Verbal Sparring: Abel Cullum (King of the Cage Flyweight Champion)

You might say that the family that trains together stays together. That’s absolutely the case in the Cullum household.

Several years ago, Abel Cullum and his dad decided to build him into a fighter. They took Abel’s skills, his brother’s cooperation, his Dad’s experience, and his Grandmother’s fanfare. And soon, they had a champion. At 12-2 in just a three-year period, Abel Cullum stands solid as the King of the Cage Flyweight champion. He’s also the reigning champion in two other regional MMA promotions based near his home of Tucumcari, NM.

But in a sport that loves to brag about million-dollar profits, famous Hollywood attendees, exclusive parties, and pseudo-celebrity glamour, Team Cullum prefers to focus on the name of the game: train, fight, and win.

In this round of Verbal Sparring, I talked with Abel about his humble fight beginnings, the new family business, and the alternative to running in the MMA Fast Lane.

JT: How’s training going?

AC: It’s going pretty good. We’re working on getting in shape and putting on a good show. I hear Ryan’s been training pretty hard for this fight. I know he’s gonna be ready, so I gotta bring it. I haven’t lost at 135, and I don’t plan on starting now.

JT: Let’s talk a little bit about your background and how you got into MMA.

AC: Well, actually I started out as a fan, watching the early fights back in the 90’s. My dad and I would watch it and I’d talk about wanting to do it and he was like “no way you could do it,” because there were no weight classes then. And one night we ordered a King of the Cage PPV and we got to see Charlie Valencia fight for the KOTC title right there at 135. And I was like “oh man, this is something I can do. I don’t have to fight some 250-pounder. I can fight someone in my own weight class and match skill for skill.” I decided that I wanted the King of the Cage title. That was seven years ago, I think.

My dad knew some stuff from when he was younger and did these back-of-the-bar type fights. He did really well. He was 6’4” and 250 lbs. with some submissions in his arsenal. When I expressed an interest, that kinda reignited his own want to learn. He bought me a punching bag, and I got after that. We started working on different things that we thought would work and developed our own style. And so far it’s proven effective.

When we first started, we had to sacrifice a lot of things to try to make it work, and now it’s paying off and coming together quite well. I’m real happy about it. It’s opened a lot of doors.

JT: What kind of things did you have to sacrifice?

AC: Well, we have several family businesses and we kinda put a lot of things on the back burner and focused more on my fighting as the time was coming for my first fight, back in September of ’05. We had a motel – we still own the motel but it’s not functioning anymore, because we couldn’t do that much. Our family is together a lot but we’re always working on our fighting and constantly trying to improve. Y’know, just time and energy, but it’s definitely becoming worth it now.

JT: Did you do martial arts or anything when you were growing up?

AC: Actually, no I didn’t. I did a little bit of wrestling in high school, but all my training is in mixed martial arts. I don’t have a background – I’m not a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt or anything, but I’ve submitted one.

JT: It’s kinda like walking the Joe Calzaghe story – the family just decides to start training the kid for fighting. It sounds like, once you decided to take your life in this direction, your family got behind you.

AC: Oh yeah, my family is really supportive of me. My brother is one of my few training partners, and it’s been great having him on board. My grandmother’s like my biggest fan. At first she was a little skeptical, but when she watched the first one, he’s been hooked ever since. Fighting has brought our family that much closer, I think. It’s good.

JT: From pictures I’ve seen, it looks like you’ve got more than a few belts. What are your other titles?

AC: I’m the five-time Desert Extreme champion at 135. I’m the two-time Southwest Fury champion at 145. And King of the Cage Flyweight (135) champion.

JT: When you look back and consider where your career is now, how do you feel?

AC: It’s kinda crazy. My brother asked me that same question, and especially right before the Wilson Reis fight, I was all over the internet. I was up on a website – it said “Abel Cullum” right below names like Mirko Cro Cop and Quinton Jackson. It’s an indescribable feeling. I know it’s taken a lot of work, and a lot of dedication and a lot of support. It’s nice, because I know it was earned.

JT: Tell us about your new gym and your training.

AC: We also just opened our gym here in Tucumcari. It’s Cullum Ground Fighting. It’s just starting up and it’s been fun. We’ve got some new members and we’re having a good time with it. We teach mixed martial arts. All of our Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing is MMA-based. I’ve always done a lot with a little. We just got into a new building, which is awesome. It’s 100 ft. by 25 ft, so it’s huge for me, because we’re coming from what we call “The Dungeon,” and a lot of places before that which were. . .

JT: Garage training, right?

AC: Actually, a garage would have been really nice [laughs]. When I was training to fight John Chester in Tulsa, OK, a lot of my training was done outside, with the bag hanging of a tree, and we had one yellow pull-out mat that I was working on. And I just wanted it – that’s what kept me going out there. I just did what I could with what I had.

The Dungeon was great because if you were there, it was because you wanted to be a fighter. Because if you were there, you were getting worked. In the summertime, it gets up to 110-115 degrees. Sometimes we’d get some fans going, but usually not. And in the wintertime, you’re lucky if it’s not snowing because if it’s snowing, that roof is leaking on you right in the middle of practice. If you wanted to fight, you were there. It was rough at some points, but it really builds character.

JT: It separated the men from the boys.


JT: Are there any guys in your camp / stable / team that fans should be on the watch for?

AC: Some of our fighters, like Robert, Abel, and Joe Vargas – they really helped me out along the way. They’re three brothers and they have that competitive fighter in them too.

After high school, they didn’t get to go out and do all the other things, like wrestling and football. They wanted something else past that. They were real excited when they heard I was doing it and that they could train with me. They’re all well-rounded, but they all have their better points. Between t he three of them, they’ve really helped build me. I owe a lot of the credit to them for where I’m at today. Robert and Joe have fought for us. Abel is going to be fighting for us soon.

I got some younger guys starting out now at the gym who are getting ready to get in there. It’s kinda awesome to see where they start out and where they end up. We got one kid who started out at 200 pounds and he’s now down to 168 pounds, and he’s confident. The turnaround on this kid is just amazing. And I think that’s a lot of what inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing. It’s great to see.

JT: It puts you in the unique position of being the coach and the mentor while being a student.

AC: Definitely. Being a student of the game is gonna be what keeps you improving. As soon as you think you know it all, that’s when you get caught.

JT: Do you study tape a lot or focus on who’s the competition out there?

AC: I have done that before, but I usually just like to train and try to improve in every aspect, for myself. Work on my wrestling, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu. Sometimes I look at my opponent and know what he’s done, but really not. Because a lot of time I’d be training for one person, then at the last minute something happens and [I end up fighting] someone else. I think that can affect you.

JT: What’s the toughest part about fighting? The training? The mental? Rules differences?

AC: Probably the weight. Fighting at 135, you gotta diet a little bit. I love getting in the cage. I’ve never been nervous really. I’ve always risen to the occasion. I’ve always said the more people there are in the seats, the more people there are for me to entertain.

JT: As a fan, who are some of your favorite fighters and / or matches?

AC: My all-time favorite fighter is Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. That guy has more heart than he knows what to do with. He’s an animal. Somebody that big and that good at Jiu-Jitsu, is amazing. I’m really looking forward to his fight coming up [against Frank Mir]. There’s another fight, with Don Frye and [Yoshihiro Takayama], it’s like a hockey fight. It’s not real technical, but it’s really entertaining.

Another one of my favorite fights is Luiz Azeredo vs. Buscape [Luiz Firmino]. I think it was one of the first Bushidos, or it was Azeredo’s debut in PRIDE. The Jiu-jitsu in that fight was unbelievable. In Japan, they’ve always had that appreciation for the ground game, the chess battles and stuff. And that’s where it’s starting to go a lot more in the United States.

JT: Tell us about your sponsors.

AC: My biggest sponsor is Hamilton Auto Group. They’re great. They put me on a two-year deal. I got a 2007 Super Crew Cab. They pay my insurance, my payments, they registered it and everything . . . They even took it to Sign Design, out of Lubbock, and put a huge wrap on it, so I got pictures of me all over the truck and different cage designs and stuff, and it says “King of the Cage Champion” on it and everything. I got pictures of it up on my MySpace page. It’s pretty cool.

Also, Family Vision Care Clinic. The doctors that own it, they’re real supportive. They’ve helped me out a lot, because they’ve given me the time off to do whatever I needed, if it was training time or seminars or whatever. They’re great with my schedule. That’s here in Tucumcari as well.

JT: What is your best / worst memory in your MMA career?

AC: Best memory would be winning the King of the Cage title. Worst memory at this point . . . it’s hard to pinpoint, because a lot of people would say maybe one of their losses. But my first loss, to Rick Montano, that was a learning experience and that definitely helped me out in my career, so its kinda hard to say that. . . geez. . .

JT: What is your downtime like? What do you do for fun / away from training?

AC: Family time is always fun. We always make time to be together. After training, we get out of here about 8:30 or so. We like to go to my Grandma’s house, just relax, and watch TV. Another hobby we share is that we all like to work on vehicles. And I personally love to fish. That’s one of my favorite pastimes. If I can make time for that, that’s definitely something I enjoy doing. I want to get a boat here pretty soon, but I’m still waiting on that one.

JT: What are your goals, within and away from fighting?

AC: I’d like to continue fighting as long as I can. I love to train people. Like I said earlier about the guy that lost 30 pounds. That’s a really something . It’s great to watch, and then to see him compete. He took gold in a grappling tournament in Rio Rancho the day after my fight with Wilson. And then two more of my students competed at that show. One of them took gold, one of them took silver. That was a huge show. A lot of big names in grappling were there and it was a great feeling.

JT: I noticed on your MySpace page that you’re a fan of Nicholas Sparks novels. Which was the best novel to be adapted to film?

AC: Yeah, that catches a lot of people by surprise. A lot of people that I grew up with in school, they thought I was too nice to be a fighter. Different values and morals and stuff.

“A Walk to Remember” is my favorite. It’s just a great story and it was the first novel of his that I read. From there, I’ve been hooked. He’s a really good writer and I suppose that one sticks in my mind the most because, like I said, it was my first time reading one of his novels.

JT: Does it help with dating to be into Nicholas Sparks books?

AC: Nah actually I think that’s another reason why I’m a decent fighter. I’m single. With all the training I do, a lot of my time is taken up. I don’t need an extra distraction. A lot of the guys training, they have that distraction, and it’s like “ah man, why do you put up with that?” It’s easier for me to just stay in line.

JT: Who would you like to fight in the future? What would be the pinnacle fight for your career?

AC: There’s actually two of them. The first would be Charlie Valencia, because that’s who I saw holding the King of the Cage title back when I first started watching this and really wanted to pursue a career in it. That would be amazing. Of course, the all-time top would be Miguel Torres. At this point, anyway.

JT: Last question: what else should people know about Abel Cullum?

AC: A lot of people portray the fighter as fight hard and party hard type mentality, and that’s definitely not me. I’m trying to sway that perception there, and try to be a better role model. Because a lot of these fighters want to make a career out of it and I think if you’re gonna be training and working with people. . . Kids are really into this sport and they look up to a lot of these fighters and if they’re doing shady stuff outside of the cage, even inside the cage, it’s not really good for the sport.

I think a lot of people think sex sells, and I just like to shy away from that. I try to represent a cleaner fighter. I don’t have any tattoos; I don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t do drugs. I abstain from sex. I’m just trying to do it the best that I know I can do it.

Abel Cullum defends his King of the Cage Flyweight championship against Ryan Diaz on December 6th at Isleta Casino & Resort in Albuquerque, NM.

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