When Joe Heiland finished his college wrestling career, becoming the first member of his small-town family to graduate from college, he knew he wanted to keep competing.
He was on his way to a rewarding career teaching kids with behavioral and other problems that kept them from regularly attending public schools. But he needed more than just a career to fill the need to battle with someone – something he learned when his father first taught him boxing moves at age 10 and continued with his NCAA Division III wrestling career.
He thought boxing might work. He had always been a hard puncher, and he had trained on and off for years. But he got a different suggestion.
“We went around to see some people and show them what I had,” Heiland told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “They basically said the same thing: ‘He hits hard, but with his wrestling background, why doesn’t he try MMA?’”
That soon became reality. Some seven years later, Heiland is 8-2-1 as a professional after an undefeated amateur career, and the lightweight will try to continue his momentum when he faces Augusta Tindall (3-2) at Ultimate Victory Challenge 23 on Friday in Columbus, Ohio. “The Ultimate Fighter 7? cast member Luke Zachrich (11-2) meets Marcus Finch (7-6) in the headliner.
Heiland has rebuilt some buzz after taking 18 months away from fighting between 2010 and 2012 to both tend to a newborn child and heal a foot injury he suffered during a fight. Since that break, the 31-year-old resident of the Cleveland area lost his Bellator debut (in a fight he feels he should have won) in April 2012 and won two straight.
With support from his family, his students and his close friend Brian Rogers, the Belltor vet with whom Heiland used to work at his school, he feels he’s ready to take another step with his re-emergence as a prospect.
“I honestly feel like a top 50 lightweight in the world,” he said. “I need to open up more people’s eyes.”
Small town, hard hitter
Heiland was raised in Shelby, a small Ohio town where his GM employee father and LPN mother built a life with three sons. His brothers gravitated more toward team sports, and while all the boys were athletically gifted, Heiland was drawn to more individual sports.
His father was a big fan of boxer Roberto Duran, and he had even done some sparring with gifted fighters in the past, so he thought the sport could be good for his youngest son. He showed Heiland some of the basics and found him some even more advanced training.
Heiland met and got to know a local professional fighter named Tony Hanshaw, whose father was the trainer at the gym. Hanshaw became a national Golden Gloves champion who beat Kelly Pavlik as an amateur and lost to Roy Jones Jr. by decision as a pro.
So even though Heiland was from a small town, there were strong athletes around. He found the same thing when he entered wrestling in the seventh grade.
Coaches wanted him to both wrestle and play football at Ohio’s Baldwin-Wallace College, but he chose to focus on wrestling. Even then, he had the itch to use his boxing skills.
“Sometimes I would lose, like I lost to an eventual national champion in double-overtime, and I would think, ‘If I could just punch this guy I could destroy him,’” Heiland said.
His physical education studies put him on a path toward teaching, but when he graduated, his athletic path went away from boxing in a ring to competing in MMA. The challenge for him, as it remains, was balance.
Teacher, father, husband, fighter
Heiland trained in MMA for just three months before he took his first amateur fight. He felt strongly enough about his wrestling experience and his boxing background that he could get by in the sport from the start.
Within a year, he was 7-0 as an amateur, underlining his quick learning. He made his professional debut in June 2007, starting his career with five straight victories.
Meanwhile, he was building his other career. For the past eight years, Heiland has worked at a school for kids who have issues that cause them to be transferred out of public schools. It’s a demanding job, but one he loves.
“A lot of them get in trouble in public school or have something else going on,” he said. “We try to prepare them to keep going in their education or get them ready for the real world. They know I fight, so a lot of them look up to me.”
The same was the case with Rogers. Heiland knew Rogers from the region’s training circles, and he invited Rogers to come work at the same school. The two became closer as their careers progressed.
For Heiland, that meant a 6-1-1 record after a Bobish’s Ultimate Cage Battles victory in October 2010. A foot injury and a coming baby caused him to remove himself from fighting for awhile. When he returned, he lost by first-round submission to Julian Lane at Bellator 66.
“I got stuck, like anyone can,” he said. “It’s a loss that I should’ve won 99 out of 100 times, but that can happen.”
He has since won two straight, giving him momentum heading into Friday’s fight. He sees it as a chance to show he’s in top form and ready to handle a bigger promotion.
“I’m back in the gym six days a week, and I know what I’m capable of,” he said. “I’m ready to prove it now that I have the time to do it.”
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.