Zion Clark has been a fighter all his life, so it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that he’s choosing mixed martial arts as his future.
The 25-year-old Ohio native, who was born without legs due to a rare birth defect called Caudal Regression Syndrome that affects fetal spinal development, made his successful pro MMA debut this past weekend, earning a unanimous decision victory over Eugene Murray at a Gladiator’s Challenge card in San Diego.
It was a proud moment, yet Clark is already proving himself to be a true mixed martial artist by critiquing his own performance that night.
“It could have been better,” Clark told MMA Fighting. “I’m going to be honest about that. I felt like I could have closed the distance a little bit more. I felt like I did an OK job keeping center mat and forcing him to the cage. That was a big point my coaches had — don’t give him room to move. If you’re going to go on offense, don’t give him room to move. If you’re going to go for counters, let him come to you.
“I feel OK, I feel good. Happy that I won but still a little too close for comfort for me on how it played out.”
As unlikely as it might seem that Clark would compete in MMA, much less earn a victory, it’s just further testament to the drive he’s had since he was a child.
Whether it was wrestling, where he amassed an impressive record in high school before moving on to college, or setting numerous Guinness World Records, Clark has always been about defying the odds. MMA was just the latest obstacle he wanted to overcome.
Of course, all of those accomplishments came as a result of Clark battling the odds against him.
Given up for adoption just after he was born, Clark bounced around foster homes for much of his life while also dealing with various forms of abuse. Clark eventually found a stable home when he was 16, which was around the same time he really started focusing more on wrestling — a sport he actually took up in elementary school.
As difficult as it was for him, Clark says overcoming the constant struggles actually shaped him into the person he’s become today.
“It was definitely hard times,” Clark said. “Not having a family makes things a lot harder as a kid. I dealt with a lot of different types of abuse, and just through that, just being able to come out on the other side still standing is a testimony unto itself. But I don’t sit on that.
“It happened. I used it as fuel for a while, but now I have a bigger goal to create a legacy and leave a lasting impact on people and change the world. I got to showcase what it means to break human limitations this past weekend, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I learned that from the hard times, because it really helped me build the mindset of just get back up, get back up, get back up.”
Over the years, Clark has become an inspiration for the way he’s attacked goals that weren’t supposed to be attainable for him. When he’s not training, he doubles as a motivational speaker. But with his new chosen career in MMA, Clark wants to inspire through actions more than words.
“I’ve learned that to inspire people, yeah, it’s great to talk to them and I love speaking to people and I love inspiring them with my voice,” Clark explained. “But the ultimate inspiration is the one where you don’t need to speak.
“People just see the action and it instills something to go out and chase what they want. It’s like, ‘What if I lost my voice one day?’ If I lost my voice tomorrow, I would inspire people by my actions.”
As far as his introduction to MMA, it turns out Clark was already a fan thanks to his wrestling background, but he actually found inspiration of his own after becoming friends with Bellator prospect Joey Davis.
During a trip to Los Angeles where Clark and his adopted mother made an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he received an invite from Davis to stop by the gym he was training at alongside future Bellator champion A.J. McKee and his father Antonio McKee.
“I was leaving college at that point and I was starting to figure out what I want out of this life, what do I want to do?” Clark said. “Initially, what propelled me to a lot of these places that I’ve gotten to? Martial arts. It’s something that I live, something that I breathe, so it was a no-brainer for me to join the team.”
According to Clark, the team didn’t take it easy on him when he first started training.
In fact, a punch delivered by Kevin Ferguson Jr. — better known as ‘Baby Slice’ — let Clark know that he had a lot to learn before he could actually call himself a mixed martial artist.
“The first day I went to practice, Slice punched me in my mouth and sat me down and rung my bell,” Clark said. “It was a wake-up call. It was like I’m definitely not ready but I’m going to come back anyways. Because I was willing to learn.
“Over the last five years, I’ve learned some skills and I’ve developed skills of my own that compliment the way I move.”
Nothing came easy, but Clark was determined to stick with it, and over time he started to get better and better to the point where he decided that fighting would be his future.
“It was a hard road and it’s still super f****** hard,” Clark said. “Just being honest with you about that. Fighting’s hard. Nobody likes to get punched in the face, but I’m crazy enough to do it. And I’m going to do it again. Probably soon.”
While Clark has talked about pursuing the Olympics and the Paralympics in the past, he’s putting his full attention on fighting for now.
He suffered a hand and wrist injury in his debut fight but hopes with proper care and rehabilitation that he’ll be able to book his next bout in early 2023. From there, the sky’s the limit.
“I’m a martial artist first before everything,” Clark said. “There’s no track and field without the basis of wrestling for me. There’s no breaking world records without the basis of wrestling for me. I’ve really circulated my life around this. Not that I’m obsessed, but more so that I’ve learned a lot of values and it’s helped me through some dark times.
“Now I’m in a place where I can do some damage. Why not run this train off the rails? I try to keep it moving forward. I don’t want to ride the wave of this one fight. I want you guys to see the next one.”
As far as long-term goals, Clark isn’t shy about what he wants to accomplish.
During his conversation with MMA Fighting, he wore a t-shirt that read “Doubt Me,” because Clark enjoys breaking through barriers that he’s not supposed to overcome. MMA just happens to be the next one in his way.
“[I want to] take it all the way to the top. I want a belt,” Clark said. “Simple. That’s as simple as it is. But for now, I’ve got to get there first, so I’ve got to focus and learn right now.”