For a lot of people, sports represent the opportunity to never grow up. Forget the sacrifices and the blood, sweat, and tears shed in order to make it to the professional level – the bottom line is, the idea of playing a game for a living is a childhood dream that many have sought for years.
A young Rodney Wallace was no different, as his dream was to one day step on the gridiron and play professional football. And early on, he looked to have the talent to do so, but there was always a missing ingredient.
“In eight grade, ninth grade, our high school was so terrible that people were like ‘man, you ain’t gonna play football in college because this whole team sucks,’” he chuckles. “But sophomore year we got a new coach and he started focusing on getting me the ball. That’s when we started winning games and going to the playoffs. This coach was the one that got the scouts coming out and looking, but at my size and speed, it was kinda too late to get the D1 scouts.”
Instead, South Carolina’s Wallace – who also wrestled in high school – got a scholarship to play for Division II Catawba College in North Carolina. Again, the 5-9 running back was on track for big things, breaking the freshman rushing record at the school. But when a coaching switch saw the team go from a run-oriented team to one focused on the passing game, Wallace admits that his “numbers fell off,” a kiss of death to NFL scouts. And despite graduating in 2004 as the school’s leading rusher and putting up good numbers in a couple combines, he knew that his shot at making the league was over.
“I knew it was gonna be hard for me to do it,” said Wallace. “I know a couple guys who were trying out for a team every year and I was like ‘if I don’t make it the first year, I ain’t doing it.’ I didn’t want to be one of those guys who keep going to camps and keep working out every year, hoping they’re gonna make it. I went to a couple of combines, I had some good numbers, but they want the records on the field, and it was what it was. I was real with myself.”
Few are, especially after playing at a high level in high school or college. But Wallace’s athletic dreams weren’t dead yet, even though he knew that football wasn’t going to be where he was headed. In 2005 he began studying at a jiu-jitsu school, hoping that BJJ mixed with his wrestling would allow him to be successful in mixed martial arts.
There would be one more detour though, when he began studying boxing, got in a couple Toughman competitions and then was approached by a promoter to give the sweet science a shot – as a pro. Wallace, never one to shy away from a challenge, took the promoter up on the offer, and on June 23, 2007, he made his pro debut with a 67 second TKO of Jimmy Mason.
Wallace’s first four boxing matches ended via knockout, but in his fifth bout in November of 2007, he was knocked out by a fighter making his pro debut – or so it seemed. In reality, Wallace was stopped by former heavyweight contender Maurice Harris – a 36 fight veteran who lied about his identity and experience to get the fight. The bout’s result was changed to a no contest, yet by this time, Wallace was getting disillusioned with the boxing game.
“You’ve got to grow up doing it,” he said. “There are little kids doing it right now. You can’t be 25 and they’ve been doing it for 10 years. That’s like wrestling. You just can’t start wrestling after you’re 25 and think you’re gonna beat somebody who’s been doing it since they’re seven.”
Luckily, Wallace was one of those wrestlers who had been on the mat for much of his life. Add in his bit of boxing and jiu-jitsu experience and all the lights went on – it was time for him to really tackle mixed martial arts.
On April 18, 2008, Wallace entered the world of pro MMA, scoring a three round decision win over Wesley Cantillo. Five days later – yes, five days – he ended his boxing career with a three round loss to 5-0 prospect Wilmer Vazquez.
Firmly back in MMA full-time, Wallace won his first nine fights before losing back-to-back UFC bouts to Brian Stann and Jared Hamman. His hand wasn’t raised that night, but he did win over some fans while also picking up a Fight of the Night bonus against Hamman in March. That was the good part. The bad part is, now it’s all about the ‘W’.
“The two fights that I lost, I was actually impressed with the things that I did because when I went in, the gameplan was that I wanted to impress the fans, said the 28-year old. “I knew that in a couple of positions I was gonna lose, but it’s gonna be a back and forth and hopefully I get more of the up than the down. I wasn’t going in there to be perfect. I was going in there to put it all on the line and try to do it. So I did what I wanted to do, but now you’ve got to look back and say ‘that’s not the best way to win the fight.’ (Laughs) Now you’ve gotta win.”
On Saturday, Wallace will attempt to right his ship against late replacement Phil Davis, an unbeaten phenom filling in for Stanislav Nedkov. But if you think Wallace is feeling the heat from the change in opponent, think again. In fact, he requested to fight Davis before UFC matchmaker Joe Silva told him that having the 0-2 Wallace taking on the 2-0 Davis probably wasn’t going to fly with fans. But on short notice, it’s the perfect fit, especially stylewise as far as Wallace is concerned.
“It’s the same MO with Phil,” said Wallace. “He’s a wrestler that’s not real confident in his hands, and that’s the same as Nedkov. I think the difference between them is that Nedkov would have come forward more and been more aggressive to get the takedown. I think Phil is more relaxed and he’s gonna pick his shot when he’s gonna take the takedown. He’s not gonna throw reckless hands and then try to grab you. But a wrestler is a wrestler and they’ve got their own mindset. They’re looking to take you down. So it’s not really different; it’s just that the pace is gonna change.”
And just because Wallace wanted to fight Davis doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect “Mr. Wonderful”.
“I think the 0-2 made it easier for him to take it, but I also think he’s a warrior,” said Wallace. “And with his confidence being 2-0, who’s gonna tell him that somebody’s gonna beat him, especially someone who lost two times? He’s a warrior and he ain’t looking at the business part of it.”
Neither is Wallace, but after all his trials and tribulations, he’s found his home in MMA and the UFC, and he’s not about to let it go without a fight. So on Saturday in Oakland, the goal is one Raiders owner Al Davis could appreciate: “Just win, baby.”
“I think I’ve got the tools and ability to do this,” he said. “My mindset now is ‘get your mind off the fans and get in the cage.’”
Rodney Wallace's One-Track Mind
Former college football star and pro boxer Rodney Wallace finally found his home in mixed martial arts. Now all he wants is a win in the UFC, and he gets his chance on Saturday against Phil Davis.