Lance Palmer getting some stand up work in. (Photo courtesy of

This is how the next big thing in MMA gets its start.

It will happen on a local card in Bakersfield, Calif., on Friday night, where the competitors are fighting to save a wrestling program.  And it will take place well before the main event.

It will complete an exercise in patience for Lance Palmer.

Palmer makes his professional debut against Emelio Gonzalez in a featherweight bout on the Fight for Wrestling card, which is a show set up to benefit the wrestling program at Cal State-Bakersfield, and throughout the state.  It’s happening almost 2,300 miles west of where many of his people will be interested in the result, in a place where wrestling thrives at the collegiate level.

Columbus, Ohio is where Palmer starred and became a collegiate wrestling champion, proudly wearing the singlet for Ohio State.  After school, he made a choice to leave his native Ohio and head to Sacramento, to be part of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male and get right into his MMA career.  There might not have been a better place to make the transition for a high-level NCAA wrestler who planned on fighting at one of the lower weights in MMA.

Instead of immersing himself, Palmer faced the real-life decision of putting his budding MMA career on hold to pay the bills.  He went to Sacramento for a month in August 2010, then headed back to Columbus and was in between packing and moving.  In that span, he received a call and a “good offer” from Virginia Tech, and accepted an assistant coaching job there, yielding his spot in Sacramento for one Blacksburg, at least temporarily.

“I always wanted to fight, it had nothing to do with me not wanting to come out here (to Sacramento) and fight,” Palmer said.  “But it was an easy way for me to catch up on some bills and still be able to train, because wrestling’s the best conditioning for any sport.

“I make the best of every situation that comes to me.  At that time, the best situation for me was to make money, and that’s what I did.  There wasn’t really anything I needed to make a big decision about because I knew I would be back here to fight and I needed to get myself up on my feet.   It really wasn’t any type of thing I had to think too hard about.”

With all due respect to the home of the Hokies, the two locations could not compare for what Palmer eventually wanted to do.  While Virginia Tech is becoming a home for great wrestlers,  it offered little for Palmer to develop his MMA game.  Still, the decision to put Team Alpha Male on hold came with no trepidation.

He just needed patience.

Wrestling will always be in Palmer’s blood, even if he one day wears a UFC belt.  It was easy enough for him to pay the bills doing something he loved and helping the Virginia Tech program, contributing to a school where he was wanted.  A similar culture did not exist at his alma mater, where a falling out with coach Tom Ryan left the situation uncomfortable.

“I’m not going to get into everything with the head coach, but I am welcome there,” Palmer assured.  “I am on good terms with everyone except the head coach.  Ohio State’s a great place, and I didn’t let one bad situation ruin my whole time there.  I don’t hold grudges, but  it’s something that I’ll never forget about.  It’ something where you move on from it and one day it’s not going to matter to me because if I get to where I’m going, it’ll be a situation I don’t care about.  But all the other coaches there are great.  I had an awesome time at Ohio State, great friends, great camaraderie with the teammates and I met great people.   The girl I’m dating now is from Ohio State, so it was good to meet here there.  Everything about Ohio State was great. So I don’t let one little thing ruin my time there.”

The call from Virginia Tech came relatively late in the process, and essentially was a shot-in-the-dark that paid off for the Hokies.  They caught Palmer at precisely the right time, as he had not sought out previous offers during the customary times where collegiate staffs are built.

“I could have gotten a job anywhere coaching, but I can do that any time,” Palmer said.  “But you can’t always compete.  It’s more important that I fight for as long as I can while I’m healthy, and I can always go back to coaching.  I’ll still be running my own wrestling camps in summers.  But you’re only young once, and that’s when you have to take advantage of it.”

Solidly in Virginia, Palmer did what he could to keep ties with his new MMA home, talking to his Team Alpha Male mates at least a couple of times per week.  He spent December in Sacramento and saw the light at the end of the tunnel, knowing that when Virginia Tech’s wrestling season concluded, he would head west once again.

“If the job was here in Sacramento, I would have been doing it here, and training,” Palmer said.

After his MMA debut, Palmer will remain in Sacramento for about a month, then head back to Ohio for July, when he will run his wrestling camps.  He’s likely to hang around until UFC 133, which takes place somewhat nearby in Philadelphia, to lend support to any teammates that will be on that card.  Featherweight Chad Mendes is slated for a title shot at Jose Aldo, and it could take place on that card, which will be held Aug. 6.

With that still a while away, the focus has been on his debut.

By fight time, Palmer will have completed a seven-week MMA camp.  Considering his pedigree, it should be enough to have him ready.  He has been in Sacramento since the first week of April, avoiding the lingering winter and soggy spring that has plagued the East Coast and watching himself morph from wrestler into mixed martial artist.

“It’s unbelievable, the difference in my stand-up, my striking,” Palmer said. “You can tell the difference.  I have been training my whole life, and when you’re not good at something, you have to keep pushing and pushing until you get where you want to be with it.

“I’m on the right track now.  I’m seeing great improvements, and it’s only helping my confidence.”

The confidence comes from being in competition, alone on the mats in front of thousands of people, time and again.  Having been through that at Ohio State, it’s a mental advantage that Palmer carries into his MMA career.

Even at the highest levels in the United States, wrestling’s appeal has shown to be not as broad as other sports’.  After college, the pinnacle for Americans who want to stay with the sport is the Olympics.  International wrestling recently received a healthy dose of exposure with the Beat the Streets program that showcased an Americans vs. Russians match set in Times Square, outdoors in the heart of New York City.

Because of his focus on the impeding MMA debut, watching coverage of the New York City event may not have kindled his competitive-wrestling fire.  But discussion of it lead to Palmer not ruling out a run at the 2012 Olympic Games, which will be held in London.

“If I want to, starting in December, maybe I’ll start wrestling again and get ready for the Olympic Trials,” Palmer said, echoing a sentiment heard from a few MMA fighters with a similar background, including Bellator featherweight champ Joe Warren.  “You never know.  My wrestling hasn’t gone anywhere, that’s for sure.

“Wrestling’s always going to be a part of me, no matter what I do.”

While he was in his formative years, Palmer shared the same influences of many fighters.  Watching the early days of the UFC were part of his routine.

“As I grew up, I watched guys like Tank Abbott, and obviously Royce Gracie, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, all those are guys you look up to,” Palmer recalled.  “But I have a unique style.  I don’t want to mimick, even if I look up to somebody else.  I like to be a student of the game, learn a bunch of different things and be a complete fighter.”

The combination of his wrestler’s work ethic and a mind smart enough to make the right decisions for the long term, he is sure to be a complete fighter some day.  If that does not come too soon, just be patient.  Like Lance Palmer.

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