Evan “The Phenom” Elder has had a very good year – or more accurately, years, plural. The twenty-four-year-old’s undefeated win streak currently spans his entire seven-fight professional career, plus his most recent four amateur bouts. That streak extends from 2017 to present day, spanning half a decade in total. Not bad, especially for a guy still in the first half of his twenties.
What’s next for The Phenom? Hopefully, if the powers-that-be smile upon his next fight, the UFC.
Elder comes by the fight game honestly – his father was an early MMA aficionado in the nineties and raised his son in the sport. “I would say I’m definitely one of the people who kind of grew up in MMA,” Elder tells the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “[An MMA career] was always my goal. My dad, being a slightly knowledgable MMA fan, did have a little bit of insight into seeing that wrestling was very dominant, so he wanted me to start wrestling before I started doing MMA – which looking back on it now, was an amazing idea.”
While Elder’s father wasn’t a fighter himself, he was both a highly observant and passionate fan and instilled a genuine love of the sport in his son. Elder smiles, recalling, “We used to watch the fights together – me and him, that was always our thing. I’m sure that I started loving it probably because my dad loved it. But it’s a fortunate thing: even if I loved it because my dad loved it, I’m really grateful, because it’s made me who I am, and I found my real passion.”
Elder only wrestled for about two to three years and doesn’t consider his own wrestling pedigree particularly noteworthy. However, he’s grateful for the foundation the sport provided for fighting. “[Wrestling] was a great place to start,” says Elder, whose focus shifted exclusively to MMA after those first couple years of wrestling.
In many ways, Elder is part of the new guard of MMA fighters – athletes who came up in the sport after the 1990s era of style-versus-style and always trained MMA as a discipline in its own right, distinct from kickboxing, wrestling, or jiu-jitsu alone. “I would just say that I’m a mixed martial artist – I don’t really have any real pedigree or super-specialized background in any one specific martial art.”
“I think that – while I wouldn’t say that I gravitate towards a specialty – I really love blending it all together,” Elder elaborates. “You can’t really afford to have holes in your game, these days, or they’re going to get exploited. I think Kamaru Usman said it best – I remember hearing him say, after he beat Tyron Woodley, right after they gave him the belt, ‘I might not be the best pure kickboxer, I might not be the best pure wrestler, I might not be the best pure jiu-jitsu artist, but when it comes to putting all this s*** together, I’m the best there is.’”
Putting it together is easier said than done, perhaps – even for a fighter as formidable as Elder. “I’m definitely still working on [perfecting that blend], and always will be,” says Elder. “By no means do I think I’ve got it figured out, but I do think I’m getting better, and that’s all I can ask for: progress over perfection. I can’t really look back on a specific time and say, ‘This is when I figured it out – it’s just such a slow, gradual evolution – but I think where we run into roadblocks, for everyone, including myself, is that there aren’t a ton of true MMA coaches.” After all, most of the coaches of the current era came up in a period when MMA was still the province of style-versus-style specialists – and as Elder explains it, of that generation, the true all-rounder generalists remain the exception, rather than the rule.
“If we’re currently watching the first generation of ‘real’ MMA fighters [who grew up training as generalists instead of specialists], the first generation of ‘real’ MMA coaches will be coming along after this,” says Elder. “So you’re still learning in a segmented sense of like, ‘hey, we’re going to do striking, and then we’re going to do wrestling, and then we’re going to do jiu-jitsu’ – and it’s hard because then you have to take those, on your own, and figure it out. I think that’s where creativity comes into play because you kind of have to take it upon yourself to take it apart, and figure out where and how to blend all the arts.”
However, Elder’s hopeful for the evolution of MMA training practices as a whole: “For the most part, we don’t usually do too much MMA training, in the sense of like, using our wrestling to set up our strikes, or our strikes to set up our wrestling or using strikes during transitions in jiu-jitsu. But I think that’s becoming more and more prevalent, and more and more well-practiced. At our gym here at Sanford MMA, I think we do a pretty good job of exactly that – almost all of our training is MMA training. Of course, we still segment it, but we all have the goal in mind of MMA scenarios, and we’re all cognizant of when we could be striking, or when we could be shooting, even if we’re just doing striking or wrestling.”
Elder laughs, remembering his very first amateur MMA fight when he had to put that blend into practice under pressure. “I was terrified,” he says, completely frank. “Literally terrified. Now, I have lost, in my amateur career – but that wasn’t until my third fight. My first amateur fight, I thought I was going to be totally fine because I’d had thirteen or so kickboxing matches, a bunch of boxing, and I’d competed in jiu-jitsu tournaments, so I was like, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be like another competition.’”
As it turned out, MMA was nothing like the other competitions. “I was terrified, with the little gloves – I thought for sure I was going to get knocked out!” Elder grins, shaking his head. “So I kept trying to shoot for takedowns, and I was shooting horrible shots because I was so worried. I think he hit me one time, right off the bat – and it was a really tall dude, I think he was like six-three – and I shot from so far away, that my arms hardly got to his feet. I managed to take him down, I think because he was in such disbelief that I tried to shoot from that far out!”
In the end, it was Elder’s stubbornness that eked out the victory in that first fight. “It was all mindset,” he says. “I was just like, ‘There’s no way I’m going to lose.’” He remembers taking his opponent down during their second round, only to land directly in a triangle. “I remember I landed in this triangle, and it was deep, and I was like, ‘No way. No way am I about to lose my MMA debut.’ That was literally my first thought, and I just went ballistic, and managed to get out of it. I ended up submitting him in the third round, but it was chaos.”
Thinking back on the heady emotions of his early amateur days now, Elder has plenty to reflect on. “I don’t think those emotions – being scared and nervous – ever go away, but you get much, much better at handling them,” he says. “I think that the nerves will always be there, almost indefinitely, but you get better at not just dealing with them, but using them to your advantage – I find that when I’m super nervous, it also gets me kind of excited because that’s how I know I’m doing something meaningful. I’m nervous about it because it matters to me. So now when I get those feelings, though I’m still definitely nervous, it gives me the fuel to really push through and get the job done.”
Getting the job done is precisely what Elder’s been pulling off for the past few years, to the tune of seven professional victories and zero losses. Elder’s bloody, dominant record in the cage may speak for itself, but he’s not just interested in being a good fighter – above all else, The Phenom wants to be a good person. “Who I am is way more important than what I do,” says Elder. “Though I love [fighting] with all my heart, I truly believe that my purpose is to positively impact the world, and everybody’s lives as much as possible. It’s much more important for me to be a good person than to be a good athlete. I think that it’s similar to math – there’s an order of operations. You have to do things in a certain order, or the whole equation’s going to get messed up. I think there’s an order of operations to life too – and I think being a good person is the first step. It doesn’t matter what else you do – if you’re the best athlete in the world, or you have a million dollars – it doesn’t matter if the beginning of the equation isn’t right if you’re not taking that first step correctly.”
Conversely, however, Elder also believes that being great at those other things – whether it’s excelling at sports, earning boatloads of money, or both – can also set a good person up to do more good in the world. “If I meet the best MMA fighter of all time, and he’s kind of a d*** or something, I’d be like, ‘I don’t care that he’s the best fighter in the world, that dude’s a d***!’ But if I met him, and he was super kind and caring, I’d be like, ‘Wow, that dude’s the best fighter in the world, and he’s an awesome person? Holy crap!’ It means that much more. I don’t care about what you do, I care about who you are: what are your morals, what are your values, how do you treat people? How you do one thing is how you do everything, and how you treat anyone is how you treat everyone.”
Elder’s also aware that no fighter is a true one-man army, and stands staunchly by those who have loved and supported him throughout his growing career. Among his most stalwart friends and supporters is jiu-jitsu blue belt Nick Turnbo, who initially reached out to Elder as a fan. Turnbo, a disabled athlete who has developed a unique grappling style to accommodate strength and balance issues caused by cerebral palsy, hit it off quickly with Elder. “He started coming to my fights, so I’d see him at my fights, and then I wound up going out to eat with him, and then I wound up just hanging out with him pretty regularly,” Elder remembers. “Any time I come home, I always try to make it a priority to go see him.”
“I absolutely love Nick and his mom Patty,” says Elder. “They’re just such great people, and Nick is really, seriously an inspiration to me, and many, many others, I’m sure. He’s a phenomenal person with a heart of gold, and he’s got a work ethic that’s unlike any other.”
As a fellow martial artist whose formative years were dominated by a formidable training regimen, Elder particularly admires Turnbo’s tenacity as an athlete. “He’s truly one of a kind, an incredible person,” says Elder. “That guy right there, he’s been given every reason not to want or need to do anything in his life. He was dealt a very poor hand, and he makes the most of it. He doesn’t have any excuses. He doesn’t let anything hold him back. I’ve seen him grow and evolve as a person, and get stronger physically and mentally, even just since I’ve known him for the past several years. He truly doesn’t let anything in life hold him down, and it’s very, very admirable. He’s one of my heroes.”
Elder’s no stranger to hard work himself. “I had horrible self-confidence until pretty recently,” he admits. “So I always had self-doubt, and though my father was always really supportive, and helped a lot, none of us knew what the heck we were doing, so we were always just making it up on the fly. But one thing I can say is that I’ve never not wanted to train. I’ve had plenty of self-doubt – like wondering if I could really be the best in the world like I want to be, whether I could ever really be that good – but I’ve never, ever not wanted to go to practice. I think that’s one thing that’s always set me apart, is that I’ve tried never to allow anything to get in the way of my training.”
It’s a lifelong habit of discipline that Elder carried even in his adolescent years when skipping the gym to go party or spend more time with friends would have tempted any other teenager. “I still liked to hang out with my friends [in high school],” says Elder. “I didn’t do a lot of stuff – like I played video games all the time, and I didn’t care about school – but nothing ever got in the way of practice. That was like my religion.”
Part of that discipline also stemmed from a genuine love for training. “It never once felt like ‘oh man, I’ve got to go to practice,’” says Elder. Gym time never felt like an obligation to him. “It was my element of hope, almost,” he explains. “No matter what was going on in my life – whether I just had a horrible day at school, or family stuff was going on, or whatever – no matter what, I always had the training to look forward to. I always had this element of hope, like ‘man, I can’t wait to go to training.’ It was like this shining light for me – so I think that’s also why I never wanted to miss practice.”
Developing the right headspace is key, according to Elder. “I think I’ve always been fortunate to have a decent mentality, at least in the sense of hard work – but I think especially in the last two years, my mindset has grown exponentially because I’ve put a lot more emphasis on it,” he says. “For most of my career, my emphasis was on the physical side of it, but then I started realizing how important it is to push myself out of my comfort zone when I go to training. I’ve really been working on just callusing my mind – making my mind as tough as possible. Not necessarily just going in to focus on technique, or whatever’s going on in class, but having the intent of always pushing the pace, always being willing to work harder and make myself uncomfortable, and never being okay with stopping. Never feeling like I’m going to quit – and if I do feel like I’m going to quit, that’s good, because it means I’ve found the spot I need to work on.”
He tries, as much as possible, to train smarter, as well as harder: “I’ve been trying to take a more philosophical approach – really understand what I’m doing, instead of just this meathead fighter mentality of beating my head against the wall.”
That combination of intelligence and work ethic paid off for Elder when his undefeated professional record attracted the attention of sports agent Jason House of Iridium Sports Agency, one of the biggest MMA agencies in the business – whose talent stable includes the likes of former UFC flyweight champion Brandon Moreno. “This probably sounds really arrogant, but I’m very confident in myself and my abilities, and I think for me to make it to the UFC should be almost inevitable,” says Elder. “I’m not worried about making it to the UFC – I think as long as I continue to train the way I do, and sacrifice as much as I do, and live the life I live – eventually, the UFC is not a problem. With that being said, I really care about my relationships, and who I bring with me as we come up. I want to really grow with the right people. And after really talking to Jason and his team, it just seemed like a really good fit – and so far, so good. I’m really happy, and thrilled with the experience I’ve had so far.”
As soon as he signed with House, Elder hit the ground running. The ink on his Iridium contract was barely dry when Elder was booked to fight UFC veteran Cody Pfister on May 6. Elder considers Pfister the most formidable opponent he’s yet faced: “He’s got a good record, he’s sixteen-and-eight, he’s fought a lot of tough guys, he’s fought quite a few championship bouts. Stylistically, I think it’s a good matchup for me – obviously, he’s done well, and he’s very tough, but honestly, I’m just really excited. I think it’s going to be a tough fight because he fights very relentlessly, and he has a good gas tank and good technique, but I do think I’m technically better. With that being said, you never know how a fight’s going to – you see the better fighter winning fights a lot, and then you get caught, you know? Anything can happen.”
How does Elder feel about it all? “I’m just really excited for the challenge,” he says. “I think he’s going to be the toughest guy I’ve fought so far, and he’d also be a great win for me – he’s a very seasoned vet, with way more experience than me, and I think that it could be the fight that might punch my ticket to the UFC, or at least put me in a position to contemplate that decision.”
So, what’s the game plan? “From what I can see, I think I’m going to be able to exploit him a lot on the feet,” says Elder. “He shoots pretty relentlessly to try and keep the fight on the ground – I think that’s definitely his strength, that he’s got good ground game, but he doesn’t do that great off his back. I think he does really well when the fight’s going his way, so I’m planning to keep it on the feet, making him shoot shots from far away, and stuffing his takedowns. I’m comfortable on the ground as well; I’m just going to try and be on top. If I get taken down, as he relentlessly shoots, I’m going to relentlessly get up. And I think that eventually, I’m going to be technically superior, which will make him less efficient. That will tire him out quicker than it’ll tire me. If I don’t get a quick finish, I’m going to drag him into deep water, so if it goes into those later rounds, I know I’ll be ready for it.”
Does Phenom’s currently flawless professional record sometimes feel like an additional source of pressure? “That’s actually how I felt as an amateur,” says Elder. “With my first [amateur] loss, it almost felt like a ton of bricks came off my back, because I was relatively undefeated in a sense – or just had a lot of pressure on me to win – and it taught me that losing is not the end of the world. Not that I ever want it to happen – but it’s not the end-all, be-all.”
“I don’t really fear losing,” he elaborates. “I only fear not trying – not truly trying my best. That’s when I’ll regret something. But if I truly give it my all, one hundred percent, not just in the fight, but in the preparation – if I lose, I can hang my hat and say ‘you know what, I gave it my best shot, I tried the best I could.’ The only thing that would really bother me is if I had to question whether I really tried my hardest in practice every day, or dieted as strictly as I could, or got to bed on time as often as I should have. So I try to really do all of those things as often as I can – I’m very far from perfect, so I don’t always manage it, but if I can do that as much as I humanly, possibly can, then I can confidently say that I tried my best.” Elder smiles. “I’d have no regrets.”
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