The wrestler: PHS grad Popi fighting for 185-pound MFL title

PLYMOUTH — It started with a simple New Year’s resolution to get back into shape. But John Popi’s foray into the world of mixed martial arts has become something much bigger.
Popi will get a chance at a 185-pound title against Cody Groves at the Michiana Fight League’s MFL 26 event Saturday at Coveleski Stadium in South Bend.
He’ll be joined by several teammates from the Bulldog Fight Team as fellow Plymouth High School alum Dax Guericke fights for the title at 125, Knox’s Travis Smith and Brandon Shelhart compete in title bouts at 205 and 135, respectively, and Derrick Duszynski fights in a 170-pound championship bout. Other local fighters sharing the card include Ed Johnson, Ricky Miller, Trent Keyser and Wesley Wickizer, and gates open at 3 p.m. with fights scheduled to begin at 6 EDT.
“Competing for a title is a big stepping stone for me, and I give thanks to everyone that has helped me on the way,” said Popi of his title shot Saturday. “Just knowing that I’m one of the best around in the weight class is a huge accomplishment. I’m going to go into this title fight just like I would for any other fight and give it my best.”
A four-year football player and decorated three-year wrestler before graduating from PHS in 2009, Popi says he fell out of shape after high school, and when acquaintances reached out to him about the possibility of getting into the area cage fighting scene, he demurred.
But in 2011 Popi made a New Year’s resolution to get back in fighting form, cutting down from 250 pounds to his current trim 185 pounds. He accepted Shelhart’s and Smith’s invitation to come train with their team, and since last December he’s rattled off a record of 3-1 in the cage, fighting in weight classes from 205 all the way down to 170 pounds.
“It was kind of iffy if I really wanted to do it because I was out of shape. I thought ‘There’s no way I can get back into physical shape again.’ I got up to like 250 pounds,” said Popi.
“I was out of shape and I was out partying all the time, but I made a resolution that I was going to get back into shape,” he continued. “I started hitting up the gym more, started losing weight and last year around this time, that’s when my dad and Shelhart and Travis first talked. I had my first practice, and I liked it. I started cutting more and more weight and the next thing you know my first fight’s in December at 205.”
Popi remembers being nervous stepping into the cage for the first time. But after making short work of his much larger opponent with a kimura armlock, he was hooked.
“I was extremely nervous to be honest,” he said. “I had a fight that I was supposed to fight and then at the last minute they switched my opponent. I really didn’t know anything about this guy, and he was way taller than me — he was like 6’4” — and I was nervous. Walking up to the cage I wasn’t used to the atmosphere. He tapped out in, I believe, a minute, seven seconds. Right from there, having your hand raised is the best feeling. All of my friends who wanted to watch my first fight all chanting my name, yelling ‘Popi! Popi!’”
A two-time wrestling semistate qualifier in his sophomore and junior seasons with the Rockies, Popi brings a strong wrestling background into MMA, which he makes good use of with “ground and pound” tactics, a hybrid style of MMA where fighters look to take their opponent to the ground and punish them with strikes.
He’s had to make the transition from folkstyle wrestling, where competitors can be deducted points for “stalling”, into Brazilian Jiujitsu — a slower, more deliberate style of submission grappling where, unlike wrestling, grapplers often work off their backs. Although he says he still looks to take his opponents down, he’s improved his stand-up fighting considerably, winning his last fight in June via knockout.
“I had a good wrestling background, and that’s helped me out a lot. (PHS) Coach (Bob) Read and Coach (Ryan) Rust were great coaches. They showed me a lot. I came back in here and I didn’t really miss a beat since I last wrestled,” said Popi. “With wrestling you’re always on the go; you’re pushing, pushing, pushing. You take the guy down and you keep on moving. To transition from that into jiujitsu, you can’t keep that pace because you’ll just get tired out. You have to take your time, not keep on pushing, with no space in between you and your opponent.”
“At first my game was wrestling, but my stand-up was getting better and better. It’s still not the greatest… but it’s gotten a lot better. My game usually is to throw a couple punches and try and take the other guy down, but I’ve gotten more confident in my standup, and I’m able to stand there and bang with other dudes.”
Popi first ventured into MMA as a way to rekindle the competitive spark he had as a high school athlete. After falling in love with the sport, he’s hoping a title win Saturday will be one step on his way to bigger and better things.
“I’m finally doing something competitive, which I’ve always wanted to get back into. I really love this sport. I thought I was going to like it, but I really love it. The training’s hard, you know, but once you get that ‘W’ and your hand’s raised, that’s the best feeling,” he said.
“At first I thought it was just something I’d do here and there, but I’ve really learned to love it. The dream would be to go pro and keep on moving up and up and one day be the world champion.”
Tickets to Saturday’s fightsat the Cove are $25 general admission. Contact Popi for tickets at 574-780-1531.