UFC welterweight Mike Pierce is happy to take out the trash—bring him any 170-pounder. But one day soon, he’s coming for the UFC title.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon in notoriously rainy Portland, Oregon, when Phil Claud, a former U.S. cycling coach turned MMA trainer, attempts to answer the question of whether his most prized student—Mike Pierce—is the Rodney Dangerfield of the UFC welterweight division.
Nobody has publicly called him this, mind you, but there are times it seems an apt description. Pierce has won his past four fights in the UFC and finished two via knockout. He hit Aaron Simpson with such force that “A-train” walked around the Octagon in a daze and said, “I don’t even know what just happened right now.” And yet, in all but two of his 12 UFC appearances, Pierce has toiled on the preliminary cards of televised events, where viewers and sponsorship dollars pale in comparison to those of pay-per-view main cards.
“Mike is an unbelievably talented fighter,” says Claud. “He’s an unbelievably good guy. He’s got to be one of the most underrated, misunderstood guys in the UFC. Is he Rodney Dangerfield? I don’t know. I don’t live in Mike’s shoes. He’s just got a very shy, quiet personality. A lot of people misinterpret it.”
Mention Pierce to the MMA faithful, however, and there’s little to misinterpret about his style. His early wrestling-centric performances have won him the label of “grinder,” which most consider a Scarlet Letter. He’s drawn comparisons to onetime UFC welterweight challenger Jon Fitch, the poster child for opportunities withheld in the Octagon.
Pierce’s next opponent is Rousimar Palhares, who’s dropping to 170 pounds after two straight losses and a failed post-fight drug test in his most recent outing. The UFC usually pairs winners with winners and losers with losers. What does that say about Pierce?
Sitting in an atrium opposite the Willamette River, the 33-year-old Gresham native pounds a stone table answering the question.
“I get told, ‘You’ve got to be more exciting,’” Pierce says. “I hate being compared to Jon Fitch, because I don’t think I’m that guy. His type of style isn’t the most entertaining, but neither is Georges St-Pierre’s. When was the last time that motherfucker knocked a guy out? Years ago, I think. All his decisions are boring-ass grinds that go for five fricken’ rounds. He’s the Champ, that’s great. I understand. Maybe he can get away with that. But there’s been all this pressure on me—you’ve gotta do this, you’ve gotta do that. Well, the last two out of three fights I’ve ended by knockout.”
On this sunny day, 28-year-old Brent Primus, who has both the luck and misfortune of sparring with Pierce at Sports Lab, the gym Claud built in Portland after the two had a falling out with Pierce’s former head coach. In a cage tucked in the corner of a warehouse space, which shares a wall with a lockout studio in an industrial section of the city’s hip southeast, the two face off. Pierce doesn’t say much when he arrives moments before, but he makes a big statement two seconds into the session, lifting Primus into the air by a leg and smashing him to the canvas. The move brings painful acknowledgment from the up-and-comer, who’s there to train for a debut a few weeks away in Bellator and to simulate Palhares.
The pair don’t stay grounded for long, and that’s when you get a sense of Pierce’s power. Primus fights back to his feet and is circling back when he’s cornered. Pierce winds up and lands a hard right and left that seems to shake the cage. Watching from a few feet away, boxing coach Andy Minsker flinches at the violence of the impact and does a little shuffle, smiling like a kid setting off an M-80.
“Man, Mike is a tough guy to learn against,” says Minsker with a giddy smile.
After the session, Pierce and Primus aren’t yet feeling the love and walk around the block to mellow out. Minsker, a former amateur national boxing champ and Olympian, is still amped. He’s excited as anyone to see Pierce using tools other than takedowns. The two of them play ping-pong to increase hand-eye coordination and accuracy, and he works on evening the fighter’s stance so that he carries power that forward-footed wrestlers don’t.
“Now, he’s getting more and more solid with every punch that he throws,” says Minsker. “The way I look at this, if you’re in there, if you’re going to punch someone, it might as well be a substantial punch. Why fight 15 minutes? He can fight for two minutes and get it over with.”
It’s certainly a good strategy against the Brazilian submission artist Palhares, whom Pierce fights Oct. 9 at UFC Fight Night 29 in Barueri, Brazil. In those first few minutes, the fireplug nicknamed “Toquinho” always threatens knees and ankles with cruel locks.
The best defense? A square shot to the jaw.
Asked later what it’s like to get a punch and slam from Pierce, Primus says, “One word: intense. It’s obviously a humbling experience. He’s really strong and fast, and he’s a smart fighter. I don’t have much time to think when I’m in the cage with him. It’s definitely an adrenaline rush, for sure.”
The desire to thrill fans prompts many UFC fighters to impersonate kickboxers. It certainly is one way to win notice in the UFC, and in his own way, Pierce is trying to oblige. Claud, on the other hand, thinks his pupil should go the opposite direction. It’s less cliché, and it’s better for his brain.
“For me, I wish he would just own it a little bit,” says Claud. “Kind of like Ben Askren, where he’s like, this is my style—if you don’t like it, try to fight me differently. Mike tries to play the game with the UFC, and the UFC just doesn’t seem to respond to it. What I hope is that everybody stops trying to make Mike something he’s not. Mike is a hard-nosed, forward-pushing fighter. Mike and I have had long conversations about being more marketable and more exciting, and every time we do that, the UFC says, ‘Call guys out.’ Then we call guys out, and the fans get all ruffled about how arrogant Mike is. It’s so far from the truth. The next chapter for me is to just be honest: Mike is a grinder. If you don’t like his style, don’t watch it. If you do, you’ll love Mike Pierce, because he can dictate any fight anywhere in the world, and we can win anywhere at any time.”
Pierce says his UFC debut was basically a setup for his opponent Brock Larson. After he dominated the fight from bell to bell, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva told him, in so many words, that he wasn’t expected to win. He’s surpassed physical doubts, as well. In his bout against Seth Baczynski at UFC on FX 6, he says he felt like he was fighting at altitude and couldn’t shake a feeling of sluggishness. After three rounds and a unanimous decision, a commission doctor found an air pocket in his chest cavity that wasn’t supposed to be there. His breath was literally leaking out of him, and still he pushed on. Naturally, the fight was a grind.
“In my wrestling career, they had something called a technical fall,” says Pierce. “A technical fall in collegiate wrestling is like getting a 15-point lead on somebody. If you get a 15-point spread, the match is over. So what I would do in college is take someone down, let ‘em up, take someone down, let ‘em up. You do that a few times, guys get really frustrated and they break. People think that it takes a lot of effort to take someone down. It does to a certain degree, but it takes a lot more effort to keep getting back up. When you have them broken mentally and physically, you can do whatever you want to them. There’s nothing lucky about beating the piss out of somebody. That happens intentionally and willfully.”
So does Pierce’s battle to escape preliminary purgatory, at least as of late? After knocking out David Mitchell at UFC 162, he outstretched his arms and shot a stern look at the man—Joe Silva—with the power to save him.
“I was like, ‘Is that what you’re looking for?’” Pierce says. “He smiled and nodded and said, ‘Good fight.’”
That might be all he gets, at least until he wins enough fights to become a populist title challenger. That’s where the Fitch comparisons might come in handy. Until then, on goes the grind.
“I can only control what I can control,” Pierce says. “I’ve done what I thought is necessary to make that step into the limelight, and it just hasn’t come from fruition yet. I don’t know what else I can do other than keep steamrolling guys until they have no choice. When I beat Palhares—because I’m gonna beat him—it’s a move in the right direction. But I think there’s plenty of other guys who are more relevant and would get me a bigger boost in the direction I want to go. So I’m happy to take the fight. I’m happy to beat him up and give him his own retirement party in his home, but I’m ready to move up to bigger and better things.”