Ex-Titusville High wrestler Muhammed DeReese aims at $1 million in Pro Fighters League MMA in Las Vegas

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Nicknamed ‘Mo Muscle,’ Muhammed DeReese is a rising star in MMA, UFC, PFL world.

Muhammed DeReese chuckles after being asked, “Do you think you’re the baddest man on the planet?”

“Man, I’ve always felt like I’m the baddest man on the planet ever since I was back in high school,” he said, laughing. “But, no, I’m humble, and in this sport, I still have a lot to learn. But right now, I’m the best man that they’re going to be seeing.”

Inside the intimidating caged decagon, humbleness probably won’t get him far in a sport known for blood, brutality and — some say — even barbarity. But DeReese’s athleticism and determination just might.

The 31-year-old father of three, who was a former Titusville High and UCF football standout, is just three wins from earning a $1 million paycheck in the Professional Fighters League tournament, money he says that would help youngsters in his popular nonprofit youth program.

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But first, he’ll have to win twice on an unprecedented fight card on Halloween (TV: ESPN+ from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, and ESPN2 from 8 to 11 p.m.) at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Events Center in Las Vegas. Those winners advance to the final on New Year’s Eve in Madison Square Garden.

“Ever since I was a kid, my dad taught me never to fear anyone,” said DeReese, who lost just two matches during his final two years as a wrestler at Titusville High, winning the state title with a 27-0 record as a senior. “Even when I was in the light heavyweight division, I wasn’t that heavy. I figure if I can be within 20 pounds of someone, I’ll do it. I don’t care how tall you are. I’m just as strong as you, and I know one punch can end it.”

Now, he’s one of the final eight warriors in the illustrious heavyweight division and is seeded No. 2 after his latest win, a first-round pummeling of Liechtenstein’s Valdrin “The Beast” Istrefi. 

Nicknamed “Mo Muscle,” DeReese is establishing his name on a worldwide scope in a land of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and PFL (Professional Fighters League) abbreviations. 

“This could set up my career,” DeReese said. “Anybody has a chance (to be recognized) by talking smack or saying something outrageous on Twitter.” 

But the 6-foot-1, 250-pound DeReese, 8-1 in his pro career, would rather let his actions in the decagon be his calling card. Five of his eight wins have come by TKO or KO, all of which has resulted in an impressive celebratory somersault in the middle of the ring.

“I used to do those flips with my cousin in the front yard,” he said, laughing. “I really wanted to be a Ninja.”

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He’ll go up against Idaho’s Jared Rosholt (18-7-0), a 6-2, 265-pound three-time All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State. Known as “The Big Show,” he went 6-2 with the UFC between 2013-2016, and now works as an elevator mechanic in addition to fighting.

“He might be an elevator mechanic, but don’t let that fool you,” DeReese said. “He’s a high-level UFC fighter.”

Others on the heavyweight card:

• Apopka’s Alex Nicholson (14-8-0)  vs. Brazil’s Francimar Barroso (24-7-1)

• Top-ranked Denis Goltsov (24-5-0) of Russia vs. Croatia’s Satoshi Ishii (21-9-1)

• Kelvin Tiller (11-3-0) of Topeka, Kan. vs. Russia’s Ali Isaev (6-0-0)

DeReese has had a phenomenal career on the mats and in the ring. 

He was 38-2 as a high school junior wrestler and 27-0 as a senior. When he turned to MMA, he was 11-0 as an amateur, 9-0 in Toughman boxing and now 8-1 as a pro mixed martial artist. 

“I don’t like losing,” he said. 

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Helping family, community

DeReese will earn $25,000 for his first appearance on Halloween, an additional $25,000 for a win, then the same for the second fight, should he advance. The big payday is in New York.

“I’ve got three children and a beautiful wife,” DeReese said. “I’ve been wanting to be a champion all my life. This means the world to me.”

Asked by a reporter if it’s the prestige or the money he craves, he laughed.

“It’s the money, I’m poor! I grew up all my life poor,” he said, before turning serious. “I grew up without a lot of material things, so if I can give back … a lot of people didn’t have a strong home, or money to go play sports, there are foster kids down the street. If I can help my community … My family first, then my community.”

His nonprofit in Titusville, called the Fighting Edge program, keeps the kids focused and off the streets. But the program, led by Willie Taylor Jr., has a man-made boxing ring and needs a new building, and DeReese also would like to give away hundreds of backpacks.

“This could open doors for a lot of people,” said DeReese, virtually putting his life on the line for others. 

His wife will be attending this fight in Las Vegas.

“My two boys, they’re 8 and 6, and they love it. My daughter’s 3, so she doesn’t know anything about this,” DeReese said. “But my boys are tough on me. Like the one fight I lost, they were like, ‘Why didn’t you do this’ or ‘Why did you do that?’ but when I won, it was like, ‘Yayy, daddy!’ and ‘Wow, you said my name!’ “

DeReese has been staying in the New York-New York Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas strip. Training under former unbeaten MMA fighter Todd Cutler with Fight Sports Daytona, he’s been eating well, too.

“When I was in light heavyweight, I was at 225 (pounds), so I had to cut back to get to 205, just eating vegetables, and that was hard,” DeReese said. “So when I made the decision to move up, now I’m training harder but also getting to eat a lot of steak and potatoes, a lot of carbs. I think I’m even faster as a heavyweight.”

Now, he gets a chance on the grandest of stages.

“I made it to the playoffs, so this is a great opportunity to get my family in a great position,” he said. “I tell everybody, just keep grinding. Everyone struggles to be the person they want to be, and I say, don’t give up, never disbelieve in yourself. That’s how you become successful.”

And that’s how you become the “baddest man on the planet.”

Contact Grossman at 321-242-3676

or hgrossman@floridatoday.com.

Twitter: @hillardgrossman

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PFL card at a glance

* When: Oct. 31

* Where: Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

* TV: ESPN+ from 5 to 8 p.m. (DeReese fights in third match)

 and ESPN2 from 8 to 11 p.m. (all semifinals)

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