With a professional record standing strong at 19-2, including two straight finishes over UFC vets Akihiro Gono and Nick Thompson, Dan “The Handler” Hornbuckle is on his way to becoming a household name in both Japan and America.
“When I first got into MMA with [trainer] Kyle Watson, I was 215 lbs. of pure muscle,” the Welterweight, who is also 50% Cherokee Indian, said. Having wrestled since age 6, Hornbuckle transitioned seamlessly into MMA. But even with such a background, mastery of technique wasn’t exactly the focus of his game, he said. “I used no technique whatsoever when I first started training MMA,” Hornbuckle said. “I always just overpowered my opponents and beat them up in a hurry!” It was this tenacious manhandling of his opponents that would forever see him labeled as “The Handler,” even after brute strength took a back seat to his quickly sharpening skills.
Hornbuckle’s jump into MMA didn’t immediately pay off either, as his love of fighting and thirst for experience occasionally saw him fighting in some rather seedy venues. “About a year into my training I was in South Dakota and I entered a fighting tournament at a bar,” he explained. The tournament, though, was free to all-comers, lacked weight classes, and was about as thrown together as it gets, Hornbuckle said. “It was definitely not what you call a ‘sanctioned event.’ If you won and the crowd liked you, they threw money into the ring. …I probably made a solid 50 bucks that night.” After continually paying his dues, whether it was through repressing an instinct to use strength instead of technique, or by engaging in barroom beat-downs for peanuts, Hornbuckle’s career began ascending through the professional circuit, including stints in Hook N Shoot and Bodog Fight. It was only then that he would experience what he now considers to be the hardest part of professional fighting.
“The hardest thing for me is finding the balance between family life, work, and training,” he said. “I have a wife and three little girls. They are my tribe, and they are my main priority, fighting or not.” As a result, The Handler has had a full-time job for much of his fighting career, including his latest as a fire safety sprinkler installer. After full weeks of work and sporadic training sessions, his weekends were usually reserved for playing catch-up in the form of 260-mile round-trip drives from his hometown of Mahomet, Ill, to Hammond, Ind, to train with Miguel Torres — a decision that would continue to reap huge dividends in 2009 at Sengoku-Ninth battle, where he fought Japanese MMA legend Akihiro Gono.
With a shift of stance and a snapping of shin, mainstream glory came calling for Hornbuckle when he defeated Akihiro Gono on his home turf via highlight-reel head kick. The video clip instantly went viral on the Internet, including Hornbuckle’s altogether tame, respectful, and cathartic post-fight celebration that saw the fighter shedding tears of joy. “Honestly, my first thought was, ‘How am I going to get out of Japan alive?’” Hornbuckle laughed. “But after that, the feeling of months of hard work and sacrifice culminated inside me and came pouring out. To go there and meet my objective in devastating fashion was very emotional for me.”
Since then, Hornbuckle has fought once more in the Sengoku promotion, this time stopping a well-seasoned Nick “The Goat” Thompson by TKO in the second round. The two wins in Sengoku have not only garnered Hornbuckle some valuable attention, but they have increased his value as well. The fighter is set to compete again in Japan on New Year’s Eve, this time as a main draw — and it couldn’t have come at a better time for The Handler. “I got laid off from my job before I fought Thompson, due to the economy,” Hornbuckle said. “So I became a full-time fighter by default. But I’m going all in, baby. I’m going all in!”