Being Prepared for Any Outcome
By Ryan Lucas
On June 28, a judges’ split decision pushed James Moontasri into the muck of an unexpected defeat.
But rather than dwelling in that wasteland of thought, sinking deep after losing his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut, he pulled himself back to stable mental ground.
An upbringing in taekwondo has prepared Moontasri for any competitive outcome—including the pitfalls.
“That loss was heartbreaking in a way because I really feel as though I won the fight, but this is one of the good things that I’ve talked about with taekwondo a lot: I’ve won a lot, but I’ve also lost a lot,” Moontasri said of the defeat to Joe Ellenberger, a 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 decision in the welterweight division.
“I really don’t dwell on the past; I just focus on the future. There’s nothing that I can do about the decision now; I could’ve decided to be sad about the decision, but I decided instead that I’m just going to keep training and looking forward to the next fight, and I can’t wait.
“It’s going to make me prepare even more, and it’s going to make me stronger.”
Moontasri, 26, has relied upon that indestructible attitude at every step in his martial arts career.
Born in Germany and raised in a military family in Colorado Springs, Colo., he began competing in taekwondo at age 8. As a teenager, Moontasri then ascended to the peak of the sport in the United States.
The list of his accomplishments includes two gold medals at the USA Taekwondo National Championships, a silver medal at the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2007 USAT Male Athletes of the Year award. In 2008, he just missed an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Games, finishing fourth in the U.S. Team Trials.
A shoulder injury during that competition led Moontasri to reevaluate his goals as a martial artist. Rather than wait four more years for another chance to stand atop the remote summit of Olympic qualification, he decided on a transition.
As a teenager, Moontasri had seen mixed martial arts fighters wearing gis in the walkups before televised bouts. After his injury, he believed he could switch his focus to the MMA world.
Since that redirection of goals, he’s accrued a 7-2 record, with his first eight matches coming in the Resurrection Fighting Alliance (RFA). He’s also one fight into his four-fight contract with the UFC, the high point of MMA.
Overall, Moontasri, who’s nicknamed “Moon Walker” in MMA circles, has moved through the roughest stages in the evolution of his career with success.
“It was really hard for me to completely walk away from taekwondo and move into MMA,” Moontasri, now a resident of Los Angeles, said. “Honestly, I still can’t even believe that I’m in the UFC.
“But once I walked away from taekwondo, I knew that if I tried to do this MMA career, I had to do it through the UFC. Now that I’m in the UFC, I really need to focus on the fact that I have to make the most of my opportunity.
“I guarantee that I’m going to do everything in my power to do my best and take it as far as possible.”
Moontasri’s work at Black House MMA is driving him to make such quick and considerable progress. His coaches—Kenny Johnson in wrestling, Jason Park in muay thai and Tony Cruz in boxing—continue to mold him into a more well-rounded competitor each day.
Still, his taekwondo background—a unique form of athletic upbringing in MMA terms—is a consistent advantage.
“I practice just knowing that nine out of 10 times, my opponent wants to take me down,” Moontasri, who stands at 5 feet, 10 inches and weighs 163 pounds, said. “MMA is such a crazy sport that you want to play to your strengths as much as possible, so a lot of people feel that taking me down gives them an advantage over having to deal with my unorthodox style.”
Taekwondo provides a level of athletic ambidexterity that many MMA fighters must take years to attain. As a consequence, Moontasri said, more and more top competitors are reaching into the unknown for new styles to learn, perfect and bring into the ring.
“I think a lot of MMA fighters are becoming more open to training in different styles of martial arts,” Moontasri said. “Now, with these hybrid athletes, you’re seeing a lot of people doing more than just sparring and ground techniques; you’re seeing a lot of people who are open to new techniques.
“I think taekwondo’s definitely more recognized because the advantages it can have are becoming more noticeable.”
Moontasri’s also able to pass on his techniques to willing training partners. Through his work at Black House MMA—where he trains two or three times per day, with sparring sessions in the morning, muy thai and jiu-jitsu in the afternoons and cardio or strength training in the evenings—the Adidas Combat Sports competitor can swap secrets of the trade with the likes of Lyoto Machida, Anderson Silva and other big-name athletes.
All the preliminary effort created immediate dividends in Moontasri’s first UFC bout.
Competing in the ring on 11 days’ notice, he all but outperformed Ellenberger in the first and third rounds, according to FightMetric.com. Although his opponent had three takedowns to his zero, Moontasri landed 131 strikes throughout the bout, more than doubling Ellenberger’s total.
As he moves forward from defeat, Moontasri knows that the depth of his past experience will carry him anywhere.
“Taekwondo has taught me that there’s more to competition than winning and losing,” he said. “There are also the five tenets of taekwondo, and living by them is more important than anything you can ever do in competition itself.”
When he’s not training for competition, Moontasri tries to distribute that message among the youth; if his busy schedule affords him the time, he teaches approximately 100 students—most of them children—the doctrines of taekwondo and other martial arts at Elite Training Center in Redondo Beach, Calif.
Moontasri’s guidance to his students—and to anyone interested in mixed martial arts, for that matter—pivots from the center of his ideals in competitive sport.
“My advice would be to just be humble and be open to learning from anyone,” he said. “That mentality has taken me a long way, and I always try to learn from everyone that I can.”