“I made my amateur debut in 2012. I didn’t really have a timeline as to when I would make the transition to pro. I actually didn’t even know what that entailed. So when word of the IMMAF Championships came about in 2014, that was my goal, initially. Win Worlds, and then I thought that would be my foot in the door to the UFC. And then stardom, fame, and glory from there,” remembered Will Starks, now 27.
The two-time International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) World Championships gold medalist’s road to the UFC is still being paved, but he believes 2021 will be a momentous year for his journey.
For Starks, 2020 — a year marred by the spread of COVID-19 and related restrictions — was a year of renewed commitment to his physical and mental health, his studies, and his combat sports career.
“I’ve just had the opportunity to pretty much focus my entire life around getting myself back on my feet and getting my fight career started,” said Starks.
The lightweight prospect competed three times in 2020 and is set to do so for the first time in 2021 this Friday, January 15, at UAE Warriors 15 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The three-fight winning streak marked his first professional fights since May of 2017, when he suffered his only pro loss to date.
Titan FC 44 was headlined by none other than Jose “Shorty” Torres, like Starks an amateur world champion and highly-touted prospect. Torres, then 5-0, moved up in weight to capture the promotion’s bantamweight title, establishing himself as the sport’s premier flyweight prospect of note.
Further down the card, Starks — who had successfully made his pro debut four months prior after winning his second IMMAF World title and extending his total win streak to 14-straight — drew then-3-1 welterweight Michael Cora, who had fought at a catchweight of 195-pounds in his previous fight.
“Going back, it’s a fight that probably wasn’t a wise career decision at the time,” recalled Starks. “You’ve got Cora coming down from 205, and me, not a natural 170-pounder. I definitely had the size and overall strength disadvantage.
“It wasn’t really a smart move.”
Roughly two minutes into the first round, Starks leapt forward with a lead uppercut, which he intended to follow with an overhand right. As he did so, the larger Cora stepped back and connected with a clean left hook.
Starks dropped to the canvas for a second, but instinctively returned to his feet. Wobbled, he absorbed further strikes from Cora, who smelled blood in the water. A second left hook landed, and Starks fell to the mat, unconscious.
Cora landed four follow-up strikes before the referee intervened.
“It took probably like two or three months for me to feel that I’d returned back to what I thought was baseline as far as physical health and mental performance. Being knocked out, I had some TMJ-related issues like inflammation and swelling in my jaw. There was the mental side, too. At the time, I was married. I was living in Texas, away from my home gym here in Missouri. I was kind of having a hard time fitting in. At the time, me and my ex-wife lived an hour away [from my new gym], so travel was a hassle. Resources, overall, were a hassle.
“I was trying to heal and get my fighting career back to speed. I had pressure coming from multiple directions: people back at home, ‘Are you alright? What happened?’ People who were like, ‘Ah, I told you! You were never the toughest kid growing up. I told you this would happen, see?’ — like, me losing that fight was confirmation that I didn’t have what it takes to reach the goals I thought I would.”
Starks was overwhelmed.
“I wasn’t prepared to handle the stresses of balancing life. I struggled to balance full-time work, a marriage, and a fighting career, and then figuring out how I was going to get back started with my education, as well. I was separated from my friends, what I felt was my strongest support network, and I just really didn’t have the life skills to navigate completely on my own. And that put a strain on work, which put a strain on marriage, that put a strain on my fight career, which put strain on me.
“All of these things went unchecked long enough that by spring of 2018, they snowballed into my relationship basically collapsing completely. I tore my ACL during a training session, which further snowballed my relationship into a really messy divorce… I was a full-time student, post- complete ACL rupture, after a messy divorce, no car, no house, couch-hopping and living in the gym, my bank account completely cleared,” recalled Starks.
However, Starks would use the string of unfortunate circumstances to better himself, discovering his passion for health and fitness, continuing his education, and recommitting to bettering his mental health.
“The opportunity to make my return in February of last year came when my old head coach was running a show back in my hometown, but he was able to just make it happen… I had another fight in August with Chuka [Willis], and then another with Slava [Borschev].”
The latter, the fight with Slava Borschev (2-1), stands out as a clear return to form for Starks. Borschev, 29, is a renowned striking prospect training out of Team Alpha Male, and the fight took place in the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), a prominent developmental program.
“I wanted to be smart about my trajectory toward the Big Four promotions. Part of me becoming a two-time world champion and amassing a 22-1 record was to distinguish myself in the way Jose “Shorty” Torres and many other amateurs did it. By being different from the norm. By using a broader lens and making that heavy investment and getting the experience, so that we can raise the bar and increase the standard for lower-level pros. ‘Do I really want to do what other pros are doing and basically pad my record with easy fights?’ It’s a smart business move, to fight who you know that you know you’ll win, but it’s another thing to choose a fight that you’re confident that you’ll win but you know you’ll level up [from] tremendously,” said Starks.
Though he stands just 4-1, Starks knows his amateur accolades have positioned him for a speedy ascent to the sport’s global leader, the UFC.
“Both years were fun, but winning [the IMMAF World Championships] twice was the byproduct of basically being promised that staying amateur long enough — I was 12-1 — would be a strong initial investment in the longterm for my pro career. That’s why I stayed at amateur as long as I did,” Starks explained, “And looking back, even though I could be a 15-1 pro if I played my cards right, I am grateful for the experience. It did set me up to catapult into the bigger, top pro promotions with confidence and poise in the same way Olympic boxers do.”
Now, Starks will face a protege of UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov, Abdurakhman Gitinovasov (5-1), at UAE Warriors 15.
Gitinovasov, 30, faced Eagles FC title challenger Zhora Ayvazyan last year, his highest-profile bout to date. He is heralded as a prospect to watch from the Nurmagomedov camp.
“He is 5-1, and he fights for Eagles MMA, so he’s one of Khabib’s guys. It’s funny: we were laughing, what’d we call him? Great Value Khabib. He’s not name-brand, he’s off-brand Khabib. He’s good — he’s heavy, powerful hands, brutal conditioning, and he’s got some high-level grappling,” said Starks, “But he really does mirror Khabib’s style a lot.
“I’m going to experience fighting the Khabib of ten years ago, and that’s going to be a really cool experience for me at this stage of my career.”
Starks, who said it was “an honor” to compete on the event, which is dedicated to the late Abdulmanap Nurmagemodov -— Khabib’s father, believes a win puts him in prime position to make 2021 his breakout year.
“To be able to be on a card of that magnitude… to fight in front of Khabib, in the same region the UFC is holding their cards now, it’s exciting. It’s an honor. It’s a bit nerve-wracking, but at this point, I’ve been there and done that. It’s anxiety-inducing, in that I’m excited to finally allow myself to shine on the big stage, in front of the man, in Khabib,” admitted Starks.
“The goal is to win in impressive fashion [this Friday], and then, speaking with my coaches and my manager, the goal is to get a Big Four signing this year, and I believe that will happen. I believe this will put me into the conversation, or at least the Bellator or ONE [Championship] conversation.”