When Josh Van Meurs walked into the octagon cage in Las Vegas for his fifth and final fight – the fight for all the marbles, for the best in North America – he was a bit nervous.
His opponent was a oversized kid from California who weighed in at 205 pounds and stood six foot three. Van Meurs, a 16-year-old from Langford, at a lean 160 pounds looked to be the classic underdog.
Van Meurs had subdued his first four opponents with relative ease at the pankration (mixed martial arts) and combat grappling youth championships at Randy Couture’s MMA facility, Xtreme Couture. Cage fighting was new territory for the Belmont secondary French immersion student, but it didn’t show.
“Usually it’s a mat or a ring. When I looked at that cage, I instantly thought of ways to use it to my advantage,” Van Meurs said. “It was very exciting to fight in a cage. It’s what the pros do.”
Being B.C.’s top U20 judo athlete, as well as a proficient muay thai kickboxer and MMA warrior trained by Sarah Kaufman, Van Meurs earned a welcome invitation to the pankration national championships.
The Vegas atmosphere in Couture’s gym and being under the glare of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) athletes energized the young fighter. His first match ended in two minutes with an arm lock. “There was nervousness in his eyes. He was a lot more nervous than I was,” Van Meurs said. “I won all the fights easily, except for the fifth fight.”
Indeed, he knew that gold medal match wouldn’t be a cakewalk. His opponent had a devastating ground game, backed with powerful strikes. In pankration, there are no blows above the collarbone, so the body takes a beating.
“I tried to keep the fight standing. If he got too close I’d try a judo throw,” Van Meurs said. “I was definitely nervous in that fight. The guy was a giant and everyone could see it.”
A few times in the eight minute, two-round match, Van Meurs found himself under his opponent, trying to protect himself from body blows. The guy “kicked like a horse,” Van Meurs said, his ribs still bruised a week later.
“When he was on top, in that situation I’d think to myself ‘I’ve got 25 seconds, how do I get out?’” he said. “I’d think about how I’d get him out of position.”
His coach yelled instructions in French to create a tactical advantage and Van Meurs adopted a rope-a-dope strategy of wearing down his opponent. The April 1 fight went the distance and Van Meurs was declared the winner by a unanimous decision.
“I had better position, more of my shots landed and I had aggressive striking,” Van Meurs said. “No one wanted to win worse than I did. It’s great to come out with a gold medal.”
Perhaps even better than the win was hanging out with Couture, an iconic UFC champion turned actor, and also with professional MMA athletes Samuel Bracamonte and Tim Sylvia.
“I got to talk with (Randy Couture) twice, before the gold medal and after. I used his advice to win the gold,” Van Meurs said. “He is the Wayne Gretzky of UFC. I was talking to an idol of mine right there. He talked to me like I was his bro.”
The gold medal has earned Van Meurs an invitation to compete in the pankration junior world championships in Guam in April 2013. In the meantime, he’s training for Canadian national judo championships in Toronto in July.
Last year he walked out of nationals in fourth place. This year he plans to walk away with the title. “Now I’m training harder. My confidence is twice as good as last year.”