When Central Washington University closed its wrestling program in 2004, team member Brian Caraway was left with a problem.
"I've always liked that grappling and combat sports are raw, real, and unpampered," Caraway says. "I've always been the kind of person who liked to do what others won't."
With intercollegiate wrestling no longer available as a means to scratch that itch, Caraway was on the lookout for new challenges. Luckily, teammate and friend Matt Lininger had just the thing.
"Matt referred me to his cousin, Dennis Hallman, and I began training MMA with Dennis that summer," he says.
Caraway took to the new sport quickly, and was soon fighting amateur bouts. "My first four or five fights, I was basically untrained, other than my wrestling experience," he says now.
No one would mistake the Caraway of today as untrained. Over the past year and a half, he has amassed a seven-fight win streak in Northwest regional promotions like SportFight and IFC -- Caged Combat. Perhaps even more impressive, none of the wins have gone to a judges' decision: he defeated six opponents by submission and one by knockout.
"(My finishing ability) comes from my work ethic and how I prepare," says Caraway. "I'm surrounded by great sparring partners and great technical training."
He also cites wisdom gleaned from the last blemish on his record, an armbar loss to John Gunderson all the way back in September 2006.
"We fought at 155 (pounds); he's a big lightweight, while I'm a true 145er," Caraway now says. "As a result, it was the only time I went into a fight doubting myself. However, after the first round, when I realized I could hang with him, I may have been overconfident coming out for the second. I allowed myself to get caught in a submission with just eight seconds left in the round."
The lesson? "To know and trust my skills," he says. "And to fight my fight, regardless of what the other guy's doing."
Most recently, he stepped up in competition (and down in weight to a catch weight of 140 pounds) to face Alvin Cacdac on last Friday's Strikeforce show. The venue may have been larger, but the results were the same; Caraway submitted Cacdac with a rear naked choke just 1:39 into the first round.
"Afterwards, (Strikeforce employees) told me they hadn't really expected me to win, but it was an opportunity to get some exposure," he says. "If I had to cut weight to 140, whatever. I had to take advantage of the opportunity to get my name out there." Caraway actually had a double helping of exposure on the card; following his win, he returned to the cage to help corner girlfriend Miesha Tate to a three-round decision win over Elaina Maxwell.
"It's pretty cool, being with someone in the sport," he says of the situation. "(Miesha) understands if I have to be somewhere at night. She understands if I'm grumpy from cutting weight. She gets the demands of being a top-level athlete, and she supports my dream, where others in the past have thought I was crazy for doing this kind of fighting."
What's the next step in achieving that dream? Caraway, recently back under the management of Hallman after stints with Rich Guerin at Yakima MMA and Matt Lindland at Team Quest, says EliteXC and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) are both possibilities. He also says return engagements with Strikeforce are a possibility.
All of it -- the training, the fights, the travel -- goes to serve one purpose, according to Caraway.
"I just want to be one of the best 145ers in the world," he says, "if not the best."