by FIGHT! contributor Brad McCray
Matt Lindland speaks like he is reciting a personal mantra.
“At the end of the day, who do I have to answer to: critics or the people you really want to believe in you? I want my family to know that I am a man of principle,” he says.
Strict adherence to that philosophy has led the fighter down a twisted and often frustrating path. It won him a spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic wrestling team but it may have cost him a shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight belt and a seat in Oregon’s House of Representatives. Now that path has delivered the 39-year-old Lindland to Strikeforce, where he will face Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza at the HP Pavilion on Dec. 19.
Lindland’s principles have been a matter of public record since he filed suit against the U.S. Olympic Committtee in 2000. Lindland lost a referee’s decision to Keith Sieracki during the Olympic trials in Dallas but claimed to have been tripped during the match, a violation of Greco-Roman rules. An arbitrator ordered a rematch and Lindland dominated Sieracki en route to an 8-0 victory. The USOC refused to replace Sieracki with Lindland on the Olympic team, so Lindland filed suit in federal court and won. He traveled with the team to Sydney, Australia that summer and came home with a silver medal and a nickname – “The Law” – a moniker now emblazoned on his motorcycle.
That same year, Lindland helped establish Team Quest and made his debut in the UFC, finishing Yoji Anjo with punches at UFC 29. The fight team quickly became a premier camp; Henderson became a star in Pride and Couture and Lindland thrived in the UFC. In 2004, Couture teamed with Lindland to establish Sportfight, one of the nation’s top regional MMA promotions.
But Lindland’s path started winding in 2003. Henderson left Oregon to set up shop near his home in Temecula, Calif. and two years later, Couture relocated to Las Vegas, Nev. In 2005, after a 9-3 run in the UFC, Lindland butted heads with president Dana White over the fact that an unapproved sponsor, Sportsbook.com, appeared on his shirt. Even though Couture wore the same logo, Lindland was cut from the promotion’s roster.
“When I was in the UFC, I was naïve about the fight business,” says Lindland. “I thought I was at the pinnacle and the next step was a title shot. Now I see that the UFC is just a promotion company. Titles are something that Dana [White] decides. It doesn’t always go to the top contender. It goes to who can sell tickets.”
2006 wasn’t any easier on Lindland as he took, and lost, a fight with Quinton Jackson at light heavyweight, just to see his new employer, World Fighting Alliance, fold after a single show. It was just the first in a series of promotions to hire Lindland only to collapse before they can satisfy the terms of his contract.
“A lot of [those promotions] don’t exist anymore,” says Lindland. “It’s part of the fight business. You’d think guys were used to it by now, but it’s tough. You get a contract and you look at the money at the end instead of the money right in front of you. You think you will get so many fights and that doesn’t always happen.”
Since his dismissal from the UFC, “The Law” has fought for Cage Rage, Gracie Fighting Championships, Raze MMA, World Fighting Alliance, International Fight League, bodogFight, and Affliction, racking up six wins against three losses.
The last two years have been especially tough. Lindland has fought just twice since 2007 and while Sportfight continued to thrive in Portland, “The Law” severed ties with broadcast partner HDNet because he felt that it hurt the live experience. In 2008, Lindland attempted to win a spot in the Oregon House of Representatives and quickly surmised that politics was far dirtier than fighting.
“Politicians and will say anything to win,” he says. “They don’t care about issues. They only care about winning. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my principles and values to get votes. That could have been my downfall.”
During the campaign, Lindland’s fighting career was used against him and he was even accused of being a felon. “You have to be a pretty bad dude to be a felon,” says Lindland. “The worst thing on my record is equivalent to a traffic violation. The whole thing was enlightening. It was an experience worth having.”
At 39 there might be concern that Lindland’s abilities are diminished, especially in light of his last fight, a 37-second knockout loss to Vitor Belfort at Affliction: Day of Reckoning which left Lindland unconscious long after the final bell. Instead, “The Law” laughs it off as an isolated incident.
“I’ve definitely moved past that fight,” says Lindland. “Fortunately, it was so quick I don’t remember much. He is a phenomenal fighter. It was his night and not mine. Vitor is a close personal friend and it’s nice to see him continue to do well.”
It should be noted that Lindland’s only other losses in the last five years came to Quinton Jackson at light heavyweight and Fedor Emelianenko at heavyweight, elite fighters outside of Lindland’s natural weight class.
Lindland has been matched mostly with elite, veteran fighters in his last seven fights. On Dec. 19, Lindland will fight a young Turk in Ronaldo Souza. “Jacare,” one of the top submission grapplers in the world, presents different problems than most fighters.”
“He is a dangerous guy, but his best chance of winning is to get me in a submission hold,” Lindland said. “I’m pretty confident. I’m certainly not looking past this guy, but I have fought a lot of good submission fighters.”
Strikeforce is the fighter’s 13th employer in his 13-year career, and this Showtime-televised card is Lindland’s best shot to grab the notoriety and paydays his friends and former business partners have enjoyed. For more than four years Lindland has been an elite fighter without a home, respected by hardcore fans and unknown to the general public. But Lindland doesn’t lose sleep over lost opportunities. Because wealth, fame, and political power was never the motivator behind his decisions; it was the principle of the thing.