The main event at this weekend’s Caged Madness 38 features featherweight veterans Dustin Kempf and Michael Shields, but it’s actually the respective professional debuts of three lightweight fighters that you should look out for at the event.
All three fighters had successful amateur careers competing almost exclusively in the Ohio Valley region and all three have a legitimate shot to be just as successful as pros.
Once upon a time Rohler was a top-15 wrestling recruit in the country, committing to Penn State before eventually settling in at Notre Dame College in Northeast Ohio. In high school he had the dubious distinction of being one of the best Ohio wrestlers to never win a state title, but he flourished in college, becoming a four-time All-American and winning a Divison II national title.
He transitioned to mixed martial arts in 2014 after taking up training at Rock Hard MMA in Northeast Ohio, and he immediately became a main training partner for longtime Ohio MMA standout Isaiah Chapman. Rohler had just one slip-up during his six-fight amateur career, a decision loss to the more experienced Coy Bissett for the EFP lightweight title just over a year ago.
Now 27 years old and training at Evolve MMA in Medina, Rohler ended his amateur career with four stoppages in five victories, including two submissions and two knockouts.
“For me, being an amateur is just about experience,” Rohler said. “Your wins and losses don’t matter when you become a professional. I have two goals in mind when it comes to my career: one is to introduce as many kids to Christ as I possibly can and help save them from making the same mistakes I’ve made, and two is to become a world champion, plain and simple.”
He earned a notable victory over Chase Kenner and three first round stoppage victories, but perhaps his best performance was a unanimous decision victory over Chris Teague at GOTC: The Road to Glory VII last July. Video of that fight is below.
“I’m in this sport to fight and unfortunately there are a lot of amateurs who don’t take it as serious as they should,” Rohler said. “As a professional, they will fight and that’s what we are here to do.”
A member of Team G-Force in Cincinnati, McDonald may be younger than his opponent Rohler at just 22 years of age, but he has more than double the MMA experience, having made his debut in 2013 and then competing 13 times in 16 months.
He also competed in a total of seven title bouts during his amateur career, winning titles in the Bluegrass Brawl, Hardrock MMA and Turf Wars organizations in Kentucky. His two wars with Evan Samad will long be remembered by Ohio Valley MMA fans, and he was smart in taking on the toughest opponents that he could possibly find early and often as an amateur fighter.
“I’ve come along way in this sport, I have a record I’m proud of with 10-3 losses, and all 3 losses were title bouts, McDonald said, adding that his biggest goal was to hold an amateur title. “My second goal was to go 10-0 as an amateur. I didn’t quiet do that but I’ve learned along the way that I’ve learned more from my losses. To be a great fighter you have to be knocked down so you can pick yourself back up.”
With a strong background in wrestling and jiu-jitsu, McDonald worked on his striking a lot during his amateur career, and he showed the ability to finish fights with two knockouts and four submissions.
McDonald closed out his amateur career with a unanimous decision over David Suter Jr. at Hardrock MMA 65 last June, and you can watch that fight below.
“My opponent is very tough and that’s what I want, I want to fight the best fighters out there, and this will be a war,” McDonald said. “This fight is an opportunity for me. I’m fighting for my pro career and I’m living my dream, and I believe nobody can get in the way of my dreams unless I get in my own way. So in other words, nobody can stop me.”
Smith made his amateur debut in 2011 when he was just 18 years old, and you could immediately see the massive level of talent that he possessed despie being raw and green in the sport. “Johnny Kage” knocked out his first opponent in just 30 seconds, but he was submitted twice in his first five fights for a record of just 3-2.
Smith then took a year and a half away from the sport, during which time he transitioned to the Evolve MMA camp and began to work on honing his controlled aggression style of fighting. He clearly grew immensely as a fighter during that time, and he went unbeaten in his last five fights including three stoppage wins.
Competing for the final time as an amateur in May, Smith showed a well-rounded skillset that proved he was ready to make the jump to the pro ranks. You can watch that fight below.
“What made me decide to go pro was really I got tired of fighting for free and there was no competition at 155 pounds,” Smith said. “I feel I accomplished everything I wanted and I had to make sure I was ready but I’m confident in my skills.”
Caged Madness 38 takes place at the Tadmor Shrine in Akron, Ohio this Saturday night. You can check out the full card for the event here.
Stay tuned to BluegrassMMA for more information on Caged Madness 38.