Blake Bilder is a nice guy. He’s the type of guy who calls all the annoyances of being a professional mixed martial artist “blessings,” and he’ll even ask to speak to a 54-year-old writer’s wife to try and convince her to let the 0-1 scribe have one more fight.
But don’t mistake the Minnesota native’s kindness for weakness. He is nicknamed, “El Animal,” after all, and when he got the call to take a 20-hour flight to Australia to put his unbeaten record on the line against New Zealand’s Shane Young, he didn’t blink.
And he won his UFC debut, scoring a near-shutout unanimous decision over Young. But, oh, how that flight was more brutal than the fight. With one exception.
“I felt like I was getting held hostage on that plane,” Bilder said. “We're on the way out there, and this lady bumps me and was like, ‘Sir,’ and hands me a hot ham and cheese hot pocket or sandwich or something like that. And I know I shouldn't have eaten it, but it was in the middle of the night, it was all dark. She handed it to me and it smelled so good. I was like, ‘What is it?’ She's said, ‘Hot ham and cheese.’ And I took a bite, and it was perfectly hot and the cheese was so melty. I was like, ‘Oh, God, I cheated.’ (Laughs) But I still believe it's one of the best ham and cheese sandwiches I've ever had in my life.”
For the record, Bilder made weight for the featherweight bout, beat Young, and got a surprisingly positive reaction from the fans down under, even if he handed one of their guys a loss.
“I was just focusing on the win and obviously enjoying the moment, but man, to have the love and support over there was great,” he said. “Somebody wrote up a little article saying that the fans weren't too happy about me winning out there, but I beg to differ. They must not have seen all the people after the event, because people were taking pictures with me left and right. And then when we stayed a few days after, the people out there recognized me at the beach and they were like, ‘Hey, can we get a picture with you, mate?’ And I'm like, ‘Yeah, f**k yeah.’ And it was just taking pictures and meeting so many cool people. Everybody out there was really, really nice.”
So when the next call from the UFC came for him to face a Canadian in Canada this weekend, the 32-year-old started getting his bags ready and his camp set for Kyle Nelson.
“This is nothing new,” he said. “It's what it's always been. I feel like my whole career, people have just been like, ‘Oh yeah, there ain't no way; this guy's an MMA fighter,’ when I went to boxing and then I was just merking fools in boxing. And then, ‘Oh, he's a boxer; he doesn't, kickbox,’ and then I go undefeated in kickboxing as an amateur with two titles. And now it's like, ‘Oh, well, Blake's got a good ground game, but there's no way he could stand up with Shane Young.’ And so I'm like, oh yeah, I'm not going to go for the takedown at all. I'm going to try and knock this fool out because there's no way I could possibly beat him. I mean, he trains with (Alexander) Volkanovski and Israel Adesanya. To me, I don't care about any of that. Me and my coach do so many programming drills, and we have our Fight IQ up, and just the way that we work and the chemistry that me and him have, I just feel like we can't be beaten.”
He should feel that way, especially considering that no one has beaten him yet. Currently 8-0-1 in a pro career that began in 2018, Bilder earned his UFC contract in his eighth fight when he submitted Alex Morgan on season six of Dana White’s Contender Series last August, and now he’s become a world traveler with trips to Australia and now Canada. It’s been quite a journey for someone always facing doubters along the way. Not that he’s listening. He may hear them, but no, he doesn’t listen.
“There's a bunch of people who've never felt the heat of the lights on 'em, and had thousands of people surrounding them, judging every movement, every action or inaction, every facial expression, everything,” he said. “And then to hopefully win, and then even when you do win, ‘Oh yeah, but he got taken down and I would've liked to see him stick the jab a little more.’”
Bilder laughs. He’s a fighter. He knows who he is, and that’s the only opinion that matters. Sure, this is a tough way to make a living, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I look at some of these people out here in the world, and I'm just like, man, THAT’S a tough way to make a living. Sitting behind a desk all day doing mundane work, getting screamed at by somebody that's above you, and then just feeling like you have to be in this position to make a living, I know, for me, I can always go work a job. I can always go do something. But I like the fact that nobody can do my job like I do. Nobody go in with style and grace like I'm going to go in there and build up a fight and put on a show. It’s something that's so unique and so special because I built this up. And it might be a tougher way of making a living, but I wake up every morning and I think, what else would I do? If I don't do this, I'm honestly in a perpetual state of boredom. I need it. I need something that gives me that challenge, that excites me to wake up, that gives me that hunger and drive and passion and purpose to put into the day. And the only thing that can make it like that, that I found, is fighting.”