Growing up in small-town central Oregon, John Gunderson was always looking for a fight.
“It was basically all we did,” he says, describing how he came to take up mixed martial arts as a career. “There were always a lot of fights, and I started boxing as a kid. After boxing, I saw MMA and that really caught my eye. I fell in love.”
Gunderson recalls attending an early MMA show in Oregon, a small amateur production. He turned down a chance to fight on the card, only because he wasn’t asked until the day of the show.
“I told them I’m not ignorant,” Gunderson says. “I said I would fight on the next one. I started training, and I really enjoyed it. I knew I was attracted to fighting.”
At the time, it had not occurred to Gunderson he would one day join the sport’s elite.
Yet after 19 amateur fights and 28 more as a professional, Gunderson did so this year, making his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut on the organization’s big New Year’s weekend card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
On April 10, Gunderson will represent his adopted home city of Las Vegas at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
A lightweight (155 pounds) with a professional MMA record of 22-7, Gunderson is scheduled to fight Englishman Paul Taylor in a preliminary bout on the UFC’s first card in the Middle East. In the co-headlining bouts, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva fights Demian Maia, and lightweight champ B.J. Penn faces Frankie Edgar.
As part of a small group of MMA fighters, Gunderson spent about two weeks in Afghanistan last summer greeting American troops. He learned in February he would have an opportunity to return to that part of the world under different circumstances.
“I was very excited about it right away,” Gunderson says. “As soon as I saw the UFC was going to Abu Dhabi, I told my fiancee it would be awesome to be a part of that card. I got the phone call a week later.”
After losing a decision to Rafaello Oliveira in his first UFC appearance, Gunderson sees the fight against Taylor, who is dropping from welterweight (170 pounds), as a chance to make amends.
An instructor at L.A. Boxing on Eastern Avenue in Henderson when he’s not training full time, Gunderson has been preparing at the Tapout Training Center on Hacienda Avenue. His team includes striking coach Shawn Tompkins and grappling specialist Mike Cody.
“I think they’ve brought my game to the next level,” Gunderson says. “I’ve had a long time to prepare for this, but I don’t feel like I’ve overtrained by any means.”
Assessing his strengths in the UFC Octagon, Gunderson cites his aggression and his deep knowledge of the nuances of MMA. It’s a fitting answer considering Gunderson—who has two daughters, Makayla, 6, and Tatum, 4—plans to continue teaching even after his fighting days have finished.
“It’s my No. 1 goal to make my mark in the UFC and to cement my legacy as an individual,” says Gunderson, 30. “Someday I want to open my own school and have my own following and my own students. Even more than a fighter, I’m a great teacher.
“I’ve been around the sport for so long and I’ve been in so many different gyms and camps, I believe I know what works. When it’s my time, when I’m done fighting, I want to move back to Oregon, to where I grew up, and do my thing there.”
UFC 112 can be seen via pay per view, though Gunderson’s bout is scheduled to take place before the televised portion of the card.