For one-legged fighter Matt Betzold, no such thing as an insurmountable obstacle

Matt Betzold

Matt Betzold has developed his own method for dealing with fellow flyweights who don’t want to fight him just because he happens to have only one leg.

“Basically, I just talk s–t,” Betzold told MMAjunkie. “I call them out on their bulls–t, and I don’t let them get away with it.”

It’s a strategy that comes naturally to Betzold. He’s been doing it since he was a child, when he refused to let other kids treat him differently just because of his prosthetic leg. Back then, fighting served a purpose. Some kid would call him names, make fun of his walk or his missing limb, and then suddenly it was go time. Ding, ding, ding. Round 1, Betzold against the world. It was a bout with seemingly no beginning and no end.

Well, maybe a beginning.

When Betzold was 6, he ate poisoned candy, resulting in a blood clot that would ultimately cost him his leg. The candy was poisoned on purpose, by a man who thought he was committing an act of vengeance against Betzold’s father, who, it must be said, had become involved with some “bad people,” according to Betzold. His family was known to open its home to people off the streets in need of a place to stay, which provided all the opportunity this one particular person needed.

“My dad was basically wrapped up in something, accused of something, and whether he did it or not I don’t know,” Betzold said. “All I know is he was accused of something by some bad people, and this guy was friends with those people. He purposely came and stayed with us and did that to me as, I guess, revenge.”

The candy nearly killed Betzold, then left him in a coma with unclear prospects for recovery. By the time he emerged, it was into a radically different life that would never be the same again. His left leg had become gangrenous and had to be removed.

When he went back to school, he did so with a prosthetic that he did his best to never take off in front of other kids. That, in turn, kept him from participating in sports like wrestling, which he felt naturally drawn to, and it also seemed to serve as a dog whistle for a certain type of mean-spirited kid looking for someone to pick on. What they found in Betzold, however, was a kid who was more than ready to fight back.

“I think a lot of it came from having the support of everyone at home, my family, and they’d never treat me different,” Betzold said. “So then when people did treat me different, I would act out and stand up against that. I wasn’t treated different at home, so I didn’t see why I should be treated different at school. Because of that, I fought a lot. I wouldn’t let people pick on me or treat me different than anyone else, and I still live by that every day of my life.”

The incident with the poisoned candy left a lasting mark on his family. His father still blames himself, Betzold said, and these days the two of them don’t talk much.

“My pops still hasn’t really recovered from it,” Betzold said. “But I feel like, I got over it, and if I can get over it I think he should be able to. I don’t dwell on it. I refuse to let people feel sorry for me or treat me different than they’d treat anyone else.”

This is probably why, years later, when the Arizona Boxing and MMA Commission tried to tell Betzold that he couldn’t be an MMA fighter with just one leg, he never even considered letting the matter drop. That just wasn’t in him. He knew he was going to fight. The only thing he didn’t know yet was how.

For Betzold, the seed was planted when he went to see a live MMA event as a teenager in his home state of Arizona. He was mesmerized by the sport, he said, and soon after that he signed up for Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes.

“I was just winning right off the bat,” he said. “For some reason I just really took to it, and I was tapping people out who had a lot more experience. I realized I had a talent for the ground game, and the better I did in competition, the more I wanted to fight.”

When the commission told him it wouldn’t license him, a fighter who would begin each bout as a downed opponent, since it believed he couldn’t adequately defend himself, Betzold set out to prove the commissioners wrong.

“The way I tried to prove it to them was by doing as many grappling events as I could,” Betzold said. “Every time there was a grappling tournament that had open entry, I would pay the fee and compete. I got to the point where I had over 100 matches, with about a 90 percent win rate, and I was beating guys that were fighting professionally.”

In 2006, he did an “underground” MMA fight, and then showed the video to the commission. Finally, he said, he was allowed to fight as an amateur, where he racked up a 4-1 record. But the commission still didn’t want to let him turn pro – not until he got a lawyer involved to threaten a discrimination suit.

“I was a qualified fighter asking for a license, and they were denying it,” Betzold said. “It was pretty clear discrimination.”

But once he got his license to fight as a professional, Betzold faced a different problem. In a reversal from his childhood experience, suddenly nobody wanted to be the one to pick on the guy with one leg. Opponents were hard to come by.

This is when he began his campaign of public ridicule to get other flyweights into the cage, which is how he met his current manager, Donald Royer of US Elite Combat Management.

matt-betzold-2“I remember Matt was calling out one of my fighters,” said Royer. “The guy told me, ‘Don, I’m not going to fight him, because there’s nothing for me to gain by fighting him.’ I kind of told Matt that. What I tried to explain to him was, the way most fighters look at it, if Matt beats them, they think their careers are over. But if they beat Matt, it’s not a big deal because they just beat a guy with one leg.”

But Royer thought he could help, if only he could get Betzold to refine his approach a little, and he offered to take him on as a client. It proved to be a relationship that benefited both parties.

Now training in Sacramento, Calif., at Team Alpha Male alongside UFC luminaries such as Urijah Faber, T.J. Dillashaw, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez, Betzold recently inked a deal with World Series of Fighting, though a date for his debut still isn’t set. He also just returned from Budapest, where he grappled his way to a gold medal for the U.S. team at the FILA Pankration World Championships.

“He competed against able-bodied opponents, guys with two legs, and he beat everybody,” Royer said. “People think that just because he has one leg, he can’t be that good. That’s obviously just not the case.”

In many ways, Betzold said, the missing leg is an advantage. For one thing, it’s helped him develop a style that “you can’t really train for.” But it also played a vital role in forging an important aspect of his character and his mental toughness.

“Having one leg made me fight a lot more,” Betzold said, “but it also forced me to try a lot harder than everyone else in everything I did.”

Maybe this is another concern for potential opponents. When faced with a fighter who wouldn’t quit when he was dealt an uncommonly bad hand as a kid, and who wouldn’t take no for an answer when the state athletic commission didn’t want him to go pro, with what could you hope to break his spirit?

And as for those fighters who don’t think it’s a smart career move to get in the cage with a one-legged man?

“They can’t dodge me forever,” Betzold said. “I’m coming for their heads.”

By Ben Fowlkes via MMAJunkie

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One comment

  1. I know exactly how you feel. As far as wrestling with a disability.I still have all of my limbs. But I have a lot of damages to my arms shoulders. I wrestled my entire high school varsity career in pain. All five years of it. But, wrestling made me who I am today. I can only wish that I was in your position. With the people you are with right now.

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