When Bobby Lashley enters the cage for Bellator MMA this Friday night in St. Louis, he will immediately step into his element.
“Some guys lock up when they hear the crowd,” said Lashley. “I feel the energy and take it with me into the fight. I’ve been in front of huge crowds and know to use that energy.”
The son of a drill sergeant, Lashley spent his childhood traveling from one Army base to the next, ultimately finding his home in the ring. While cynics grumble that pro wrestlers are simply placed into the cage in a desperate plea for ratings, Lashley–a former WWE superstar and recent TNA world champion–is quickly changing that notion.
“Pro wrestling has absolutely helped my fighting,” said Lashley. “For starters, I’ve seen the ratings, but the one thing pro wrestling really helped with is being in front of such big crowds. I was a part of the largest WrestleMania ever, so I know how to feed off the energy from the crowd in my fights.”
Lashley helped headline WrestleMania 23 in front of over 80,000 people at Ford Field in Detroit in a memorable “Battle of the Billionaires” match between Donald Trump and Vince McMahon. Lashley fought on Trump’s behalf, and defeated the late, great Umaga, who was representing McMahon.
“I wanted to see how Trump conducted himself behind the scenes,” said Lashley. “He’s the real deal. He understands success, and everything he did was top notch. A lot of the success from that WrestleMania was because of him.”
No stranger to success himself, Lashley has only lost twice in his 15-fight career, with the last defeat suffered at the hands of James Thompson in 2012. The 39-year-old Lashley is now presented with a shot at redemption in this Friday night’s rematch against Thompson at Bellator 145, but views this fight as far more than revenge.
“This fight is not about redemption,” said Lashley. “At first, there was a lot of anger built up from that [loss], but I understand now that I can’t put too much emotion into one person. James Thompson is a very important fight for me right now, but not because of anger or to redeem my loss. I need to have a great run so I can do the things I want to do, like go for the heavyweight title.”
Bellator 145, which will air live on Spike TV at 9pm EST, is offering a loaded card, including a featherweight title fight between Patricio “Pitbull” Freire and Daniel Straus, as well as the Lashley-Thompson rematch. Lashley explained how he has continued his evolution as a fighter over the past three years, while Thompson has rested on his past.
“Thompson’s fought a lot of people, and that was a big part of the reason for him dropping out of the fights before,” said Lashley. “He’s gone into a fight and thought, ‘Ugh, I don't want to do this again.’ For me, hell, I want to get better. I want to go to kickboxing practice, I want to train. I’m hungry to win titles. There are a lot of fighters I still want in the cage. That’s not anything he’s looking at–he’s just trying to get another fight.
“I’m a completely different fighter. My striking is so much better. I want to show a little more of that, but I’m able to dominate with my wrestling. Before I was just wrestling, but now I know how to strike and how to finish. He’s fought so long and he’s had so many different wars in his career, so I don’t think he’s going to change. The James Thompson I fought in 2012 will be the same James Thompson I’ll fight now, but everything is different for me.”
For those seeking a sneak preview, the articulate Lashley offered a prediction for the fight.
“I’m going to pound him against the cage until he submits and goes away,” said Lashley. “I’m going to put my hands on him, then he’s going to try to attack me and take me down in desperation, and I’ll take him down or drop and pound him.”
The 6’2”, 276-pound heavyweight is actually the youngest of four children, as he has three older sisters (“I’m the little big brother,” he laughed). He wrestled for Missouri Valley College, then followed in his father’s footsteps and served in the United States Army.
“I wrestled for the Army in the World Class Athlete program,” said Lashley, whose father served for 24 years and has a sister who is currently active in the Air Force.
“My dad demanded results,” said Lashley. “I wasn’t expected just to be a student, I was supposed to get straight A’s. My dad didn’t want me just to play sports, he pushed me to win state championships in high school and national championships. My sister was a multiple state champion in track, and my other sister was all-state in softball. My dad taught us to go all out and never half-ass.”
Lashley’s distinguished amateur wrestling career provides a critical advantage for him in the cage.
“When you’re in that cage, you always need a go-to,” said Lashley. “I feel like my striking has gone great, but sometimes you hit those muddy waters when your striking isn’t up to par and you need to get out of there, and I always know that I can go to the takedown. I make sure to keep my wrestling sharp.”
Lashley’s pro wrestling experience actually connected him to Bellator.
“TNA and Bellator were both on Spike, and Bellator approached me about fighting for them,” explained Lashley. “We were both interested in each other, and I was able to work out a contract to do both.”
Lashley remains thankful for TNA for allowing him the opportunity to rejuvenate his wrestling career, as well as support his endeavors in mixed martial arts.
“TNA is incredible,” said Lashley. “Dixie Carter is a huge MMA fan. She’s pushing my career as much as I am. She’s like, ‘You need time off? Take time off.’ The way it’s set up in TNA is we don’t do TV every week. We do blocks of TV. The last time I really had to work was the end of July, and we put together 14 weeks of TV. I’ve been training since then.”
TNA no longer airs on Spike, but Lashley quickly defused rumors that he joined Bellator in fear that TNA–which does not have a television contract for 2016 in the United States–will be out of business by next February.
“You know more than I know,” answered Lashley when asked about TNA’s future. “I have the security of my body being healthy and I know I can fight for the duration of my career. I’ve also built my name up in wrestling enough where I have a little bit of security in that genre. If TNA is not around, I can still get my wrestling fix other places.”
Lashley constantly deals with the misconception that he fights for the UFC, which is a misnomer he is happy to clarify.
“A lot of people think I fight with UFC, but the sport of MMA is the sport of MMA,” said Lashley. “You could have the best fighter in the world in Bellator, or you could have the best fighter in the world in UFC. Bellator is getting a lot more spotlight and a lot viewers than we have in the past. [Bellator president] Scott Coker has added a huge, exciting element to Bellator.
“UFC can’t put on enough shows because there are too many fighters out there, and competition is always good. It gives fighters the opportunity to negotiate. There are so many fighters out there, and fighters need to get paid and feed their families. Fighters need to train, so the more organizations that we have, the better it is for the fighters.”
Coker, Lashley explained, has an unparalleled vision for the future of MMA, including once pursuing a match with Lashley and Brock Lesnar.
“The only person who really gets that aspect of the game is Coker,” said Lashley. “There are some different matchups that Coker sees, and he goes after them, like the Kimbo [Slice]/[Ken] Shamrock match. Coker even called me about [Dave] Bautista. He knew right away it made sense. With Brock, I was getting messages right away on Twitter and Facebook nonstop that said, ‘I want to see you and Brock!’ People didn’t care if it was fighting, pro wrestling, or a thumb war match. The crazy thing is we’ve never crossed paths. I’ve never even met Brock, never once.”
Bellator just inked deal with Olympic gold medalist and wrestling legend Kurt Angle, who will appear as a special guest at Bellator’s Friday fan fest, but it is unlikely Angle will fight Lashley. Permitting Lashley wins his fight with Thompson, there is major potential speculation among Bellator insiders that Lashley would then fight Slice in February.
Former pro wrestler and MMA pioneer Ken Shamrock, however, is someone Lashley no longer envisions ever fighting.
“That would be very interesting,” said Lashley, who was supposed to fight Shamrock in 2008 until Shamrock tested positive for steroids. “I don’t think he’d want to fight me. I really like Ken, he’s a great guy and a pioneer of the sport, but I don’t think he would be up for fighting me.”
Lashley re-signed last year with Bellator and there are two years remaining on his three year deal. He holds no regrets after leaving the WWE in 2008 and opting not to return.
“I never look back,’ said Lashley. “I’m in a really good place and I’m happy. I do love professional wrestling, and I still love WWE, TNA, and Bellator. I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t know if I would be happy if I were still with WWE. I know I set some huge records with WWE that will never be broken. I’m forever etched in history shaving Vince McMahon’s head and representing the soon-to-be possible president of the United States. I don’t want to change anything.”
Lashley received an education from simply observing the interactions between Trump and McMahon on and off camera.
“I’m a very observant person,” said Lashley. “If you’re the best at what you do, I want to see how you use the different aspects of life to succeed. Trump and McMahon both get it. They actually jelled really well, and they understood one another. It was really cool to be a part of it.”
Lashley’s most memorable work in the WWE was with Umaga, followed closely by matches with both Vince McMahon and Shane McMahon.
“Umaga was the most amazing person,” said Lashley, referring to Edward Fatu, who met an untimely death in 2009 at the age of 36. “I loved that guy. When we found out we had that match at WrestleMania, we first worked together in Mexico. We were thrown on a random spot in the card, and we quickly went to a semi-main event. As they say in the wrestling business, when you’re married to someone, you can either dance with someone or you can’t. Some people can’t ever dance or jell with one another, but from day one, we were money. We knew we were going to steal the show. It was believable right away and we knew it was only going to get better.”
Lashley’s said the WWE’s biggest issue is a lack of legitimate tough workers, like himself and Umaga.
“Wrestling has lost its sense of realism,” said Lashley. “Some of these guys try to walk down to the ring with a mean look on their face, but you know they don’t have a friggin’ mean bone in their whole body. Umaga could legitimately beat people up. He was a tough, tough Samoan. I came from a legit wrestling and fighting background, so when we locked up, the crowd said, ‘Oh sh--, now it’s on.’”
Lashley has also kept his eye on fellow pro wrestler-turned-fighter CM Punk.
“If I could give Punk any advice, I’d just say to protect yourself,” said Lashley. “Don’t put yourself in a fight you’re not ready for. If you don’t protect yourself, no one else will. As much as [UFC] smiles in his face, they’re trying to use his fan base to cash out. But he already knows this–he just needs to find a fight that makes sense for him.”
CM Punk, explained Lashley, represents the biggest difference between MMA and WWE.
“The WWE fights the guarantees too much,” said Lashley. “They have guaranteed money on the table in certain aspects, but they keep their anger from making those deals happen.There’s no reason why Punk shouldn’t be happy being able to still wrestle. That’s where he is the best–in wrestling. Why does he need to go into MMA to supplement what he needs? Or why haven’t Brock and I had a big fight yet? There’s certain things that should happen, but haven’t.”
The politics of pro wrestling and MMA, Lashley confirmed, are a strange mix.
“Scott Coker will shake somebody’s hand and fix a relationship if it makes sense for both parties,” said Lashley. “Coker pulls his emotion away when it comes to making the right business happen. I don’t know if Vince is completely open to that.”
Lashley was speaking, not out of bitternes or defeat, but as a businessman and talented performer. He and McMahon, he added, have a very healthy relationship.
“There is no bad blood between Vince and myself,” said Lashley. “I still speak with Vince off and on, and Shane is a good friend. We text and joke around all the time, and I was just talking to him last week. But there are definitely some things in WWE that should happen and could happen, and there are people who are not in WWE but should be.”
With the WWE currently in his rear view mirror, Lashley remains a two-sport force to be reckoned with. He promises to slay all of his goals, which include wearing a pro wrestling heavyweight championship–Lashley would not specify from which company–and the Bellator heavyweight title.
“I want to be the Bo Jackson of sports entertainment,” said Lashley. “So the big thing for me is to hold both of those titles.”
Lashley trains out of Coconut Creek, Florida, but lives and runs his own gym, ATT Altitude, in Colorado. He hopes to one day earn his living by teaching mixed martial arts.
“I want to help these guys make a bigger presence for themselves so they can make the big money,” he said. “It’s hard to train and it’s hard to fight, especially if you’re still working a full time job and fight full time. I want to help younger fighters understand the business aspect of MMA.”
As a father of three children, Lashley’s biggest opponent is time.
“The hardest part to juggle is being a single father with three kids, while still being able to train full time and run the gym,” said Lashley. “At the end of the day, I’m a father and need to support my kids. That’s why I don’t have emotions in these fights. I know what I have to do.
“So until my body completely shuts down, I’m going to keep doing everything – wrestling, MMA – but continue to be a father first.”
In order to succeed, starting with his fight with Thompson, Lashley understands his success relies entirely on his training.
“I train as much as my body can handle,” he said. “Lately, it’s been two-a-days, but I’ve been trying to slow down and do one training session a day leading into this fight. I’ve had a pretty rigorous training camp where we were doing training three times a day. It would be training kickboxing with my muay thai coach, then a hard sparring session, and then some jiu-jitsu drills later on. Sometimes I can go five times a week. I train at one-hundred percent, not fifty or sixty, and I am smart about how I train.”
Lashley’s ambition is displayed in his willingness to work, which is a characteristic he believes will lead him to the promised land of Bellator.
“I always want to improve,” he said. “That’s why I train differently. I want to learn different elements of the game. I just want to get better, and I’ve never felt content with anything I’ve ever done with this sport. My brain doesn’t shut off. I don’t sleep much. I get up and meditate, I get up and run. I’m learning every day to be a better kickboxer, a better striker, and I’m working up my ranks in jiu-jitsu.”
Lashley now has eight years of fighting experience and holds a far greater understanding of the sport, but there is still a lot more he plans to accomplish.
“I’m not here to just take fights, I’m here to set records,” reminded Lashley. “That’s what I’m here for.”