by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
(Photo courtesy of San Jose Sabercats/Aric Crabb)

This past week Notre Dame football player Tom Zbikowski made news when he was given clearance by the NCAA to make his professional boxing debut this weekend. While this two-sport athlete was making headlines lately, he is far from the first football player to become a pro fighter.

Current Arena Football League San Jose Sabercats player Rex Richards is not only a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but he has been fighting professional MMA for well over a year now in addition to playing pro football.

Upon finalizing preparations for the Sabercats’ upcoming showdown with their division rivals, the Arizona Rattlers, Richards spoke to MMA Weekly to discuss his careers and where he hopes to see them heading in the future.

MMA Weekly: First off Rex, how did you get into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

Rex Richards: I’ve been taking Martial Arts my whole life. Not always BJJ, but I was interested in Martial Arts as a kid. Starting out in Tae Kwan Do classes, I’d do that for a while then I’d switch over to Karate classes. I got a boxing instructor but then I got real serious about football for a while. In college I started taking BJJ, but I’d been real interested in it since 1993 when that first UFC came out and I saw Royce Gracie pretty much beating anyone he touched. That’s my interest really got started with it. So I’ve been doing it for about four and a half, five years.

MMA Weekly: How did you parlay that into fighting MMA?

Rex Richards: I’m really competitive and anytime I get involved with something I want to pretty much put all my effort into it. So I was taking private lessons from instructors and any time a major guy would come into town I’d try to get private lessons with them. I had a small group of guys at my school, Pittman’s BJJ in Lubbock, Texas who had already done some fights. So basically I hooked up with those guys and figured out how to get on a card and from then on I’ve just loved it.

MMA Weekly: How does fighting compare to playing football?

Rex Richards: The thing that’s interesting about it is that I’ve played football in front of 110,000 people before, but I don’t think the adrenaline rush is anywhere close to when you get in that cage. When they slam the cage shut and there’s one to depend on but you and how hard you trained and how well you prepared for it is going to be exploited. As far as comparison, there’s no comparison in the world to it. It’s actually a really incredible experience.

MMA Weekly: How about your first fight, an amateur fight against Douglas Smith at Fight World 3, how did that go?

Rex Richards: My very first fight basically I had the flu right before, and on top of being nervous that didn’t really help. I went ahead with it anyway; I didn’t want to look like I backed out of the fight. So I get warmed up and went out, and we got after it. I landed some pretty good punches and elbow strikes, got a takedown and choked him out in under a minute; I think it was 57 seconds. For my first MMA bout it was really something else.

MMA Weekly: This past November you had your first pro fight in your native state of Texas against Ashley Rivers at Renegades Extreme Fighting. What was that fight like?

Rex Richards: My opponent had a lot more experience than me, but it was the same thing, I beat him in under two minutes. He was a real big guy, 275-280lbs, but I actually picked him up in the air and slammed him and worked some ground ‘n pound. We got up and went after each other with some strikes and I got him into a clinch against the cage and basically knocked him out with a knee. That was in front of a much bigger crowd and I’ve actually had people contact me wanting to fight ever since that.

MMA Weekly: Has your fight training had any effect on your football playing?

Rex Richards: Actually there’s been a really big help as far as when I go into MMA matches, having played football my whole life and been competing in front of a crowd, it’s real easy for me to compete and adjust to my environment. As far as football, my training in BJJ has kept me real flexible, so I don’t have to worry about getting all stiff when I play. For a 300lber I’m pretty flexible. I train my stand-up too so when I’m blocking somebody I’m probably faster than most of the guys with my hands. Actually each one helps the other one a little bit, so it’s kind of interesting.

MMA Weekly: What do your teammates on the Sabercats think of you being an MMA fighter?

Rex Richards: It’s almost 100% of the time, “I don’t know how you do that crazy stuff,” basically. They don’t understand that it can be a sport because most people who have been in a fight hated the other person rather than try to test their abilities. But I am always trying to get some of these guys involved. I think this is a rising sport and is slowly taking over where boxing used to be. I know so many people who are started to get educated on the sport, so I think it’s something that people – especially athletes – are trying to get involved in. As far as competition, it doesn’t get any greater than man on man, so I’m always trying to get guys to take BJJ classes or go to a Muay Thai studio or something like that.

MMA Weekly: I understand one of your teammates, Joe Jacobs is also very adept at BJJ, but doesn’t fight.

Rex Richards: We’re both purple belts in BJJ, but he’s eight years older than me and has done it off and on for years and is actually pretty skilled at it. He doesn’t train during the season like I do because he’s getting a little older and his body needs a little more rest, but he’s actually very, very good at BJJ.

MMA Weekly: Where do you see yourself taking your MMA career in the future, do you plan to maybe make a run at being a full time fighter?

Rex Richards: I’m actually really interested in my progression as a fighter. I’d probably have a lot more fights, a lot were set up but were cancelled because the guy decided he didn’t want to fight or whatever. So that’s kind of been a problem up to this point but I’ve met some of the right people so that won’t happen so much anymore. I’m so interested in it, so who knows, maybe I’ll want to make a career of it, but right now I’m having a really good time with it and take as many fights as I can and see where it goes.

MMA Weekly: The UFC has recently brought in people such as Sean Gannon and Marcio “Pe De Pano” Cruz who didn’t have a whole lot of MMA experience to their shows. Would you be interested in fighting in the UFC one day?

Rex Richards: Are you kidding? If the UFC calls tomorrow I’d be there. I’ve got a DVD case that’s half full of UFC DVDs. I think if you’re going to fight MMA, the UFC is your goal. It’s like when I first put shoulder pads on, I wanted to make it to the NFL, and fortunately I did. In fighting I couldn’t imagine a better place for me to make it, there’s not question about that.

MMA Weekly: Do you think you could make their heavyweight limit of 265lbs to fight someone like Andrei Arlovski, Tim Sylvia, or Frank Mir?

Rex Richards: I’d definitely have to shred some pounds, no question about that, but I’d love the opportunity to fight a big-name UFC fighter. I train hard, those guys do to, I admire almost every fighter, everyone has their favorites, but it takes a lot to step in that cage, but I’m ready to fight and I want to get on a big show and show what I’ve got.

MMA Weekly: All right let’s talk about your upcoming game this Sunday hosting the visiting Arizona Rattlers. What are your thoughts on facing the Rattlers?

Rex Richards: There’s a really good team, they’ve got a lot of veterans. Being a lineman (which plays both offence and defense) I think the game is won or lost at the line of scrimmage, and they’ve got a really tough line. We beat them the first time we played, but in this league that actually means nothing, nothing at all. They’re kind of on a roll right now so we have to go out there, stomp on them real early and let them know they’re not going to get anywhere with us. If we can take their confidence away real early, just like in a cage fight, then they have a very small chance of winning.

MMA Weekly: Obviously you guys want to use this game to propel you through the second half of the season and into the playoffs.

Rex Richards: Oh yeah, that’s definitely a goal. People don’t realize that in arena football that the contracts are much greater once you make it to the playoffs than if you go home in May. So on top of wanting to win you can make a lot more money too [laughs]. Everyone on our team really wants to push it because we are a team that’s won the Arena Bowl two of the last three years and our expectations are high. We have a couple of little bitty things we need to fix and we’ll be a strong team that can contend this season.

MMA Weekly: Before we head out, I know one of your teammates at Texas Tech University was current Los Angeles Avengers starting quarterback Sonny Cumbie. Is there any kind of extra motivation when going up against a former college teammate?

Rex Richards: It was actually funny, we’ve played each other once this year already and he called me and said, “Hey, I know you know all that arm-twisting stuff, so if you’re going to tackle me, just tap me and I’ll fall to the ground [laughs].” I mean he was just kidding, but I can’t wait to go up against them again (on April 29th) and hopefully I can sack him eight or nine times, he’ll get over it [laughs].

MMA Weekly: Funny stuff Rex. Thank you for your time and good luck against the Rattlers. Is there anything you’d like to say to close out the interview?

Rex Richards: I want to say to that I think it takes a lot to get into that cage and I have a lot of respect for anyone who has the courage out there and put his pride on the line and go up against another person. Like I said, the very first fight I saw I knew I had to do it and I want to continue to do that and hopefully down the road be able to say I’m a professional fighter on a more serious level. I hope everyone watches the game and keeps supporting us. I feel the AFL has a lot of potential and hopefully more people will grow interested in it and keep coming out week after week to watch us. I hope it continues to gain exposure and grow like MMA has been doing, I hope it does the same thing.

For more information on Rex, the San Jose Sabercats, or the AFL, visit their official websites www.SanJoseSabercats.com or www.ArenaFootball.com.