Aaron Stark climbed out of the ring on September 9 wearing a big grin and an even bigger shiner. The 31-year-old Forest Grove native had just won his first light heavyweight bout for the Portland Wolfpack, one of four teams competing in the International
The popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) is exploding, and Stark is riding that wave as far as it will take him. A competitive wrestler for more than 25 years, Stark sees MMA as a way to take his experience and skills to the next level. 'I've progressed as a competitor - I'm not just a wrestler any more. I'm incorporating more strategy into my game and feel good about where I'm at,' he said.
Wolfpack Coach Matt Lindland has known Stark since his early wrestling days and believes Stark has a bright future ahead. 'Aaron is a talented former NCAA Division I wrestler with incredible skills and tons of potential,' said Lindland. 'We're looking for him to bring wins for the team.'
Stark first hit the mat at the age of 5, when he began wrestling in youth leagues in Forest Grove and Portland. He took first place among 11-year-olds at the 1986 Oregon Wrestling Classic, repeating the win as a 12-year-old the next year. Stark, who knew Lindland and fellow MMA star Randy Couture as a youth, wrestled at Forest Grove and Glencoe High Schools and, with his parents' permission, followed his coach to Pendleton for his senior year, where he became state champion in 1993. 'Wrestling was the only sport I was truly good at,' he said. 'I like the fact that it's totally up to the individual whether you win or lose. You either get all the blame or all the glory.'
Stark was ranked 11th in the nation as a collegiate wrestler at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he took third place at the 1998 Big Ten Championships. After earning a bachelor's degree in Agricultural Business Management, Stark returned to Portland and married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany Tennefoss. The two currently live in northwest Portland.
Stark's burgeoning career as an IFL professional tells just one side of his story, though. His true passion lies in the rows of young grape vines dotting his family's Gaston vineyard, where Stark hopes to some day produce world-class pinot noir. Stark has planted 24 of the family's 122 acres at Colene Clemens Vineyard (named after his maternal grandmother) and is learning the ropes by working at neighboring wineries including Beaux Freres. Stark sees an unlikely similarity between winemaking and mixed martial arts. 'Every winemaker brings his or her own techniques into play when making great wine and it's the same with MMA,' he noted. 'Wrestlers, strikers, jiu-jitsu masters, kickboxers - they all bring dramatically different styles into the ring to reach equally successful results.'
Compact and muscular at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Stark is a formidable presence in the ring, minus the pomp and bravado the public has come to expect from competitive fighters. When asked how long he'd like to compete in the IFL, Stark, who is a member of Mensa, commented, 'My wife said I could fight just once but she's gotten past that. I'd like to compete until my body can't take it any longer or I lose interest. Right now, I'm really enjoying it.'
Outside the ring, Stark's interests are many, not the least of which is his Mensa membership. Though Tiffany often pokes fun at him when he tells the story, Stark notes that it started almost by accident. While visiting a bookstore in Madison, Wis., he saw a Mensa test book. Curious as to how he would do, he took the exam and tested well. The erudite Stark enjoys conversing with like-minded people in Mensa, but feels equally at home spending hours at the vineyard or in the gym.
That time in the gym has paid off, as Stark's win over the Tiger Sharks' Reese Andy at the Memorial Coliseum on Sept. 9 clinched the team victory for the Wolfpack, sending the squad to the semifinals. More than 5,300 fans cheered the team's debut and big win, which culminated in a victory for coach Lindland after he defeated fellow MMA veteran Jeremy Horn in a 'Superfight' following the main event.
Thanks to Stark, the Wolfpack will have another opportunity to advance toward the No. 1 spot in the world when they take on the Los Angeles-based Anacondas Thursday in the IFL World Team Championship semifinals at the Memorial Coliseum. Stark will face Alex Schoenauer in the light heavyweight bout. Should the Wolfpack get by the Anacondas, they would advance to the final in Connecticut on Dec. 29 against the winner of Thursday's other matchup between the Silverbacks, based in Quad Cities, and the Dragons, based in Toronto.
Stark is confident about his team's chances as well as his own. 'I won't guarantee a win or anything like that,' he notes, 'but I look at it on paper and there isn't any match that we can't win. We've got all the tools and every one has a very, very good chance of winning their fight.'
Stark's prediction notwithstanding, winning the bout with the Anacondas, coached by the inimitable Bas Rutten, will be a formidable task - the Anacondas routed the Tokyo-based Sabres, 5-0, on the same quarterfinal card back in September. Schoenauer is one of the top light heavyweights in the league, with 15 fights to his credit. Stark has just four.
The IFL launches its first full season in 2007, with 12 teams and a 13-event schedule to be announced shortly. As the world's first team-based professional mixed martial arts league, the IFL offers a full salary and health benefits to Stark and the more than 50 other athletes that fill the rosters of its eight teams.
All that action will be a big help to Stark, who is relatively inexperienced in the mixed martial arts world. But with each training session and each victory, like his September thrashing of Andy, Stark continues to make his mark in the IFL.