Born in Colorado, Aaron “A-Train” Simpson spent his youth in Nebraska with parents, who were both teachers, before relocating to Arizona at 12 years of age. Their emphasis on education molded him into a star student, but his blue-collar blood—both of his granddads were coal miners—kept his wheels greased during the grind of wrestling season.
Simpson often hit the weight room at midnight to beat the heat during his time at Antelope Union High School in Welton, Arizona, where he earned four state wrestling titles and All-American status for three years.
“As early as I could remember, I had success,” says Simpson. But he had to work for it. He recalls going up an age group and weight class to wrestle his first match. “I went out there and the kid took me down and pinned me and I cried,” he says, highlighting the moment he realized that winning was better than losing.
Growing up, Simpson thought he’d run the I-formation at the University of Nebraska and wrestle. As an all-state quarterback, triple jump state champion in track and field, and student body president with excellent grades, he could have done that. Despite being recruited by several schools, he chose to stay close to home and attend Arizona State University with his “super cool role model” older brother, ditching football to focus on wrestling. At ASU he attended the Walter Cronkite School of Broadcast Journalism and picked up a degree along with two-time All-American wrestler honors, two Pac-10 titles, and his future wife Kendra.
Post-graduate, he coached ASU wrestlers and UFC standouts Ryan Bader, C.B. Dolloway, and Cain Velasquez to All-American status and completed a Master’s in Education. “I had to get a master’s just to sit at the dinner table,” says Simpson, whose wife, brother, and parents also have master’s degrees.
He asserts he never tired of the countless hours spent around Sun Devil wrestling in 13 years. However, when he was let go after differences with the team’s head coach, Simpson was shocked and jobless. The cliché “great things come out of chaos” took over from there.
At 33 years old, Simpson decided to become a mixed martial artist in 2007. He learned defying age from his parents: His mother got her undergraduate and graduate degrees in her 40s and his dad, at 63years old, can lift 390 pounds.
Simpson called friend and UFC welterweight Josh Koscheck to announce the news. “I told you to get into this years ago,” said Koscheck. Simpson was a natural, finishing his first six contests via (T)KO—only two of which made it to the second round—including a 100 second UFC debut over Tim McKenzie.
“MMA is a tough thing to get into especially when you have a college degree and you’re not necessarily accustomed to being punched in the face,” says Simpson. Undefeated in seven fights, Simpson is ready to speed up the “A-Train” in the UFC’s middleweight division as he takes on Chris Leben in June.