As mixed martial arts continues its global expansion, the sport is finding its way into more and more people’s lives. Local gyms are increasing in population. Highly regarded promotions like the UFC, Bellator and ONE Championship host events in a number of different countries.
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That wasn’t the case even 10 years ago, and it absolutely was not happening 20 years ago. Back then, the sport didn’t find you. You found it.
That’s what undefeated featherweight prospect Kevin Syler did.
Growing up in Bolivia, Syler had an ideal home life in his formative years.
“I had a fun childhood,” Syler explained to John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock. “[Bolivia is] a really nice environment. It’s very family-oriented. Just nice weather, nice people, good food and, thank God, I always had everything I needed.”
He had a built-in friend group that consisted of his older brothers. Spending time with them in the house often meant watching fights, mainly boxing and kickboxing. Syler’s brothers were huge fans of both and collected VHS tapes of classic boxing matches and K-1 cards.
Kevin Syler starts his own combat sports journey
Naturally, Syler developed an affinity for combat sports. By age 12, he began his own journey.
“I just had way too much free time during vacations from school,” Syler said. “I got kind of advised by my mom and my brothers to sign in in a boxing gym that one of my brothers was going to, and I started going three days a week.”
The years of watching fighters like Bernard Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya gave him somewhat of a head start in training. Syler quickly progressed in the gym and expanded his training to five days a week. Soon enough, he was taking amateur boxing bouts.
During this time, he also added kickboxing to his routine.
“From 12 to 17 or 16, I went on and off from boxing and kickboxing,” Syler said. “Eventually MMA started getting big, and I went to MMA once there was a place to train down there.”
While Bolivia doesn’t host the most prosperous MMA scene, it’s not completely deserted.
“If you go down there, there’s a few places that you can train,” Syler explained. “It’s not huge, you know. Soccer is the main sport down there. But I mean, people know about the UFC, and you hear a lot of talk about it, and when you do fights and stuff, people show up and they support.”
Local fights are one thing, but making a career out of professional fighting in Bolivia? That’s nearly unheard of. The lack of funding and resources makes it difficult to pursue in the country, and the closeness of the society makes it hard for aspiring fighters to break away.
“A lot of the guys are not willing to leave and have to go through all the sacrifices that goes with going somewhere else,” Syler said.
Branching out from Bolivia
The trend is one that Syler plans to break when he competes on Dana White’s Contender Series on July 16.
“I hope with this fight I’m able to push [the Bolivian MMA scene] a little bit further and maybe motivate guys to make it further and motivate the UFC to maybe pay closer attention to some of the guys that are coming up,” Syler said.
Syler branched out himself thanks to his brother’s lead.
Bentley Syler competed on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America as a member of Fabricio Werdum’s team. He was defeated in the first fight but still received a chance in the UFC.
Bentley traveled to the United States to kick-start his professional MMA career. Once Kevin finished high school, he followed.
From their time as MMA fans, the Sylers knew of two top-tier locations to train at: Jackson-Wink MMA in New Mexico and American Top Team in Florida.
“Florida was more similar to the culture we had, and, you know, the weather,” Kevin said.
Their brother Chris Syler had also moved to Florida previously as part of his music career.
“There wasn’t too much thought process involved,” Kevin said. “We just said, you know, great place, great gym, we have company there, so there we go.”
Training at American Top Team
Picking the location was an easy decision for Kevin, but getting integrated into a new place was a different story. He soon realized why so few fighters are able to make the jump to the next level.
“I was really young and immature. I came from a home where I had everything and everything was easy,” Syler said. “I thought I was the sh*t. Like I thought I was really, really good, and I came here and faced a harsh reality really quick.”
Syler joined the pro team as soon as he made the trip out to Florida because of his brother’s advice to do so, meaning that the skinny, inexperienced, 17-year-old kid was training daily with some of the sport’s best fighters. Coming from a background that consisted entirely of boxing and kickboxing, the gym overwhelmed him.
“I didn’t have a good wrestling background or grappling,” Syler said. “I always had good striking. I could compete there. But then when it came to wrestling and grappling, I just got mauled all the time.”
On top of getting beat up at the gym, Syler battled homesickness constantly. Despite the feeling that the world was against him, his commitment to MMA never faltered.
For a year, Syler focused solely on wrestling and jiu-jitsu in order to balance out his offensive prowess. Not only did he see a difference in his technique, but his confidence also skyrocketed.
Now, Syler considers himself to be a much more well-rounded fighter, a claim backed up by his six submission wins. His improved game helped him compile a perfect 8-0 pro record with five of his fights taking place in his home country.
“Fast forward now, I’m right here, right where I said I wanted to be,” Syler said. “My toughness is better, but the mindset’s the same: be the best. It’s very fulfilling to know that it is all paying off now.”
Kevin Syler gets his Contender Series shot
Syler is right on track with the development plan he laid out, but in order to continue blazing the trail for future Bolivian fighters, he has to keep working his way up. His Contender Series fight against fellow undefeated prospect Lance Lawrence is another rung on the ladder.
He has been training under coaches Conan Silveira, Din Thomas and Mike Brown at ATT in Coconut Creek and has Ben Stark of ATT Palm Beach Gardens overseeing his camp. Syler has also been putting work in with fighters like Kyoji Horiguchi, Renato Moicano and Enrique Barzola, which only adds to the quality of experience he’s racking up.
“I learn just as much from the coaches as from the fighters themselves that I spar with,” Syler said.
He believes his wealth of training, along with his physical traits, will make a big difference when he steps into the UFC Apex on July 16.
“I think I have more experience with better fighters as far as competition but training as well,” Syler said. “I think I’m more explosive. I think I’m more dangerous standing up.”
Still, Syler respects Lawrence’s 5-0 professional record. While he has watched tape of his opponent in preparation for this fight, Syler believes Lawrence will show a different side of himself with the UFC contract on the line.
As for Syler himself, his style isn’t going to change much. Fighting in the fourth week of the third season gave him a chance to see what Dana White is looking for and not looking for (like a takedown in the final 10 seconds of the fight), but Syler’s approach to fighting already matches up well with the UFC President’s taste.
“I’m very finish-driven. I’m a fighter. I’m not that much a competitor or a sportsman or a martial artist,” Syler said. “I really like to get into it, and I throw [everything] but the kitchen sink, and that’s the way I’ve always fought.”
The preparation is complete. He has the skills and the game plan to earn a victory in the Octagon. The final task before reaching his goal is to avoid letting the pressure of the moment overtake him.
“I’ve gotten here by being myself, and at the end of the day, it’s still my opponent, it’s still a cage, it’s still four-ounce gloves,” Syler said. “It’s easier said than done, but I’m going to try to keep [thinking of] it that way.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.