Derek Medler is making the most of a second chance. As an athlete and a man.
A former all-star running back at Wilfrid Laurier University, Medler’s life spiralled out of control due to drugs and falling in with the wrong crowd.
Fast forward seven years and Medler is an unbeaten MMA fighter, who gets a main event showcase Saturday when he takes on Brian Grimshaw at “AFC 7: Break Out” at Victoria’s Bear Mountain Arena.
Medler, 30, teaches and trains at AFC co-owner Jason Heit’s Island MMA Training Center. He has a part-time job at an electronic store.
He almost ended up down a far bleaker road.
In 2004, Medler pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to attempted murder in connection with the shooting of a man at a Kitchener home on Nov. 23, 2003.
Medler’s university career ended some two weeks after the crime, following announcement of a positive test for cocaine.
He was coming off a CIS season that saw him rush for 1,420 yards, second only to future CFLer and Olympic bobsledder Jesse Lumsden of McMaster.
Medler says his slippery slope started before he went to university.
“I started hanging out with the wrong crew of guys, just thought I was more of a bad-ass than I really was,” he explained. “I wanted to have this reputation.”
Court heard Medler’s cocaine addiction led him to bad people and bad places. He ended up owing $17,000 to drug dealers who were involved in a brutal home invasion.
Medler was not present but, in the aftermath, provided shelter to those who were.
Outside court, his lawyer Brian Greenspan called it “a one-time event in his life.”
“Hopefully, he will be able to redeem himself,” he added.
The road to redemption included a month in jail and two years house arrest at his parents’ home. Medler had permission to leave to go to work — a miserable job involving stone for home-building — “and that was it.”
After the sentence was served, he was invited by Mike (Pinball) Clemons to try out with the Toronto Argonauts — only to tear his hamstring at the end of camp. They told him to get better and come back but he was no longer interested.
His best friend was living in Victoria so Medler headed west.
He had joined a boxing gym as a teenager in Kitchener but had never competed in combat sports.
At least formally.
“To be honest — not that it’s a good thing — I kind of fought all my life. … I was never going to back down from a fight.”
A longtime fan of the UFC, he started training in MMA after the move to Victoria. Within a year, he had hooked up with Heit. Soon Medler was involved in Toughman and grappling competitions — “everything I could get into.”
Medler says he has never been short of focus as an athlete. He just lost the plot for a while.
“I was a dedicated athlete playing football and then I went to university and I went through about probably a three-year window there of just hard times. And got into a lot of trouble, met some wrong guys, got influenced by them.”
Medler (6-0) has been a constant for the Victoria-based Armageddon Fighting Championship, fighting on every single card and working his way up the pecking order.
Medler’s fighting nickname is Mad Dog, but he admits to feeling anything but rabid going into his pro debut against Brandon MacArthur at AFC 1 in August 2009.
“Scared, nervous, anxious. Wanted to get it over with. Didn’t want to do it all,” he said with a laugh. “You go through the whole gamut of emotions. And then finally you just run out there and get it over with. Hopefully you can perform at your best.”
Medler won by first-round TKO. He has proved to be a finisher, never needing to go into the third round.
The five-foot-nine Medler weighed 205 during his football days. These days, he walks around at about 200– cutting 30 pounds to fight as a welterweight.
He says football has nothing on the stress of MMA. On the football field, there are plenty of teammates to take up the slack and there’s time to take breaks.
In contrast, fighters spend two months training for 15 minutes. And there’s no place to hide in a cage.
Away from the gym, he watches who he spends time with, saying he’ll have a drink or two with friends — but not that often.
“I’m very aware of who’s around me, my surroundings. I don’t let people into my life that I know are going to corrupt my life or attempt to corrupt my life.”
The gym is a sanctuary, even if most there know his background.
“They might not say it but I think pretty much everybody does (now),” he said.
He has no problems discussing his past, calling it a form of therapy.
“I don’t mind talking about it at all — especially if somebody can learn from it,” he said. “It can happen to a younger kid. because you’re impressionable, you want to make money, you want to be cool, you want to be this and you want to be that.
“So you’re willing to do stupid things to achieve that. It can happen to anybody.”
He says he should tell his story more often.
“But I’m not the kind of guy that likes to preach at kids. I like to teach by my actions.”
While he knows how hard it is to survive off fighting, he hopes to “do well enough to make a living, a decent living. Maybe retire, open a gym or something like that.
“That’s the dream, right?”
“Who knew, eh?” he adds with a laugh. “It’s weird how life works out.”
Medler says he’s in a good place.
“Everything in life’s a learning lesson, right? You just have to make the best of it. You can’t get too down on yourself and say ‘Oh, my life’s over and this and that.’ You just have to roll with the punches and just try to use things positively. . . .
“I learned a huge lesson, so I’m glad it happened,” he adds.
He credits his parents for standing by him during the dark days.
“Without them I don’t know where I would be at right now.”
He says they are happy he is happy, although they’re not enamoured with their son the fighter.
“My mum always says ‘Can’t you take up golf?,” he says happily.
Victoria amateur MMA fighter looks to gym to spare pain of father’s loss
On the surface, fighting someone in a cage hardly seems like anger management. But mixed martial arts is helping Victoria’s Sanjeev Sharma as he works his way through tragedy.
The 23-year-old UVic student, an amateur welterweight who takes on Dustin Porter at "AFC 7: Break Out" on Saturday in suburban Victoria, and his family have been trying to deal with the loss of his father.
Ramesh Sharma was chatting and playing cards with a group of fellow cab drivers at a picnic table outside Victoria International Airport on July 29 when an out-of-control car plowed into them.
Sharma, 57, died later that day. Seven others, including the 82-year-old female driver, were injured.
Sanjeev says his MMA training has helped him deal with the sharp emotions of such an unexpected loss. The gym has become his sanctuary.
"MMA’s a place where I can get my mind off things," he said in an interview. "If I’m kind of stressed out one day, that’s a place where I can go and put that energy in a positive way.
"This way if I ever don’t want to think about things, then when I’m in the gym all I’m doing is thinking about training — nothing else matters when I’m in the ring."
The book is not closed on the circumstances surrounding his father’s death. Sharma says the police have yet to pass on the results of their investigation to the Crown.
"Which makes it a little bit more difficult to get some closure on the situation," said Sharma, speaking for his mother and two sisters. "We kind of want to get past it and move on, which is going to be hard. But with this still lingering, it’s hard to do that."
Sharma (3-0 with one no contest) has been training MMA for some five years. Previously he played everything from basketball and soccer to rugby and volleyball.
He got into MMA pretty much by accident, looking for a way to keep active after high school. He was 18 when he chose the Island MMA Training Centre mainly because it was close to home.
"One thing led to another," he said. "After I joined, I kind of figured out what MMA was.
"And I just loved it. I haven’t looked back since."
Sharma turned out to be one of Island MMA co-owner Jason Heit’s first students.
"I’m never really sure what people’s motives are when they train, when they come in to learn martial arts," said Heit, a fighter himself who is also part-owner of AFC. "Some do it for the right reasons, some do it for the wrong reasons. He came in to do it for the right reasons, found a good focus and a good discipline there.
"I think we cut about 40 pounds off of him in like four or five months, got him in real good shape and he’s been going at it ever since."
He did a couple of kick-boxing bouts before making his MMA debut some three years ago.
"I was really nervous the first time but the adrenaline came up and next thing I knew it was over and I had won," Sharma said.
These days, the six-foot-one Sharma cuts about 30 pounds when he fights. Heit calls him a lanky, rangy fighter with good striking.
Their sport has helped Sharma deal with anger, he adds.
"And he has every right to be angry and every right to be upset. And he’s controlling it very well. But what better outlet than to deal with that in the gym?"
Sharma says his father was initially nervous that he had taken up MMA. But he got to trust his son’s trainers, learning they had Sanjeev’s best interests at heart, and understood it was a sport.
"Eventually he was all right with it," Sharma said. "He just didn’t want it to get in the way of my studies and my life and everything I was trying to do. But he realized after a while that I was really focused and he was OK with it."
Sharma needs to be focused given his schedule. He’s close to finishing his economics degree at the University of Victoria — arriving at school sometimes with stitches or a black eye — and drives his father’s cab some 40 hours a week. Plus he trains twice a day.
He plans to keep training and fighting.
"I enjoy it. It’s not stopping me from doing anything and I’ll keep doing it all I can," he said.
When Sharma graduates next spring, he expects to fight professionally and "see what happens there."
It’s his debut with Armageddon Fighting Championship, although he has worked backstage at the six previous fight cards.
Ramesh Sharma came to every one of his son’s fight, including one less than two weeks before he died. Saturday’s will be the first without him.
The card at Bear Mountain Arena features former Toronto Argonaut Derek Medler (6-0) against Brian Grimshaw (6-1) in an all-B.C. main event.