Some things just don’t make any sense: Elton John and 50 Cent? The Godfather (I and II) and When Harry Met Sally?
Or, better still, Mensa club, winemaking, and mixed martial arts — all from a guy who’s not to high on getting punched.
That’s like asking Manny Ramirez to play nice with the Yankees.
But for Team Wolfpack’s Aaron Stark, the aforementioned anomalies may just describe him in a nutshell, and he’s perfectly fine with that.
A wrestler since the age of 5 and a college standout at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stark has lived and breathed competition for the majority of his life. The long-time wrestler only started watching mixed martial arts events on TV in the mid-90s when it barely even considered a sport, if at all. And even Stark will admit, he really watched it just to root on the former wrestlers in cage. He never saw MMA in his future, primarily for one small, but rather influential, reason.
“I’ve always been pretty scared of conflict,” he said. “I had been punched once at a wrestling match when a guy didn’t like that I had won and, instead of shaking my hand at the end, he punched me. And I had been punched one other time in practice by a teammate who was vying for my spot in college, and he punched me and ran off.”
He says it’s not the pain, but the threat and knowledge that pain will be induced. Look at it this way: If you get burned cooking dinner, sure it hurts. But if someone told you ahead of time that you were going to be burned cooking dinner, wouldn’t you be it a little more scared about it?
But what’s really scared Stark are his dreams. After his days of wrestling officially ended in 2000 and his MMA career didn’t get started until ’05, Stark almost became ill from the lack of competition during the break. More than an addiction, a lifestyle. Competition was with him since grade-school. There would be nights where he would dream he was back at Wisconsin and university officials found a paperwork mishap, giving him an extra year of eligibility in wrestling. The complete drop in emotion after bouncing back to reality ate at him. For years.
Those who know wrestling know there aren’t many outlets for the sport beyond college. The WWE doesn’t count. A Wisconsin teammate of his took up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Stark, eager to fill that hole, soon found himself attending a local amateur MMA event hosted by none other than Randy Couture. Oregon State’s former wrestling assistant coach, Couture recognized Stark in the stands, primarily because one of Couture’s main event contenders for the night had disappeared and he was in need of a replacement. Seriously: The guy headlining the event bolted just minutes before he was to take the center cage.
Stark denied the offer to replace Mr. Cold Feet, but his refusal for the sport didn’t last long. Now, almost three years later, he’s on the verge of becoming a regular name in MMA, with his next bout against Lamont Lister on the International Fight League’s May 16 card — a chance to avenge Stark’s last two losses in the league. The “New Blood, New Battles” event will be Stark’s first fight in the IFL since June of 2007. Since that time, he’s picked up two wins (against Jimmy Johnson at Integrated Combat System’s “Cage Rage” and against Dallas Browning at Sportfight’s “Season’s Beatings” last year) and improved his health and fitness.
He’s even prepared for his first harvest. Yes, harvest.
When he’s not fighting, Stark’s the manager of his family’s Colene Clemens Vineyard in Oregon and is just months away from bottling his first vintage pinot noir.
“When I was in college I started learning about wine, from drinking it and also reading about it and its history and great varietals,” he said. “I don’t have any formal education in winemaking, but I worked for a couple wineries and I was able to take what I had observed and buy some grapes from a different vineyard in the area and made some wine on my own.”
Plans to distribute his vino are certainly a possibility, as Stark has broken ground on a winery that will ready in a year or so. He’s enlisted some help in the “making” aspect of winemaking from some of his colleagues in the industry, who are slowly starting to understand Stark’s full-time career.
“When I tell them what I do, some of the people know what I’m taking about,” Stark said, “but a lot of just are like ‘What the hell is your problem? Are you a sociopath?’ I try to explain MMA to them, and they may know the UFC. And if they don’t know that, I’ll mention cage fighting. Then some will say, ‘Oh yeah, I saw Napoleon Dynamite.'”
The combination of fighter and oenophile in Stark may perplex many, but the befuddlement intensifies if you have the chance to talk to him for more than 10 minutes.
He’s also a Mensa Club member, another interest he pursued to fruition.
“To be honest, I just kind of took an IQ test on a whim,” he said. “I was at a bookstore and I picked up a self-IQ test thing, and I did well on it, so I thought I’d go and actually get tested. To me, it’s actually a little bit bizarre, I mean what would you say, ‘Hi, I’m smart, oh you are too? Great.’ I guess that’s a bad answer, but I kind of did it just because I knew about it and I wanted to see if I could do it.”
With an IQ of 134, and a Mensa membership card to prove it, Stark has yet to join a local chapter in Oregon. Too nerdy, he claims. But you never know with Stark. The ex-wrestler never thought he’s be getting punched for a living. Never thought he’d be making wine in his 30s. Never thought he’d be a registered genius. But the one thing that has always remain constant is the thought of that void, that emptiness he lived with for years before he picked up MMA. That lack of competition.
“In the back of my head, I’m already dreading the day when I can’t do MMA anymore,” he said. “I mean, am I going to have those damn dreams again?”
byline Nicki Jhabvala
INSIDE MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)
SI.com (Sports Illustrated)