Aaron “The A Train” Simpson will feel like he’s back on the Arizona State University wrestling squad when he goes up against Mark Munoz (8-2) at UFC 123, because aside from being an All-American at Oklahoma State, there’s not much else Simpson can use to get angry at his next opponent
“He’s an all around great guy and a great friend of mine,” Simpson says of Munoz. “But ASU and Oklahoma aren’t the best of friends on the mat, so I’ll use that to stay motivated.”
Simpson (7-1), suffered his first professional loss against Chris “The Crippler” Leben on Spike TV during the TUF 11 finale, and although he believes the loss set him back three or four fights before getting a title shot, he says he took away more than he lost.
“I learned not to be so aggressive, to be more patient in there,” he said. “Leben even said it during his post-fight interview that I rushed out there and came out too strong. I’m not going to change too much of what I do, but it was a real good learning experience for me.”
Simpson, who left Arizona Combat Sports along with his teammates Ryan Bader and CB Dollaway just before Summer, said between training and working to open a new facility that he took on too much before the Leben fight, and wasn’t focused on the right things.
“Even with the kids now my wife takes over so I don’t have too many distractions before a fight,” he said.
Simpson has 3 children, Claire, who is just out of high school, and twin toddlers Domenico and Mia.
The 36 year old has been wrestling for as long has he can remember, and says that when he was growing up and all through college, when 3:30 in the afternoon came around, it was time for practice. These days, things haven’t changed much for the former 2-time All American at ASU and four time Arizona State high school wrestling champion.
“My philosophy towards fighting hasn’t changed since wrestling, and that is to stay active and train hard,” he says.
With Munoz, Simpson has a lot of things to work on that will keep him busy in training. Munoz is a good wrestler, so good that Anderson Silva brought him in to train against Chael Sonnen. He’s also very good at Muay Thai, and has knockout power in both hands.
“Mark throws heavy punches and he’s very athletic so going out there and being able to move and being able to catch him is going to be a task,” says Simpson. He’s one of those tough durable fighters, as you saw in his fight against “Da Spyder” (Kendall Grove). He weathers the storm and just comes back. That’s who he is,” he said.
Simpson and Munoz go back to their college days, and Simpson says there’s a mutual respect between the two.
“He’s a great person and a great father, and there are not many guys in MMA whom I respect like that. I try to go in every fight with a chip on my shoulder and angry, but this time we’ll just be two competitors fighting a very technical and athletic fight, with each of us looking to get our hand raised,” he said.
And while Detroit will be chilly on November 20th, for Simpson, fighting in Auburn Hills will be somewhat of a homecoming.
“My wife is from just 30 miles away from Auburn Hills,” he said. “My brother-in-law is a wrestling coach near there and the guys are excited, and I’ve been to several wrestling matches in the arena, so for me it’s like home field advantage,” he said.
Simpson was 33 years old when he took his first professional MMA fight. After nine years as the Arizona State University assistant wrestling coach, having mentored guys like current UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez, light heavyweight Bader and middleweight Dollaway, he focused his competitive juices on the burgeoning sport.
“It’s an exciting time to be fighting in the UFC that’s for sure,” says Simpson. “It’s expanding globally, the sport is growing, the sponsorships are getting bigger but I’m not just happy to be here; I want to bring home that belt. I want the title holder, whether it’s Anderson Silva or anyone else who comes along,” he said.
Like Randy Couture, Simpson was left craving more after failing to make the Olympic wrestling team.
“With wrestlers, you could be the national champion but if you don’t win Olympic gold, you still feel like a failure,” he said. “Guys like John Smith and Cael Sanderson can walk away from the sport feeling satisfied, but the rest of us have unfinished business left on the mat.”
But it is that fire that keeps him coming back for more.
Simpson, who holds a degree in journalism from Arizona State’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, says he usually walks around at 200 pounds with very little body fat and a lot of muscle, and doesn’t see himself going down a weight class anytime soon.
“I went to AKA and trained with Josh Koscheck, who is smaller than me, and he said he’s got a tough cut to make 170, so I don’t see myself going down anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean I can’t,” he said, not ruling out a drop sometime in the future.
Simpson was in the WEC before the UFC folded its middleweight division into the mother ship, and he’s got advice for the lightweights, featherweights and bantamweights who now find themselves fighting on the world’s biggest stage.
“Just embrace it, and be an exciting fighter,” he says. “The UFC likes exciting fighters.”
Take "The A Train" to UFC 123
“It’s an exciting time to be fighting in the UFC that’s for sure. It’s expanding globally, the sport is growing, the sponsorships are getting bigger but I’m not just happy to be here; I want to bring home that belt."