For Bleacher Report, By Ed Kapp

Known for his exciting fighting style, Conor Heun, who returns to action this weekend, will be looking to put on another highlight-reel performance—as the American lightweight is slated to take on Magno Almeida—a fast-rising Brazilian prospect—on Saturday evening at Strikeforce: Overeem vs. Werdum in Dallas.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Conor Heun about, among other topics, his early days in mixed martial arts, his recent move to Greg Jackson’s camp in New Mexico, and what he hopes to achieve in this sport.

Do you remember your first day of wrestling?

My first day of wrestling? No, I don’t. I remember my first match, though...I got pinned without getting my thumb out of my mouth [laughs].

[Laughs] Did that shape the way that you looked at wrestling?

[Laughs] I don’t know, but it shaped the way that I looked at the ceiling from then on. I never really got comfortable sleeping on my back. Training with Eddie Bravo changed all of that, though; now I’m really comfortable training there.

What inspired you to try your hand at mixed martial arts?

After college, I was out in L.A. and I was looking for a way to feed that competitive fire, so I started training jiu-jitsu with Eddie—on the recommendation of my college roommate. He told me about this guy that was doing jiu-jitsu that was a lot like wrestling; mainly because you didn’t have to wear the gi.

I started training with Eddie and he had some fighters that were training with him at the time; namely Jason Chambers and Amir Rahnavardi. Those guys encouraged me. At the time, I had been in a ton of street-fights, but I had never had a fight with a date set and the idea kind of scared me.

I’ve always been one to conquer my fears, so I figured, “What the hell? Why not give it a shot?” Those guys said that they thought that I had what it takes, so I took my first fight and won by rear naked choke and quit my day job shortly thereafter and started training full-time.

How were you feeling going into your first match?

I was really confident. I was a really small kid growing up, but I didn’t back down and I had, sort of, a mouth on me. I’ve been in more than my fair share of street-fights and that was going against big guys, multiple guys—you never knew what was going to happen.

The idea of fighting someone that was my size with a ref in a ring with rules, made me really confident.

What were your intentions when you started training?

What were my intentions? I just started out training jiu-jitsu as a way to stay in shape and blow off some steam and have something fun to do.

It was pretty much just training jiu-jitsu for that first fight—after that, I realized that I had a future in the sport and I wanted to learn as much as I could. It was really just trying to get as good as I could and to see how far I could take it.

Do you think, had you lost your first match, you would’ve continued on in the sport?

Yeah—I would. I lost my second fight, you know? I like competing and I think martial arts is pretty much the purest form of competition; one man vs. the other ‘til somebody says “uncle.” I really enjoy the competition and I enjoy the sacrifice and the dedication and the lifestyle choices that you need to make if you want to be great.

I was super-stoked going into that second fight—just fired up in the locker room—everyone was looking at me like I was nuts and I ended up losing a split-decision to Brett Cooper. I fought him up at 165 and he broke my nose, knocked a tooth out, and knocked me down a few times.

He hit me harder than I had ever been hit before and afterwards, the commissioner—that had seen me all happy before hand—said, “Oh, so you think you still want to do this?” and I was like, “Hell, yeah! That was the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Has this ever wavered in your mind?

No, no. I think it’s either in your blood or it’s not, you know? I like to fight; I like to test myself and establish my dominance.

Nothing for me is better than seeing the look in that other guy’s eyes when, you know, he already knows that it’s over—he hits you with his best shot and you’re there smiling at him and coming forward. I really enjoy that sense of dominance.

When did you realize that this was something that you could excel in?

I don’t know. I never lost a street-fight growing up and I think, once I found out that I could beat people up for a living, [laughs] it was a pretty natural choice.

Do you ever think about where you might be—had you not come across 10th Planet?

I’m sure I would’ve found some other way to compete; whether it be doing grappling tournaments or wrestling tournaments. My dad played rugby for a long time to fuel his desire for competition and, since I discovered jiu-jitsu, he’s discovered the sport, as well.

He’s a Colorado state white belt jiu-jitsu champion in the old man’s division, so competition is in my blood—I would find some way to compete. My little brother is a professional cyclist, so that desire to compete is in my blood.

I really like fighting and I also ran cross country—I enjoy the individual sports where you don’t have anybody to rely on but yourself. I’m sort of a loner; I don’t have a lot of friends—I like to be by myself and push myself.

I only want myself to rely on; if something happens in the cage and I lose, there’s nobody to blame but myself. I like that sense of responsibility.

Do you feel being introverted helps your mixed martial arts career?

Yeah. Fighting is a selfish sport; you need to focus on yourself and do what you need to do to be in the best place that you can be. If you’re easily distracted and you’ve got a whole bunch of people that are taking up your time and your energy, then you’re not focusing as much on the task at hand.

That’s why I moved to the TapOut Ranch in Edgewood, N.M.; there’s nothing out here and the only other guys that are out here at the ranch are the same guys as myself—they like to fight and train and put their nose to the grindstone and see how far it can take us.

Being up here with a bunch of like-minded individuals pushing is great. I think that selfishness and singular focus is definitely an important characteristic in being a champion.

What inspired your move to New Mexico?

Two losses in a row. I think the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. I lost a decision to [Jorge] Gurgel in 2009 and then I lost a split-decision to [KJ] Noons last June, so I figured that whatever I was doing, wasn’t working—it was time to change it up.

How did you choose New Mexico?

[Greg] Jackson’s camp. The fact that he’s trained more champions in the history of the sport, the level of sparring partners here, the amount of guys in my weight-class; in the gym, you’ve got Cub Swanson, Clay Guida, Joe Stevenson, Diego Sanchez, [Donald Cerrone], Leonard Garcia, and a whole host of guys that you’ve never heard of, but would probably beat the shit out 90 percent of the name-fighters out there.

This is where you come if you want to be a champion and that’s my only goal.

How much of an impact do you think the camp has had on you so far?

I think it’s been pretty phenomenal; I don’t think people are even going to recognize me. My cardio is going to be absolutely unparalleled and I’ve been fighting with the top-contenders in the UFC—the best lightweights in the world—every day. Stepping into the cage with my opponent—he’s obviously an extremely tough guy—but I’m sure he’s no “Cowboy” Cerrone.

Do you regret not making the transition earlier?

No—I don’t really have any regrets; I believe everything happens for a reason. I got a lot out of being in L.A. and I’m just happy to be where I am now.

How are you feeling going into your upcoming match?

I feel great. My little brother saw me gassing in the Noons fight and came to me and offered his expertise—like I said before; he’s a professional cyclist, graduated with an engineering degree.

He’s got me doing new workouts based on my heart rate and maximum output to really dial it in and make sure that I’m getting the most of my time.

Anything can happen in a fight; you can get caught in a submission or something like that, but the only thing that you can control going into a fight is how big your gas-tank is and I guarantee that I’ve got the biggest tank that I’ve ever fought with before. It’s going to be really exciting for the fans.

Do you think—in light of the changes that you’ve been making recently—that those two straight losses could have a positive effect on your career?

Yeah; anything that doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That was a rough period in my career—I haven’t had a win since October 2008—and that weighs heavily on me, but I believe that I’ve done everything in my power to rectify the situation. I’m really looking forward to showing my improvements on Saturday.

Do you try to predict the outcome of your matches?

I predict I’m going to win [laughs]. I predict that you’re going to see a war. I’ve lost my last two bouts, but Strikeforce renewed my contract—obviously not for my record or because I’m winning—but for how I fight. I predict the fans are going to love it; it’s going to be a scrap.

I think that’s what people want to see. If people have never seen a Conor Heun fight, be sure to watch, because if you like guys going out there to finish, that’s what I do. I’m free to take any risk at any time to win the fight and I don’t hold back; I don’t believe in winning by points.

I’ve gone to decisions, but you’ll notice that I was always taking risks, trying to finish. Some people say that I fight recklessly—giving up positions to attack submissions—but that’s not going to change. I am the fighter that I am and that’s a fighter that wants to go out and dominate.

When someone signs on the dotted line across from me, they’re saying that they’re better than me and that’s disrespect to me; I feel like they’re disrespecting me, my training camp, and my father—who’s trained me since I was five years old. So, when someone signs on the dotted line across from me, my sole intention is to punish them for that decision.

Have you always had this outlook?

I remember being a little kid and having dreams of standing over the broken bodies of my opponents, you know, I wanted to be the champion.

I wanted to be a high-school state wrestling champion and I fell short—I lost by a point in the state finals—and that hurt. I had been training for that forever and I’ve just never given up on that goal of standing on the top of the heap.

Is it more important for you to win or to put on a good show?

I think my fight-style is entertaining, but I don’t go out there thinking, “Oh, I’m going to put on a good show.” To me, what is most important, is finishing people; making them tap, knocking them out—letting them know that I’m the best.

What would a win this weekend mean to you?

It means an extra $4,000 in my pocket and, hopefully, a step closer to fighting for that belt. That’s the goal; standing on top of that heap.

What do you feel is the next step in your career?

Whoever they put in front of me. There are a lot of great guys in Strikeforce, and I just want them to keep putting them in front of me.  I want to stay healthy and fight a lot.

In 2007, I fought seven times—that was a great year—and I want another year like that; where I’m able to fight and to continue to show people what I’m capable of and Saturday is the next step.

Being in a cage is when I’m the freest, it’s when I’m the happiest, it’s when nothing else matters—there are no worries or outside thoughts—just being in the zone and living in the moment; being present.

I’m never more present than when I’m in the cage and that’s something that I work with daily; I meditate for an hour a day and I do an hour of yoga every day—all of these things to help me live in the moment—but never is that moment as intense and profound as it is when that door closes behind me in that cage.

Is there anything that you can compare it to?


Have you thought about how much longer you’d like to compete?

Until they strap that belt around me [laughs]. Then I’ll start thinking about something else—maybe—but I’m pretty singular in my focus; I’ve dedicated everything to this and I’ve lost lots of things in pursuit of this sport.

I want to stand on the top of the heap; I want that belt [laughs]. I want to be remembered; I want my name to live on. I want my kids to say, “One time, my daddy was the champ.”

What would that championship belt mean to you?

Just that; immortality.

How would you like to be remembered when it’s all said and done?

As somebody who never backed down; someone that never gave up and always gave it their all—that’s the most important thing to me.

I’ve coached wrestling, and I don’t care if the kid wins or loses—as long as he gave it his all—and I just want everybody that ever saw me fight to think, “Man, that kid’s got a ton of heart. He always gave it his all and he never held back—100 percent.” That’s all you can really ask for; to give the maximum effort.