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MMA: Joel Bauman brings the fight to Willmar

Former KMS star and ex-Gopher, now a pro MMA fighter, promotes Saturday card at the Willmar Civic Center

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Mixed martial arts comes to the Willmar Civic Center at 7 p.m. Saturday.

As early as grade school, Joel Bauman knew he wanted to fight.

The 2010 Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg football/wrestling/track standout idolizes Bruce Lee as both a martial artist and a philosopher. And the idea of bringing all the different martial arts together came at an early age.

“I wrote papers in the fourth grade talking about wanting to host a battleground for the world’s greatest martial artists,” Bauman said. “Karate, taekwondo, wrestling. And lo and behold around that same time, I had a Sega Dreamcast and went to Cashwise and rented a video game called “UFC.”

“I said if this is real, I have to do this someday.”

Nowadays, Bauman is a professional fighter with a 5-1 record. And he’s helping bring MMA (mixed martial arts) to west central Minnesota with seven scheduled fights at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Willmar Civic Center.

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Bauman was scheduled to compete in the main event in a middleweight (185 pound) bout against Mariusz Ksiazkiewicz. But, that fight has been canceled after Bauman was diagnosed with a staph infection this week.

While it’s disappointing not to step into the cage with a hometown crowd behind him on Saturday, Bauman hopes to keep bringing MMA events to Willmar and the surrounding area. Bauman and a group of local investors began their own sports promotion company Fight 4 You.

“Once people see this, people feel the energy of what MMA is … Willmar doesn’t know how fun these events are and how family-friendly these events are,” Bauman said. “People think: ‘Oh, it’s fighting.’ I used to watch UFC with my dad growing up. We’d invite all my friends over when we were in sixth grade. … It’s a big come-together event. You get to cheer on your local heroes, your local fighters and it’s a big deal. We want to give this to the community and show it’s a big deal, that this isn’t going anywhere, and this is going to be a good first show.”

The West Central Tribune’s Hengstler-Ranweiler Award winner in 2010, Bauman’s path to MMA had plenty of twists and turns.

An aspiring rapper/songwriter, he was deemed ineligible to wrestle at the University of Minnesota in 2013 after refusing to remove his name and likeness from songs and music videos. It violated the NCAA’s bylaw prohibiting student-athletes from using their athletic status to promote the sale of a commercial product. This year, on June 30, the NCAA board of directors voted to suspend that rule, allowing college athletes to monetize their name-image-likeness.

In 2014, Bauman returned to the area, playing amateur football with the West Central Broncos.

The hopes of making it into MMA never left, but the timing was never right.

“I did network marketing and sales for six years and I didn’t have to work a normal day job,” Bauman said. “I was making good money and it allowed me to make music full-time and allowed me to sit at home with my two twin boys and do what I wanted to do. As I was sitting around being blessed and grateful, I said what am I doing, as healthy as I am — I’m healthier than all these other people I’m watching fight on television — I know I can compete with these people. Why am I not doing this?”

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Eventually, Bauman took the plunge.

“This is my dream, this is what I always wanted to do,” Bauman said. “I was always traveling and speaking on stage in front of 2,000-3,000 people and I didn’t know if I necessarily had the time to dedicate to it. Then I said (forget) this; I can’t tell people to live their dreams and not live mine.”

The last two years, Bauman, 30, has trained at Jackson Wink MMA Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, one of the most highly regarded gyms in the world. Several UFC champion fighters have come from Jackson Wink: Jon Jones; Rashad Evans; George St. Pierre; and Holly Holm, among others.

“I’m training with some of the best coaches,” Bauman said.

Bauman has won his last two fights. On April 16, he won a unanimous decision over Julien Leblanc in Shawnee, Oklahoma. On June 18, he won by TKO in the first round of a bare-knuckle MMA fight against Brandon Johnson in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Now, Bauman is trying to add promoter to his resume, bringing MMA to the place that spawned his love of combat sports.

“I was genuinely surprised at how many people have wanted to participate and play,” Bauman said. “These different individuals (with Fight 4 You) have only done good things for the community. The community’s behind that. We’re bringing value to it. We’re bringing entertainment, we’re trying to bring people together. Ultimately, this could be a big-money play for a lot of people.”

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