In just his second pro fight back in October, the prospect Mike Kimbel knocked out Alex Potts in six seconds to tie a Bellator record. It wasn’t a thing of beauty so much as a left, a right, and crumbling body — the kind of explosive KO that opened a few eyes as he gets set to face John Douma at Mohegan Sun on Friday night. Yet, anybody who knows Kimbel understands that that feat is the second most remarkable thing about the 21-year-old kid’s achievements.
It’s the fact that he made it to 21 years old at all.
Kimbel grew up quick and mean in Waterbury — a crime-ridden town in western Connecticut that carries an appropriate nickname of “The Brass City.” Kimbel calls it the “City of Lost Dreams,” because he’s seen so many promising young people — athletes, would-be academics, pretty girls — deteriorate before his eyes. He’s seen some that fell victim to drugs, others to crime. He’s seen people locked away, shot, and some killed.
He knows too well what it’s like to see the nose of a gun pointed at him, directly, and to see the flash.
“I’ve been in shootouts, and I didn’t know what to do — I’d run here to the gym,” he says, referring to Team Thunder MMA, a third-story warehouse gym in nearby Watertown that has Christmas lights strewn across the rafters. “I call him, and he always makes sure I stay level-headed.”
Kimbel is referring to his coach and mentor, Daniel Semeraro, the owner of Team Thunder, who has worked with him since he was a 13-year-old kid looking to channel all that aggression. Semeraro, a No Ka Oi guy who jokes that he looks like a heavy metal Jesus, was in Kimbel’s corner the first time he entered a ring as a 14-year-old, 4-foot-nothing, 69-pound fingerling. He smiles and shakes his head when Kimbel talks about his childhood, not because he doubts what he’s saying, but because he knows it’s all true.
“I got shot at on a Thursday, my fight’s four weeks out, and the next Thursday I got into an accident with an 18-wheeler, got caught between the trailer and tore up my hand,” Kimbel says, pointing to a scar on his hand. “The doctors were trying to get me to see somebody because I was so calm, and I was like, ‘you guys are buggin’, I’m happy to be alive!’ Then two weeks after that I went into a ring and fought with one hand.”
He lost that amateur fight against Zachary Searle out in Springfield, which — even given the circumstances — still sticks in his craw. He admits he shouldn’t have been in there, but he went anyway. He says he always shows up for fights. Back when he was attending West Side Middle School, he would keep every appointment. If somebody got in his face, his dukes came up. Sometimes weapons were introduced to the conversation. Sometimes other people stepped in, his guys against theirs. It was territorial, but it was also about respect. Earning the respect.
Keeping the respect.
“I wasn’t a gang member or anything like that, but we had our little cliques in school,” he says. “We’d get into fights. We’d fight for respect, the girls lean more towards the boys that had it, and it was like that. I was always small. I was in middle school and 4-foot-9, I had to make up for that with tenacity. That’s where the fighting comes from. We’d meet up at the parks against other cliques. If you wanted to survive, you had to fight.”
He laughs, remembering his mindset back then, even if it wasn’t all that long ago.
“I either wanted to be the best Special Forces officer, or the best drug lord,” he says. “I always wanted to be the best at something. Roughhousing with my cousins, it was fun, but fighting … school was kind of brutal. Where I’m at, there aren’t any role models. The role models are the guys doing all the wrong things. That would obviously fall on the younger kids. I had friends making $1,000 a week.”
As he entered his teenage years, Kimbel used to beg his mom to find him a boxing gym. Given how often he got in trouble for fighting, she didn’t particularly like the idea, fearing she’d only be weaponizing his hands and make matters worse. “She had a feeling, if I’m already fighting and then I know how to fight … that’s a problem,” he says.
“But I started because I kept getting into a lot of trouble — in the school, the street, I kept getting into altercations. Even on the Pop Warner football field, I’d get into it. Pop Warner is just like glorified gangsterness. I got arrested a few times. By about my fourth arrest my mom was like, that’s it.”
He was arrested for fighting, obviously, but also for what he calls being in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” He got pinged with an assault rap when he says a friend shoved him into a teacher that never particularly liked him. Next thing he knew, out came the cuffs. Even today he shakes his head at another arrest, the time a teacher tried to take his phone away and he responded, as breezy as you please, “suck my d*ck.”
“That mouth is the problem,” Semeraro says, as if he’s heard variations on just that kind of rebellious response for the last eight years. “That’s why he got his ass whooped when he came in here. He has a mouth on him.”
After trying out a grappling-based gym at 13, Kimbel was growing restless for a fight. He attended an event that Semeraro was hosting, and the coach described to his mom — “she’s a real interrogator,” Kimbel says — his brand of traditional martial arts, which derives from the Chuck Norris system. Kimbel was rapt. He showed up once, got worked over, then came back again. Pretty soon he was dropping in four days a week. Then he got himself a fight. He took on a kid who was 14-0, far more experienced and much older. Kimbel, who was given the nickname “The Savage” because he was a wild thing in a 70-pound frame, won the bout, and off they went.
Semeraro saw the drive and talent, but he says he never knew such a scrawny kid could have that kind of mouth, or that he could be such a mischief-maker. “Whenever I’d put my phone down, and I’d come back and look at pictures, there would be selfies of him all over my phone,” he says. “I’d tell him, stop touching my phone. Next time you touch my phone you’re getting your ass whooped. Well, he did it again.”
Semeraro sicced one of this bigger-bodied, far more experienced training partners on him during a drill on the mats. Kimbel remembers the chokehold — “they snuffed me,” he says — but even that didn’t teach him a lesson. He was the same stubborn kid, doing the same rebellious things. Semeraro would walk around with a ruler or a Kali stick, and when Kimbel wasn’t looking for it — thwap! — a smart lick to the knuckle.
“He’s busted my ass a few times,” Kimbel says, not without a devilish kind of pride.
These tactics continued well past his early teens. They went on until he was 17 and 18 years old, when he was living at the gym, sleeping on an old couch through the dark, cold New England winters, the same couch he is telling the stories from for this interview. After a falling out with his mom, Kimbel literally made the gym his home. He’d walk two hours to work from the gym, and two hours back, then train for four hours when he got back. That’s when he began to see the light. Slowly the kid who was all about earning respect on the streets found a way to show a little respect in the gym. It was around that time, too, that he began putting some distance between who he was and who he wanted to be.
“All the stories people hear, they’re true,” he says. “A lot of stories don’t even get told. It’s highly frowned upon to know what goes on in Waterbury. When I was 17, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to 18. When I was 18, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to 19.
“Not to glorify it, because I’d never do that — it’s horrible — but that life has motivated me into becoming the person I am now. The shootings, those are real. The stabbings, those are real. The things that happen to women, those are real. I keep that in me, because I know what it takes, and I know there was nobody to look up to. That’s why I go in there sharp.”
The transformation isn’t complete. As Semeraro points out, his young gun — the smart ass from the streets, who was always finding his way into trouble — is still very much a work-in-progress.
“When he first came here, we whooped his ass daily, and the kid just kept showing up,” he says. “We thought, he’s got something, he just keeps coming back. Then I bonded with him, and now he’s like a son to me. I’ve pretty much been there his whole life.”
Semeraro doesn’t say it outright, but another thing he picked up early on was that Kimbel could back it up. He could take as much as he dished, and he was only too happy to do so. He kept asking for more. If a kid like that has a dream, you do your best to drag him through hell and disillusion the fancy.
If he keeps showing up, you gladly go through hell yourself to make those dreams comes true.
Mike Kimbel may be turning 22 years old in March, but he looks like he’s still 18. Standing 5-foot-9, he calls himself a late bloomer, insisting that he’s still growing. He didn’t produce armpit hair until he was 18, and has never shaved — he doesn’t even own a razor. He is, by all accounts, a baby face. He wears glasses, which give him a scholarly feel, but he looks like a prime athlete when you see him move. It’s swift, it’s quick, it’s graceful. His reflexes are instant, his body reacts instinctively like when you tap aquarium glass and see the fish shift in unison. He hits hard, and he knows it.
He hits hard, and others know it, too. It’s not a secret.
He showed that power in his Bellator debut against Geoffrey Then a year ago, but his six-second KO of Potts back in October — which occurred on the early prelims — is what put Kimbel on the map. The KO showed up on ESPN’s Top Ten plays at No. 3, in the same package that showed a LeBron James highlight at No. 1.
Suddenly he was hearing from the likes of Jon Jones and Conor McGregor, from the Pitbull brothers and Kamaru Usman, from coaches like Henri Hooft and Brandon Gibson. He’s young enough to feel invincible, but — as the oldest of five siblings growing up, and having gone through what he has — wise enough to know better. The thing is, he’s an up-and-comer who prefers a megaphone to a radar. He tells you he’s coming, and doesn’t apologize for being up front about it. His outspokenness is tailor-made for a game predicated on hype.
For instance, when discussing the bantamweight division:
“I want that belt,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, [Douma and I are] fighting for a vacant title. We have a champ, Darrion Caldwell, but you can’t claim you’re the best of the world, go to another place in the world, get beat the way you did [to Kyoji Horiguchi in Rizin], and then come back and think you’re going to be head honcho now. You’re just another guy on the list. My goal is to clean them up, and get the belt. Stylistically, I’m a bad matchup.”
Or, on whether Bellator likes him or not:
“I think Bellator sees the look,” he says, framing his face with his thumb and index finger. “Not to be cocky or anything, but I’m a good-looking guy. I get all the shorties and all that stuff. I’ve got the look and I’ve got the physique, you know, but I’ve also got the skills. I think they’re almost … they see it, but then again they don’t.
“I don’t know [if they like me], because in my opinion they have their other prospects. You look at certain people that are headlining a show next month, they’re fighting a guy out of the organization on the headline coming off a three-fight losing knockout streak. You’re giving me killers and I’m killing them, and you’re giving them bitches, and they’re blowing up. To me, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, none of that matters. I show up, and I show up for real.”
Cocky? His coach would quickly agree. Talk to anybody he trains with — from his wrestling partner Nick Newell to Tom Egan down at Trifecta MMA in Boston to his boxing coach Bryan Caban, the man he calls his savior — and they’ll tell you he doesn’t exactly lack confidence.
But there’s something about his confidence that feels less delusional than it should. There’s a defiance about him. He was in the ghetto and headed for a life in prison or worse, but — though he still lives in Waterbury — he got away. The gym saved him. That kind of backstory is poetry in fighting. The optimisms are fresh, the attitude raw. The sky is the limit, the probability of failure exhilarating. Nothing to lose? He has everything to gain.
He says that his goal to be a champion has a higher meaning. He wants to be the right kind of role model for those living in the “City of Lost Dreams,” and that he’ll never turn his back on them. “I could go shoot dice with the boys, just as I could sit down with the mayor,” he says. He’s all about being that example of hope, but he gets uncomfortable going too far down that particular street.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” he says, as if refastening himself back to the earth. “I haven’t done anything.”
The truth is, the prospect Mike Kimbel has 69 seconds of experience as a professional fighter, even if he has 21 years as a natural one. He used to do it on the South Side back in the day, but these days it’s in a cage. Either way, fighting is really all he knows.
“I love fighting,” he says. “That’s where I can be free. That’s where I don’t have to watch my back, or worry about politics, or worry about money. I don’t have to worry about anything except what’s in front of me. I think that’s why I’m drawn to it so much. It’s literally like me expressing myself the best way possible. I’m freely expressing myself. No, I haven’t done anything yet.
“But I will.”