Football

Fighter’s mentality: Vaughan considers future in MMA as fallback to pro football

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Dan Vaughan is committed to pursuing a professional football career, but he is also considering becoming an MMA fighter if those dreams fall through. Vaughan won 118 wrestling matches during his high school career at Pittsburgh Central Catholic in Pennsylvania.

Primacy dwells within the octagonal cage. It coats each square inch of the canvas spanning the structure’s 30-foot diameter and drips off the black vinyl coating on the chain-link fence that prevents inhabitants from exiting before the fight is finished.

Outside the cage, spectators roar with every vicious blow and hail the fighter that inflicts it. Inside the cage, two competitors wage a war that ends only when one of their bodies gives out.

This is the world of mixed martial arts, a sport whose popularity continues on a meteoric rise, thanks in large part to the billion-dollar, worldwide entity that is the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

And it caught the attention of Syracuse linebacker Dan Vaughan.

“If football doesn’t work out past college, I would like to give a shot at MMA,” Vaughan said.

Vaughan, a fifth-year senior, began wrestling at the age of 4 and continued through high school, where he was a standout at Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School. He gave it up to pursue a football career at Syracuse, but nothing replaced the competitiveness that he feels is unique to sports in which individual physical supremacy is the ultimate goal. Mixed martial arts will rekindle that flame, he said, and provide an environment to use his wrestling skills while also pushing his body in new directions.

“I’ve been to some facilities where they’re doing that training,” Vaughan said. “And it’s wrestling, boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai, and all that stuff. It’s really tough.”

Aside from wrestling, it will all be new to Vaughan, whose only mixed martial arts experience — though it can hardly be called that — comes in the form of friendly skirmishes with some of his Syracuse teammates.

His current sparring partner is backup punter Riley Dixon, whose 205-pound frame is 16 pounds lighter than Vaughan’s, and who has no background in wrestling or fighting whatsoever. Nonetheless, the two face off in the locker room or on the soft turf of Manley Field House in bouts that occur on a weekly basis.

“He’s got a little bit of strength on me,” Dixon said with a smile. “He’s a bit bigger, a lot stronger and he actually knows what he’s doing when it comes to that stuff.”

So the result is consistently the same: Vaughan comes out victorious.

“I always win,” he said. “I choke him out and stuff. I choked him out the other day with a triangle choke.”

His sole defeat came during 7-on-7 workouts in a wrestling match with former Syracuse linebacker Malcolm Cater two summers ago. Vaughan hip tossed Cater, and that’s all he can remember.

Teammates have since told him that a head-to-head collision knocked Vaughan unconscious and left a huge gash above Cater’s eye. Both were taken to the hospital by Syracuse athletic trainers, Vaughan said.

But Cater’s wound healed, and all tests for a concussion or other damage came back negative for Vaughan, so he laughs about the incident. The only downside, he said, was when former linebackers coach Dan Conley found out.

“He was pretty upset that I didn’t tell him,” Vaughan said. “But I was like, ‘Whatever, I don’t care.’ It’s not like we were (legitimately) fighting. I didn’t think a big deal of it.”

That he shrugs off what was potentially a debilitating collision exemplifies the toughness that his teammates and coaches say define his character. Mikhail Marinovich, a former Syracuse defensive end who graduated in May, called Vaughan a “tough motherf***er,” and that was before he knew Vaughan played through a severely strained oblique during the 2011 season that limited his mobility.

He still tallied 72 tackles in 12 games last year while maintaining a starting spot at outside linebacker.

As a youth wrestler, Vaughan competed in two different age groups because he possessed the skill and the size to take on kids four years older than him. The dozens of trophies in his bedroom at home, according to his mother, attest to that. So does his 118-26 career record as a high school wrestler, which includes a fourth-place finish in the Pennsylvania state tournament.

“He’s a guy that grits his teeth and is going to go fight,” Syracuse linebackers coach Steve Morrison said. “Those guys scare you a little bit when you coach them, because you don’t know if they’re dinged up. They’re going to fight through anything.

“He’s very intelligent, very soft spoken, but fiery as hell when he gets on the football field. Those are the type of people that I think would do well in mixed martial arts.”

But if he does go into MMA, it will likely be without the approval of his parents. His mother, Suzanne, and his father, John, both fear for his safety in a sport they called “unregulated.” The lack of protective equipment worries them, especially the absence of a helmet.

Suzanne Vaughan is a speech language pathologist, whose work exposes her to the devastating reality of severe head injuries. As a result, she preached the importance of safety in athletics to both her sons as they grew up.

“He needs to be considering that, ‘I could be ending my possibilities in life by going into a really physical and violent sport,’” she said. “That’s not what we want for Danny, but I understand that he wants to stay in sports as long as possible.”

Vaughan is aware of his parents’ concerns and says they are typical of what anyone’s parents would say. He just wants to compete, no matter the environment.

That’s why he lists Gray “The Bully” Maynard as one of his favorite UFC fighters, because Maynard “just brawls.”

Vaughan reiterates that a professional football career is still his top priority, and he hopes to follow through on that following his final season at Syracuse. But he’ll never shy away from a new opportunity or new challenge. It’s not his style.

And if mixed martial arts is that venture, so be it. Vaughan will jump right in.

“I think anybody should just follow their dreams,” Vaughan said. “I’m just the kind of guy — I don’t really look too far in the future. Whatever presents itself and I think it’s the right thing, I’m going to take it.”

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