Few things in life are as nerve-wracking is competing in a mixed martial arts fight. Two men or women, locked inside a chainlink cage, try to punch, kick, elbow, knee, break, and strangle one another until time expires or one competitor is unable to physically continue.
The tension of staring across the cage at an opponent, the surges and dumps of adrenaline affecting the body, the pain of suffering repeated blows to head and body.
A daunting task, to say the least.
Former Northern Illinois University wrestling standout Trace Engelkes’ would have been grateful if that was all he had to worry about during his first-ever walk to the cage.
It was a sweltering August night with temperatures in the 90s and humidities of over 50% when Engelkes made his amateur MMA debut. He was slated to compete on local Illinois promotion Xtreme Fighting Organization’s XFO 63: Outdoor War 14 outside a local sports bar, Sideouts Sports Tavern.
“It’s an outside fight, in the middle of a sand volleyball court at a bar/bowling alley,” Engelkes recalls with a laugh. “And it is hot. Hot, hot.”
The 26-year-old, then 24, had graduated a year prior. A state champion wrestler in high school whose athletic efforts landed him on numerous scouting lists, Engelkes posted strong numbers throughout his collegiate wrestling days.
Leading the team with 50 dual points as a senior, it was a year in which he qualified for the NCAA tournament, placed second at the Mid-American Conference (MAC) championships, and was nationally ranked for the season’s last five weeks.
After graduating with a degree in Corporate and Organizational Communication, Engelkes continued working out at his traditional, “full throttle” pace despite an end to his wrestling days.
“I was in DeKalb, Illinois, coaching wrestling for Northern Illinois University where I had wrestled when I was in college. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was doing a lot of work wrestling and training these guys; I was working out more than I was in college. I was like ‘Well, this is stupid: I’m doing all this work and not getting to compete.’ So I started fighting,” Engelkes explains.
Well, trying to.
He drove nearly seven hours for what should have been his first amateur fight, traveling by car with his coach to compete in a small Wisconsin show.
“My first fight… I showed up to, I weighed in, my opponent weighed in. I get to [medical] checks, and my opponent didn’t show up to med checks. Just completely backed out. Legitimately, he told the promoter that he was constipated and couldn’t come. Yeah. Huge bummer,” Engelkes says, with frustration still evident in his voice.
“I had driven seven hours with my coach back home to go to that. It was like, way northern Wisconsin. So I was super bummed.”
After weeks of scouring the local region for a suitable promotion and fight, Engelkes finally was booked for the XFO 63 event, which featured the likes of Bellator veteran James Bennett (5-2).
Engelkes drew fellow Illinois amateur Nate Aleo (3-4 am.) in his MMA debut, a heavy-handed 6’2″ middleweight then holding a 2-2 record. It was no softball opponent for the wrestling team captain, who at 5’11” competed at a weight of 174 pounds during his collegiate career.
But Aleo was the least of Engelkes’ worries.
“I walked out and had just a mild heatstroke in the middle of the fight,” remembers Engelkes. “I went to put my hands up after the first round, and I held my hands in front of my face, and they just shook. My hands were just shaking. I could barely stand.
“I’ve had heat strokes before,” Engelkes explains. “I had a heatstroke really bad in college, [and I] had to be hospitalized for it.”
Suffering a heatstroke during his first cage fight, Engelkes instincts took over.
“I basically just wrestled my way through that fight… I ground out just a gritty, boring decision against a dude who has fought some tough competition, and I was fighting at 85 and he was 6’4”, 6’3”, something like that. I just looked tiny compared to this guy.”
After the fight, a unanimous – if less than idealized – decision victory for Engelkes, his heatstroke woes continued to plague him.
“I was throwing up; couldn’t hold liquids, was super sick overnight. It was terrible. I can remember thinking the whole time after I fought, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m ever going to do this again,’ Engelkes laughs. “It was such a bad experience, but after that day, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to give it one more try to make sure it was just the heat.’ It was just a really bad first fight experience.”
Engelkes continued fighting, and after racking up several more wins in short order during his undefeated amateur career, he began receiving calls from coaches and gyms interested in his abilities looking to add him to their fight teams.
While he considered an array of prestigious gyms including Milwaukee’s RoufuSport; Englewood, Colorado’s Factory X; and Denver’s Elevation Fight Team, an ill-fated romance led Engelkes to the Grand Canyon State.
“It just happened that my roommate from college from when I was competing lived in Phoenix, [Arizona], and he and his girlfriend had just broken up. He needed a roommate,” Engelkes laughs, “and I was like, ‘Sure, I guess I’ll go to [try out] the [renowned martial arts gym, the MMA] Lab, and I came down to visit.
“I think I spent four or five days working out here at the Lab. Just loved it, man. It was one of the best gyms I’ve ever been to, so it was a pretty easy decision. I had decided within a day or two of coming down here that I was going to pack up and move. I went home, finished my degree, packed up, and left like three days after graduation.”
Despite the opportunistic rooming situation, Engelkes’ decision to join the MMA Lab was a researched one. The gym, led by esteemed coach John Crouch, is one of the sport’s best.
The Lab is home to myriad world-class athletes, including the likes of ex-UFC champion Benson Henderson (28-9), ranked UFC middleweight contender Jared Cannonier (13-4), UFC standouts Casey Kenney (14-2-1), Kyler Phillips (7-1), and Bryan Barberena (15-7).
Engelkes entered the gym with a chip on his shoulder. It was quickly knocked off.
“When I got there… you get put in your place real quick. I thought I was super bad, you know? I had all these fights, all these finishes, I was a great wrestler, and I found out real quick that the wading pool is a lot deeper than you think it is. Especially when you have dudes like Kyler Phillips – [he] liver kicked me and made me throw up,” Engelkes says with a laugh.
While it was a Phillips liver kick that had the most, say, visceral effect on Engelkes, it was a visit from the former heavyweight and light heavyweight, and current top middleweight, Jared Cannonier, that had the most longterm one on the gym’s newest member.
“All my fights up until I moved down here were at 185 [pounds], which is a little ridiculous, and I entertained the idea of staying there until I met Jared Cannonier. I took one look at him, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I think I’m a 170er.'”
Engelkes had glowing words of praise for the Lab and the improvements to his game it has brought.
“Those guys have been a huge help to me. I had this idea in my head that I was gonna move down here and get worse at wrestling and just better at fighting in general, maybe, but there are four Division I wrestlers just at my weight in the gym, so, you know, wrestling days are still very hard.”
In particular, Engelkes pointed to his wrestling sessions with undefeated ONE Championship contender and former Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) welterweight champion James Nakashima (12-0), with whom he trained extensively during the restrictive athletic environment brought about by COVID-19.
Training the martial arts other than wrestling, however, has been the biggest difference in Engelkes’ move to the MMA Lab.
“Transitioning to jiu jitsu was pretty easy, [but] there are still things in jiu jitsu that I feel like I come up short with an answer to, per se against a very high-level guy,” admits Engelkes.
A high-level guy like MMA Lab staple Augusto ‘Tanquinho’ Mendes (6-3), an Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADDC) and International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) world champion, perhaps?
“When I got to the gym, I didn’t know who he was,” Engelkes recounts.
“He and I were getting after it one day, and he was letting me have position; he didn’t submit me or anything, and he wasn’t really trying. I ran into him a month or two later when he was training for ADCC, and he tapped me out probably every six seconds,” the former wrestler laughs. “He just brings you to a place where you realize, ‘I’ve got two options, and I’m pretty sure both of them are wrong. Getting humbled like that is a super important thing, too. He opened my eyes a little bit.”
But Engelkes reveals that it isn’t just training with the world’s best specialists that helps him improve; it’s training with those who have no desire whatsoever to compete that lets him refine his skills.
“Learning to slow down has been huge for me. I think that’s something every wrestler learns, especially in jiu jitsu – maybe not as much in striking – but in jiu jitsu, I mean, the first time you go to a jiu jitsu gym as a wrestler, a lot of times you walk into a gym and you just ragdoll a dude who’s a CPA for 8 hours a day. And that’s basically what I did,” laughs Engelkes, who must have scared CPAs more than ever-changing tax codes.
“Then Coach Crouch told me to slow down, and I slowed down. Honestly, working with people who were not competitive athletes helped me even more than I thought it would, just because it was so technique-focused and so monotonous. If you don’t get used to that monotony, you never really nail down those skills.”
Listening to Crouch’s instructions has proven effective for a long line of fighters who improve under his tutelage, Engelkes knows. He lauds the coach for his understanding of the fight game, his technical knowledge, and his experience under the sport’s brightest lights.
“It’s awesome [learning under Crouch]. When you look at his history and his lineage with the Gracie family, and who he got his black belt from; that’s touching legendary status, coming from that line of jiu jitsu. He has to have the highest fight IQ out of anybody I know that doesn’t actually fight. He’s so smart.
“I think what impresses me most about him is when you listen to him in the corner. Like, if you listen to him when Jared Cannonier fought [UFC middleweight contender] Jack Hermansson, he brings Jared to the corner and tells him to throw that uppercut: ‘He’s coming in with his head down, step back, throw that uppercut,’ and it was a couple seconds later [that] Jared knocked him right on his butt with it. I mean, he’s just an incredibly intelligent but more so the way he brings the team together is awesome.”
In Engelkes’ eyes, Crouch is a father figure for those away from home.
“He’s more like a dad to a lot of us, I think. Everybody’s dad-away-from-their-dad, because the majority of the people on the team aren’t from here. Just a lot of experience. You can always tell in practice that he’s been through it all. He’s cornered in every type of fight.”
As Engelkes has struggled to find amateur fights of late, in part due to the ongoing pandemic and in part due to his impressive resume, it was Crouch’s blessing he sought before deciding to turn pro.
“I had a really hard time finding fights and realizing with the whole situation we’re in now with the world the way it is, not a lot of people were having decent-sized amateur fights. I really wanted one more to shake the rust off because I hadn’t fought in a while, [but] just wasn’t going to get it. I sat down with Coach Crouch and was like ‘Let’s do it.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, you’re fine. When you think about who you train with every day, you’re getting rounds in with James Nakashima and Jared Cannonier, and you’re doing fine in those rounds. You’re ready to be a pro fighter.’
For his professional debut, an October 16 bout against fellow professional debutant Tyler Scott (10-3 am.) in Iowa’s Caged Aggression MMA, Crouch will not be in Engelkes corner. During his fight, Crouch will be in Abu Dhabi as he corners several of Engelkes teammates at the UFC’s Middle Eastern ‘Fight Island.’
Instead, Engelkes’ past and present will intersect to bring him the best possible cage-side advice.
“I am going to have Mike Hamel (7-4), who just recently fought in Bellator against Adam Borics on the tail end of the undercard for Benson Henderson Mike Chandler, and I’ll have my coach from back home, Shane Adams from Northern Illinois Combat Club. He’s a GLORY cutman, knows his stuff, great kickboxing coach. He’s actually had a lot of pro fights, so I’m excited to have both of those worlds collide,” Engelkes says.
“It’s not an ego thing for anybody at all at the Lab or any of my team back home; sometimes, you get that thing where two coaches butt heads. They want one thing, the other one wants the other. Nobody at the Lab is like that. There’s no ego involved. Everyone gets a seat at the table. I think that’s what I like most about the Lab. Coach Crouch would like to be in my corner, but he’s going to be in Abu Dhabi so that’s not going to happen.”
As he embarks on his pro MMA career, Engelkes wants fans to be ready for non-stop action.
“They’re going to see full throttle for the whole time, pretty much. I’ve had two fights go to decision, [but I have] a 60% finish rate. I’m going to come out guns blazing and look to get my stuff going. I’m super excited for it, just because I haven’t fought in so long. That’s really exciting to me because a) I haven’t had a taste in a while and I’m ready for it again, and b) I’m not the same fighter as I was when I left Illinois. By no short shot am I even close to that guy. I think I would hold that dude down and probably beat him senseless,” believes Engelkes.
“So, I’m really excited, just for myself. I mean, I really want to give the fans a show, but I really want to measure myself and look back and say ‘Ok, we’ve done a lot of work, and it’s working out for us.’ I think it’s real important to set benchmarks for yourself, but the fans get the plus side of seeing me measure myself.”
While Engelkes’ clear short-term focus is on securing a win over a tough debut opponent in Tyler Scott, he outlined the longterm goals he holds for his career.
“I just want to be self-sufficient in it. It’s not easy to be self-sufficient in MMA, entirely, [but] I think I can make a brand for myself and promote myself to where it doesn’t matter what promotion I’m in. I’ll be happy wherever I am, as long as I’m getting paid. Now there are more options than there used to be; there are a lot more promotions that pay pretty well.”
Though Bellator, the Professional Fighters League (PFL), and ONE Championship, among other promotions, stand out as viable options, Engelkes has a clear favorite destination in mind.
“Obviously, the goal is the UFC. I want that stage. I’ve been on big stages before, and I enjoyed them. When I wrestled at the NCAAs, there were 30,000 people there. I’m ready to be on that level again. [There’s] nothing that’s gonna surprise me as far as audience shock, anything like that. I’ve pretty much been through it all in my wrestling career.”
It’s a mountaintop to which he wants to return.
“I’d like to get back to that same level. Whatever level I was at in wrestling at the top, if I could reach that in MMA, I’d be a very happy guy.”