When referring to the past sporting endeavors of Mixed Martial Artists the discussion usually involves amateur wrestling success or perhaps past glory on the gridiron. However, in the case of rising bantamweight Shah Bobonis the baseball diamond played host to his athletic aspirations at an early age with his abilities even leading to a stint in the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system out of high school.
While Bobonis’ professional focus has since turned from Louisville Sluggers to those of the flesh-and-blood variety, he’s carried over lessons learned on the field into the ring en route to a winning record less than five years into his MMA career. The 32-year old Floridian recently spoke to Five Ounces of Pain about a number of things including baseball, a chance meeting with a Strikeforce contender that re-shaped his life, helping Dominick Cruz prepare for his UFC 132 title-defense against Urijah Faber, and why he hopes to one day land in Bellator as a participant in one of the promotion’s trademark tournaments.
Bobonis’ first brush with what is now his calling came as a teen where he excelled on the mat in school but was quickly steered in a different direction after suffering some serious damage in a training session.
“I wrestled in junior high and as a freshman in high school I qualified for a State tournament but right before my sophomore year I had an injury during practice that required surgery so my parents kind of freaked out, saying, ‘You’re not going to make any money wrestling. You play baseball. There’s a lot of money to be made there.’ So they kinda steered me away from wrestling and pressured me not to wrestle anymore.”
Their advice paid off to an extent, as he was given an opportunity to play in the minors before eventually deciding to turn in his spikes and head back to his home in Miami. Still, the time in baseball provided teaching moments Bobonis still carries over to this day.
“As a pitcher you have to have a very short memory,” Bobonis explained. “If you have a bad outing you have to come back out and clear that from your head. In fighting it’s the same thing – if you have a bad round you have to come back out. You can’t dwell on the last round, thinking, ‘Oh no, I got my butt kicked!’”
He also learned to avoid a lifestyle often linked to late nights, partying, and a lack of dedication in the gym.
“To be completely honest, other than a little bit of the mental side of athletics, baseball to me is the worst sport as far teaching discipline and things like that. In combat sports you have to make weight, constantly stay in shape. You have to be a lot more disciplined and focused.”
“Plus, the threat of someone punching you in the face while tired kinda gets you into training every day,” he playfully added.
After baseball, with “professional athlete” seemingly in his rear-view mirror, Bobonis got into the restaurant business until bumping into Jorge Masvidal at a local gym the two shared where the Strikeforce star introduced him to Mixed Martial Arts.
“I did amateur boxing basically to stay in shape, stay busy, and compete,” Bobonis began. “Then I met Jorge and we started talking. He suggested I should try out MMA, and I had seen it a couple of times on television but I was always a very traditional boxing fan. I loved watching boxing but I wanted to try MMA out and I fell in love with it.”
Shortly thereafter Bobonis was in the ring where he learned the decision to test his skills had been a good one with three straight finishes. After a rough patch during which he worked on getting his grappling up to par with his striking he was back on track and eventually became Mexico’s Combate Extremo featherweight champ.
“Combate Extremo is a good job. Their promotion is great,” he exclaimed! “Every time I go down there it gets bigger and bigger. The fans are passionate, they love the sport. I have to stay like an hour after my fights just taking pictures with fans. They love every minute of it. I’ll always be willing to go down to Mexico and fight. It’s a lot of fun.”
Bobonis, who fights Fabian Galvan at featherweight under the CE banner on September 3, will also compete for a different promotion before heading South of the Border and in a different division as well.
“My next fight is actually at 135 pounds against Caleb Archer at Howard Davis Jr.’s Fight Time Promotions in Miami. He’s 5-1, ranked in the ‘Top 10’ of the State at bantamweight, and a very good Muay Thai practitioner.”
As far as what he expects, Bobonis licked his chops and continued, “We’re gonna bang it out. I don’t have to worry about him trying to shoot in on me. We’re just gonna have a K-1 style fight with small gloves on.”
Standing up is a prospect that always excites Bobonis even though he’s comfortable on the ground as well.
“I honestly would rather always strike with everyone but it doesn’t work out that way all the time. Every time I’m in the ring with someone they usually try to take me down so I was forced to learn the ground game. Even in the fights I wasn’t finished in early on in my career I lost because I didn’t have the greatest Jiu-Jitsu. Now I feel like my BJJ has gotten to a certain level where even if I do get taken down I can submit somebody or get back up to my feet and start striking.”
As far as his comfort with bantamweight, the 10-7 fighter explained why he preferred the division in comparison to a notch higher.
“When I get to that next level of fighters – world class guys every time in the cage – I’ll definitely stay at 135 pounds. At 145, if I’m in great shape I’m maybe cutting a few pounds the day of the weigh in. So 135 is more of a calculated cut, a tough cut, but if it’s not a tough cut it’s probably not the weight class for you.”
On the subject of world class peers, when asked about his recent time training with the UFC’s bantamweight champ, Bobonis had nothing but positive things to say about the six weeks he spent in San Diego as part of Cruz’s camp.
“It was great! We had a lot of world class guys coming in and out of there…Wilson Reis was there, when I was leaving Ben Henderson was there…K.J. Noons stopped by a couple times. California is great in the sense you have top guys jumping gym to gym and you get exposed to that stuff. It was a great experience.”
He also expressed appreciation for Cruz’s win against Faber on a personal level, saying, “Rolling with a guy and punching a guy in the face, there’s a certain bond created when training really hard with somebody. I was really happy for Dominick to see him pull through. I definitely thought that’s the way the fight was going to unravel and he did a great job.”
Though the Octagon is certainly on Bobonis’ radar it actually turns out he prefers the format of Bellator, a company he nearly fought for before an injury kept him out of the cage, to the UFC simply from the standpoint of their tournament structure.
“I love the way Bellator does things in the sense that it’s a tournament and you can’t duck anybody. You’re gonna face the guys who are winning. I think tournaments are the fairest way in terms of determining a champion. Sometimes, in other promotions, a guy might be very marketable or the fight will sell a lot of tickets so sometimes guys get favorable stylistic match-ups. I’m not saying anybody gets tomato cans or anything like that, but favorable match-ups and things of that nature.”
Bobonis continued on the topic of Bellator, discussing the type of opponent he’d be interested in if given another opportunity to fight for them, explaining a shot as his original adversary, Ed West, would be appealing.
“I love to test myself against other strikers, against great Jiu-Jitsu, but I think his wrestling isn’t there so I think I could keep it on our feet the entire time and bang it out. That’s the type of style of fight I like to put on. I think it would be an exciting fight, the type of fight fans want to see. Guys like that.”
In closing, Bobonis offered a shout out to the very people who originally turned him away from combat sports but are still extremely important to him.
“I want to thank my parents – my #1 sponsor! Can’t forget! And then Brawl and Maul, also a great sponsor, as well as all of my training partners at the Freestyle Training Academy in Miami.”
Bobonis has earned seven stoppages in ten total wins with a near-even split between submission and strike-based endings. He is 2-0 in 2011 with a first frame Doctor’s Stoppage in his last outing this past April.