TAMPA — Michelle Juncal has watched her son scrap before, sitting through high school wrestling victory after victory, including state championships. She'd cover her eyes at times, pace during the close matches, every once in a while sneak out to the lobby to calm her nerves.
But tonight when her son, former Brandon High wrestling great Matt Juncal, makes his mixed martial arts debut at the St. Pete Times Forum, she'll be home trying to distract herself.
"I support him in everything he does, he knows that," she said. "But I can't watch. I'll wait for it to come on TV, but only after I know what happened."
Her husband, Michael, will provide the play-by-play via cell phone.
Based on Juncal's history, his mother might not have much to worry about.
He was as dominant a high school wrestler as the renowned Brandon program has ever had. He won three consecutive state championships in 2003-05, each at a different weight class. He went undefeated twice during the season.
At Lindenwood University in Missouri, he was a two-time All-American.
Now he is the latest wrestler to turn to MMA, which combines a variety of fighting techniques, including striking and grappling.
Juncal, 23, hopes to parlay his wrestling background into a successful career with the Xtreme Fighting Championships.
"It was something that was always in the back of my mind," said Juncal, who began flirting with MMA in college. "When I was done wrestling in college, I discovered that my competitive fire was still burning. This was the natural transition."
Juncal, who is competing at 205 pounds, began training at the XFC's facilities in Tampa this year. His style is ground and pound, and like nearly every other wrestler who makes the move to MMA, Juncal said, the striking (or stand-up fighting) is the hardest adjustment.
More than just fighting, though, Juncal said he has found a home at the XFC, where he teaches wrestling.
"I want to help the XFC grow," Juncal said. "There's a lot of potential here."
John Prisco, XFC president and CEO, said he plans to open another training facility in Brandon.
"Matt would obviously be perfect for that," he said.
If the Brandon gym opens, Juncal said, he will be one of the lead instructors. His first stop?
Russ Cozart's Brandon Wrestling Club, where he learned to wrestle as a sixth-grader.
"Wrestling's big there, and (an XFC gym) would be huge," Juncal said.
His mother agrees, convinced by the response to her son's debut. While she can't bear to watch tonight, she has been playing ticket broker all week so Juncal doesn't have to worry about requests.
She has sold nearly 200 tickets — mostly the more expensive floor seats — to friends and family, and she is getting inquiries from former teammates and other wrestlers.
And everyone who has bought a ticket has assured her that Juncal will be a great MMA fighter.
"I'm excited for him," she said. "He'll do great."
John C. Cotey can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-3691.