At Bellator 181 in Thackerville, Oklahoma this Friday, surging middleweight John Salter takes on one of the biggest names in his career to date — Kendall Grove. “Da Spyder,” of course, won The Ultimate Fighter Season 3, and has challenged for Bellator MMA middleweight gold as well. Salter is no stranger to championship caliber fighters, however, having bested former Bellator middleweight champ Brandon Halsey during his current five fight win streak. Yet somehow, despite three of those wins coming under the Bellator banner, Salter is still flying under the radar.
Salter spoke to Cageside Press in advance of his main card bout against Grove Friday, and discussed the differences between Bellator and the UFC, growing with a promotion, flying under the radar and more.
“I really like the people in Bellator a lot more, I feel like there’s a lot more respect for everybody” Salter told us. “The UFC keeps you a little busier, I’d like to fight a little more, but I’m definitely happy with Bellator.”
Friday’s event is, of course, the first Bellator card since they invaded Madison Square Garden in June. Is that something that gets a fighter like Salter excited, seeing the company put on such a major show?
“I’m growing with the company. I intend on being a title holder by the end of the year, so it’s just awesome to me to see them growing like that.”
Despite his main card status Friday, there’s definitely that “flying under the radar” sense about Salter. The middleweight agreed with that observation, saying “I think a little bit. I think people looked at the Halsey fight like it was a fluke, or like it was a surprise. When I signed with Bellator I knew if I got a chance to fight Halsey, that’s what I would do to him.”
“I think people still looked at that like ‘okay, we’ll see what he does in the future.’ Which is good, I don’t necessarily want to be the guy that everybody expects to do huge things” he added. “I like to surprise people.”
Perhaps it wouldn’t be the case if a high profile fight with former middleweight champ Alexander Shlemenko hadn’t fallen through. Twice.
“There was two separate times, January and April, that I was told I was getting ready to fight [Shlemenko]” Salter told us. “So I was going through training camps to fight Shlemenko, both times it didn’t work out. Not on my end, I don’t know what happened.”
After the second fight with the former champ fell through, Salter opted to head into the ADCC. So is submission grappling something he’d like to continue with?
“I do enjoy Jiu-jitsu a lot, so if I get the opportunity, I’m going to compete a little more, but my number one focus is MMA.”
Speaking of opportunities, Salter’s last bout was at Bellator 168 in Italy, where he TKO’d Claudio Annicchiarico. It marked the fighter’s first bout outside North America, and according to Salter, the experience fight overseas was a very positive one.
“It was great, the fans were great over there” he said. “We had a good time, my wife and I stayed a while, had a little vacation over there, the whole experience was awesome, just a beautiful country.”
“I’d like to do it more, my wife was very clear that any time there’s an international card, she wants me to be on it.” Well, that’s settled then.
Now, Salter’s immediate focus is on Grove this Friday. With Grove having a big name, is the pressure on?
“I think really there’s less pressure then the last fight” Salter explained. “The last fight was a fight I was clearly supposed to dominate, and that’s one of those where you know, your career can take a dive if something bad happens and it goes wrong.”
“With Kendall, there’s a chance where I go out there and I have a tough fight ahead of me and I’m prepared for it. Anytime you have a fight like that, it’s a little less pressure. You know what’s ahead of you, you know what’s going to happen. We’re going to go out there, we’re going to fight hard, it’s going to be on the feet, it’s going to be on the ground, and I’m a little bit better everywhere.”
What does Salter expect to see for Grove? In his opinion, “Da Spyder” is continuing to improve.
“He’s getting a lot better using his reach, obviously a 6″6 guy at 185, you just don’t see that” remarked Salter. “I think that past few years, he’s really started using his reach better, and that’s something I’ve prepared for a lot in this fight. He’s a great grappler, he’s tough on the ground. There’s nowhere that he’s not good, but I just think I’m a little better at every aspect of the sport.”
Should Salter earn the victory at Bellator 181, he’d be on a four fight win streak — so is he ready for his shot? “I definitely think I’m ready for it. Beating Halsey shows I’m the number one contender right now.”
Salter’s also a finisher — he’s never gone to a decision, win or lose. While it’s easy to say fighters should always be looking for the finish, scorecards have long been part of the sport, and it’s rare to find a fighter with nothing but finishes. So is that intentional?
“When I train, every round, if I’m sparring, I’m looking to set up a position where I can finish the fight” he said. “When I’m grappling, I’m looking to finish every round. I train that way, and I feel like lately, the past few years, I’ve really done a lot better job staying calm, seeing things better, which has helped me a lot. I don’t go out there thinking ‘I’m going to win two rounds to win this fight.’ If I’m losing, I’m not out there to lose a decision, I’m just looking for the win and going for broke.”
Of late, Salter’s been training with UFC middleweight Derek Brunson. That no doubt adds something to his training. “Having a guy like him that’s clearly a another top middleweight in the world is great. We push each other every day, doing all your workouts with someone like that gives you a little extra drive.”
Drive doesn’t seem to be an issue for Salter, who is still looking for a fight against Shlemenko, and that title opportunity as well. As for Grove — Salter predicts a finish, either in the late first or second round. “Somewhere in there. I don’t expect to see it go to the third round.”
John Salter meets Kendall Grove on the main card of Bellator 181 Friday from Thackerville, Oklahoma. The event airs live on Spike TV.