JOHNSON CREEK — Mark Lemminger is on the doorstep.
The Johnson Creek native has spent the last several years rising through the ranks of mixed martial arts, and has a chance to enter the title conversation as a professional 170-pounder with his next fight.
Lemminger will take on No. 4 ranked welterweight Neiman Gracie in the co-main event of BELLATOR 266 on Saturday, Sept. 18 in San Jose, CA. The bout will be televised on Showtime. BELLATOR MMA is considered one of the premier mixed martial arts organizations in the world.
“It’s a pretty big one for me,” Lemminger said.
Lemminger graduated from Johnson Creek High School in 2011 as a four-year letter winner and two-time state qualifier in wrestling. His desire to continue competing in one-on-one combat led to take up MMA Fighting with the Chosen Few organization in Madison. He still wears his Chosen Few T-shirt in post-match interviews as a professional in a nod to the organization that helped him build himself up. He finished 5-0 as an amateur and carries a 12-3 record as a pro into the fight with Gracie.
“I started out and i just wanted to do it,” Lemminger said. “I won my first amateur fight. Then, I won the next one. So then I thought, OK, we’ll win an amateur belt. A few fights later, I ended up doing that. Then I wanted to go pro and win a pro fight, and then win a pro belt. Now that I’m with BELLATOR, I’ve got a shot at making the top ten.
As I progress with the sport, my goals keep progressing. I want to beat this guy, take his spot, then get a chance to fight for a belt.”
This will be the first fight in front of fans for Lemminger since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in March of 2020. It didn’t affect Lemminger’s training regimen, nor did it cost him any fight opportunities.
“I had more fights in 2020 than the last two years put together,” Lemminger said. “I have my own shop in Johnson Creek to do my own workouts. I brought some teammates there and continued training through the thick of the pandemic, and never missed a beat.
“My first three fights for BELLATOR, there was no crowd there at all. I didn’t like that. There definitely is an energy with crowds. It was interesting at first. You can hear your coaches, and it’s more relaxed, but it’s too relaxed. I need the nervousness and the crowd screaming to get me going. I’m glad I experienced it, but I’m glad it’s over. I am ready for fans.”
Lemminger was a dominant upper WEIGHT wrestler in high school, when very few opponents could score on him when they were on their feet. In MMA fighting, opponents with similar wrestling backgrounds have found success at times hitting double leg takedowns on Lemminger, due in large part to the different sparring stances and rules.
Only once did that maneuver help a fighter beat him, though.
Since that early loss in his pro career, Lemminger has consistently been able to scramble off the canvas in those situations and punch his way out of trouble.
Lemminger was a ferocious competitor growing up, and he definitely took that ferocity with him to the next level. He’s almost always the better brawler, and even the fighters who managed to beat him knew they had been in a serious fight when it was done.
“I’ve had a lot of other coaches in my life, who have said, ‘Mark, I’m glad you found MMA. This was made for you,’” Lemminger said. “I don’t know where that (ferociousness) comes from, but when it comes down to it, I’m not afraid to throw everything to the wayside and really brawl. If you watch my fights, there’s little moments where I say screw it, and it’s a brawl. That’s an edge I feel I have over some of my opponents. When the going gets tough, I can kind of turn that on.”
Lemminger enjoyed huge community support during his early days fighting at the Monona Terrace and The Sylvee in Madison. Even as he began fighting out of state, members of his inner circle made the trips.
Being able to take part in a televised bout is a thrill for Lemminger, who is counting on some serious watch parties going on locally come Fight Night.
“It’s awesome,” Lemminger said. “My dad still has the corner bar in town. They always play the fights, and it’s a packed crowd with all my friends I grew up with. (Former Johnson Creek co-wrestling coach) Marcus Novak always has people at his place watching fights. That’s a cool feeling for me.”
Lemminger has made the adjustment to traveling to fights, with one minor exception.
“I don’t mind the travel too bad,” Lemminger said. “I wish we didn’t have to be out there as early, but (they require COVID) testing a week ahead of time. I’ve adjusted to it. I have teammates fighting with me on the card. I have coaches with me. We make the best of it that way.”