Chris Dempsey will be in familiar territory as he fights for a title during a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event at Cambria County War Memorial Arena on Saturday night.
Only three years ago, Dempsey graduated from Pitt-Johnstown, where he was a two-time All-American and four-time national qualifier as the Mountain Cats heavyweight wrestler.
At one point of his college career, Dempsey weighed in at 275 pounds. He finished at 220.
In the MMA cage, Dempsey said he typically competes at 185 pounds.
Ambridge native Dempsey brings a 9-1 record into the main event against Nick Kraus, another top middleweight prospect with an 8-2 mark. Gladiators of the Cage: The Road to Glory VI will feature 11 bouts, with four title matches. The event begins at 7 p.m.
“It means a lot to me,” Dempsey said. “I’m getting to the point where if I keep winning the next couple fights, I might be able to get to the next level and compete at the national level with national promotions.”
First, the 26-year-old must contend with Kraus, who also is a former college wrestler.
“We have almost exactly the same style,” Dempsey said. “He was a college wrestler. We both like to go to the ground a lot. I think it’s going to be a chess match to see who makes a mistake first or who makes the most mistakes because we are so evenly matched.”
Dempsey has won seven straight bouts. He turned professional in February 2012.
Actually, his college wrestling practice sessions against former six-time NCAA champion heavyweight Carlton Haselrig sparked his interest in MMA. Haselrig was a top contender in the MMA circuit for a few years.
“My sophomore year at UPJ coach (Pat) Pecora asked me if I wanted to work out with Carlton Haselrig, and Carlton was fighting MMA at the time,” Dempsey said. “I wasn’t going to miss out on that opportunity. I worked out with Carlton.”
Haselrig’s tutoring helped Dempsey emerge as a national player on the wrestling mat.
As a junior, he stunned the NCAA Division II Super Region I field by winning the heavyweight title despite entering the tournament as a No. 6 seed.
During his senior year in 2011, the super region bracket still listed Dempsey as a No. 5 seed.
Once again, he rolled through the competition, beating the fourth, first and second seeds in consecutive matches to win his second Super Region I crown. Dempsey attained All-American status both his junior (eighth place at nationals) and senior (fifth place) seasons and concluded his career with 100 wins.
“I started focusing on MMA when I got out of school and I moved in with Carlton and started fighting,” said Dempsey, who now trains in Lower Burrell, Westmoreland County, at the Mat Factory, which is operated by former UPJ All-American Isaac Greeley, a national runner-up who was part of the Cats’ 1999 NCAA Division II championship team. “It wasn’t that bad of a transition because I was able to ease my way into it.”
As his MMA career progressed, Dempsey shed more than a few pounds.
“When I was in school I got pretty heavy,” he said. “When I got into UPJ I was about 210. I needed to get bigger and gain weight, but I gained too much weight and was 275 at one point. Coach asked me to slim down and get more healthy. When I started fighting, everybody was much lighter than me. I cut down to 205. When I fought at 205, I was pretty successful but everybody said if I wanted to take the next step I would have to drop to 185.
“It’s more challenging of a cut. But I’ve never missed weight.”
Other title fights on the card pair: Zac Gobel against Brett Shoenfelt; Ethan Goss against Cody Karlheim; and Brandon Lux against Michael Santini.
Other bouts include: Charlie Gathers against Steve Smith; Ryan Glunt against Jeff Holmes; Nathan Bryant against Devon Wilson; Doug Haupt against Darren Costa; Alan Huffman against John Dirham; John Rearick against Jake Magill; and Shockeem Hull against Anslim Marcano.
Notes: Veterans are admitted free, and all students tickets are $15. ... Promoter Scott Betten of Pittsburgh said at least four 9-by-16-foot high definition television screens will be inside the arena to show live action and replays. ... Weigh-ins for the pro fights will be at 6 p.m. tonight at Woodside Bar & Grill, with amateur weigh-ins set for 10 a.m. Saturday at the War Memorial.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.