Miguel Torres. Brian Bowles. Dominick Cruz. The names of the WEC’s Bantamweight Champions slide off your tongue. But, before any of those guys had gotten their feet wet in the WEC, Eddie Wineland had punched and kicked his way to the title—something that was apparently forgotten about amidst all of the nostalgia drudged up at the end of the WEC’s run in December. Come to think of it, a lot of that attention went to Urijah Faber, Wineland’s opponent at UFC 128 on March 19 in Newark, NJ.
La Porte, Indiana, sits in the northwestern part of the state, a small city whose most famous resident—William “Dr. Scholl”—took pleasure in making people’s feet feel better. However, the good doctor has long since passed away, and there’s a new celebrity in The Maple City, one who puts out fires and punches people in the face. Eddie Wineland (18-6-1) has been a member of the La Porte Fire Department for three years, joining at the prompting of a friend. He was told that making the cut on the first try was a long shot, but he pressed his luck anyway.
“With fighting, you know you’re going to walk away from it,” says Wineland. “But sometimes you can run into a building, not see something, and all of a sudden the building collapses, and you don’t know if you’re going to walk out. I’ve been fortunate in my three years on the Force.”
The 26-year-old turned to the world of red trucks, ladders, and loud sirens at a time when he was questioning whether fighting was ever going to turn into anything that would give him long-term financial security.
Like many Midwesterners, Wineland got an education on the wrestling mats, but after his high school days were done, he lacked a competitive outlet. A friend that had been fighting for years introduced him to MMA. Soon after, he joined veteran Keith Wisniewski’s Duneland Vale Tudo gym and got his first taste of action two months later.
That was April 2003, a good two years before the boom period set off by The Ultimate Fighter on Spike. Wineland competed mainly in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois, compiling a 3-4-1 record before ripping off a nine-fight win streak that included a shot at the newly created WEC Bantamweight Championship. In May 2006, the WEC wasn’t a Zuffa property just yet, and there was no such thing as Versus.
“I didn’t even know what the WEC was,” Wineland says. “I was fighting in Indiana and having a good time with it, but I always wanted to fight in California, so I took the fight. I really didn’t research the WEC until after I won the belt, and I realized that it was kind of a big deal.”
Wineland said he’ll never forget the experience of that fight, competing against Antonio Banuelos on Cinco De Mayo and 20 minutes from Banuelos’ hometown. His reception was ambivalent, even after dispatching the local favorite via a first-round KO to win the gold. But fighting against the odds is something Wineland has always been pretty good at.
Mark Vives of Chicago’s New Breed Jiu-Jitsu has worked with Wineland since the fall of 2009, following his decision win over Manny Tapia at WEC 43. Vives saw a guy who was a great striker but lacked the ground skills necessary to compete in the upper echelon—something that had cost Wineland in a loss to Rani Yahya months earlier.
Vives threw a slew of BJJ aces and top wrestlers at Wineland with the intent of taking him down and forcing him to work on defense. Vives has loved what he’s seen since.
“It’s been a nice, gradual progression,” says Vives. “Eddie buys into the system and believes what he’s training. He’s so much more complete now than when he first came to us as the WEC Bantamweight Champion. He’s a completely different fighter now.”
Vives, along with Wisniewski and Jason Gusic at Applied Strength and Conditioning, are tasked with preparing Wineland for the biggest fight of his career—one that comes on the world’s biggest stage, against one of the world’s biggest names. That doesn’t faze Vives in the slightest.
“We have to prepare for Urijah like he’s any other fighter,” Vives says. “Every single day, we talk about fighting Urijah—not fighting a legend. Urijah is just a man, and he’s going to bleed just like Eddie will. We know it will be a war, and we know Eddie’s accepted this war. We know that within those three rounds, Eddie might not win all the battles, but in the end, we’re confident that he’s going to put it all together, shock the world, and win the war.”
Wineland is intently preparing for his enemy, one who some pundits feel is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Since decisioning Jens Pulver in June 2008, the 31-year-old Faber is 3-3 and has gone into win-one, lose-one mode, dropping a weight class in the process.
But he’s also still Urijah Faber, the former face of the WEC who will be making his long-anticipated UFC debut.
“His wild style leaves openings, and you have to capitalize on them,” says Wineland. “When he makes a mistake, he’s so quick that he pops back and corrects it. I’m going to have to wrestle hard, work on my boxing, sharpen everything up, and hope to put one on his chin.”
If Wineland does land one on that Hollywood chin and has his arm raised in victory, he will have pulled off something no one expects him to. Then again, no one expected him to win a WEC title in hostile territory back in 2006.
“I’m happy that I am coming in under the radar because when they see me fighting Urijah Faber, no one is going to give me a chance,” Wineland says. “Anyone who is going to count me out better think again.”