In high school, David Lewis was a talented wrestler.
Now in mixed martial arts submission grappling, his trainer views him as one of the best around.
Lewis, a 22-year-old Dalton resident, has only been competing in MMA submission grappling — a form of jiu-jitsu, which focuses on grappling and ground fighting — for around a year and a half. However, he was good enough to win a gold medal for the 145-155 pound division at the Europa Games Get Fit & Sports Expo grappling tournament two weekends ago in Dallas. That accomplishment is just the beginning for what he hopes is a long and successful MMA career.
“I want to be the best there ever was,” Lewis said. “I want to be the best to ever walk through these doors.”
Those doors are the ones at North Georgia Hayastan, the MMA gym in Dalton where Lewis trains with owner and fellow fighter Leonardo Lechuga.
And Lechuga also sees big things for Lewis, even in comparison to the gym’s other fighters, which includes five champions from different promotions around the Tennessee area.
“In my experience and watching all these guys in his division, (Lewis) is atop the food chain,” Lechuga said.
Lewis is 8-1 in grappling submission matches and 2-2 in MMA cage matches. After winning the gold medal, he competed in the Europa Games’ absolute division — which includes all weight classes and skill levels — and lost in the quarterfinals.
“Usually, if you take first place in your weight class, you can do the absolute,” Lechuga said. “Some people come just for the absolute. ... Usually, if you don’t win your weight class, then you shouldn’t be in the absolute. The guy that eliminated him was there coaching his team and had other students competing in it.”
A big reason for Lewis’ natural talent in the sport is his wrestling background. He wrestled all four years at Northwest Whitfield and usually competed in the 135-pound weight class.
He attended Dalton State College but didn’t finish and then started training in MMA grappling. In high school, he reached the Georgia High School Association Class 4A traditionals state tournament each year and reached the quarterfinals each of the last three years. He graduated in 2009.
“Wrestling has helped him because he can handle any situation,” Lechuga said. “When I grapple with him, he always ends up on my back.”
Plus, the work ethic required for the sport reminds Lewis of his wrestling days.
“The first thing I realized when I came in here was the practices were tougher than, if not as hard as, wrestling practices,” he said. “Wrestlers are known for practicing hard. As soon as I came in, I felt right at home.”
The experience created a foundation, but MMA submission grappling is quite different. In wrestling, the objective is to stay on top of your opponent and get him on his back for a pinfall. In MMA, you’re trying to get a submission or knockout.
“With wrestling, you’re basically attacking,” Lewis said. “With jui-jitsu, you can’t attack all the time because you might get caught. So you have to reserve your attack or you pressure on so hard they can’t get you in anything.
“The biggest thing I had to change was being comfortable on my back. In wrestling, you obviously don’t want to be on your back. But with this, you can do more on your back than on your feet.
“I have great positioning, I can scramble real well and I can take anyone when we’re standing.”
Lechuga said some wrestlers don’t transition well to MMA because of the differences.
“You can have a wrestler that comes in and can wrestle his butt off, and next thing you know, he’s submitted. It’s simply because he doesn’t know what to look for and in submission grappling, there’s a lot of things wrestlers do that you just do not do in submission grappling.”
The main thing is leaving space, Lechuga said, because you want to “isolate the limbs.” Wrestling is all about staying off your back and scrambling to get away.
“When you’re trying to get away, sometimes you have a limb in a position where it can be submitted.”
But Lewis has done enough to make a Lechuga a believer, and many others. After all, he did win a gold medal after defeating four consecutive opponents in his weight class and division.
“In skill level and straight toughness, he’s probably one of the best in the Tennessee area where we do most of our fighting,” Lechuga said.