Bryan Pedersen is 38 years old. He’s married with three young children. He served six years in the Wyoming Legislature and now provides financial advice to 250 clients.
On Saturday night, he’ll step inside a cage with a man younger and almost certainly faster than him. In front of a crowd of hundreds, they’ll fight three rounds or until one of them quits, gets knocked out or can’t physically continue.
It will be the first and last mixed martial arts match of his life.
On most mornings, Pedersen rises at 6 and fixes his children egg whites and oatmeal. He combs their hair, makes sure they remember their backpacks and drives them to school.
These days, he’s added martial arts to his routine. Interval runs and shadowboxing. Weekend trips to Denver for training.
It takes 90 minutes for him to drive from his Cheyenne home to an unassuming building south of downtown Denver. It’s almost noon by the time he parks at the Easton Training Center, a gym used by some of the top fighters in the area.
“I know I’m going to get beat up today,” he says.
An MMA bout might last only a few minutes. A training session can run an hour or two. Fighters build endurance and improve their technique. But it’s just as important they learn to keep their composure. That’s done by exposing them to the worst they might experience inside the ring.
“This will go on for more than an hour,” Pedersen says. “This is way worse than the fight.”
He laughs, grabs his bag and heads inside.
A typical MMA fighter begins his career in his early 20s. He’ll start slowing down in his mid-30s and retire before turning 40.
Pedersen didn’t even find the sport until he was 32. A weightlifter since high school, he simply wanted a better workout. Then he saw a fighter on television.
“He’s in great shape,” Pedersen remembers thinking. “That’s what I want to do.”
He first tried Muay Thai, a sort of kickboxing, then added Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which focuses on ground combat. He even trained for a week at an elite fighting school in Thailand. But all that time, he concentrated solely on fitness.
A promoter called him in February with an offer. The man was organizing Cheyenne’s first MMA event since Wyoming established a commission to regulate the sport. Would Pedersen like to fight?
As a legislator, Pedersen authored the bill to establish the commission. He leapt at the chance to promote MMA in his home state.
“This is not something I normally do,” he says.” But I really believe in the sport.”
After a few minutes of sparring, beads of sweat begin to form on Pedersen’s face. His face turns red and his shirt clings to chest.
Pedersen is lying on the gym floor, his lean, 6-foot-1 frame arched upward so that only his head and shoulder touch the mat. His legs wrap around the chest of Larry King, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor. Pedersen struggles to gain control over his more experienced opponent. For every move Pedersen makes, King has an answer.
It’s a quiet sort of dance. The student slides his body around, seeking a better position. His instructor parries. They move slowly and deliberately, with only brief bursts of action.
Pedersen is panting when they stop for a break.
“He’s heavy,” Pedersen says between breaths. “But it’s good. It’s what you need to keep pushing and pushing.”
Bryan Pedersen might be the only man in history to find success with the pickup line, “Do you have tickets to the gun show?”
He was at a party in 1997 when he saw a woman standing at the other end of the room. He walked over and dropped the line. Five years later they were married.
“He has a lot of energy, and I’m drawn to his energy and his sense of humor,” says his wife, Sara. “And it’s been that way from the very beginning.”
In the time she’s known Pedersen, he’s studied French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in London, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and trained at the world’s most prestigious Thai boxing school. He won a seat in the Wyoming Legislature as a 29-year-old.
So Sara wasn’t surprised when he approached her about the fight. He thrives on new challenges. Last year, he entered an abdominal muscle competition. This time it’s an MMA fight. She’s not sure what comes next.
“I don’t think he even knows how to relax,” she says.
After his training session finishes, Pedersen pauses to read work emails and call a client. Then it’s back home to Cheyenne for an ice bath.
He’s been sore since February. It hurts to sit and it hurts to stand, he says. He’s suffered four black eyes, four busted lips and a herniated disk in his neck. His coach broke Pedersen’s nose twice while they were boxing. It’s now slightly crooked.
On the day after the fight, Pedersen plans to buy his wife new sheets for their bed. The other ones are too bloody.
“I’m a beat-up old man,” he says on the long drive home.
The training has taken a toll on more than Pedersen’s body. It’s meant less time spent with his family. When his kids play soccer, he’s in the car bound for Denver.
Pedersen, though, isn’t about putting off challenges. He craves the opportunity to step outside his comfort zone.
“I have a goal,” he says. “Without a goal, you wouldn’t do it. It creates a sense of urgency and panic. Because every day I’m not training, my opponent is probably getting better. And I’m not.”
Given Pedersen’s age and career, it might be tempting to view the fight as something of a stunt. That would be a mistake.
An opponent won’t care about legislative experience or family commitments. He’ll be out to take Pedersen’s head off.
“Regardless of who he is or how old he is, it doesn’t change the circumstances of the cage,” says Tyrone Glover, Pedersen’s head coach. “It is as real as it gets when you get in there.”
A successful MMA fighter must execute his strategy amid a flurry of blows. That kind of fortitude is usually learned over years. Pedersen has four months.
Developing composure under pressure requires repetition. Put someone in a tough situation long enough and they will learn how to carry on.
That’s exactly what Glover has been doing.
“I’m putting him in the worst possible positions, beating him to just enough where he can’t give up, where he is barely aware,” Glover explains.
The trainer has noticed a change in Pedersen since they began working together. The student who first had his eye on victory now concentrates on the grind.
“We can take him out to deep water, nearly drown him and he’ll shake himself off,” Glover says.
Pedersen will be fighting in his hometown, in front of family and friends. There are times he’s asked himself what happens if the fight goes badly? What if he’s knocked out in seconds?
He’s decided it’s not important. The journey is. One way or another, he’ll wake the morning after the fight and take his kids to the pool.
“I’m going to spend the entire day dropping cannonballs with my kids and my crooked nose,” he says.
He will have already succeeded by then, one way or another. Success will come when the lights dim and his entry music begins to play. When he walks through the excited crowd to the ring. When he climbs into the cage and the door locks behind him.