Fighter of the Month: Derion ‘DC’ Chapman

By Joe Wilhelm
Photos by Stephanie Drews and Primo Catalano

Derion Chapman’s movement is fluid, precise, sudden. His opponent, AJ Lavarias, takes one step. He takes another. Chapman stands light on his feet, keeping his space from the shorter Lavarias with calculated jabs and kicks. The progression is smooth, graceful.

In this moment, in this game of cat-and-mouse, Chapman performs like the dancer he is.

Derion 'DC' Chapman squares off against AJ Lavarias. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

Derion ‘DC’ Chapman squares off against AJ Lavarias. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

“I’m a freestyle dancer and whenever I’m fighting its a freestyle type of thing,” Chapman said. “You always have to improvise. Whenever you’re dancing or battling somebody, you have to be quick and on-beat. If the beat changes, you have to adjust to that. I feel like when I’m fighting, I’m doing the same thing.”

It’s this style that makes Chapman’s bursts of raw aggression so striking. Prior to his tangle with Lavarias, Chapman had finished all four of his amateur fights, overwhelming opponents with furious combinations and an opportunistic ground-game.

It’s common to hear that you can’t coach aggression, that it’s something inherent to the athlete. For Chapman, that aggression is unmistakable. It makes it difficult to tell if you’re watching a dancer turned fighter or a fighter turned dancer.

In fact, it was this very aggression that first brought Chapman to House of Champions in Van Nuys.

“One night my fiancé and I were at the movies and this guy was getting ready to fight 12 people by himself,” Chapman said. “I went over to stop the fight but they were already beating him up. I try to pull one of them off of him and next thing I know I was fighting two guys. My girl saw me get out of that scratch-free and told me I should fight. So she gave me a hundred bucks to start my training.”

Chapman came to the House of Champions as a raw athlete whose fighting experience was limited to schoolyard tousles and movie theater brawls. In the early months of his training, Chapman was in and out of the gym, flirting with the idea of an MMA career while stabilizing his living situation with his fiancé, Josie Estrada.

Derion Chapman may now walk as a much humbler fighter, but there is always a bit of swagger and showmanship in DC.

Derion Chapman may now walk as a much humbler fighter, but there is always a bit of swagger and showmanship in DC. (Photo by Primo Catalano/University of MMA)

“I came in here and thought I was the best dude regardless of experience,” Chapman said. “But then you begin to realize things like you don’t know how to block a kick. So even if I think I am the best, this guy is going to kick my ass because I get kicked in the head.”

Before going all-in on his training, Chapman expected fight opportunities that House of Champions owner Sensei Mark Parra was simply unwilling to give.

“A hundred people may come in here and think they want to fight,” Parra said. “But once they get hit in the nose or take a couple of hard leg kicks, I end up with ten that really want to do it. And out of those ten, one or two of them will go on to have pro careers. It’s a small percentage that makes it from the beach to the open ocean.”

Chapman’s unwillingness to fully dedicate himself to martial arts kept him off Parra’s fight team, which values quality over quantity. But Chapman eventually found a source of inspiration; one that drove him to begin developing his considerable talent for fighting.

On July 13 of 2011, Derion Chapman, Jr. was born, bringing about a monumental lifestyle change for Chapman and Estrada. Eight months ago, Derion Junior was joined by Jace Chapman, the couple’s second son. No longer responsible for providing only for one, Chapman has immersed himself in his martial arts training.

“It’s a big life adjustment,” Chapman said. “When I’m in here, I treat it like work now. Before having them, I was training just to train. But once my son was born, it started clicking. Either you do this right or you don’t do it at all. They push me. If I go home after getting hurt I can look at them and say ‘all right cool. Daddy got beat-up but he got beat up for a reason.’ Why? Because I’m trying to make sure they have what I didn’t have: a house, a backyard, all that good stuff.”

When Chapman says this, a sudden fire sparks in his gaze, a look usually reserved for his opponents in the cage. It’s October of 2013 and Chapman, then 3-0, is just beginning to make a name for himself in amateur MMA. He sits in Parra’s House of Champions office, having just completed his morning workout.

Hovering on the wall above Chapman’s shoulder is a portrait of Muhammad Ali. Not the iconic image of Ali moments after he knocks out Sonny Liston and proves himself the world’s greatest.

That’s the Ali that sports fans know and love, the larger-than-life champion whose personality was only equaled by his talent. Instead, this Ali stands with his arms crossed over his chest, his posture slightly slouched. His head is turned to the distance, deep in thought, wearing an expression that is determined but not entirely confident. This is an Ali yet to be coronated champion, a man with a dream on the brink of fulfillment.

This isn’t to say Derion Chapman is Muhammad Ali reincarnate. But as he sits slouched in Parra’s office with his own arms crossed, he looks every bit the part of a champion in waiting.

“I’ve realized that you can’t always ask for what you want,” Chapman said. “You have to make people want to give it to you. As long as you work hard, you’ll attract people to you. I feel like I’m being prepared to not only be a good competitor but honestly, a world-class competitor.”

Chapman vs. Roger Brito (University of MMA: Fight Night 5, December 8, 2013). (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

Chapman vs. Roger Brito (University of MMA: Fight Night 4, December 8, 2013). (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

Since October, Chapman hasn’t demonstrated anything to the contrary. At the U of MMA’s Fight Night 5, on December 8, 2013, Chapman earned his fourth finish in as many amateur fights, overwhelming Systems Training Center’s Roger Brito with a vicious flurry of ground-and-pound en route to a second-round TKO.

His victory earned him a title shot at the U of MMA’s Fight Night 5, pitting him against the powerful wrestling ability of AJ Lavarias (who, coincidentally, is a teammate of Brito’s). Though Chapman owned four inches of height over Lavarias, common knowledge dictates that the taller fighter owns an advantage standing-up while the shorter an advantage on the ground.

In the first minutes of round one, the fight followed this script. Chapman and Lavarias engaged in their aforementioned dance, circling the cage and testing each other with several jabs and leg kicks. But eventually the powerful Lavarias backed Chapman against the cage and secured a takedown from the clench. The stocky Lavarias smothered Chapman for the subsequent two minutes, looking to have won the round.

But with thirty seconds remaining in the round, Chapman turned the fight on its head. In a brilliant piece of improvisation, Chapman used the cage as leverage to pull a reversal by flipping behind Lavarias and gaining his back. With seconds remaining, Chapman connected on a flurry of combinations that opened a rear-naked choke attempt that nearly ended the fight.

“I’m a dancer,” Chapman said. “I’m good at moving and flying around in the cage. But at the same time, I have to commit to certain techniques. My mentality is to be a finisher, no matter what.”

The waning seconds of Derion Chapman vs. AJ Lavarias (University of MMA: Fight Night 5, February 9, 2014). (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

The waning seconds of Derion Chapman vs. AJ Lavarias (University of MMA: Fight Night 5, February 9, 2014). (Photo by Stephanie Drews/University of MMA)

Chapman’s reversal marked the first true turning point in the fight. The fighters competed neck-and-neck throughout rounds two and three, until once again, with a minute and a half remaining, Lavarias took Chapman to the ground, this time with true, audible force. But true to form, Chapman flashed his resiliency and finishing ability, snaking around Lavarias back and battering his defenses until a second rear-naked attempt presented itself.

Though the hold didn’t finish the fight, it took enough out of Lavarias to open a decisive series of blows to the back of Lavarias’ head. With this dominant display being Chapman’s last impression upon the judges, the 25-year-old fighter seized the U of MMA’s lightweight title.

Now, Chapman has locked onto a new goal. After a title defense at a future U of MMA Fight Night, he hopes to launch his professional career.

“Being 5-0 let’s people know that I’m for real,” Chapman said. “I’m not here to play. I’m consistently in the gym, I’m always working, always trying to get better. I feel like if I do that all the time: going to House of Champions, eating right, and doing everything a fighter should be doing, there’s no reason I shouldn’t stay undefeated.”

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