His nickname is “Quicksand,” and for good reason. Hell, it took two months just to pin him down for an interview.
It might be easy to dismiss him as another country hick who learned mixed martial arts and got real good at it. It would be simple to draw a character sketch of him with crayons and leave it at that.
But there’s nothing simple about Mike Pyle.
For underneath the folksy attitude and tough — guy persona is a highly driven individual whose mind is his best asset … and sometimes his worst enemy.
Don’t let the southern twang fool you. This guy is smart. Intelligence isn’t only measured by some letters and numbers in high school or college. Intelligence is about problem-solving — in life or on the mat — and the ability to take information and apply it effectively to a number of situations. For Pyle, tests and grades couldn’t measure his intelligence, especially not his kinesthetic intelligence — muscle memory, learning by doing.
No, any man who can teach himself to be a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu by watching videos is not simple. That man is a genius.
LIKE A SPONGE
It was a loose life in the Pyle household in Dresden, Tenn. Pyle spent most of his days hunting and fishing on the family’s 15 acres of woods and teaching his younger sister, Keisha, to do the same around the family’s backyard creek.
“My mom just taught me to fend for myself,” he said. “When I left the house in the morning, she’d say just to be back by sundown, and that’s the way I liked it. But I was never in any trouble or anything like that.”
Early on, however, Pyle’s smarts made themselves very evident, perhaps not through his grades, but in the ways that he outwitted his teachers — almost as if he were bored with school. Instead of studying, he was the class clown pulling the pranks.
“I remember he went out and bought one of those programmable remote controls,” recalled Keisha. “Then he somehow went to all of the TVs in the school and figured out what the code was for each one. During class, while the teacher was talking, he programmed the remote control to turn on the TV and change channels. It was hilarious. They all thought something was wrong with the TVs. The school had people come in and look at them … It took them like three weeks to figure it out!”
By age 17, Pyle felt the tug of wanderlust and moved to Birmingham, Ala., to work in his uncle’s machine shop. Not even old enough to run the machines, he spent his days mindlessly cleaning them, and cleaning the shop — bored again.
“Honestly, I never liked jobs,” Pyle said. “I knew I had to do something.”
Enter the martial arts.
“I started with tae kwon do, practicing that for a year, but didn’t really get too much into it,” Pyle said. “I liked it a lot and excelled in it pretty fast, kicking the black belts in the heads and whatnot. But I had just seen UFC for the first time and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to learn ‘the jits.’ I want to grab somebody’s arm and break it or choke a guy.’ I was really impressed, and realized this was what I wanted to do.”
After nearly five years in Birmingham, Pyle moved back to Dresden, now dreaming of dropping his own bombs and pulverizing opponents.
So he ordered dozens of video tapes of UFC fights and jiu-jitsu instruction.
He cleared out his family’s old 15-by-15- -foot shed, put down five or six rugs and carpets, covered the shed with a tarp (with which one would normally cover firewood) and made a makeshift mat.
“Then I bought a grappling dummy out of a magazine,” Pyle said. “And that was my training partner for a long time. So I beat the shit out of that thing, threw it around. It had arms, so I did all the arm locks on him. His name was Bob.”
Once Bob had worn out his usefulness, Pyle turned his attention toward Keisha. Or rather, Keisha’s boyfriends.
“He was looking for any live body to practice moves on,” Keisha laughed. “It was very difficult for me to have a boyfriend because one, Mike is very protective, and two, he’d beat them all up. After a while, nobody would come near me. Then he made me and my friends hit him in the face as hard as we could, so he could at least get used to getting hit by someone.”
Pyle’s body and mind soaked up the repetition and instruction like a sponge. He learned and applied information quickly. Akin to how some people are voracious readers, Pyle devoured any martial arts information and instruction that he could get his hands on.
The day that Pyle happened to attend a jiu-jitsu seminar in Louisville, Ky., was the day that the martial arts world really opened up to him.
“It was at a Royce Gracie seminar when we first met Mike,” said Jason Hawkins, owner and chief instructor of Three Rivers Martial Arts Academy in Paducah, Ky. “He was pretty good, but we didn’t know a lot about him. Since we were only about an hour and a half from where he lived, he said he’d come to our facility. But that was that.” “Then a week later, one of our senior instructors, Brad Lynn, said to me, ‘Hey, remember that guy from the seminar? He’s here.’”
Like a thirsty man in the desert …
Some people study and train for years to achieve a lofty status. Yet Mike’s career seems to topple the pillars on which martial arts training is built, with his steady progression in turning learned skill into pure instinct.
For underneath that homey, southern, devil-may-care attitude, there is a man who cares quite a bit.
Whether it’s for his career, his family or his fiancé, there’s a lot going on up in that head of his. At first, like when he’s on the mat, it is extremely difficult to get your hooks into Mike Pyle. But when you do, you’ll be glad to know him.