By definition, at least according to the commission, Matt Betzold exists as a downed opponent. That means no knees to the head or high kicks from whatever foe stands across from him. Years back, the Arizona Boxing Commission tried to pass that lazy detail off as evidence to deny Betzold his license to fight professionally, because if you didn’t know, having one leg can apparently be a pretty big advantage in a cage fight.
The whole thing ended up being predictably and comically criminal.
Counting the unsanctioned MMA fight Betzold won just to prove to Arizona that he deserved his amateur card, the amputee flyweight had amassed a 4-1 record, demonstrating that, if nothing else, he at least deserved the same opportunity to get punched in the face as everyone else. The state reluctantly agreed once the threat of a discrimination suit reached its doorstep, and in 2009, almost 20 years after he lost his left leg just below the kneecap, Matt Betzold became a professional mixed martial arts fighter.
Even then, after years of struggling to earn his equality, Betzold’s path was a surprising one.
When Betzold was six years old, just after he started kindergarten, a strange man moved into his family’s home. Now, back then this wasn’t particularly unusual — strange men were always moving into the Betzold home; his parents had a proclivity for opening their doors to all manners of struggling friends and acquaintances until their houseguests could get back on their feet.
But this man, well, he was stranger than most.
A biker, self-proclaimed Satanist, and mentally ill to boot, the man in question took it upon himself to play judge, jury and executioner, lacing a package of Orange Slices candy with toxic mushroom spores after Betzold’s father had a falling out with a local motorcycle gang. Six-year-old Betzold found the candy before his dad and devoured it, as six year olds are wont to do, and that night the young boy began hallucinating as his body temperature flushed to 113 degrees.
“I got blood poisoning in my system,” says Betzold, now 31 years old. “The poison and the toxins were clogging up my arteries and the poison was eating through my skin. They gave me antibiotics to reject the poison from my body, and it just started seeping through my pores. Basically I lost my leg because of a blood clot, and by the time I got out of the hospital, I had been in a coma for six weeks.
“They thought I was going to die so they didn’t give me the therapy that I needed, they didn’t move my body. When someone is in a coma, they’re supposed to move your body around everyday so your muscles don’t curl up on you. Well, they didn’t do that, so when I got out I couldn’t even move my arms, my neck was all curled up in my chest, and I had to go through a lot of therapy to get my mobility back from my joints.”
Betzold resumed kindergarten months later, a shell of himself, but stubborn and hell-bent to rid himself of the wheelchair he relied on for transportation.
By the time the school year ended, Betzold relearned how to first walk with crutches, then without, hopping around the house on one leg, before getting fit for a prosthetic leg. This was back in the early 90’s, and prosthetic technology was not nearly as advanced as it is now. So Betzold had no choice but to wear a bulky, monstrosity of a contraption, and it wasn’t long before his classmates descended upon his mechanical leg.
“I walked really funny,” Betzold admits, “and they would call me Robotman. Gimp. Cripple. S**t like that. And I wasn’t going to stand for it. I didn’t want to have that follow me throughout my whole life in school, so I chose to fight instead of tell the teachers.”
It went like that for years, Betzold shuffling in and out of trouble but never really getting the worst of it, until one day Betzold and his brother dropped by a local Rage in the Cage show. Jiu-jitsu is considered to be the great equalizer, the path for the small man to defeat the large man. On the mats, everyone is equal, and Betzold fell in love with nuance of the canvas dance.
He soon entered his first jiu-jitsu tournament and won first place right out of the gate. Then came a second title, and a third. Fighting shifted from a negative connotation to a positive one as the accolades poured in; NAGA, Grapplers Quest, FILA — Betzold snatched gold in them all. After a while, taking the next step felt only like a formality.
“I tried fighting and the commissions wouldn’t let me,” Betzold says. “It was like shaking a steak in front of a pitbull and telling him he can’t have it. I just wanted it more the more they told me I couldn’t.
“First they said it wasn’t safe for me, so I was fighting that for the longest time, not realizing that they were breaking the law. I was trying to do it on my own, but I ended up having to get an attorney because they were flat-out discriminating against me. So once I got the attorney involved, then their story changed that I was at an advantage instead of a disadvantage, and that it was unfair for my opponent. On top of that, they were still sticking to their story that it was still unsafe for me to fight for them. So I just kept fighting them, and basically we got them on the technicality.”
These days Betzold spends his time chasing that dream out in Sacramento, marching alongside UFC champions and contenders alike in Urijah Faber’s Lilliputian army at Team Alpha Male. He moved out there a year and a half ago, partly for the training and partly because he figured it’d be easier to find opponents willing to sign on the dotted line in the MMA-rich hills of California.
While the former proved undoubtedly true, the latter has been harder to come by — it turns out not many flyweights jump at the high risk/low reward gambit of fighting the guy with one leg and a shrewd submission game.
But when Betzold can find himself some time to work, it’s an impressive, if not curious sight to behold in a regional scene generally riddled with cookie-cutter showings. Starting from his knees and shuffling forward, Betzold’s approach may not be imposing, but it belies his true talents. One missed kick or one wrong step from his challenger often leads to a buffet of slick sweeps, efficient movement, and ultimately, an early night.
While Betzold’s career had an admittedly bumpy start, including a second-round loss to current UFC fighter Anthony Birchak, since 2012 he’s won four straight outings by submission, ending three inside the two-minute mark. It’s still a struggle to get fights, especially since fellow amputee Nick Newell got dismantled by WSOF’s ferocious lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, though Newell’s rise did help remedy Betzold’s problem for a time.
“It seemed like the more he won, the easier it was, the less resistance I got from trying to do what I was doing,” he says.
“It’s silly, because it’s not Nick’s fault and it’s not my fault that’s happening. It’s society and the way people are when it comes to the mainstream, and people who are uneducated in the fight game. Anybody who’s a hardcore MMA fan knows that you win some and you lose some.
“The talent pool is so big and there’s so many ways to win and lose, there’s so many different styles you have to be good at,” continues Betzold. “It’s ridiculous that people are making such a big deal about someone losing. If Nick had two arms, it would’ve been just another fight that someone lost. The fact that he had one arm (shouldn’t matter). That’s what really pissed me off about the situation.
“First it was like, [amputees] can’t win in MMA. Then he’s winning, he’s going through a crazy win streak. He loses one fight and all of a sudden everybody’s talking like his career is over because he has one arm. Like, ‘you amputees, you can’t win in MMA. But if you’re winning, you better keep winning, because you aren’t allowed to lose either.’ Pardon my language, but what the f**k is that? That part of the whole situation pissed me off more than anything, what society is doing with him.”
In an interesting twist of fate, Betzold recently signed with WSOF and was briefly linked to a Nov. 15 fight against Geane Herrera, until the bout fell through. WSOF officials confirm Betzold is currently under contract, but say they are still ironing out a plan for him moving forward. In the meantime, Betzold captured yet another gold for the United States this past weekend, this time in the 57 kg division at FILA’s 2014 Pankration World Championships in Hungary.
Ultimately, Betzold argues that he isn’t looking for sympathy, and he definitely isn’t pleading for special treatment. After all, the risk is his own. As a grown adult with a wife, two children, and a closet stacked to the rafters with grappling medals and trophies, Betzold simply wants the chance to put himself out there and let the chips fall where they may, just like anybody else.
“I could use the break, man. I feel like this is my shot,” he says. “This is my shot. This is my chance to basically show the world that I can fight and prove it to myself that I belong.”
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