Marcus Jones was a first-round draft pick of the Bucs in 1996. The North Carolina product played six years in Tampa Bay on the defensive line and registered 24 sacks before injuries ended his career at age 29. He started an unlikely mixed martial arts career last year and is 2-0 heading into Saturday's World Fighting Championship card at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa. He chatted with Times staff writer John C. Cotey on Thursday:
So, MMA fighter, huh? Did you ever think this would be your post-football career?
Not in a million years. Even today, I can't believe I'm about to get in a cage and fight someone. It's insane.
What got this thing going?
I was at spring break last year and was (messing around) with a friend of mine and he punched me … and it hurt. The next day, I called Gracie Tampa and said "Hey, you need to teach me how to fight." I fell in love with it and that was it.
Before your first fight, how nerve-racking was it and did it compare to your first NFL game?
It was a totally different feel. Right before I was supposed to fight, some guy that had just gotten beaten up pretty bad two fights before was carted in. I was thinking, wow, that could happen to me. Then they introduced me and my legs felt like I was walking through a field of molasses.
You've been in the NFL trenches, so that had to have helped your grappling, no?
I think my football career helped. Football is like a fast-paced wrestling scheme. It helped me a lot, especially when guys are trying to shoot in on me, it's like when running backs would try to shoot in and cut you. That experience carried over.
What part of the transition from football to MMA was toughest?
A couple of things, actually, but the cardio for sure. People don't realize how hard it is to stay moving for five minutes. And my hands, I have to work two-to-three times harder with my hands. Some things come easier, like jujitsu. But the hardest thing is cardio and not panicking (when you are on your back).
I would think picking up jujitsu would be harder.
I think the reason it's easier is I really, really love jujitsu. When you love a sport, it's easy to learn it because you want to learn it. But the boxing, I had to force myself to keep my hands up and stay at certain angles.
You have a competitive spirit already in place from playing professional sports. That has to be a key?
I think that's there. I don't think I got it out of me because I retired so young due to injury. But I always wanted to win. I still always want to win.
How do you punch people in the face? That's not an easy thing to do for people.
At first, I was exactly that way — I always thought, how could you do that and how could you just punch someone in the face? But now it's no big thing. It's a competition. My first sparring sessions, I got destroyed, I left the gym with a headache and snot bubbles and stuff like that. Once that happens, you really learn this is a competition, and you hit or be hit.
You've already been injured. A broken hand after your last win?
Yes, I broke my hand. I don't remember how it happened or when it happened. I know afterwards, I reached for beer and my hand wouldn't open.
Where do you see yourself going with this thing?
If you don't see yourself being something, some type of champion, you shouldn't be in the sport. I think, what if I fight for the heavyweight championship of the world? What if I win? What will my after-party be like?
You've already advanced to planning an after-party? Nice.
If you don't think that way, if you think like a loser, you'll be a loser.
Lastly, does it get any easier? Are you more relaxed? Are you a full-fledged pro instead of a football player trying to do MMA?
Man, I got the jitters today. I had them all today. Every time I go out there I'm constantly thinking about what I have to do to win. And you think about the fans. I mean, I can't go out there and get beat up.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship continues to dominate the mixed martial arts scene, while smaller upstarts come and go.
Recently, Bonecrunch Fighting, based in the area, suspended operations. Some area MMA organizations have scaled back operations.
But Tom Crowther says it's not all doom and gloom. His organization, the World Fight Championships, will hold its sixth card — Battle in the Bay — in Tampa on Saturday at the USF Sun Dome and expects its biggest crowd.
"We are the fastest-growing organization in the world as far as MMA goes,'' he said. "I'd say we're No. 4 or 5 in the world today, and by the end of the year we expect to be right up there.''
The former Golden Gloves boxer from Brooklyn said the WFC is a fighter-friendly organization, and that is a big part of its success. He said 6,200 attended the last event at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
He started the WFC with his own money in 2006, but says he has secured some big-name investors (he declined to name them) and attracted UFC legend Dan Severn as a co-promoter.
In a recent appearance on Catch 47, Severn said he was invited to an event last year by Crowther and left impressed. He was particularly dazzled by the Las Vegas-style weigh-in.
Crowther says he will have plenty of star power at Saturday's event. He has invited area boxers Winky Wright, Jeff Lacy and Antonio Tarver, trainer Angelo Dundee, and said a dozen or so Bucs, Rays and Yankees will be on hand.
Crowther is still building the WFC's fight stable, a blend of well-known area fighters such as St. Petersburg's David Vieira, Tampa's Brandon Sene and former Buc Marcus Jones, as well as others from Las Vegas (Waachim Spirit Wolf), New York and Miami.
He said the bay area is rich in martial arts academies and an ideal spot to run an MMA organization. "We hope we can make this big, right here in Tampa,'' he said.
The WFC is based in Tampa, where Crowther has lived for 27 years, but has an office in Las Vegas and training camp in Coldwater, Mich.
He has another fight card set for May 24, and promises some announcements in the near future that he says will take the WFC global.
John C. Cotey, Times staff writer