From Alaska to Israel, Bellator 234’s Austin Vanderford Has Had Quite a Journey in MMA

Austin Vanderford and Paige VanZant
Austin Vanderford vs Joseph Creer Credit: Bellator MMA

Bellator 234’s Austin Vanderford has gone from Alaska to Portland Oregon in his combat sports career. Now, he’s in Tel Aviv, Israel for the next step in his journey.

Austin Vanderford’s martial arts journey began in Alaska, and took him all the way to Portland. Along the way, he flirted with the UFC, found a home in Bellator, and is now poised to break into the top of the welterweight division. Vanderford (8-0) returns this week at Bellator 234 in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he’ll have arguably his toughest test yet.

Cageside Press caught up with the ATT Portland fighter ahead of Bellator 234, to talk about his rise in the sport, starting with his roots in wrestling.

Vanderford is a longtime wrestler. Ask him how long, and the Alaskan native recalls it clearly. “I actually remember, still to this day, the day my dad came home and asked if I wanted to try wrestling. I think I was like five and half or six at that time, and I remember the very first question I asked him was ‘can you punch or kick?'”

Six year old Austin at that point was into Power Rangers, not wrestling. His dad wasn’t a wrestler either, but rather a military man. “He was like ‘I don’t know what you can do but let’s go and try it out.'” The pair made the trek to the local mat club, and being from Alaska, it was a pretty small team. “But I jumped in, loved it and was pretty successful right off the get-go, and I just continued to stick with it.”

Sticking with it resulted in Vanderford eventually transitioning to MMA. While his profile is much higher now, he got his start like so many other collegiate wrestlers. “I finished up wrestling my senior year, I was successful, I kind of reached my goals, my goal was to be a national champion, I won nationals my senior year,” he recalled. At that point, the options were fighting or coaching. “I kind of thought I wanted to start fighting,” said Vanderford, but coaching had an allure as well.

“I got asked to come back in and be the grad assistant coach for the team, so I did that for a couple years.” The drive to fight remained, however. “Actually right after my senior season of wrestling I tried to take a fight without really any training. I got there, went to weigh-ins, the guy backed out. He didn’t show up for the fight and I kind of got a bad taste in my mouth from it.”

Austin Vanderford Credit: Mike McClory/Cageside Press

That was a situation that just did not happen in the wrestling world. Still, after a couple of years of coaching, Vanderford “jumped right in” when it came to the fight game. The rest, as he put it, is history. Of course, it’s never really that simple.

Vanderford trains with American Top Team in Portland. A long way from Alaska, but also a city familiar to him. “So we’re American Top Team in Portland, and before we were Gracie Barra and before that it was pretty much all of the guys from Team Quest. Right now we have Ed Herman, Chael [Sonnen], my wife [Paige VanZant], all those guys. Rick Story was with us at the end of his career and all that. I moved to Portland; I did my wrestling in college in Oregon and I really loved Oregon and wanted to put myself in the best place to be successful.” Portland, mind you, was about five hours north of where he’d been living.

Still not anywhere near the move he’d made leaving Alaska. And in Portland, he found a great support system. “I’m very fortunate to have a lot of guys in my corner like that,” said Vanderford. “I actually have my good friend who just fought last weekend, Ed Herman. He’s actually flying out here, he fought in Moscow, he’s flying here in Tel Aviv to be here and watch the fight and support. I got a lot of those old school guys, the guys who’ve been there so much and experienced all that, you know to help me and kind of help guide me, so I’m very fortunate to have all that.”

“I like talking about my wife, and I also feel like I’m her biggest fan and I know what she is capable of achieving.”

There’s nary an interview that goes by with the subject of Vanderford’s wife, UFC star Paige VanZant, coming up. In part because of her star profile, in part because of his own rising profile, and in part, no doubt, because they’re one of the rare husband and wife teams in fighting. Gilbert and Keri Melendez also pulled off the feat, one with the UFC and the other with Bellator, like Austin and Paige. But it’s rare.

“First and foremost I would never change what her and I do,” said Vanderford. “I think it’s such a cool thing, and I think it’s so cool that we can go out and experience this stuff together and both know pretty much exactly what one another are feeling.”

Vanderford is completely open with his wife when it comes to fighting. “When I’m nervous or anything like that, she can tell. I think it’s a really cool thing, I think it’s something that I can attribute a lot of my success to, you know like being in the back getting ready to fight and having my wife right next to me. There is a level of comfort in all that, that goes into it that not a lot of people in this world get to experience.”

Believe it or not, Vanderford, one of the most upbeat fighters you’ll find, isn’t bothered by the constant Paige questions either. “You know people do ask me a lot about it but I actually enjoy it. I like talking about my wife, and I also feel like I’m her biggest fan and I know what she is capable of achieving and all that, so I’m excited for her to get back healthy and get ready to go compete too.” VanZant has been dealing with a nagging arm injury, and this past summer underwent a third surgery on the arm she broke fighting Jessica-Rose Clark.

Of course, as with any high profile couple, there’s a fair amount of hate spewn the pair’s way, the internet being what it is. But while Vanderford admits that there’s a lot of that, he feels the pair have a pretty clear mind when it comes to such matters. Plus, “I’m defiantly well equipped to take all the hate. You know I grew up a fisherman in Alaska, and so I feel like I got that toughness instilled in me.” Besides, he added, he knew what he was getting into when he married her. “I’m very happy and I wouldn’t change any of it, even the hate.”

Vanderford was inches away from joining his wife in the UFC when he appeared on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2018. He got the win, got the submission finish, but the undefeated welterweight was passed over by White. So Vanderford took a different path, one that led him to Bellator MMA, where he’s won his first two bouts.

Next up, dangerous Russian Grachik Bozinyan. An ACB veteran with a 10-3 record who will be making his Bellator MMA debut. Preparations for the fight, said Vanderford, “have been great. We got here [to Tel Aviv] a little early and got acclimated to the time, got some good training in and I feel like I’m well prepared and I’m ready to go out and fight.”

“I know I have a very tough opponent coming up. And I have the mindset that each opponent I have is going to be my toughest fight to date,” he added. “I’m going to go out there and I’m prepared to go three hard rounds and do whatever it takes to win.”

If it works out as planned, the undefeated 170lb’er could be looking at another step up in competition, and potentially a higher-profile opponent. Which would cap quite the 2019 for Austin Vanderford.

Austin Vanderford takes on Grachik Bozinyan in Tel Aviv, Israel on Thursday, part of Bellator 234. The card airs on Paramount Network this Friday night.