Contrary to his nickname and a past at times marked by his volatility, Bobby “Vicious” Voelker has a thoughtful and, dare we say, sweet demeanor.
He’s polite as can be, listens as much as he speaks and thanks you for your time. He inspires a customer he did window work for to call him “a fantastic guy.”
“Very pleasant,” his father, Jim, calls him. He gets to Mass every Sunday and puts all he has into anything he does, his mother, Paula, says, including his work with windows and vinyl siding and his studies to prepare to become a paramedic.
“He has good, healthy goals to help the community in any way he can; he just always means well,” Paula Voelker said. “He’s just from the heart.”
But there’s nothing he’s poured that considerable heart into like he has mixed martial arts.
And Saturday night in Seattle, he’ll have an improbable opportunity to empty it toward a potential breakthrough that might never have come.
“This is my golden moment,” Voelker, 34, said last week before a training session at 68 Inside Sports in Overland Park. “This is that place.”
The moment comes a mere 16 days after he was invited to replace an injured opponent in a high-profile UFC event, making him the foe for perennial top 10 fighter Robbie Lawler in the welterweight match in the lineup.
Never mind that at 195 pounds, Voelker was 25 pounds overweight for the match when he got the call, that he’d only fought once in two years and had a nasty knee injury in between.
“It was a surprise,” he said, “but it was a big opportunity for me, so I took it.”
Voelker is 24-9 as a professional and had been training for another match in late August. So maybe it’s not quite Rocky Balboa getting a charity shot at Apollo Creed, but maybe it’s not that far removed, either.
“It’s really a Cinderella story, talking about a guy who one fight ago was ranked 60th now fighting the No. 8 guy in the world,” said Van Powell, one of Voelker’s trainers, drawing on one of the ever-fluid ranking systems in the sport. “And if Bobby beats him, you tell me where there’s more of a Cinderella story?”
At least in this sport, which isn’t for everyone even as it continues to emerge. Count me among those who have a hard time even watching a minute of it.
But hearing Voelker speak of it and watching him train makes me want to check it out, and certainly it makes me want to follow his adventure.
“Even nowadays, a lot of people think it’s just savage and just a bunch of punks and thugs just going in there throwing their hands around, but it truly is a human chess match,” said Voelker, who played football and was a swimmer and diver at Shawnee Mission South. “You have to really be thinking, and on top of that you have to really be aggressive and just have your skill-sets down on every different aspect of the game.”
Adding to the appeal, he said, “is just the rush. The rush is amazing.”
The thrill of the sport, and boxing before it, were a healthy and probably vital release for Voelker, who had a quick fuse as a youth.
“Honestly, it was a great outlet; I think I could have ended up pretty bad without it,” he said. “I’d get in fights out on the streets and everything … If someone pushed my buttons, I wasn’t one to back down from anybody.
“If someone messed with me, I was always kind of the one to stand up for myself and everybody else and there we’d go, there we’d have at it.”
Once, he said, vaguely, he was charged with battery after a fight “with a few different guys I got in a scrap with and beat up. I was 18 years old. It was an eye-opener. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life.
“But I’ve learned from them all. That’s something I can definitely say.”
He learned more and more about MMA after taking up boxing and kickboxing late in high school. He did “a little bit of college” but lost interest since, he joked, “I knew it all then.”
And so his energy went into working in siding, windows and doors and exploring the sport that would come to captivate him.
Safe to say he paid his dues.
“Fights weren’t allowed around here yet, so we had to go to Iowa or Omaha and do some bar fighting, where they set up a ring or a cage in the bar,” he said. “You’d sign a little waiver, and you’d go in and you’d fight. You didn’t even know who you were fighting: It could have been a drunk in the crowd; it could have been a well-trained athlete.”
One of his first amateur wins, he recalled, was against someone he believed was an accomplished boxer.
“Luckily enough, he broke his hand on my face, so I was able to win that fight,” he said, smiling.
He hadn’t necessarily expected to try to go pro, but he would go 15-0 as an amateur and come to think, “I’m actually getting better. I’m pretty slick.”
Not so slick, of course, that he can’t be had fast against Lawler, a possibility that will leave Jim Voelker covering his eyes much of the match even as Paula might be up on a chair screaming.
“All it takes is one from Robbie Lawler, and it could be night-night time,” Powell said, adding it’s just as possible it could go the other way. “Somebody’s going to go to sleep.”
Even if it’s Voelker, he won’t be out long. He plans to start the paramedic program at Kansas City, Kan., Community College later this summer.
“Little bit of an oxymoron, huh?” he said, laughing. “Obviously, I liked the blood and the guts and all that stuff, so I kind of decided to go this route.”