third, they told me to stay on my feet and throw punches because he was tired. Cover my head up and throw straight. They felt that if I could do this, I could win the fight on my feet.
IYF: In the middle of the third round, Rumsey seemed to mock you and tell you to punch him. What did he actually say and how did that make you feel?
CD: He was just like, “C’mon, c’mon, hit me again!” I knew at that point, he just wanted me to stand there and trade punches with him. He was trying to win the fight that way. I don’t really like to play into that game. I don’t like the talking trash and stuff like that. So when someone does that to me, I’m just going to ignore it, and that’s what I did. I kinda chuckled a little bit and just continued with my game plan.
IYF: It didn’t make you angry or throw you off your game?
CD: No, because I knew that’s exactly what he wanted to do.
IYF: That’s smart. I can tell you that no one in the crowd appreciated it.
CD: For sure. All my friends in the crowd were like, “we were so mad!” “I know,” I said. “That’s why you’re not fighters though.”
IYF: You won by a unanimous decision. What did you say to each other right after the fight?
CD : We both said it was a tough fight. We both showed respect for each other. He showed me his foot and showed me that it was broken. He’s found me on Twitter and I think Facebook too. Really in fighting, there is never any hard feelings. A lot of people say that in fighting, you respect the person you fight more than anybody else. You both know the training you went through, and you both know it was a clean fight. There’s not much more respect you can show for someone than that.
IYF: There was a tremendous turnout for the fight, the place was packed. And you were the Main Event and superstar of the night…
CD: Well I think Dom (Mazzotta) might have stole the show…
IYF: What were you thinking and feeling when they put the belt around your waist?
CD: I felt really good, but I felt that it was supposed to be my belt anyways because I won it last April. But it felt good because all my friends and family were there and I won it in front of them. And the fact that is going to be on tv, and that I was the one who won…just awesome.
IYF: Champ, when is your next fight?
CD: The day before my birthday, September 7, 2013. The guy I was supposed to fight just tore his miniscus, so we are looking for another fighter. It will be for the 185 lb. Belt.
IYF: Where do you hope to be in one year?
CD: I hope to be either in Bellator or the UFC, not having to work anymore, only fight. To be able to work out two or three times a day and just fight, and to concentrate on it as much as I can.
IYF: Where do you hope to be in five years?
CD: Hopefully at the top of the UFC.
IYF: Champ, I have one last question. Will you please sign my ticket from North Shore’s Rise to Power II?
CD: Sure. I don’t really know how to sign things…
Chris stayed and chatted with us for another 20 minutes. We talked about the fight game, his recent vacation to Mexico, and our respective hopes for the future. He seemed to genuinely enjoy his time at our corner table, and I couldn’t help thinking how humble it was for him to have said that he “didn’t really know how to sign things.” I silently imagined how many autographs he would be signing in the future. As he got up from the table to leave, I caught a final glimpse of his cauliflower ear. I just had to know. “When are you going to get that thing taken care of,” I inquired. “I don’t have insurance,” he informed me. “My friend who is a nurse is going to meet me in a McDonald’s bathroom to drain it,” he joked. “You know, to keep it classy.”
Food : Anything Mexican
Beer : Bud Light
Athlete : Carlton Haselrig
Sports Team : Pittsburgh Steelers
Actor: Marc Wahlberg
Dream Date: Mila Kunis
What place would you like to travel to that you haven’t been yet : Ireland
MMA Fighter most like to train with: Georges St. Pierre
Heroes: Dad and Grandpa
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