The average spectator might not realize it, but mixed martial arts (MMA) is a lot like chess. Human chess, said 2011 Urbana High School graduate Matt Semelsberger. In May, Semelsberger, who competes in the welterweight division, defeated Zulkarnaiyn Kamchybekov at the Cage Fury Fighting Championships (CFFC) 74 in Atlantic City for his fourth win in two years as a professional MMA fighter.
“The more moves you can stay ahead of your opponent, the better,” said Semelsberger, who played NCAA Division I football on scholarship at Marist College (New York). “If your opponent is only thinking two or three moves ahead and you’re thinking five or six moves ahead, you have the advantage because you can anticipate what’s going to happen and therefore adjust your strategy.”
But unlike in chess, split-second decisions can be the difference between taking a knockout punch to the face or throwing one, ending up in a chokehold or flattening out an opponent. MMA is “obviously a high-risk activity,” Semelsberger said, but there’s a reason he’s willing to put his life on the line every time he steps into the cage for a fight.
“One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten, and I’ve been told this by numerous people, is you always have to remember your ‘why,’” Semelsberger said. “There are a lot of aspects that play into why I fight, why I’m willing to put myself at risk of injury and possibly even dying. But when it comes down to it, it’s learning a lot about myself as a person. (MMA) teaches me to be a better person.”
MMA provides the ultimate test of strength and character. When he’s in the cage, Semelsberger must withstand both physical and mental challenges. When a bout seems to be headed in the wrong direction, it’s on him to keep his spirits up and stay the course. The best MMA fighters are able to impose their will, and that’s what drew Semelsberger, who began wrestling at age 8, to the sport at first sight.
“A family friend had three boys who all wrestled, too—two of them went on to wrestle Division I—and I always hung out with them,” Semelsberger said. “One day, they showed me a DVD of a UFC fight, and this was back when it was just gaining popularity and not a household thing. I was like, ‘What is this?!’ I was taken aback. It was like every martial arts movie but in real life. I was fascinated by it and knew I wanted to try it.”
After two years of begging, his parents finally allowed him to begin training MMA when he was 14, during his freshman year of high school, and he joined Clinch Academy. On breaks from college, Semelsberger would train as much he could.
For Semelsberger, life imitates art—everything is connected, he said. When he’s productive in the gym and during training sessions, it impacts his life outside the gym. And vice versa. If a fight doesn’t go as planned, or he doesn’t feel like he gave his full effort, he’s able to examine his life and pinpoint the issue.
It was actually an uncharacteristic defeat in the last minute of his previous fight, in October 2018, that led Semelsberger to pounce on the CCFC opportunity, even though it was presented to him rather last minute. He’d led Jerome Featherstone the whole time but was knocked out with a punch in the waning seconds of Round 3.
“I felt like there were a lot of things I could have done better,” Semelsberger said. “A lot of things during the fight, training for the fight. And the night before, I caught an upper respiratory infection, so I had to fight sick. So, even though I was winning, I felt very uncomfortable and very tense, and didn’t perform how I wanted to perform.”
With only about three or four chances to compete per year, Semelsberger was eager to get back in the cage. The loss lit a fire inside of him, he said, and he wanted to show everyone exactly what he’s made of.
Therefore, when he was offered an invitation to the CCFC with only three weeks to prepare instead of the usual eight to 12, he couldn’t turn it down. He spent two weeks training and one week cutting weight—from 190 pounds to 170—so he would qualify as a welterweight.
Semelsberger, whose athleticism and versatility enable him to fight in a variety of styles and, perhaps even more importantly, adjust to whatever is thrown at him, has compiled a 4-2 record since turning pro two years ago. He’s currently ranked No. 51 of 151 active professional welterweights in the Northeast and No. 401 of 1,258 active professional welterweights nationwide, according to Tapology. He hopes to notch his seventh professional bout—and fifth win—in before his 27th birthday in November, Semelsberger said, before looking to take on some more challenging fights.
As he enters his prime—Semelsberger said the Golden Age for fighters is usually between 28 and 32 years old—he has his sights set on the UFC or Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, where he can showcase his talent on the sport’s grandest stages.
In the meantime, he trains every day and works odd jobs, including as a substitute teacher in the county, to make ends meet. The latter, Semelsberger said, is a path he’s quite interested in once his championship fighting days are over.
“I like teaching and I like coaching,” Semelsberger said. “I’m not some superstar yet, but I do get looked at in a different light sometimes when I go in to teach, some of the kids know what I do on the side. It’s a good opportunity to be a positive role model. Negativity and pessimism are a thing now, over being positive, so a lot of people think, ‘Oh, this guy goes in and fights people, he’s probably super mean.’ It’s a nice opportunity to shed some light on the fact that it’s not a weak thing to be a nice, good person. You can be nice, and you can be tough.”