Joe Wilk loves Kansas so much that he has the official state seal tattooed on his side. Inside the seal is the state motto, "Ad Astra Per Aspera," which is Latin for "To the stars with difficulty."
That motto, as much as anything, sums up Wilk's professional situation right now.
It's "Meat Day" at the Imperial Athletics Gym in Boca Raton, Fla. Today is, as former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans explains, "the day where we really beat the hell out of each other, where we chop each other up like a piece of meat."
In other words, it's a day where, if you're not a top-level professional and you don't know what you're doing, it's best to avoid the gym.
Joe Wilk is not a top-level professional. Not yet. But here he is, with pride and loyalty to his roots, ready for the fight of his life.
Wilk is a featherweight mixed martial arts fighter. He's long dreamed of making it to the UFC, the pinnacle of MMA, and he's sacrificed greatly in his bid to get there. He concedes he has much yet to learn, which is why on Feb. 16 he made the 1,500-mile trek from his hometown in Manhattan, Kan., to Boca Raton to train for a couple of days at Imperial Athletics.
He'll fight Andrew Carillo Friday in Kansas City, Mo., in the co-main event of Titan Fighting Championship 21, which will be broadcast live at 10 p.m. ET on HDNet.
He's shown up at Imperial with the hope of getting something he hasn't gotten before while building a 14-6 MMA record: Experience, elite coaching and exposure.
Wilk is a one-man show in his hometown. He runs his own gym to make ends meet, since the largest purse he's made has been $1,500 to show with a $1,500 win bonus.
He teaches jiu-jitsu classes and does pretty much everything by himself. He doesn't have access to coaches who can point out his flaws, suggest drills to improve or help prepare a game plan. He doesn't have training partners who are remotely close to elite, so he's never able to simulate a real fight in sparring.
It's not the kind of atmosphere which is conducive to getting better.
"My main issue here is that I'm the leader, I'm in charge and I wear a lot of different hats here," Wilk says. "I'm the coach. Sometimes I feel like I'm a psychiatrist. I'm the jiu-jitsu instructor and I'm a fighter myself. I have a lot of different things going on here.
"When I get to go to one of those major camps, it's really easy to, and this is a good thing, get lost in the shuffle. I'm just another fighter. I'm just another guy strapping up and putting on gloves and going in and getting work. I don't have to worry about anyone else and their training. The guys around me are all professionals, and high-level professionals at that, so I can just relax, be me and worry about getting the best training I can get."
That compelled him to make the trip to Florida and head to Imperial to train for a few days with the world-class group assembled by Glenn Robinson of Authentic Sports Management. The team's most famous member is Evans, but it also is home to many other elite fighters, including Alistair Overeem, Miguel Torres, Melvin Guillard and Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante.
If an aspiring fighter has what it takes -- or if he doesn't -- he'll find out fairly quickly working out with this group.
It's exactly what Wilk has dreamed of getting -- going from being the unquestioned best in an area with no history of fighting to a place where he has to battle just to survive until the end of practice.
"I've been watching these guys on TV," Wilk says. "It's funny, but I'm such a fan of the sport and especially of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that I was in there sparring with guys who I've literally been watching their highlight videos and following their fight careers for years."
Wilk is not unlike thousands of other aspiring athletes around the world, who dream of reaching the top in their chosen sports, but who lack the money to get the best training, the coaching to improve the quickest and the opportunity to prove themselves.
He grew up in Hutchinson, Kan., where the biggest event is the annual National Junior College Basketball Athletic Association tournament and the primary industry is mining salt.
He always wanted to be an athlete, but there aren't a lot of 5-9, 145-pound athletes in the pro ranks, particularly in the stick and ball sports.
"He was pretty self-reliant" says Steve Williams, his high school journalism teacher. "He was one of those kids you knew that, if something was going to happen for him, it would have to be through him. He wasn't going to get a lot of favors from other people. He was going to have to kind of work at it.
"He really liked sports in high school, but wasn't a great player in anything. The sports he wanted to play in high school, he really didn't have much of a chance. He had to find other ways to make it for himself. Most kids don't do that, but that's one of the things that he did pretty well. He learned to rely on himself and didn't fold when something went bad."
Williams helped Wilk get a job at the local newspaper, the Hutchinson Daily News. Wilk was fascinated by journalism and thought for a long time of pursuing a career as a sports writer.
He had an inquisitive mind and a natural, conversational interviewing technique that netted him plenty of good stories, Williams says.
"Most of the kids I help get on at the paper go in and take scores [over the phone] and that's it," Williams says. "But he had some drive and he wanted more. And credit to him, he made it."
Wilk says he loves journalism and still thinks that, one day, he'll go back and try to become a journalism teacher. But now, he's 29 years old and at a point as an athlete where he's come to something of a crossroads.
He desperately wants to fight for the UFC, even if only once, but that may be impossible to do if he remains in Kansas.
The kind of sparring and coaching he needs can't be found in Kansas, so he'd have to get out and hit the road if he wants to make the UFC. That's a problem, though, because not only would moving require the kind of financial commitment that would be extremely hard to make, he also isn't in a hurry to leave his home state.
So on Feb. 16, he arrived in Boca Raton for a three-day stint at Imperial Athletics to help prepare himself for his fight with Carillo and to get a taste of what it was actually like to fight at that level.
"He got worked over pretty badly," Evans says. "He got stopped a couple of times when he was sparring JZ. He had a really hard day."
Something, though, struck both Evans and Imperial head coach Mike Van Arsdale: The guy wouldn't quit. He'd be reeling from big punches, but he would get back up and jump back into the fight.
He wants to make it so badly that he was willing to endure extreme amounts of punishment to get it.
He didn't quit and that didn't escape the notice of Van Arsdale.
"I didn't see him long enough to really evaluate his talent, but he has potential," Van Arsdale says. "To be a fighter, particularly at this level, it has to come from within. You have to be a fighter inside, in your mind and in your soul. There are talented guys who don't have that. He is a fighter. He has it."
He's wanted to make it so badly, he's given up some of his purse to bring in better opponents than the promoter could afford. He knew he needed to keep fighting better opposition in order to attract attention from the UFC, but the promoters on the shows he was competing on didn't have it in the budget to pair him with the kinds of guys he needed to meet. They cost too much.
"I needed to be fighting tougher opponents, so I told the promoter to take my win [bonus] and add it on to the show money [for someone better, as an inducement to make a fight]," he says.
Whether it will turn out to have been worth it will be determined by his results and by whether he ever gets the call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva.
Wilk attended the UFC on Fuel 1 show in Omaha, Neb., on Feb. 15 and introduced himself to Silva at the weigh-in.
"He said, 'I know exactly who you are,' " Wilk says.
What that means, only Silva knows, and it's not the kind of information he gives out publicly.
But Wilk figures he's at least on the UFC's radar, and the trip to Florida, and the beating he got while he was there, are clearly worth it.
"All of that is a part of it," Wilk says of the beatings he took on Meat Day. "When you want something as badly as I want [to fight in the UFC], you don't quit. Giving up is never the answer. When you have a dream, you have to follow it all the way."
All the way to the stars, no matter what the difficulty.
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