Steve Young of MMA
Westin Wilson (BA ’15) can hear the crowd screaming beyond the dark drape. Glimpses of flashing lights shine through the crack in the curtain, and Wilson focuses his breathing. He hears his name called on the loudspeaker, and then Macklemore’s “Glorious” begins playing over the loudspeaker. It’s fight time.
Wilson is a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter—and one of the only Mormons he knows of in the professional circuit. Balancing his family, career as a business analyst for Entrata, and career in professional MMA, Wilson has his hands full—but happily so.
MMA is a full contact combat sport that uses techniques from wrestling, jujitsu, boxing, and other martial art forms. Competitors fight for up to three rounds, with each round lasting for up to five minutes. Three judges decide which athlete wins the fight, and a referee manages the fight from within the cage. Although MMA forbids hair pulling, biting, and head-butting, injuries such as broken bones and concussions are inherent parts of the sport. The mental and physical tenacity demanded of MMA athletes draws audiences from all backgrounds, and MMA has become a billion dollar industry.
While in fifth grade Wilson saw his first professional fight, and by his first year of high school he set a goal. He remembers thinking, “I want to be a professional fighter. I think I can do it.” Wilson began training in MMA, but it wasn’t until he was a freshman at BYU that he began to train and pursue his dream in earnest.
Training came with its own set of challenges, however. MMA fighting does come with inherent risks, and Wilson has had his share of broken noses, sore joints, and other minor injuries. Wilson also struggled to balance a demanding training regimen with his wife, Jennifer, and their growing family. In 2016, four years after marrying Jennifer, Wilson tore his ACL fighting, which forced him to take a break. “It was a long process to deal with, but it was a blessing in disguise,” Wilson says. “It made me refocus. . . my priorities and gave me time off to be with my family.”
Wilson’s wife and mother worried for Wilson’s safety in the ring. Wilson says, “The more injuries I got, the more [they] didn’t want me to do it. . . they’re supportive, but they love me [and don’t] want me to risk my health to pursue a dream.”
Despite the risks, Wilson continued training with the blessing of his wife. As Wilson trained, he fell more and more in love with MMA. “It’s the purest sport that you can do,” Wilson explains. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor . . . what your heritage is, what your race [is], none of that matters when you’re in the cage. The better man wins.”
Becoming the better man, however, requires extensive training. Fortunately, Wilson has learned how to balance his career, family and fighting. To give his wife some parenting respite, Wilson takes his three and one year old daughters to the gym with him when his workouts are less intense. Wilson’s daughters watch him train, and Wilson plays with them in between drills.
The days that Wilson does not bring his daughters, are the days that he is preparing for a specific fight. The buildup and preparation for a fight is tremendous. Wilson normally trains six days a week, for about 2 hours a day, but in preparation for a fight he increases training time and intensity, sometimes taking time off from his day job in product management to spend extra hours at the gym.
As if physical preparation isn’t enough, Wilson also battles to control his thoughts and emotions immediately prior to the fight. The day of the fight Wilson spends all day quiet and nervous, contemplating his opponent and the impending fight. In the final moments before entering the arena, Wilson’s heart begins to pound, and he focuses in on his breathing. If his thoughts spin out of control, he experiences an adrenalin dump where his limbs grow heavy and hard to move. Up until the moments before the fight begins, Wilson still battles his doubts. He describes, “[Before the fight] I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do this,’ [then] I force myself up the stairs into the cage, and as soon as I’m in the cage it all goes away.”
But Wilson can’t always defeat his doubts, and when he fails to do so, his doubts defeat him—just as they did in his first loss as a pro fighter.
In this particular fight, Wilson’s mind seemed to run out of control, and he doubted his preparation and ability to perform. “It was one of those fights where I really had to dig deep because there were moments where I wanted to quit,” Wilson says. After 15 minutes of intense fighting, the judges named Wilson’s opponent the victor.
With his 5-3 record, Wilson has had his share of challenging fights, but he’s familiar with the rush of victory. When Wilson was declared the victor of his first fight since tearing his ACL he says, “I let out a big scream! I [felt] relief. . . and extreme excitement and joy.” It’s the thrill of winning and fighting that ultimately drives Wilson, and after each fight he excitedly seeks out his next fighting opportunity.
More than winning, Wilson’s ultimate goal is to be an advocate and example of the LDS faith in MMA fighting. “I’m trying to be the Steve Young of MMA,” Wilson explains. “I really want to help other people, and be an example of the Gospel.” Wilson frequently receives texts and phone calls from friends and people around him in the MMA scene who see his example, and ask for his help. One of his most rewarding moments was training with his coach. “I got to see my coach become active in the church again, and take his wife to the temple,” says Wilson. “It was really cool to see him become active [since] he hadn’t been to church in many years.”
“I’m an average guy. I’ve never been gifted athletically,” Wilson says. “But I want to show, just through hard work, that you can accomplish any goal you set your mind to.”