Making his mark, looking for more – Simpson aiming for MMA career

FERRISBURGH — In late fall 2011, when Travis Simpson was a junior at Vergennes Union High School, he signed up for the Commodore wrestling team.
In the winter of 2013, Simpson, who then went by T.J., reached the 182-pound state final despite weighing about 165.
Early in 2015, Simpson, a Ferrisburgh resident who turns 21 on July 13, decided to put those skills to use in another combat sport — mixed martial arts, or MMA.
His success at the amateur MMA level, fighting around Vermont and upstate New York, has been equally dramatic.
Simpson, making good use of his wrestling background and, according to his coach, rapidly improving in boxing, kickboxing and jujitsu skills, has compiled a 7-1 record and won the 170-pound amateur title at Kaged Kombat Promotions in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. this past November.
Doing battle as Travis “The Terror” Simpson, he is set to defend that title on July 23 at the Saratoga City Center vs. Neil von Flatern. Simpson lost to von Flatern in a non-title bout March 2015, after he won his title vs. Shane Willette in November.
Simpson, whose adoptive father, Harvey Simpson, holds a tae kwon doe black belt and also helps train his son, said the excitement of his first MMA fight in July 2015 hooked him on the sport.
“I just jumped in there. I didn’t have any training. I was like, ‘I’m a wrestler. I think I’ll do good,’” Simpson said. “I went in there and did it, had the adrenaline rush and won. I thought, wow, if I train a little bit, I think I can be good, and just kept going from there.”
Both his current coach, Kaged Kombat matchmaker and operations manager Jay Ingleston, a former MMA fighter and a Whitehall, N.Y. resident, and his VUHS wrestling coach, Nate Kittredge of Addison, also a former MMA fighter, agree that Simpson has the ability to realize his ambition of becoming an MMA professional.  
 “He’s a hard worker, and … the potential is there,” Kittredge said. “There’s a lot of natural talent, so if it’s something he really wants, I think he would be more excited to learn and more excited to grasp the concepts.”
Kittredge also commented on Simpson’s strength and chiseled physique: “He does have that. He’s kind of specimen.”
Ingleston added Simpson possesses intangible attributes. Simpson, he said, doesn’t show nerves when he fights, calling him “all business” in the octagon where MMA bouts are held and all forms of martial arts — wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, karate, judo, jujitsu, tae kwon do — are legal.  
“There’s very few guys who can transition from the gym to the cage,” Ingleston said. “He’s one of them guys. There’s never been a time when I’ve looked at him and thought, ‘Oh, he might be uncomfortable.’ He goes in, not that he’s a robot, but he knows what he’s programmed to do, and he does it well.”
Simpson also soaks up what Ingleston has taught him, according to his coach, and is improving in what is known in MMA as “standup” — trading punches and kicks — to add to his already strong “ground” game, taking opponents to the mat and pounding them or forcing them to submit.
“He likes to learn. He asks questions. He’ll call after class and ask, ‘Do I need to work on this? Do I need to work on that?’” Ingleston said. “He’s a coach’s dream.”
Simpson came to Vermont from California in 2003 at the age of 7, along with one older brother and two older sisters. The four African-American siblings had nine foster-family placements in California before finding their permanent home in Ferrisburgh with the Simpson family.
Simpson, who now works at Country Home Products, insists the transition was not difficult and that he was made to feel welcome at Ferrisburgh Central School, in the larger community and at VUHS despite being a distinct minority in one of the whitest states in the U.S. He said he has made many good friends.
He does acknowledge minor difficulties with authorities over the years, and said he felt a bit adrift until discovering MMA, which requires discipline and a steep learning curve.
“It’s helped me out a lot in different ways,” Simpson said. “It’s doing what I wanted. I was young and had a couple jobs and didn’t really have anything to focus on. I had wrestling, and that was fun. But once the season ended, it was like, what do I do now? So I guess this is something I can do year-round. I can do it at any time. I can find a fight year-round. I could fight every two weeks if I wanted. Training, just with different people, is awesome, learning different martial arts to me is, I don’t know, I just like it a lot.”
Kittredge, who retired with a winning MMA record several years ago, when his second child was born, thinks that Simpson’s at times challenging background could be another asset in his fighting career.
“He’s a good kid, and he hasn’t had an easy road,” Kittredge said, “and a lot of times that’s power, energy, the will where one man will fail and another man won’t because one man is stronger.”
Next up for Simpson is his title defense and rematch with von Flatern, who defeated him on March 12 in a third-round submission.
Simpson said he was too tired to avoid a chokehold, a mistake he won’t make again. He said he goes on 5-mile runs and plays basketball as well as trains with his father and Ingleston.
Asked how he will win the rematch, a five-round bout, Simpson answered, “Cardio, cardio, cardio.”
Ingleston, who is trying to develop Kaged Kombat as a feeding ground for the upper levels of MMA, such as Bellator and UFC, said Simpson’s better skills should pay off on July 23.
“He’s a totally different fighter than the last time he fought him,” said Ingleston, who lists Bellator fighter Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal as a friend and had Lawal in Simpson’s corner for one fight.
Regardless of the July 23 result, Simpson will keep his eye on the big picture, a pro career. Ingleston said Simpson understands what he has to do to reach that goal, including taking fights that test and help develop his skills.
“You take fights that make sense to get you somewhere. There are other guys that are fighting on a week-to-week basis for no money or no gain,” Ingleston said. “He’s one of the guys that understands that I need to take this fight to get me here, and if I get this, boom, I’m going to keep going so when I do turn pro, I have this knowledge.”
Simpson believes as important as it is to become a well-rounded fighter, that wrestling is the foundation of hand-to-hand combat. In his fights so far (they can be found on YouTube), his opponents struggle to stop Simpson from taking them to the mat, where they are often defenseless.
“All people who tell me that they want to fight, I tell them they have to wrestle,” Simpson said. “Wrestling counters a lot of moves, I’ve noticed. And a lot of people don’t have the wrestling (background), so to my advantage I use that. I wrestle them, I get them to where I want them, and then I can end the fight.”
Still, Kittredge said Simpson will have to develop other skills.
“He grew up wrestling. He’s got that kind of checked. Obviously he’s got to keep working that, but also work on the hands, work on the jujitsu, and he would become even more deadly or even more well rounded,” he said. “Because the whole MMA game isn’t just one style, it’s a whole bunch of styles, and you have to be very versatile.”
Simpson said he believes his six-foot height and long arms will eventually make his improving kicks and punches even more dangerous.
“I want to be a better fighter basically (so) I can use everything (all the skills),” Simpson said. “That’s what I want to be at the end of the day.”
And while he is fighting up in weight now, Simpson also said he can easily drop down to 155 as a professional, where his lanky frame would become even more of an asset.
“I have a high metabolism. I eat all the time, and I stay at 165,” he said.  
Simpson plans to take some more amateur fights, attend one or two pro camps, and then start getting paid to fight in the not-too-distant future.
“I’m trying to get everything together fully to where I want to be, and then go pro, hopefully Bellator at least,” Simpson said.
Ingleston said those plans are “absolutely” realistic.
“He could definitely go very far in the sport. Very far,” he said.
Regardless of the destination, Simpson will enjoy the journey.
“Going out there on the wrestling mat is just like going out there in the cage. It’s just you,” he said. “It’s a combat sport, same thing as fighting. That’s one of the main reasons I’m comfortable in the cage, too, it’s from wrestling. It’s a sport that chooses you. You don’t really go out and choose it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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