Dave Bautista spent the better part of a decade pretending to get punched in the face as a pro wrestler. Now that the 43-year-old heavyweight is less than a week away from his first chance to do it for real as a mixed martial arts fighter, he can hardly wait.
The question he keeps hearing over and over – the one he can't seem to supply a satisfactory answer to – is, why?
"I know some people have a hard time understanding it," said the former World Wrestling Entertainment champion, who's set to make his professional MMA debut in Providence, R.I., on Saturday (pay-per-view, $29.95). "I'm obviously never going to make the money that I made in the WWE, and it's not like I think I'm going to go become UFC champion."
So why do it? Why suffer through an eight-week training camp, which Bautista described as "by far the hardest thing" he's ever done, just to fight on the small circuit against an unknown opponent?
"I just want the experience," he said. "I don't have any ulterior motive. I just want to do it because I love it so much."
According to Bautista, who said he's practiced various forms of martial arts for years, the dream of competing as a professional MMA fighter was one he'd all but given up on after an attempt to negotiate a contract with Strikeforce fell through in 2010. He spent the past couple years training recreationally after his departure from the WWE, but thought he might never get the chance to actually fight.
Then boxing promoter Jimmy Burchfield contacted him about a bout at an event far from the glitz and glamour of the UFC or Strikeforce, and Bautista thought it might be his last best chance to test himself in a real fight.
"It was kind of a dead dream to me, but once they offered it to me I thought, why not? It was still a dream," Bautista said. "I at least wanted to have one fight and get that experience."
He's spent the past two months training in a Tampa, Fla. gym with both current and former UFC fighters. In the process he's taken plenty of beatings and gotten "good at a lot of things, but not great at anything."
Whether that will be enough to best his opponent is tough to say – because the man's identity is still unknown. Bautista originally was scheduled to face novice fighter Rashid Evans, but that fight was reportedly scratched due to Evans' recent legal troubles. Classic Entertainment & Sports, which is promoting the event at the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, has yet to name a replacement (a far too common occurrence in MMA's regional circuit).
No matter whom he faces, Bautista knows that there will be those who recoil at the idea of another former pro wrestler making the jump to MMA. They'll think he's only doing it for money (which he swears he isn't), or for attention (which he claims he's just about had enough of). He knows there's bound to be a segment of the MMA fan population that never gives him a chance, and he's in no hurry to try to win them over.
"For people like that, I don't think it would matter what I might say," Bautista said. "I'm doing this for personal reasons. People are going to support me or they're not. I was talking to 'King' Mo [Lawal] not long ago, since he's going into professional wrestling for the first time, and that's the first thing he told me was, don't listen to the haters, because they're going to hate no matter what."
To some, he knows he'll always be the ex-pro wrestler, even though he said he doesn't watch much WWE these days since it's all "‘Real World' kids who are more concerned with how their hair looks and how much baby oil they have on." MMA gives him the chance to compete in a "real sport," he said, and he's willing to take the bad along with the good in order to get that opportunity.
"If getting punched in the face is the worst thing about it, sign me up," he said. "I've been dropped. I've been kicked to where I couldn't walk. But I still love it."
What he doesn't know yet is how he'll feel when fight night finally arrives. Even after years of working packed arenas as a pro wrestler, he still got nervous every time he stood behind the curtain, waiting for his cue. He can't say how he'll manage those nerves in an actual fight, nor can he be sure if he'll ever get more than this one chance to find out.
"If I get my butt kicked, I might not want to do it again," he said. "I imagine I'm going to be terrified, but that's part of the challenge."