Ray Wood missed the original call offering a spot in the co-main event of the Bellator 166 mixed martial arts card on Friday at the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma.
Food poisoning was the suspected culprit as the 27-year-old Bucksport High School graduate turned off his cellphone, retired to bed at 5 p.m. and didn’t awaken until 6 a.m.
But the rigors of training for a fight and the responsibilities of being a first-time father — son Liem Legend Wood turned 4 months old Wednesday — played at least some part in that deep fatigue.
“I woke up the next morning, and my phone was blowing up,” said Wood from his home in Amarillo, Texas. “My manager was calling me, Bellator was calling me, everyone was leaving me messages and texts saying we have a huge opportunity for you, but we need an answer. My manager texted me and said, ‘Why aren’t you answering? They want you for the co-main event!’”
Wood did eventually reach Bellator officials, and now he’ll fight prospect A.J. McKee, 21, in a three-round featherweight clash to be aired live on Spike TV. The main card telecast starts at 9 p.m.
Wood (8-2 overall, 1-1 with Bellator) was to fight Treston Thomison on the undercard but was named to fight McKee (5-0) after McKee’s original opponent was injured during training.
“God knows how many people were on the list that they could have chosen, but they called me for a reason, and I’ll take every opportunity they’re going to hand me,” said Wood. “This is what I’ve been working for.”
Wood also was a late replacement in his last fight, a May 14 clash against unbeaten Adam Piccolotti at Bellator 154 in San Jose, California. He lost by first-round submission, his first amateur or professional defeat that didn’t go the distance.
“I learned I just need to be more patient in my fights,” said Wood. “Sometimes when you don’t really know your opponent you need to let things develop, you need to let it come to you. I can’t always be going 100 miles an hour.”
Wood also is taking a speed course in patience as a dad.
“It definitely changes things,” he said. “Before, all you had to do was worry about yourself, and now I’m fighting for a lot more.”
Wood and his wife, Tiana, share a hectic daily schedule.
Wood opens the gym where he works and trains, Nick’s Fight Club, at 4 a.m. and stays until noon. His wife drops Liem off at the gym’s day care facility at 10 a.m. to go to her job as an assistant track coach at West Texas A&M University.
Wood looks in on his son at day care, then takes him home to spend the afternoon together. By 6 p.m., Tiana returns home and Wood heads back to the gym for his formal workout.
“The most challenging thing is finding time for my wife and I, especially throughout a fight camp,” Wood said. “We haven’t had time to sit down and have a conversation together. She walks through the door, and I hand her the baby and grab my gym bag, and I’m out the door, and vice versa.”
Afternoons offer the best opportunity for father and son to rest, but Liem isn’t on a regular schedule yet.
“He takes naps, but they’re a half-hour or 20 minutes, and there’s just the regular stuff that piles up in between, so whenever he’s napping, instead of having the time to nap yourself, you’re doing the laundry, feeding the dog, taking the cat out — there’s always all kinds of stuff to do,” said Wood.
“Definitely some rest would be beneficial, but at the same time, I’m blessed to be able to spend that time with my kid. Not too many fathers have that opportunity, they’re working 9 to 5, and the mother is working 9 to 5, and the kid is in day care,” he said. “I’m blessed that I get to help raise my kid and watch him grow.”
The addition of Liem to the family has made this a training camp unlike any other for Wood, who turned to MMA nearly a decade a year ago after a successful wrestling career at Bucksport High.
He began MMA workouts in the basement of Chris Young’s house in Brewer — which evolved into Young’s MMA of Bangor — and that led him to the New England Fights featherweight championship before he and his wife moved out of state, first to South Carolina and then to Texas.
Through all changes there’s been a continued climb up the MMA ranks to his current status with one of the nation’s top combat sports organizations.
“The past two years I’ve jumped around from gym to gym and from training partner to training partner, but it’s more being able to manage your time, focus on what you need to do and finding the time and means to hone those skills,” said Wood.
Time management includes being “Mr. Mom” during the afternoons and “Mr. MMA” on nights and weekends.
“Being a father and a fighter is just the yin and the yang, it keeps you balanced,” he said. “When you’re having a tough day with your kid, you can go to the gym and work it off, and when you have a tough day at the gym, you can go home and hold your kid, and it takes all those worries and pains away.”
Wood’s upcoming opponent also has a unique relationship with his father. Antonio McKee is a former Maximum Fighting Championship MMA lightweight champion.
Wood sees that relationship as providing A.J. McKee a shortcut to Bellator’s fast track.
“He hasn’t had to climb his way to the top like I have,” said Wood. “I’ve gone through the ranks, through the regional circuits, through the smaller shows. He hasn’t had to dig deep and fight for something. It’s been handed to him.”
McKee was signed by Bellator directly out of the amateur ranks, where he went 7-1 after debuting at 17. His pro record includes four first-round stoppages followed by a second-round submission of Cody Walker on Aug. 26 in Los Angeles.
“This kid is the new up-and-comer, he’s getting a lot of publicity, but in my opinion, he hasn’t fought anybody, he hasn’t been tested,” said Wood. “He hasn’t fought somebody who moves like I move. He hasn’t fought someone who strikes like I strike.
“This kid is talking about title contention, so if I take him out, it puts my name right up there at the top of the list,” he said.
But in the spirit of managing training camp and fatherhood for the first time, the Wood family faces a considerable balancing act this weekend.
There’s the six-hour drive from Amarillo to the fight site, then the fight itself. And much as Michael Phelps’ son Boomer was in the crowd at age 3 months to watch his dad swim at the summer Olympics, Liem will be nearby to watch his dad at work.
“I want to share these experiences with my family,” he said. “I don’t just do this for me any more, I want to share this with everybody that’s close to me.”
Right after the fight, the Wood family will drive 10 hours to Alamosa, Colorado, where Tiana Wood and the West Texas A&M track team opens its indoor season the next morning at Adams State University.
“She wants to be there to support me so we’ll go to the fight Friday night and then drive out from there to Colorado to make it to the track meet in time,” Ray Wood said, “You just make those sacrifices to support each other.
“I’ll be excited to get this fight over with, to get this win and then spend some time with my family,” he said. “It’s been a long few months.”