CRYSTAL LAKE – Give Joey Diehl a quick glance, an initial once-over, and he doesn’t look the part.
He’s 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds – a whopping 135 if he’s training. He hasn’t grown an inch since eighth grade. And yet, Diehl is what he is – a 21-year-old professional mixed martial arts fighter.
Look again. It’s hard to get over, Diehl admits.
The former Jacobs wrestler from Algonquin is a professional fighter only three years after he graduated high school and after deciding to quit his 40-hours-a-week job at his parents’ sheet metal company and opting not to attend Northern Illinois as planned. He’s a professional fighter even though before three years ago, Diehl had never hit anyone in his life.
That’s just not who Joey “The Real” Diehl is.
“I was never really that guy looking for fights,” Diehl said. “I’m not a jerk kind of a guy who likes to hit people.”
And yet, Diehl is a professional fighter.
His friends, at first, didn’t believe it. His mother, Linda Diehl, who still has trouble bringing herself to watch one of her son’s caged bouts, isn’t necessarily surprised that what began with an intense fascination with all things MMA and Ultimate Fighting Championships has become a way of life for the youngest of her three children.
Then there is Diehl, the self-proclaimed nice guy, who, after going 3-3 in six professional fights – which followed 12 straight amateur bout victories – can’t imagine life any other way.
“I was never good at team sports – I was too short for basketball, can’t catch, can’t throw,” Diehl said. “Back in high school, people would just assume they could pick on you. and it’s kind of nice to know you can defend yourself – especially when you’re a little guy.”
Six fights into his professional career, Diehl is considered a lower-level pro who will be part of the undercard at next month’s Bellator 84 event at The Venue at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ind. But considering what he’s learned about the sport – and more importantly about himself – in those six fights has been invaluable for a bantamweight fighter looking to make a name for himself.
Bellator, which is the second-largest MMA promotion in the country and the sport’s largest tournament-style organization, will be the biggest event Diehl has been a part of. And although his televised fight Dec. 14 won’t open a future with Bellator for Diehl, it’s the kind of event that puts him on promoters’ radar screens, opening the door to future opportunity.
“It’s going to be the most fun I’ve ever had,” Diehl said. “It’s different than what I’m used to, but to me, it’s just a fight. The cage is the same – there’s nothing’s different about it.”
Over the past three years, Diehl has gone from high school wrestler who studied jujutsu on the side to becoming a fighter who has had to spend every day learning the ropes. As an amateur, he fought once a month, combining his wrestling abilities with the MMA fundamentals he learned studying under his coach and training partner, Jeff Curran.
But after going undefeated in 12 amateur fights, Diehl has been forced to become more disciplined – both in his training and inside the octagon. He has learned to get the most of the six hours he trains five days a week, perfecting his form and techniques, having learned that even the most minor of slip-ups can cost him in a fight.
The toughest – and yet most valuable – lessons come after a loss, Curran said. It’s there where Diehl has had to grow the most and the area, Curran believes, where the young fighter still has the biggest strides yet to make.
“[Joey’s] got the skill, got the ability, got the desire, and he’s got the heart,” Curran said. “But he’s had some setbacks, and he just lacks confidence at certain rough periods of the fight.
“But that’s finally starting to click. He’s more hungry.”
The passion for the fight has never been lacking with Diehl, who was 12 when he saw his first UFC-televised event. He’s been hooked since, digesting every pay per view he could, slowly starting to picture himself in the kind of fights he had watched on TV.
Linda Diehl attends every fight with her husband to show her support. But she said about two weeks before each of her son’s fights, the nerves start to kick in and she prepares herself, knowing anything can happen.
So she watches Joey’s fights from a nearby hallway or while standing behind her brother-in-law – unwilling to completely take in the sport’s brutal nature with her son at the center of it all.
“It’s what he loves, and what he’s good at and so you want to support him, but you say, ‘Oh my God, should I even be watching this?' ” Linda said. “I never see very many other mothers around.”
Diehl is 3-3 in his six professional bouts and prefers to treat next month’s Bellator event as just another fight.
He still remembers the feeling he had his first fight, calling it surreal. But now, this is his life.
“Once that first fight was done, everything’s been different,” Diehl said. “It’s hard to explain how – it’s just a different feeling.”
Curran sees a different fighter, too. Diehl is much more skilled and confident. He manages fights better and gets the most of his 135-pound frame.
With a good showing at Bellator, Curran figures Diehl has the makings of the kind of tough, exciting fighter promoters are looking for. And with Diehl committed to do whatever it takes to make a living as a professional fighter, Curran envisions big things ahead for one of the scrappiest fighters in his gym.
“Joey is on a collision course with success. I have no doubt about that,” Curran said. “It’s just going to take time. You can’t rush it.”