Tyler Call walks into the arena prior to his debut fight. Call, a BYU student, is just beginning his journey in the world of MMA.

The Call to Fight

A BYU student steps into the Octagon

Written by Mitch Phipps. Video by Blake O’Rullian.

Tyler Call stepped into the Octagon and the cage closed. The arena lights were on him, and then the PA announcer called their names. The bell rang. After two years of training, eight weeks of prepping, dieting, watching tape and cutting weight, the moment was finally here.

Call often dreamed about this moment. He felt ready and prepared, but most of all he was nervous. He recognized the nervous feelings. He felt them often as he walked into the testing center as a cyber security student at BYU.

Since starting school at BYU in 2017, something was missing in his weekly routine. Something felt off. He felt uninspired.

Call would walk to class, pull out his laptop and take notes. But his mind wandered off while the professor was lecturing. He had trouble concentrating.

He thought often about his high school days and what it was like to strap up the football pads, go head to head with his teammates at practice and to later come home bruised and in pain, but absolutely filled with joy. He cherished those memories, and he craved to have that feeling of out-toughing his opponent and doing what others didn’t want to do.

Call looked for something new. He needed that physicality that came with sports. He wasn’t talented enough to play Division I football and BYU didn’t have a wrestling program. After seeing his brother train in jiu-jitsu for a few months at Wasatch Fight Camp in Orem, Utah, he decided to give it a go and signed up to train with his brother. He immediately fell in love with it. He found what was missing: his finish line, his goal. He wanted to be a professional fighter. 

In July 2019, Call enlisted the help of coach Dayne Aristizabal. Aristizabal opened and owns the fight camp Agema Jiu-jitsu and previously worked with Call as a jiu-jitsu coach at Wasatch Fight Camp before opening his own. Coach Aristizabal and Agema Jiu-jitsu allowed Call to take amateur fights, helping him toward his dream of being a professional fighter, an opportunity that wasn’t an option at his other fight camp. 

Call’s story is not unique. Hundreds of hopeful fighters step into local fight schools across the country, but most never advance past the first few weeks of training.

Most aspiring fighters don’t understand the daily grind that fighting requires, the relentlessness of putting your body through a physical beating. They come into the gym with all the excitement and energy but it quickly vanishes when they take an uppercut to the head that leaves them lying in their own blood. That is often the last time you will see them step into the gym.

“Everybody says they want to be a fighter, you know, but very few guys actually put in the effort,” Aristizabal said.

Fighting is a very physical sport and few people make a career of it. Most fighters won’t make any real money until they turn professional. Amateur fighter Boyd Abernethy, a teammate of Call, pocketed less than $100 in his first amateur fight.

“I made $54 in my fight, and I broke my hand on the guy’s face. That doesn’t cover anything. That covered my dinner and half a tank of gas for the next week,” Abernethy said. “Some people don’t continue because it just isn’t fun to get hit in the head that much or they are not making any money. It’s a huge commitment for a long time. And the average fighter never makes any real money.”

Abernethy lost a lot from his fight. He couldn’t go to work for an entire week because of his broken hand and concussion that he suffered in his fight. This is why so many people never walk back into the fight camp or Octagon.

The daily grind

Call’s day usually starts with him arriving at the gym by 5:30 p.m. He will spend a few minutes warming up and then move to white belts to improve his offensive moves. By 6:30 p.m., he transitions to higher-level fighters and practices his jiu-jitsu and all-around skills. By 7:30 p.m., he works exclusively on MMA work, such as cage wrestling and striking. They strap on the gloves and shin guards and actually fight, applying what they practiced earlier in the evening. At this point, Call discovers if he’s mastered the skill either by a successful move or, if not, by taking a bloody hit or a takedown.

After sparring for a while, Aristizabal and others on the coaching staff help with extra pad time, perfecting each skill. The coaches pick at each small detail to make sure Call doesn’t have to pay for it in the Octagon.

Fighting is a grind and an even tougher grind to make it as a professional fighter. The UFC is unlike other sports organizations. Athletes don’t get drafted. They don’t develop in a rookie league. To punch people for a living, fighters have to make a name for themselves and then apply to promoters, which will help you get the bigger fights. Yes, fighters have to apply just like any other job.

Often, fighters will take amateur fights before trying to go professional. Call made his amateur fighting debut on Feb. 21, 2020 in Salt Lake City. He fought another amateur fighter, Dyqwhon Barber, from Wyoming, who also was debuting that same night.

These fights help them build their resume. The better the resume, the better chance you have to land a job as a professional fighter. An amateur fighter will generally have at least four to eight amateur fights on their resume before advancing.

Once a fighter’s resume is built, they apply to be seen by promotional organizations. These promoters will then help the fighter get exposure by getting them into big events.

Strangely, amateur records don’t really matter that much. Amateur fights are about potential and development, but once a professional, that is when the win/loss record really matters.

Another path to going pro is having connections. Just like in the real world, connections can help someone get a job that they might not be qualified for. However, that doesn’t always mean it isn’t deserved.

One of the most important connections a fighter can have is trainers.

“You can’t fake fighting. You can have great connections but can only go so far once people see how a person actually fights,” Abernethy said. “The connections that improve your fighting are the ones you want.”

Building connections is about improving as a fighter: learning from those who have many years of experience and applying it to prove why you belong in the Octagon. The right connections can lead you to a better coach, bigger gym or even a more experienced fighting partner.

Call’s connections brought him to the Agema Fight School, where he was able to get his first amateur fight.

Call remembers only a little bit of that night. He remembers the bright lights, loud crowd, and it being over in a flash.

“It’s a little bit fuzzy,” Call said. “A lot of knees, and a lot of wrestling”

Call recalls shoving Barber against the cage multiple times, taking him down, and connecting multiple blows, then taking a deep breath, shaking the sweat off, and repeating.

“I remember it was a brawl. I remember they both rocked each other and hurt each other a couple times,” Aristizabal said.

When it came down to the final round, Aristizabal believed that the conditioning work Call had put in is what led him to beat his opponent.

Call won his debut fight by unanimous decision.

“He put on a show,” teammate David Kim said. “His fight was amazing.”

“It was tough. It was a test,” Aristizabal said.

Aristizabal and Call’s teammates were impressed with how he handled himself in his debut fight.

Teammate Zac Hamilton was in the back preparing for his upcoming fight that night when he saw Call come back from his victory.

“It was the most awesome thing. He was crying. He had the medal around his neck,” Hamilton said.

Call can still recall the feelings he had that night. “I was as tired as I’ve ever been. I was as excited as I’ve ever been. I was emotionally drained. I was crying. It was just an adrenaline, emotional dump. I was pretty much feeling about every emotion you can feel at once.”

Call currently holds an undefeated record at 1-0-0. He’d like to get a few more amateur fights in before he tries to turn pro.

For the moment, COVID-19 and other priorities have taken precedent in his life. He is getting married later this year and finishing classes at BYU. 

Call hopes it isn’t long before he can step into the Octagon again. And soon, he hopes to get paid to do it.

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