World-class grappler Kody Steele believes in letting his actions speak for themselves. A black belt competitor under Brazilian Fight Factory’s Rodrigo Cabral, Steele made a statement loud and clear back in November by finishing opponent Keith Ford – a professional football player with a fifteen-pound weight advantage on Steele – with a brutal thirteen-second KO victory during round one. Steele may be best known for his jiu-jitsu prowess, but as an amateur fighter, he’s made it plain that he also loves to talk with his fists.
So how’s he feeling about taking those fists to the pro leagues this coming Sunday?
“I’m feeling really calm and collected,” Steele tells The Jiu-Jitsu Times. “Honestly, I’m just ready to compete – I haven’t competed in a little bit, so I’m just ready to pull the trigger and go.”
While he doesn’t make a habit of studying his jiu-jitsu opponents – at this point in his career, he knows all their games well enough that he doesn’t find it necessary to do much extra homework – he does study his MMA opponents. Of his Sunday fight against Jessee Gengler at Fury FC 56, Steele expects a good scrap. “[Gengler] comes forward, and he throws a lot of hands,” says Steele. “He’s not scared to exchange in his fights. In the second round, even if he’s tired, he’ll still be throwing hands, coming forward, throwing kicks, then going straight to grappling if [opponents] get too close.”
Steele’s game plan is simple: “I’m not going to think about it too much. I’m just going to get it in there and treat it like a fight – like if I saw this guy in the street and had to fight him, that’s how it’s going to be.” He adds, “I want it to go to the second round. I want to show people some new skills that I’ve been working on – slash skills that I do already have. I want to take him down and display the dominance I have down there – like, show that my grappling’s even better than my striking is. And then I want to end the round by sleeping him.”
Does anything about Gengler worry Steele? “I know he’s a scrapper, and he’s a southpaw,” says Steele. “Southpaws are a little trickier because I don’t have that many reps with them. I know that once we’re fighting, everything’s just going to slow down for me. I did a striking tournament where I fought a southpaw in the semifinals – and the only reason he gave me so many problems was that he was a southpaw, so he rocked me a lot.” Steele smiles. It’s a knowing look. “But I remember, I learned a lot from that fight.”
Part of his upcoming fight against Gengler, in Steele’s view, is the chance to show off some skills he didn’t get to display during his last trip to the cage – thanks to knocking his opponent out so early. “At my last fight, there was some stuff I wanted to show, some combos and setups, but I really only got to get through one of them.” He laughs. “I was like, ‘damn!’”
Did his last opponent’s comparatively imposing size faze him at all? “[Ford] was the guy who’d held the belt at 185, and had come down to 170,” says Steele. Steele remembers Ford missing weight before their fight several times by a significant margin. “Whatever, dude,” said Steele, unbothered. At that point, Steele just wanted to fight – fifteen-pound weight disadvantage or no.
“He was really big and explosive and powerful,” Steele acknowledges with a shrug. “I knew he could clip me and knock me out if he hit me, but if I don’t feel any danger, I don’t really get nervous.” Weight disadvantage aside, Steele got into the cage with Ford having studied his weaknesses carefully: “I’d seen him knock guys out, and I knew he had strong hands, but I read his game, and I saw stuff in his game that I could exploit, where I was like, ‘if he does that, I’m gonna slip him, and I’m gonna hit him.’ I noticed he was heavy on his lead leg, so I knew to chop that leg down. I noticed that when he switched stances, he wasn’t really comfortable there, but would still try to throw, so I was like, ‘if he switches stances, I’m gonna kick him in the face.’ I already knew everything he was probably gonna do.”
The payoff – just as Steele intended – spoke for itself.
Quiet and mild-mannered, Steele isn’t one to gas himself up. “For me as a person, I’m quiet, I won’t say too much, I just let my hard work speak for itself,” he says. “I love it when I just do my own thing, and other people talk me up. When I see MMA fighters talking ****, I’m like, ‘Man, why are you even doing that? You’re not getting paid to do that.’ I think maybe one day, once I make a name for myself, if I need fights, maybe that’s when I’ll open my mouth, but until then, I’m just going to keep working hard and doing my thing.”
His cool head – combined with a steady work ethic – helps him avoid pre-fight jitters. Even at his amateur debut in MMA, Steele remained calm. “I really wasn’t nervous at all,” he remembers. “People kept telling me, ‘When you walk into the cage, and you hear them locking that door behind you, it gets real.’ Honestly, I don’t even remember them locking it. I was just confident and ready to go because I train year-round, and I train a lot, so it was like, ‘Well, if [my opponent] beats me, it just means he outworked me.’ For the past three years, I’ve really been focused on outworking everyone. I don’t think too much when I compete – I just turn my brain off, and let my body go and react and do what I’ve been doing.”
While Steele’s transition from pure sport jiu-jitsu to MMA has been largely successful – he’s riding two amateur victories by knockout to his first professional fight – he’s wary of letting early triumphs go to his head and cautious of taking on too much too quickly. “MMA is like a jealous girlfriend,” he says, grinning wryly. “You can’t give jiu-jitsu too much attention, you can’t give boxing too much attention, you’ve got to be all in on MMA – and if you’re not gonna be all in on MMA, you’ve got to get out, because it’s a really fast sport, and it can be pretty dangerous.”
He’s also trying to avoid running into the same fate he dealt out to Ford in November: “I’m focused on MMA because I don’t want to go out into the cage, and have someone sleep me,” he says, laughing. “I don’t want that to happen.”
Steele was also a wrestler before he was a jiu-jitsu player, and credits that transition with helping him develop an understanding of what techniques do and don’t translate across different combat sports. “As we can see, even when MMA fighters go against boxers, it doesn’t always translate well, because you do a lot of things [in boxing] that you don’t normally do [in MMA],” he points out. “I only wrestled for two years in middle school and two years in high school, but I got the basics down, and I understood those basics. When I took that to jiu-jitsu, I had to learn what to add and what to take away from the wrestling – and I had to learn what worked for me in jiu-jitsu because I was getting guillotined.”
Steele likes to mix things up. “If you have some threats on your feet, and you can set your shots up well, you can take down a D1 wrestler,” he observes. “You see it all the time. I think with MMA, it’s just a different sport, so I have to approach it as its own thing, and use the tools that I have from striking, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu. What I’ve learned is that you use jiu-jitsu in MMA, obviously, but you don’t want to be on your back, really – you don’t want to play off your back. So you have to take away a lot of [jiu-jitsu tools] and add other things.”
It’s not a huge loss for Steele, who doesn’t consider himself much of a guard specialist in jiu-jitsu, to begin with. “I’ve been working on my guard, and my guard is okay,” he says. “Against most people, I have a good guard, I can pull off leglocks and things like that, but for the most part, I’m fighting on stuff like Who’s Number One, where I’m always up against really high-level people, so compared to that?” He makes a wavering hand gesture, pulling a face. “My guard is ‘eh,’ against those opponents. But my wrestling and my top pressure, and the pace I push, that’s high-level. So I have to stick to my guns when I do stuff like that.”
After all, even within sport jiu-jitsu itself, Steele’s savvy to how competitors adapt their styles for different rulesets – preparing for an ADCC run looks different, for example, from winning a traditional IBJJF points-based tournament. Steele personally favors the ADCC ruleset. “It fits well with my style,” says Steele. “I can still get subs, I can still work on my wrestling. Besides that one, I’d say Who’s Number One, because that’s also submission-only, but it’s a different type of submission-only. It’s kind of like a fight – where it’s about who’s controlling the match, who’s passing. They’re looking at all aspects of the match, not just certain little things. So those two are definitely my favorites.”
Steele loves to grapple, but he’s also always been a striker at heart. “Every jiu-jitsu guy who comes out of our community and takes it to the big professional leagues – you know they’re going in there to hunt for submissions,” Steele points out. “Like Buchecha, he went in there, he did that gnarly blast double leg and then choked the guy. Which, heck yeah, that was awesome! But that was also what everyone expected. I wanted to see what his striking looked like. I wanted to see how powerful his hands were.” Steele hopes to deviate from the typical jiu-jitsu to MMA formula: “With all these jiu-jitsu guys coming up in MMA, you’ve got to find a way to separate yourself, and I feel like a good way to separate myself as a jiu-jitsu guy is being able to sleep somebody cold – be violent in there.”
Even prior to his entry into MMA, Steele was never the sort of sport jiu-jitsu competitor who was afraid of throwing hands. The 2019 EBI Combat Jiu-Jitsu Tournament – where he took first place – proved an ideal ruleset for Steele, who relished the opportunity to mix some striking into a grappling match. “When I first found out about combat jiu-jitsu, I was like, ‘This is perfect for me,’” Steele remembers. “If I do well, and I enjoy this, it’ll be a nice transition for me to go to MMA.”
His success in the combat jiu-jitsu format gave Steele the confidence he needed for the cage. “I did that tournament as a brown belt, and I remember it was loaded with a bunch of black belts,” he recalls. “I was sitting with my professor in the back of the warmup room, and we were just chilling, and all these guys were going for inverted de la Rivas and ‘bolos, and I remember thinking, ‘These guys are crazy. If they do that to me, I’m just going to slap them.’” True to his word, Steele remembers that once he hit the mat, he “didn’t even do much jiu-jitsu – I was just trying to whale on people.”
When it comes to MMA, Steele wants to stay versatile: “I wanted to [KO my last opponent] just to get the experience, and show that I can do it, but at the same time, I’m not moving away from what’s going to take me far, which is my jiu-jitsu and wrestling. When the time is right, that’s when I’ll use it, and that’s when I’ll be able to break out my heel hooks and guillotines and back takes and things like that.”
Regarding his last KO victory against Ford, Steele’s plan was always to knock his opponent out – though, by Steele’s own slightly sheepish admission, he didn’t expect to end things quite so quickly. “I was gonna drag him out through all five rounds,” says Steele, who wanted to build more experience in the cage and test his cardio, “but then I threw that first combo on him, and was like, ‘Huh, that’s it! All right, cool.’”
For such a quiet fighter, Steele has a lot of love for a good, noisy crowd. “When I was first starting out [in jiu-jitsu], I’d get a little nervous before my matches, but then I’d show up and see all these people, and be like, ‘oh wow, this is gonna be so much fun!’” Instead of shying away from spectators – a common deer-in-headlights response from rookie competitors – Steele thrives on their energy. “When covid happened, we’d be fighting, and there was no one there, only cameras, and I was like, ‘This sucks,’” he remembers. “It’s hard to get that momentum going like when people start yelling and cheering, I can get into the zone and get lost in it.” Without a crowd behind him, Steele still knows how to “do what I need to do” – he’s a professional, after all – but he’s not a fan of the silence.
This isn’t to say that Steele is overly impatient for the spotlight either. “Right now, I’m just working my way through the rankings,” he says. He’s willing to bide his time, and he’d rather wait to face a big-name opponent at a major promotion once he’s seasoned and savvy than waste it on inexperience or an overhasty shot at glory. “I feel like if I rush the moment, that’s when I’m gonna find myself in trouble. In the future, I definitely want to fight top-level guys, but the time’s gotta be right.”
Aware that his grappling resume lends him a name recognition advantage when it comes to matchmaking, Steele adds, “I don’t want to use my name to skip the line, and just fight for these really cool promotions. Most fighters go through the regional scene, they make their own name, they get experience, and then they go to the big promotions. I want to work my way through just like everyone else does it – I want to get that experience.” Steele doesn’t want to leave any doubt that he’s truly earned his spot in the MMA pecking order.
His patient, future-oriented attitude is also reflective of a strategic mindset when it comes to fighting itself. “I feel like I’ve always been pretty explosive and athletic,” says Steele, who grew up playing baseball and football, and enjoys a natural sense of athleticism and ease in his own body. “But I’ve also been on the other side, and I’ve seen guys who are athletic and explosive who, one, don’t work hard, or two, cut corners because they’re so explosive and they can just depend on that natural athleticism. So I act like I don’t have [my athleticism] – I work like I don’t have it. And I study, and I train, and I drill to make my technique as perfect as I can so that if I need my athleticism, it’ll come out naturally, so I’m not just relying on that. Like if I can be smarter in the cage, and also use my athleticism, have good fight IQ, and make sure my technique is as crisp as I can make it, then hopefully that’ll take me pretty far.”
Steele’s own transition into MMA has been a long time coming. “I’ve always wanted to do MMA,” says Steele. “If it were up to me, I would have started doing MMA as a white belt, but my professor was like, ‘no no no’ – he made me wait until I was at least a purple belt to even start thinking about it.”
For Steele, though, jiu-jitsu was always part of a long game to get into the cage. When asked why he – as an aspiring MMA fighter who loves to hit people – gravitated toward the grappling styles first and foremost, Steele cites competition opportunities. “When I first started jiu-jitsu, there was jiu-jitsu, and there was striking, and I did a bit of both,” he says. “What really got me to focus on jiu-jitsu was that there were competitions every weekend. I remember when I was doing more of the striking stuff, I’d be like, ‘Are there any tournaments?’ and there might be a smoker here or there, but I couldn’t compete all the time the way I could in jiu-jitsu. So that was the deciding factor for me: there just wasn’t enough competition in striking for me to grow in.”
Steele’s family has always supported his ambitions – but it’s important to Steele’s mother that her son devote the necessary work ethic to pursue his dreams. “It was a weird time for me – I had to do jiu-jitsu every day while all my friends went to college,” Steele remembers. “My mom always supported me, but the way she explained it to me was that if my goal is up here –” Steele gestures with a hand at eye level, “– then you can’t take any sideways pitstops. You can’t party all the time. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. So I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of things, so I could see that goal, and run toward that goal. Especially since I didn’t go to school, I knew I had to really focus. I got a lot of lip from people who didn’t know me, but that’s just society.”
Family support aside, Steele also enjoys a strong friendship with his teammates at Brazilian Fight Factory. It’s not all work and no play over at their gym either – they may be elite jiu-jitsu players, that doesn’t mean they’re above goofing off from time to time. Steele’s current dye job, for example, came courtesy of teammates William and Andrew Tackett’s mother, a trained hairstylist – and quickly escalated into a spontaneous team bonding experience. “I’d never dyed my hair or anything like that before,” recounts Steele, grinning. “We were gonna go do the [ADCC] trials, and then I had an MMA fight literally a week after trials, so I was like, ‘This is such a big event, I want to bleach my hair.’ I didn’t tell anyone I was going to dye my hair – I only told William about it, and he didn’t want to do it, so I was like, ‘Cool, whatever.’ So I texted his mom like, ‘Hey, I think I’m gonna dye my hair,’ and she was like, ‘All right, come on over.’”
Steele’s roommate, upon discovering his plans, quickly hopped on the same bandwagon, tagging along for an identical dye job. Andrew Tackett, witnessing this, decided to dye his hair as well. Even their professor followed suit. “Cool, even better, we’re doing it as a team,” said Steele, laughing.
Soon, the only odd man out was William Tackett – who proceeded to face relentless ribbing from both his teammates and his mother. “Dude, you’re going to look really weird if you don’t dye your hair at this point,” Steele told him. The elder Tackett brother finally caved, though Steele notes that William has since cut it off, while Steele still proudly sports his own bleached ‘do. “I’m a fan of it now,” says Steele playfully, tilting his head to show it off.
Is there any pressure from Steele’s jiu-jitsu professor or teammates to showcase more of his grappling game in the cage? According to Steele, not really. “[Professor Cabral] just wants me to do what I do. We prep, we talk, we game plan, we try to figure stuff out, but he wants me to win with whatever tools I have – so if I tell him I feel comfortable striking with a guy, and that I’m gonna knock the guy out, he trusts me.”
That said, Steele has learned some valuable lessons for the cage from his long career on the mats. “I feel like I’ve competed on all the biggest shows,” says Steele. “Like I’ve faced the lights and the cameras and the crowds, and I’ve been able to adapt and get comfortable out there. I’ve been able to lose under the lights, and feel comfortable losing, and I also know what it’s like to win, and put pressure on people out there.”
Facing highly talented – and extremely aggressive – opponents in jiu-jitsu has also sharpened Steele’s fighting instincts. He expresses particular admiration for Who’s Number One opponent and Atos representative Tye Ruotolo, who defeated Steele via heel hook after a grueling scrap of nearly fourteen minutes in December 2020. “I learned so much from that match,” said Steele. “Honestly, that’s what flipped my jiu-jitsu switch to being even better. The things that [Ruotolo] did to me, and the type of pressure he put on – I thought my game was a certain way, but the way he did it to me, he kind of showed me, ‘No, this is how you do it.’ I just learned so much from that match, and honestly, that match has been able to carry me through fighting.” He adds, with a shrug, “I’ve won in the big lights, and I’ve lost in the big lights, and I’m used to it now, honestly. I can shake off a loss and keep going forward. I do this for myself and my gym. Anyone on the outside doesn’t really bother me.”
Ruotolo and his brother Kade are also the first names that Steele suggests when asked who – among the current generation of competitive jiu-jitsu phenoms – would fare well in MMA. “Fighting is fighting,” says Steele. “You have to be technical, you have to be strong, but you also have to be mentally tough – it’s a very mean and grueling sport.” The Ruotolo twins, Steele believes, already display a mentality and style of jiu-jitsu that would translate well to the cage: “They’re so young, and they’re so good at jiu-jitsu, and if they want to do it – if they want to start playing around with striking – they’ll just start doing it. They’re so in tune with their bodies that they’ll pick it up without a problem. One good detail to see in a jiu-jitsu fighter who’s thinking of going to MMA is whether they have the aggression for it –which is why wrestlers do so well. But jiu-jitsu guys who stick out to me are guys [like the Ruotolo brothers] who have that same aggression.”
Have we seen the last of Steele on the competition mats now that he’s focusing on the cage? Not quite. “I’m trying to make MMA my main income source right now,” says Steele, “but I’m still going to do jiu-jitsu. But in jiu-jitsu, I’m only going to do ADCC stuff and Who’s Number One super fights.”
As a seasoned professional grappler about to make his professional MMA debut, Steele’s also well aware of fighter compensation issues in both sports. “I think that [MMA fighters] should obviously be getting paid more than they do; it’s such a brutal sport,” he says. “I also feel like I’m on two sides of it – regardless, everyone should be getting paid more, it’s crazy – but I think it’s a platform that athletes need to tap into. You’ve got to finish people. You’ve got to have something going for you that makes people want to watch you. Take Sean O’Malley for example – he might not fight the highest-level guys, but he’s finishing people, and he’s knocking people out. He has that ‘it,’ whatever that it factor is.”
Steele also touts the importance of brand building and basic social media savvy for fighters: “I feel like at this point, you have to use social media – I see a lot of guys in the UFC, or the fight game in general, who don’t know how to use social media very well. You have to be able to sell yourself. The UFC’s such a big platform, and there are so many fighters – I know guys who have made it there who barely have any followers.”
Ultimately, Steele believes in becoming the sort of athlete worth talking about by virtue of his performance in the cage and on the mats. “You’ve gotta stick out somehow,” he says. He doesn’t look kindly on athletes who “whine and *****” about not getting enough media attention. “Their job is not to post about you,” says Steele. The way he sees it, media attention is something athletes need to earn – which means leaving an impression when they compete.
Win or lose, Steele knows exactly what kind of impression he wants to leave – and it’s not that of a boring fighter. “People are excited to watch my jiu-jitsu matches because they know that win or lose, I’m going to do something crazy,” says Steele. “I’m gonna do a backflip, or pull my opponent into some crazy scraps where we’re both dying, you know?” He wants to take that same energy to his professional fighting career. “With MMA, I feel like I could bring some things to the table by getting [more of] those vicious knockouts – and I also know I’m gonna be able to get submissions in these fights. Maybe it’ll be a bit of a Donald Cerrone approach, where everyone’s gonna want to tune in to watch, no matter what, you know? Win or lose, I just want to be watched – and to be entertaining.”
Steele certainly knows he has the tools to make it happen: “If we’re on the feet, I’ll do what needs to be done there. If it goes to the ground, I’m comfortable there – with submissions, and with getting back to my feet if I have to. At a high level, I think you also need a good gas tank, and I’ve got the gas tank to push the pace on these guys.” He sets high standards for himself. “I want to be able to do everything. I want to have good fight IQ in the cage, and I want to be able to change up how I fight between rounds, just to adapt and look better every fight.”
Given his resume so far, we’re likely to see Steele’s signature combination of coolheaded strategic know-how and aggressive showmanship on display in full force this weekend.
Tune into Kody Steele’s professional MMA debut this Sunday, February 6 at Fury FC 56, through UFC Fight Pass.
For more news on his upcoming fights and grappling matches, follow him on Instagram.