Derby’s Caveman goes for a MMA belt

David Rickels, right, fights in a mixed martial arts bout.
David Rickels, right, fights in a mixed martial arts bout. Courtesy of Mark Jones

The Caveman has an untamed red beard.

The Caveman carries a prehistoric club.

The Caveman even walks with dinosaurs.

It’s all an act, of course. The Caveman’s real name is David Rickels. And he is a successful 24-year-old MMA fighter from Derby who will take on Michael Chandler for the Bellator lightweight world championship at 6 p.m. Wednesday on Spike TV. He is a father, a self-described goofball and has incredible pride for his home state.

“If I could say one thing to the people of Wichita and my fans across Kansas, it would be that I just want to represent my city and bring this belt back to Kansas,” Rickels said. “I am trying to represent for them. That’s why I always shout out ‘Derby’ into the camera before I fight.”

Still, most MMA fans know Rickels simply as The Caveman. That’s what happens when you have one of the most appropriate nicknames in sports.

Funny thing is, Rickels didn’t earn the nickname for any of the obvious reasons. Sure, he embraced it by growing out his beard, carrying props and made it famous in the MMA fighting community by once walking to the cage with a robotic dinosaur. But people called him The Caveman long before that … for very different reasons.

“I really got the name from being tough,” Rickels said. “When I first got into MMA fighting at 18, I got beat up for a while — a long while. I thought I was a tough kid. I thought I would go in there and beat those guys up, but I got whooped.

“I would stay in there, though, sparring with pros right off the bat. I got beat up, but I never gave up. I got the nickname for being tough. My friends saw the crazy hair and the big beard and just said, ‘You fight like a caveman.’ It’s kind of crazy how it came about, but it has stuck.”

So much so, he made national news last March when he walked to the cage with a robotic dinosaur before a fight with Saad Awad and then won by knockout when he landed a vicious right at the end of the second round.

“Oh man, I heard from so many people after that,” Rickels said. “I heard all sorts of stuff. A lot of it was positive. Probably 90 percent loved it. Then you had people who said I wasn’t taking it seriously. Some even said I wasn’t being historically accurate, because cavemen didn’t walk with dinosaurs. To them, I said, ‘You people are idiots.’”

That was a big day for Rickels, who sports a 14-1 record and is considered one of the top 25 MMA fighters in the world for his 155-pound weight class. Now he is preparing for an even bigger one.

If he defeats Chandler, he will win his first belt and achieve a lifelong dream. Rickels has earned more than $100,000 as a professional fighter and has a cool nickname, but a world championship would take his career to a higher level.

“This is a fight that will put me in top 10 in the world as a fighter, so getting this win and securing the belt would mean a lot as far as my career,” Rickels said. “I have also put all this hard work and dedication into this sport. Obtaining the belt is obviously a huge goal. It means you are the champion, the best in the world. Even if I just get to hold the belt one time, it would be the greatest thing in the world.”

Rickels earned his title shot the hard way. In high school, he focused on wrestling and baseball. Then he heard of a nearby MMA gym, and thought he could be a successful fighter. Without training, he jumped in the ring and took beatings for months.

He may have earned his nickname in the process, but it seemed like he would never be able to fight back. He stuck with it and started winning fights. Then he tried his hand at unpublicized fights against opponents of all weight classes, taking his beatings in heavier weight classes. Looking back, he admits those were “sketchy” times. But once he discovered he was best suited as a lightweight, his career took off.

Rickels started training in Manhattan with several skilled opponents, fighting on television, and The Caveman became more popular every time he entered the cage.

His main advantage outside of his fighting skills: He rarely, if ever, gets nervous.

“Anyone who knows me knows that I am a goofball,” Rickels said. “I don’t take life too seriously. I like to enjoy my moments in the big spotlight before a fight. Even at the pro level, there are guys who throw up in the back rooms right before they go fight. I have always looked at that and thought they were crazy.

“I love the walkout entrance. I embrace that moment and try to have fun with it. I have a switch that goes off in my head when I go into the cage. That’s when I get serious.”

Rickels’ manager, Mark Jones, thinks that sets him apart from other fighters.

“He is a manager’s absolute dream,” said Jones, who has managed Rickels for 13 fights. “He is so marketable and he has quite a personality. He is a fan favorite, because he embraces that. He has fun out there.”

So what does Rickels have planned for the biggest fight of his life?

He has toyed with the idea of pedaling himself to the ring in a Flintstones car. That’s something he will do at some point. Alas, it will have to wait for another day.

For now, the Caveman is only focused on winning Wednesday.

“What it all boils down to is that this is a title fight,” Rickels said. “I could do something crazy, but I don’t want people thinking I’m not taking it seriously. I will have my club and my necklace and I will treat it the same way I treat all my fights.”

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