Most young, aspiring fighters believe that MMA training is a lifestyle, a focused path that requires strict discipline, dedication to honing one’s skill set, and a willingness to sacrifice almost everything in the name of improvement and conquest.
Drew Michealsen likely believes that as well. But retiring with an unblemished 1-0 record, he recognizes that MMA is not his path. And he’s ok with that.
Michealsen doing his best 'Roy Nelson' profile shot. (Photo by Laura Baker)
Recently committed to a new marriage and a very pregnant wife, Michealsen’s life was well-defined as a husband and soon-to-be father. Fight training at Valhalla ETC (Extreme Training Center) was always a hobby, and as soon as he became a father, fighting would take a backseat to his higher priorities. That was the couple’s deal, and there was no room for renegotiation. In his own words, he is a ‘bucket list fighter. One-and-done. That’s it.’
Given this, it would seem almost pointless to showcase a fighter who won’t return to the ring, but if there’s anything that the evolution of MMA has taught us, its that each fighter brings something individual to the table – an unprecedented skill set, a unique strategy, a different approach to their training, a personal goal they aim for, and an original lesson to glean from their career. Michealsen’s lesson is that it’s ok to walk away from the sport, especially on your own terms.
“I never really had goals to fight,” he says without a shred of doubt. “I’m 31. I’m not going to make a career out of it. I’m a semi-big fish in a very small pond. There’s probably a bigger fish.”
Earlier this May, Michealsen got his one fight when he accepted a match on the University of MMA’s ‘Champions of Tomorrow!’ on a 48-hour notice. The slot he was filling was part of the U’s heavyweight championship tournament, taking on Russell Tupper-Brown, a highly recognized Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. ‘Tupper’ was part of the Rampage Fitness Academy team, and likewise was a last-minute replacement to another opponent. Only about 36 hours prior to Drew.
“I was at wit’s end trying to keep this tournament together,” says U of MMA matchmaker Jay Tan. “I only needed four guys total, and that was proving to be impossible. Not to mention that the closer you get to fight day, the harder it becomes to find fighters. Nobody wants to fight on short notice if they can help it.”
“When I found Drew, I didn’t know him, his coach, or his team. It was a shot in the dark. When he said he’d take it, I thought he was crazy. But I wasn’t going to tell him that until after the fight,” joked Tan.
Unbeknownst to Tan, Michealsen was on a crucial deadline as well. His wife Kirsty was nine months pregnant and scheduled to deliver one week later. Michealsen and his coach, Mike Mac Donald, had booked him on several shows in the previous months, hunting for that elusive one match before fatherhood, but all of them had fallen through for various reasons. And then the call came.
“We kind of went back and forth on that for awhile,” recalls his wife, Kirsty. “I was mostly irritated, but then he brought up the point that the baby’s on the way. ‘This is the one thing on my baby bucket list that I want to do before he comes,’ and I’m like ‘okay, I can see that.’ And if it really is a one-time thing, its not something we’re going to get into on a regular basis, its not going to hurt anything.”
Drew Michealsen sinks an uma plata shoulder lock on Russell Tupper-Brown. (Photo by Meghan Wonder)
From Mac Donald’s perspective, the Tupper-Brown match was a no-lose situation for Michealsen, who only had roughly two years of Sambo training (a Russian grappling discipline) under his belt. Michealsen would get his match in before the birth of his child, and the worst likely scenario would be a submission or TKO loss. Going the distance with a brown belt at the level of Tupper-Brown would be an undeniable moral victory, and a victory would be the icing on the cake.
As fate would have it, Michealsen did get that proverbial cake, winning his bucket list match by submission.
“I fought a guy with high-level notoriety. Win or lose, it was still cool,” he laments. “I could say I was in with Russell Tupper-Brown, who trains with guys like Rampage and Chiek Kongo. These are all the names I loved growing up.”
As a child, Drew Michealsen was always the big kid, and very accustomed to street fights. In his own words, Santa Barbara was a safe but rowdy town, powered by a college party scene. “We’re kind of spoiled enough to where we’re not stabbing and shooting each other that much. It’s safe to get in a fight here. You’re not afraid that someone’s going to come back to the party and shoot the place up. So it was just part of our culture, I guess.”
Due equally to choice and by chance, Michealsen himself didn’t follow in the traditional footsteps (football and wrestling) of the local toughs. His high school, San Marcos High (which graduated Chuck Liddell a few years before Michealsen) dropped their wrestling program during his qualifying years, and rather than endure double-shot practices in the hot sun, he opted to join the water polo team.
“I like swimming. I saw the guys on the football field dying and I said ‘I’d rather be in a pool,’” he explains.
With a large frame and wide wingspan, Michealsen settled easily into the goalie position for several seasons, helping the team qualify for the CIF (California Intramural Federation) state tournament.
When asked whether it’s easier to get hit in the face with a wet polo ball or a fist, he jokes “its relative. It depends who’s punching.”
The years following high school were wayward and a less-than-purposeful. There was trouble and incidents that culminated in a personal turning point for Michealsen, who then opened himself up to Christianity to give him a base and motivation for revising his life.
Coming from a strongly religious family, Michealsen as a youth was very rebellious towards any commitment to the Church. Subsequently, his study of the faith was marked with a cocked eye of healthy skepticism.
“I was in a good transitional phase to where I was coming back into the world, where I wanted to investigate my faith and have it be my own and be educated on it. Not just blindly follow some faith.”
That investigation led Michealsen to a bible school in New Zealand, where he met his now-wife Kirsty. After a return to the states and several years of courtship, the two married and relocated to Santa Barbara, where Michealsen now runs his own construction business.
The introduction to Mac Donald and Vahlalla ETC (then known as Santa Barbara Martial Arts) came through high school friends. What started as simply a place to get in shape for his impending wedding turned into an enjoyable hobby, which led to his ‘bucket list’ fight.
Despite the change in priorities and settled married life, Michealsen is still an important cog in the Valhalla ETC machine. He literally helped build the gym, using his construction expertise to get the facility up to spec. The bond between he and head trainer McDonald, a veteran whose fight career dates back to when MMA was known as NHB (‘No Holds Barred’) goes beyond the gym.
“Mike has become a second family,” notes Michealsen. “His wife helped me out with the medicals, and getting that all ready for CAMO. They’re just a sweet couple. It’s developed into an awesome friendship.”
Michealsen still stays involved with Valhalla. He’s always around as a training partner for other members of the team, and on occasion, he’ll get that chance to watch UFC and Strikeforce fights with Mac Donald. “That’s his boys’ night,” teases Kirsty.
Father and son (Photo courtesy of Drew Michealsen)
Perhaps the biggest irony of Michealsen’s short but fulfilling fight career is his aptitude for it. For a white belt in any discipline to catch a brown belt is impressive enough, but Michealsen also demonstrated an innate showmanship and level-headed professionalism that showed there could be more of a future in MMA if he wanted it. Coming out to bagpipe music, Michealsen played up his Irish resemblance, despite not actually being Irish. And after weigh-ins, Michealsen and Tupper-Brown ended up eating together, discussing fatherhood and fighting over Caesar salads.
Instead, Michealsen is just fine with foregoing the career that never was. The chance to leave on his own terms and focus on his wife and son is championship enough for him.
“Every once in awhile, you’re just holding him and you think ‘wow, this is the greatest thing ever.’ Family is everything to me. And that’s why its easy to give up on a hobby.”