Team USA’s 2-Time National and World Champion Will “Soldier of Christ” Starks is Doing MMA- and Life- the Right Way
By Samantha Rayburn, UMMAF Contributor
Two-time IMMAF welterweight world champion William “Soldier of Christ” Starks is a fighter dedicated to improving himself and the sport of Mixed Martial Arts.
Raised in Missouri, he experienced bullying and decided to learn to defend himself. He began watching UFC fights and was fascinated. His hero was George St-Pierre, who had also been bullied. Starks said that at the time, there was a shift in MMA as a sport, and St-Pierre was a large part of it.
“You’re starting to see a true blend where MMA comes out of its Stone Age era, where you had tough guys who brawled and cut weight ridiculously, and now you have a fighter who understands the physiological components,” recalled Starks, explaining that he was fascinated by St-Pierre’s scientific approach to the sport. Now Starks applies a similar approach to his training. And it is paying off.
With a 20-fight win streak and two consecutive world championships (while going 9-0 against the world’s best) on his resume, Starks has had a great deal of success in his amateur career. He remains dedicated to improving himself as a fighter. He trains just as hard for local fights as he would for a world title. He pays attention to his diet and strives to improve his techniques and build strength. During the off season, he reviews videos of his fights and looks for weaknesses to eliminate. He evaluates which martial arts disciplines he needs to improve upon.
“If fighting is what I want to do, I have to be great at it,” Starks said. Among other qualities, he said a great fighter has achieved the ability to transition, to use techniques from different fighting styles and disciplines seamlessly. He also believes great fighters have a toughness factor. He recalled the quote from the movie Rocky: “Life’s not about how hard of a hit you can give… it’s about how many you can take, and still keep moving forward.”
During a recent fight Starks found it necessary to put that advice to practical use. It was his first fight at the IMMAF World Championship this year against Danny Mathiasen from Denmark. He said because he had five fights in six days, he wanted to fight smart from the beginning and conserve energy for the later competitions, but he was challenged to push himself from his first fight there.
“I had a target on my head as the returning champion, and these guys are hungry,” he said. Coaches helped him prepare for the determined competition, telling him that the fighters who didn’t get a medal last year were going to work twice as hard this year to earn it.
“For the first time, I had to be reminded not to be complacent,” Starks recalled, calling the fight “one of the toughest fights I had the entire tournament and one of my poorest performances. … He came out ready to put it all on the line, and he pushed me harder than I’ve ever been pushed in any competition.”
Starks continued, “I learned something about myself. I learned that despite having the odds against me, being down a round, I could still pull something out and overcome an obstacle.”
Finding the motivation to work hard and triumph in tough competition is important for any athlete. Starks said that his motivation mainly comes from his desire to help and provide for his family. He wants to pursue an education and be able to help his grandmother and make her proud.
Starks has high expectations for MMA as a sport, and he wants to make a difference. He believes MMA will be in the Olympics by 2020 and is excited to be involved as it gains momentum and continues into the future.
“I want to be able to look back on my career and say that I impacted and revolutionized the sport; I want to be the guy on TV that some kid was watching that says, ‘I can relate to that and I want to do that, but I want to do it better.’ I want to inspire someone to make the sport evolve. That is what motivates me.”
For those future athletes, Starks has clear advice: Use sports to learn about yourself. Find an area in which you can thrive but can also be pushed. Set goals. Don’t rush your career. Due to a safer environment for amateur fighters, such as bigger gloves to reduce cuts and shin guards to allow more practice and more fights without incurring injuries, amateur fighters can now gain more experience before entering competition at a professional level because they don’t have to worry about becoming seriously injured.
Athletes who pursue longer amateur careers can gain valuable experience, develop a fan base, and find sponsors. Because they have built credibility, they can have more success if they decide to continue as professionals.
“This is a new age for the sport right now,” he explained. “There are so many opportunities to be had. You’re safer now in this sport than you’ve ever been. Train in MMA, compete for your local high school wrestling team. Compete in nationals, in worlds. Treat the sport of MMA just like you would a college sport. Go 18 through 22 and stay amateur. Then, just as a college athlete would go straight from the NCAA to the Olympics, do that. Then turn pro. Then you have so many fights, you have exposure, you have credibility. You have people who support you.”
Starks understands the importance of having a support system. “I am grateful to Rob (Hulett) for opening this door for me. I’ve worked very hard from the very beginning. … I’m thankful to Rob for these past couple of years … for allowing other fighters to be assistant coaches, allowing so many other people to be involved for myself and other fighters to help us develop, and for being involved with UMMAF and IMMAF. No matter how far in this sport I get, no matter where I’m at, I will never forget who aided me, who facilitated all of this, who helped me get started, and who opened these doors for me so I can work hard and make this happen.”
In addition to hard work, discipline, and a solid support system, Starks finds strength in his faith, as expressed by his fighting nickname, “Soldier of Christ.” One photo taken during the IMMAF World Championships this month shows Starks and his opponent, Alexander Martinez, kneeling in the cage with their heads together in prayer.
Last year after competing at IMMAF Worlds, Starks and Martinez had a conversation about their shared commitment to Christianity. This year, when they prepared to face each other again in the finals, they decided to find a way to say a prayer together in the cage before the match began.
“It just felt right,” Starks remembered. “I felt like for a moment, no one else existed … me, Alex, and God above looking down on us, and hopefully we were doing him proud and giving him the glory in that moment before the final fight.”
Guided by his faith, Starks will be an exciting athlete to follow.
“The true soldier fights not because what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” G.K. Chesterton
Editor’s Note: Starks recently signed a contract to begin his professional career with Titan Fighting Championship. He leaves a legacy as one of the most decorated amateur MMA athletes in US and world history, with a record of 22-1, a 20-fight win streak, two US National Championships and two IMMAF World Championships.