JB: After another win in the UFC, you fought for the heavyweight championship. What was the build-up to the fight like for you and how did you handle the tough loss to Arlovski?
PB: It was a fast and furious kind of experience. The build-up was not great and it happened really quickly just because of the lack of depth in the heavyweight division. If you remember, I had just KO'd Justin Eilers, and then he went and fought for the title against Arlovski for his next fight. I think that he was the only guy to ever come off of being knocked out in a promotion and then immediately fighting for a title. At that same show that he fought Andrei, I won against Kevin Jordan and actually won the "TapouT" submission of the night. So in terms of build-up, it was like they looked up and said, "Paul has won two in a row with finishes. He has to have the next shot." For the longest time, that division was the "Tim and Andrei Show."
It’s funny that the fight with Andrei is now one of the things that I'm most known for. If you look at the footage, Andre threw that shot to set up a level change and a takedown. He was already midway through the double-leg when it connected with me. He even told me after the fight that he didn’t like how hard my jab was so he was trying to shoot and got lucky. That started the trend of strikers wanting to wrestle me.
I remember that about two weeks after the fight, I went to hang out with one of my coaches, Brad Barnes, who was training in Houston at the time. We went out to eat at “Hooters,” which was one of the only places you could go hang out to watch the fights before there were free fights on TV. Brad's wife, JoAnn, asked the waitress if we could get one of the table setups, with my picture and all the stuff from the fight that month, to take home. The girl’s response was, "Oh wow! You are the 15-second knockout guy!" Needless to say, she did not get a tip. That fight, I think, defined me for a long time, but now people have moved on and see it for what it was. It was bad luck, bad timing, and good strategy from one of the best heavyweights at the time.
JB: You came back after that loss and got another win in the UFC before leaving the organization to fight for Strikeforce, and then Affliction. You were an excellent 5-1 over your six fights in those two organizations. Your only loss was to Alistair Overeem for the Strikeforce heavyweight championship. What was the highlight of that period of your career, and how did it lead to you eventually returning to the UFC for two more fights?
PB: Yeah, the comeback fight was good for me confidence-wise and to show people what I was about. People had touted Aldana as like a Paul Buentello version 2.0. He was big and muscular, had KO power in both hands, and supposedly had good takedown defense. I think he was like 6-0 with all KO's in under two minutes. It felt good to open up and show that I was versatile in that fight. That helped to get my stock up after coming off of a loss.
As far as Strikeforce, and even the Affliction stint, I had some great highlights for them too. Basically, I went 8-2 between the UFC, Strikeforce, and Affliction, beating MMA legends like Gary Goodrich and Tank Abbott and taking out some "next big thing" types like Aldana, Carter Williams (a K-1 champion who also shot on me), and Baby Fedor.
I think that any time I fight I always have a chance of getting back to the UFC because they know what I’m about. They know that I will go out and trade and get after it and try to finish people. It has just been unfortunate that I have had these "K-1 level" strikers that want to shoot on me. They want to secure a win instead of putting on a show that would secure both of our careers.
JB: You just recently made your light heavyweight debut with a TKO victory over UFC vet, James McSweeney, at Legacy FC 22. What led to you dropping to light heavyweight and how do you think that you performed?
PB: It was something that I had been talking about with Brad Barnes, who I mentioned earlier. He and his gym's co-owner and head coach, Bruno Bastos, had worked with me for my Mike Cook fight and two fights in Russia. When I spent some time in camp with them, I was 3-0. They have helped a lot of guys with similar styles, and Bruno has worked with Cro Cop, Stanislav Nedkov, and King Mo. It was a good place for me to train. So Brad had told me for years to do it, and then when he said I was booked for the fight, it was time to put up or shut up. So I went to their gym at 256 lbs., and six weeks later, they weighed me in at 206. I think that I can make a splash in the weight class and have some interesting and fan-friendly fights.
As far as my performance, I think I am one of the very few people who ever got a body-shot KO on a guy on his back trying to up-kick! Again, I have had some amazing coaches, like Andy Fong at AKA, and with my new respect for the gi in BJJ, from Bruno, I was never in danger. McSweeney was another "K-1 level" kickboxer who shot on me not once, but twice. This new weight just made me feel more mobile on the ground and more energized.
JB: You are on a four-fight win-streak. Ideally, what's next for you in your fighting career, and are there any other particular fighters that you would like an opportunity to fight?
PB: Ideally I will be finishing up my work with Legacy with some exciting fights to make them happy. Then I will go to the UFC, see what I can do there, and finish like I had intended when I made my UFC debut. That Maldonado vs. Beltran fight interests me. I got dibs on the winner, and we can go get a “fight of the night” check after!
JB: You are a true veteran of the sport and you have certainly seen a lot of promotions come and go. What do you think of what MMA has become and do you have any concerns for the sport or its athletes at the moment?
PB: It’s so much more a sport now than a tough guy contest. There used to be tough dudes that just went in and fought no matter who the opponent was. You would fight in an exhibition in a barn or on a barroom dance floor where they put a cage up. Guys didn’t care. They went out and slugged it out against everyone. Now it’s about taking the right matchups, strategizing more for each individual fight, and cross-training to an extent that we would have thought was just overkill back then. Now it’s the standard.