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A fighting chance

When Devin Cole graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2003, it's not as if he didn't have career paths to follow.

He had worked as a carpenter for his future father-in-law while attending SOU, and working hard for a living didn't scare Cole off at all.

The former All-American wrestler also spent about a year as a car salesman at Lithia Dodge, but the hours involved just didn't fit the lifestyle he wanted to lead.

And even though his bachelor's degree was in health promotion and fitness management, Cole minored in math education with an eye toward getting a master's degree and possibly become a teacher.

To be sure, the options were there for the well-spoken standout from Coquille to lead a quiet lifestyle.

But that's just not the person Cole is, or the road he wanted to travel.

Instead, the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder opted for the challenges of trying to become an elite mixed martial arts fighter in 2003 — and it's a choice that is beginning to pay off personally and financially.

Cole is a heavyweight fighter for the Portland Wolfpack in the International Fight League. In its third season, the IFL has grown to 12 teams spread throughout the United States.

"I think it's everybody's dream to make a living at what they love," says Cole, "and I'm lucky enough to do it."

The 30-year-old is one of the original IFL members, spurning an opportunity to fight in the more established UFC for a shot at being a building block to something special.

His first mixed martial arts fight came in 2003, when he stepped in for former SOU and Crater High wrestling standout Mike Whitehead, who couldn't make the fight because he transferred to the University of Missouri to compete. In the four years since, Cole has run the gamut of experiences as a fighter.

"My first fight made $800," says Cole, "and now I have the chance to make $100,000 in a year. That's pretty darn amazing."

That money is only available for IFL fighters whose teams advance through the playoffs into the championship finals and beyond, culminating with the IFL grand prix.

In Cole's first two seasons in the IFL, his team advanced to the finals but lost to Pat Miletich's Silverbacks. Cole started as a member of the Seattle-based Tiger Sharks, but transferred to the Wolfpack when a team was formed in Portland.

Cole and his wife, the former Lyndsey Bourdon, a 2000 graduate of Phoenix High, lived in Medford up until this past September, when it became apparent that a move to Portland was needed to help Cole take the next step as a pro fighter.

"I'm really thankful for her leaving the security of somewhere she's lived all her life so I can follow my dreams," says Cole, who will be married two years come June.

With his wrestling background, Cole's strength inside the ring obviously involves taking opponents down to work for submissions or ground-and-pound moments. He's been working diligently to improve his kickboxing and punching prowess.

"If I can make people worry about my hands and kicks, then that's just going to make me tougher to fight against," he says. "That's the level I want to get at as a fighter."

Cole's record is a modest 7-5, but he blames himself for trying to inject too many new skills into his matches since moving from Medford.

In his most recent loss on Feb. 23, Cole was ahead in the match against Rafael Feijao but caught a flush punch to the nose. The referee instantly pounced on the fighters to end the match because of Cole's broken nose.

Five weeks after surgery, however, Cole was back at it in Uncasville, Conn., against the Pitbulls of New York. In what could be considered his signature fight to date, Cole shrugged off a knee to the groin, a handful of punches to the nose and a spill through the ropes on the side apron to win by knockout over Bryan Vetell in the second round.

"When I went out and I got hit in the nose about a minute and half in, that was actually the first time I'd been hit since the surgery," says Cole, who was visibly concerned following the clean punch. "It started bleeding pretty bad and it scared me a little. I started thinking about whether they were going to stop the fight and a bunch of other things."

The remaining moments of the first round involved Vetell being in full control as he worked to score a knockout and Cole squirmed to deflect any power punches.

With his teammates picking up his spirits between rounds, Cole regrouped and finally took control a couple minutes into Round 2. He finally worked Vetell down to the mat and suddenly found the going much easier. A slip of the guard here and a full mount there, and Cole was raining haymakers on Vetell's face to score an improbable knockout.

The fight was carried on Fox Sports Northwest and later on KFBI, a local affiliate of My Network, and Cole was lauded by the TV announcers for showing such undeniable heart.

"That was one of the better feelings I've had, being able to finish that fight like I did," he says. "I could've quit or found a way out of that fight from the low blow (in the first round) to getting hit in the nose. There were so many things going against me and I found a way to win. I pride myself on that and I'm going to try to keep building on that."

And keep living the dream.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com

Devin Cole, top, punches his way to a knockout win against Bryan Vetell during their IFL match. - Getty Images for IFL