If you weren’t paying attention, it would have been easy to dismiss the relevance of Shawn Bunch’s return to the Bellator cage last November.
Three years had passed since Bunch’s last appearance for the promotion, a submission loss to future bantamweight champion Darrion Caldwell. To get another chance, he had to grind his way up through the minor leagues — a new experience for him given that his first six pro bouts took place inside the Bellator cage — where Bunch’s greatest obstacle was not the level of competition, but the fact that few fighters were willing to sign up for a bout with an opponent who had major league experience and a sterling Division-I wrestling career.
When the time came to reintroduce himself to the Bellator faithful, Bunch did so emphatically, needing less than two minutes to shut down former two-division champion Joe Warren.
Bunch turned 36 less than two weeks ago, and yet despite the success he’s had as a wrestler and a fighter, that win over Warren was almost like starting in MMA all over again.
“It was kind of a signature, breakout win for me, knowing what I’ve been through in my MMA career,” Bunch told MMA Fighting. “A lot of people, they wrote me off. Friends, family, telling me I need to stop and start coaching wrestling. But I knew it myself that I wasn’t done. Physically, mentally, I was still in it, and I had something I had to do and I wanted to keep continuing. It did feel good, it was perfect for me.”
Bunch has had to prove himself over and over again. First, as a wrestler at Edinboro University, the same school that produced veteran welterweight Josh Koscheck; then again in an international career that saw Bunch fall just short of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics. He entered MMA as a blue chip prospect and was thrown right into the fire, making his pro debut at Bellator 82 back in November 2012.
Bunch had a broken jaw going into that fight and while he managed to win, his condition was indicative of how something was always just a little bit off with his move to MMA. He won four of his first five fights for Bellator only to see his contract come to an end following the loss to Caldwell, a man he worked closely with during their time together on the international wrestling scene.
“It was pretty bad because it was the first time I fought someone that I actually had a personal relationship with, so the situation was a little different in the way I looked at it going into the fight,” Bunch said. “And then I end up losing that fight and the promotion decided not to continue with me working with them, it’s sort of like, ‘Man, I’ve got to f*ckin’ start all the way over. This is gonna be hard.’”
He actually lost his first fight outside of Bellator by split decision, which only gave his skeptics more reason to question why he was pursuing this new goal after having a relatively late start. But it was the influence of another “DC”, Daniel Cormier, that helped Bunch keep a steady head throughout the rocky stages of his fighting career.
Cormier has worked with Bunch at American Kickboxing Academy since Bunch transitioned from wrestling to MMA and Bunch credits him and American Top Team standout Muhammed Lawal with helping him adjust. He’s learned not to overthink things and to carry that wrestling mindset into the cage with him when he competes.
“He’s the perfect example of something that I wanted to do with my career and he helped me out tremendously throughout everything, just as a guide and everything,” Bunch said of Cormier, when asked if he hoped to follow in the UFC star’s footsteps.
Up next is a different kind of challenge for Bunch as he fights Dominic Mazzotta at Bellator 219 on Friday in Temecula, Calif. While Warren is a respected former champion who will turn 43 later this year, Mazzotta is an up-and-coming 31-year-old who has won 11 of his last 12 fights.
Bunch wants another crack at Caldwell, someone he still considers a friend even if they don’t regularly talk anymore, and the time is now for him to prove that he’s a legit contender at 135 pounds because in all likelihood, he won’t get another chance to make a first impression.
“It’s perfect, that’s the perfect opponent,” Bunch said of Mazzotta. “He’s tough, on a little winning streak, well-rounded, he’s fought some of the best guys. Good record, another person to beat on my resume that will keep on building me and getting me into that title fight.”