Eryk Anders’s past football glory helped him with several aspects of his budding MMA career, but he’s content with leaving it in the past.
Just 10 fights into his pro career, “Ya Boy” has booked himself a meeting with former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida at UFC Belem on Feb. 3 in Brazil. It’s a major step up in competition for Anders, though he’s certainly no stranger to stepping up in a big game.
Anders was a starting linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide and he wrapped up his senior year with a seven-tackle performance in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, including a rollicking hit of Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert that forced a fumble and shut down a Longhorns comeback.
Despite attempting to catch on with teams in both the NFL and CFL, professional football was not in the cards for Anders and he instead dedicated himself to MMA, embracing the fresh challenges of jiu-jitsu and kickboxing and competing in over 20 amateur bouts before turning pro in August 2015.
On Monday, Anders appeared on The MMA Hour where he talked about how his experiences in the two sports compare.
“I enjoy and love MMA much more than I ever did football, but at the same time it’s also kind of part of the reason why I’m moving up so fast,” Anders said. “I already had the built-in fan base when I got into the sport. A lot of supporting fans all over the country that love the Tide. Football has been good to me.”
“Football is way more dangerous than MMA,” Anders added later, when asked for his thoughts on the escalating injuries in the NFL. “Even if you get knocked out in MMA, it’s just one time, then you get up, you take a couple of months off, let your body heal. In football, you may not get knocked out, but you’re constantly getting hit, getting hit, getting hit, especially if you play that D line, linebacker, running back, offensive line position. Every play it’s a collision and your body doesn’t appreciate that.
“You see guys at 30 years old, their career is done just because of all the hits, all the contact. Just look at the shelf life of the average NFL player, three to five years if you’re lucky; MMA guys, they can play for much longer as long as they’re not one of those guys who play with their hands down and just chuck for the fences and take it to give it.”
Anders has been giving it more than he’s taken it so far. After winning his first eight pro bouts, the surging middleweight broke into the UFC as a short-notice replacement for Alessio Di Chirico at UFC on FOX 25 this past July and he capitalized on the opportunity by knocking out veteran Rafael Natal inside of a round.
He followed that up with a unanimous decision win over Markus Perez at UFC Fresno and then called for a bout with Machida. When the two meet in February, it will be Anders’s fifth fight in 11 months. Even with that busy schedule, he’s found that the rigors of MMA training are less strenuous than what was required of him in college.
“This is the best my body has felt since I started playing football,” Anders said. “We train pretty intelligently at the gym that I train at in Birmingham, Spartan Fitness. We only train once or twice a week. A lot of drilling, not really damaging my body.
“Football, it’s a collision every play. Car wreck, every play. But now my body, I don’t have to lift all those weights and eat all that food, it’s kind of the opposite. When I was in college, my back always hurt, my knees always hurt from bearing all the weight and hits and whatnot, but now that I’m doing MMA, my body’s never felt better. I’m walking around at more of a natural weight, my diet’s much better and the way we train I can go forever if I wanted to.”
One aspect of MMA that Anders particularly enjoys is the sense that win or lose, what happens in fight rests solely on his shoulders. That said, he’s looking forward to seeing some famous friends in the audience for his fights someday.
Anders still keeps in touch with Alabama teammate Mark Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, current New Orleans Saint, and noted MMA fanatic. Ingram told Anders if the Saints don’t advance to the Super Bowl this year, he’ll make the trip down to Belem.
An even bigger get would be legendary Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban. Anders was asked if getting a title shot in a city like Las Vegas might convince Saban to see his former player in action, and he joked that Saban would definitely show up. Or else.
“He going to have to come, he ain’t gonna have a choice about that,” Anders said. “If he doesn’t, it’s going to be me and him after that fight.”