Kyle Stewart Opens Up About Fighting for Veterans & His UFC Dreams

March 30, 2022

-Shane Mercer

HubSpot Video


Kyle “Gunz Up” Stewart has a big fight coming up at XMMA 4: Black Magic against Zak Ottow.  He spoke with MILLIONS about the fight, as well as his time in the US Marine Corps, and about why he’s always looking to support veterans and advocate for them and the issues they face after serving their country.  

We connected for an interview that we used to create the video above, and the whole conversation was about 30 minutes.  Here’s the transcription of that conversation:

Shane: Alright, there we go. This is a Millions interview. I'm Shane Mercer and I'm here with Kyle “Gunz Up” Stewart. Kyle, thanks so much for joining me, man. 

Kyle: Thanks for having me out man. Sorry I kept you waiting a little too long. I was out running errands and doing the normal thing. I’m glad to be on, man.

Shane: Hey, no worries man. I know you got training to do. You got a big fight coming up. How you feeling? 

Kyle: Good. Training's been real, real good. I've been lifting a lot. I mean I used to fight at 170 number. It’s 185 so it's a lot easier weight cut for me, not having to cut down all the way to 170 pounds. Now I only got about 15 pounds to go, which is a little bit ahead of schedule for where I'm at right now. So I'm feeling good, feeling great, in shape. Training camp has been -- my buddy asked, how’s training going? Well I'm tired, I'm sore so you could say I'm banged up and beat up. So I guess you could say it's going pretty damn well. 

Shane: You're fighting a guy Zak Ottow, it's XMMA Event. Just tell me a little bit about the fight, a little bit about the event, how you're feeling going into it. 

Kyle: Oh yeah it's XMMA Event. XMMA is a regional show. But as far as regional level shows there's going to be 14, myself included, but 14 different UFC veterans on the card. I'm one of them. It's a very high level regional level show, so not too many up and coming guys. There's a lot of guys that are on the cards that have been to the UFC. Zak Ottow fought in the UFC for a while as well. So it's going to be one hell of a banger of a card. That's going to be April 2nd, it's going to be in New Orleans. if you tune into, you should be able to click on it, you should be able to watch the link that they have posted there. 

Shane: We'll get into the fight in a little bit more in depth in a little bit here. But first I want to get a little bit some insight into why you fight. You often talk about veterans, veterans issues, very close to your heart. Tell me a little bit about your time in the military. 

Kyle: Yeah, I was in the Marine Corps. I was in the Marine Corps in 2007. Deployed to Afghanistan three times, I was an infantry guy. I was a machine gunner. So I was in for roughly just a little under 8 years. Then while I was in the Marine Corps, that's when I started training in Mixed Martial Arts and fighting. I was pretty good at it. And I got to a point where I was like, do I want you to stay in the Marine Corps past 8 years? At that point it's like as oh I want to do 20 years, or go and get out and pursue MMA. 

So I got out of the Marine Corps with the idea in my mind that I was going to pursue MMA and wanted to make it to the UFC. I think I'm one of the lucky ones and that when I got out of the Marine Corps like I had a purpose and something that I was moving on to, whereas a lot of guys just get out of the military and it can be rough being in the military and a lot of guys are so happy once they finally get out but they don't have anything to move on to. And I feel like a lot of military veterans, especially guys that come from the infantry field like me, they struggle with that sense of purpose and that sense of community that you would get in an MMA gym. So I think I was pretty lucky to have that -- when I got out of the Marine Corps, I already knew where I was going but I feel like when I look around the veteran community, there's a lot of guys that have gotten out they struggle to find something that to gravitate towards. 

So that's something that I like my message when I fight that I like to deliver to the veterans. I have a lot of marines still support me today but just that like just because you don't get to serve anymore, you're not going overseas that doesn't mean that you stop pursuing your life's goals -- got to ignore my dogs. But for me that is something that the message that I really tried to deliver is like for me in MMA I have that's what I continue to do and after MMA it'll be my business. So I feel like that's been my purpose, your why. Below the surface, beyond fighting is just delivering that message and being an example for that. 

Shane: No, it's a wonderful message. It's a great message and it's a major issue that maybe doesn't get the kind of attention it deserves. 

Kyle: Yeah, definitely. There's a lot of people -- I mean I haven't heard so much about it lately but 22 veterans a day commit suicide. If you heard the 22 push-ups, people are doing 22 push-ups. A lot of people use the number 22. I think a lot of people tied in the veteran like PTSD. I'm saying that it isn't, but I think a lot of it is just lack of a bigger purpose or lack of drive, lack of objectives to continue. Because when you're in the military, it's day by day by day, you're constantly grinding. You're constantly -- there's another mountain to climb. There's another field operation, there's another deployment, there's another combat operation. You're constantly, you have all these goals and things that months and months out and you live that lifestyle and you're with a group of guys that you are so close to. Then when you get out you're just like free in the civilian world and you're like, what do I do now? Do I go to school? I kind of don't really want to go to school. What direction? I want to do something significant. Sitting in a Biology class doesn't make me feel significant. I went through that struggle too. But like I said I had MMA, that's what makes me feel alive. That's what gets me excited. 

Shane: Yeah, absolutely searching for purpose and you mentioned being challenged on a regular basis, when you're in the military and then you get out and that challenge isn't there anymore and you sort of have to create your own, I suppose. 

Kyle: Yeah, basically, yeah. You know, I compare, it's kind of cliche, but you see like you look at the lion in the zoo and look at like videos of lions in the wild. A lion in the zoo just looks a caged animal, it just looks like defeated. So I don't really like going to zoos. As compared -- it gets its food brought on a daily basis as compared to an animal that's going to go out there and hunt for it. It's kind of like military veterans, especially combat veterans. You go from living this lifestyle where you’re just in and out of deployment. Because I went to Afghanistan in 2008, 2011, 2013. So that was like the height of the Afghanistan War. So it was a high, it was a high pace, right? So you go from living that lifestyle of coming out in your civilian and it's just like, it's night and day difference. It's almost like you live in this heightened sense of purpose and significance to where now you're just in the civilian world, nobody relies on you, nobody's life relies on you to do your job well. You know what I'm saying? So that that kind of a culture shock. 

You feel like, oh man, when I was with my boys, I was significant. I was a part of this team. We relied on each other and we took care of each other and now I'm in the civilian world and it's just like, I'm not close with anybody. I'm not connected with anybody. But yeah. I'm sorry, I go off on tangents. 

Shane: It’s okay, man. 

Kyle: But that's something that I've been able to handle with MMA. I always talk to a lot of veterans, especially residents that are close to me. Like you get involved in martial, get involved and Jiu-Jitsu even if it's not -- You don't got to get into a cage and have grand aspirations of fighting in the UFC. But if you're going and you're putting that struggle into your life on a daily basis, it's something that we need because we used to live in that. You know what I'm saying? We need to like, like I said, the lion needs to hunt for its food. Right? We need that chase, we need that challenge. 

Shane: So you kind of used MMA in fighting to kind of fill that void and create that purpose. 

Kyle: Exactly, yeah, exactly. That's the best way to put it. 

Shane: How did your time in the military shape your fighting style and the way you fight? 

Kyle: I don't know if it shaped my style. I think I would say it definitely shaped my mentality. I don't know if I would be fighting if I hadn't joined -- I grew up as a martial arts nerd. I was the kid that went to karate while everybody else went to like popcorn or football. 

Shane: Hey, guess, what? Me too. 

Kyle: So I was a karate nerd growing up, so I was always drawn to martial arts. But I don't think it changed my style, but so much as my mentality. I was soft man. I was 18 years old but you think you're an adult when you're 18 and then you realize when you look back in your 25 and you're like, I was basically a fetus. You didn't know anything, you were soft. I think it definitely made me harder mentally. I don't know if I'd had the testicular fortitude, for lack of a better phrase, to get into a cage and fight another man, another trained man in front of all these people had it not been for my experiences walking across the poppy field knowing I'm about to get into a gunfight. You know what I'm saying? There's just parts that I went through in the military was like, you've got to perform and when you walk into that cage you get that same nervous feeling. You’re like, why am I doing this? And then you're like, well I'm not going to go out there and look like a bitch. If I get – fuck it. I get -- sorry for swearing. I don't know. I don't know. 

Shane: Go for it. Go for it. Hey, buddy, we're good here. 

Kyle: Okay. Yeah, It's like, I'm not going to go out there and look like a bitch. I tell people this is like, I have lost fights before and I've been in gunfights where you've seen guys where they just kind of curl up like and where you see you guys kind of curl up and they don't perform. They don't act and they just behind a Berm and they're not shooting and they're not moving, they're just like in internal. I don't know if they really realize it, but you look at them and you're like, dude, I'm going to remember you for that regardless of what happens. Right? 

So that's what I take when I go into the cage. I'm like, man, if I go in there and I get beat up and I get knocked out or whatever happens, I'm just not going out like that. I think that's the thing that I think about. When I get ready to walk into the cage, it's just kind of like, I know, still, I got a lot of buddies that was in the Marine Corps that are still watching and still support me. It's like, you know what, like they know when I show up, like I'm showing up to fight. I'm not going out quietly. 

Shane: Most people cannot relate to being in a gunfight and most people cannot relate to fighting in a cage. These are things that the average Joe just has never done. Would you say those are the biggest challenges you've sort of faced in your life? 

Kyle: I think it's exciting. I think it's like there's certain things in your life when it's like you try and explain what it's like to do something to somebody and you're just like, well if you've never done it, I can't explain it to you. You know what I'm saying? Like, I don't know. I've never had a kid, but like, do you have any kids? 

Shane: I got three. 

Kyle: Okay. Yeah, so like explain what it's like to have a child to hold your child for the first time. That's like, to somebody who's never had one, I’m going man that would be awesome but I don't really understand. That's like me trying to explain what it's like to somebody like this is when somebody's shooting at you and you've got to take cover and then you got to pop up and you got to fire back knowing you could catch one, it's like a feeling, an experience you can't explain. When you're walking into a cage and the referee asked, are you ready? Are you ready? You look over that guy and he's ready and you're like, fuck, I don't know if I'm ready -- I'm going out like a bit like that's another feeling that's just like, all right. Then like all your family, your friends, they're watching and people are watching on TV and you're just like, well here we go. Let's do this. That's another feeling that like I think life is about those moments, man. You got to find those moments in life where you can experience something that you can't explain to somebody else. You know what I'm saying? 

I love that. I wish I had more experiences like that in my life. Even when I'm done fighting, like I want to do awesome shit where I'm like, dude if you've never done it, if you haven't been there, me telling you about it just doesn't do justice. 

Shane: Is it an adrenaline thing? Like is that sort of what's behind it? 

Kyle: No. I don't know if it's an adrenaline thing so much as it's like life is a book man. Life is a story. I want to write a bunch of awesome chapters in my life story. You know what I'm saying? And MMA is one of those chapters. My first chapter, like I said, when you're 18, you think you're an adult, but you have no idea. When you're 18, you're basically a baby human. Right? My first 8 years of my life I spent in the marine corps and I went overseas and I did that and I fought and I have that for me and those moments are for me and the guys that I served with. Now I'm in this chapter of me fighting and these moments like I can look back at these times and that's this chapter in my life. When I'm done with it, it's not necessarily adrenaline thing, it's just that like there's so many people I feel they just go through life and they don't seek those moments. It's like the flavor of life. It's what makes life feel significant. You get what I'm saying? This what makes -- Everybody's got their own story. Everybody's got their own path that they take. But it's like, when I look back at some of the shit that I've done, I look back at some of the shit that I did when I was deployed. I was just like, dude, I like lived in a movie. I remember certain operations that we went on and I was like holy shit. We actually did it. I actually was there. I did that. 

Same thing when I was making the walk to the UFC with the marine corps flag on my back and I was like, I look back and fuck, man, I did that. But I got unfinished business that didn't win in the UFC. So that's what I think I can't finish this chapter of my story until I make that happen. 

Shane: Well let's talk about that then because you kicked off your pro career I think it was in 2015, is that correct? 

Kyle: 2015 or yeah, probably 2015. 

Shane: You went on a long winning streak. It was like win, win, win, win. You found yourself in the UFC, you got there and then it just didn't happen for you. 

Kyle: Yeah. This is one of those things where it's hard to explain. A lot of it has to do with when I started my MMA career as a pro, I was training at a small gym and I was full of confidence because just when you win and win and win and win, when your confidence is rooted in your experiences, like you can say you're confident all you want or you can be as confident you want, but if it's not grounded in things that you've done either in the gym or in past fights, then it's blind confidence. It’s arrogance. You know what I'm saying? My confidence was grounded in the work that I was doing in the gym, right? 

In my fights when I was performing and then I took my first loss, I was 10 to know when I took my first loss and I was training in a small gym, so it felt like I was kind of like a big fish in a small pond. Then I changed over to that gym at the MMA lab where I trained now and it's just I think it was like a culture shock to me, it's like everybody in this room is special, like everybody in this gym is special. I thought I was just special, but everybody in here is a badass. Then the timing, I got to the UFC six months after that, so I think I was just not mentally in a space where -- I went from a small gym to a world class gym where I was getting beat up every day. So I had no confidence and then I was like, oh now you're in the UFC and now I'm in the UFC and I'm like, wait, I found out there's a whole bunch of holes in my game that I didn't know existed. So now, not only am I aware of those holes, but I don't have the confidence to execute. You know what I'm saying? 

Shane: Yep. 

Kyle: If you make it to the UFC and you're not ready to go, it's not going to last long, which is exactly what happened to me. So fast forward from there. Man, I wish, and I say this all the time, like I wish I was in the UFC now with the mentality and the skill set, the confidence and the skill set that actually have now, it would be a different story. I look back at those two fights and I'm like, man, like if I can insert the me but no. Like the X’s and O’s of the game into the Kyle Stewart that fought in the Octagon in the UFC, I would have went to and own my first two fights in the UFC. But could have, would have, should have. 

So now I'm finding Zak Ottow. Like I said, he is the UFC veteran, he was in the UFC for a long time. So this is an opportunity for me to prove, like, look this is the level that I'm at. He fought in the UFC and a lot of UFC wins. So I'm going to go out there and beat him up and show like this is the level that I'm at. This is the level that I wish I was on three years ago when I was in the UFC, two years or three years ago. 

Shane: What do you feel like you have to do to go out there and get that W?

Kyle: I just got to go out there and do what I've been doing in the gym. I mean it's that simple. 

Shane: What are you doing? What are you working on? 

Kyle: Well I can't give away too much but that was like I said, the caliber of dudes that I'm training with, the same caliber of, it's the same team that I was with when I got to the UFC, right? The difference is now the success that I'm having against these guys is I'm not getting beat up every day. When I came into the gym I was the nail, now I'm the hammer. That's how I feel when I go into the gym and I'm training and then I have that same confidence that I had going back to before I took my first loss is it's like my confidence comes from experience that I'm having in certain moments, in certain positions in the gym, whether it's wrestling, whether it's boxing. I trained with really good dudes. Like I'm training, like Jared Cannonier is my number one training partner. He’s getting ready to fight Israel Adesanya for the belt.

Shane: That’s a big fight. 

Kyle: Benson Henderson, one of the all-time greats at lightweight. He's been helping me out with this camp. I got my last sparring rounds with the two of them tomorrow. I know how I do with those caliber fighters. When I compare that to the man that I'm about to be fighting, I go, it's going to be an easy day for me. 

Shane: Well you know where wishing you all the luck in that fight. You talked a little bit about trying to go back to the UFC, is that the goal? Is that what you're hoping this fight will lead to or is at least a stepping stone on the path back to the UFC?

Kyle: I'd love to go back to the UFC. I can't control. I can only play the cards that are dealt to me. Right? Zak Ottow was the guy that fought in the UFC for a long time but I'm fighting him for significantly less money than I would be fighting him if I fought him in the UFC. That's something that money does come to play into it. As I mentioned earlier, like when I'm done fighting, I want to open up my own gym. I'm starting to try and I want to make money. So if somebody comes to me with an offer to be at Bellator, the PFL and I have an opportunity in the final pages of this chapter of my MMA story to go make waves in another organization outside of the UFC, then absolutely I'm going to do that. I'd love for it to be the UFC and the UFC is coming here in May. In my head, I -- this fairy tale starts to play. I'm going to go in there, I'm going to knock this guy off the UFC. He's going to come to town. So I'm just going to fall out. They're going to call me and I'm going to fight Arizona in my hometown and get back in the UFC and win. What a story, what a story that would be, right? 

Shane: Amazing story. 

Kyle: That would be an amazing -- you could write a movie off of that story. Right? And I want to live for those moments in life where you can write a movie off of things that you do. But I can't control who gives me an offer. I can only play the cards that are dealt to me. But it just starts to go in there and beating this guy up, going there and beating them up next Saturday and then, we'll see what offers come down the line from there. 

Shane: Right. Well, we're wishing you all the best of luck come April 2nd and come that fight. You just talked a little bit about after MMA you want to open up your own gym. I mean is that a life after MMA or is that a life of MMA continued?

Kyle: It's a life after competing in MMA. You know after I’m competing in MMA. But like I said I was a martial arts nerd growing up. I went to karate class when I was six years old and other kids wanted to Pop Warner. I've been in martial arts in my entire life. I've always been drawn to it. So weird when I think about it like even back when I was so obsessed with martial arts. I remember like dating girls and being like have you ever been in a fight? Did you win? Did you lose? What happened? Like what a weird question to ask somebody that like you're on a date with. I don't know why I was obsessed with that but I've always been obsessed with martial arts because it was always something that I was good at and I was always kind of a wallflower type of a kid. I remember I got in a fight -- I didn't get into a fight, I had a fight with this kid in high school. He was a pretty popular kid, whatever. But I'm really bad at trash talking so like you'll never see me be like a Colby Covington's type of guy. I'm really bad. I think he's really bad at trash talking. He just tries really hard. 

Yeah, I think it's really bad -- I'm really bad at trash talking, but I've always been good at martial arts. So I remember being in high school and like I was never like the cool kid, the popular kid, but we'd be bantering back and forth with other kids and I would lose the shit talking argument. There was this kid, we were at a house party one time. There was a UFC event, it was Chuck Liddell versus Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Rampage knocked out Chuck Liddell. Then after the UFC party there's kids in the backyard and they started having fights. I've done martial arts my whole life so I was like, well I'm good at that. Like that I'm good at. The whole being a cool guy, popular guy, ladies man, that's not me. 

But anyways the same kid that used to always – sorry I'm getting text messages, the same kid that used to always like kind of trash talk me and banter with me was like at that party and I was like, I'll fight. Like, hey, do you want to fight this guy? And I was like, yeah, I'll fight him because in my head, I was like, oh, I know I'll beat him up because I know like I'm good at fighting. It was funny because nobody could believe that like -- Stewie is what they called me in high school. Nobody believed that Stewie was going to get in a fight with this kid like because I had no chance, right, on my social status of what I was in high school. He was way cooler and I was just a dorky kid that was third string on the football team. 

And so we thought, and then I whooped this kid's ass like real bad. Everybody was just like, what the fuck? What the --? And he told me -- and it was all good because there was no like beef or anything, but we're just having fights in the backyard because there was UFC fights going on. He's like, man, if I would have known like you could fight like that, I never would have talked shit to you. And I was like, see that's what I feel. Maybe I should just fight people more often instead of talking shit, just go straight to the, let's fight each other. But no – 

Shane: People don't realize that cool doesn't win fights. 

Kyle: No, it doesn't. No, it doesn't. But I've always been into martial arts like I said. I did martial arts when I was a kid up until the time I was 18 and joined the Marine Corps. And then I taught martial arts in the Marine Corps to the Marine Corps martial arts program. I got involved in MMA in the Marine Corps. So I've done it my entire life. Even before I even got to MMA when I was a kid, I wanted to open up a karate school because karate was the thing. Back when I was 17, 18 years old before I joined the Marine Corps, I was like, someday I'm going to open up a karate school. Now that it's changed, there's Jiu-Jitsu, I've done boxing, kickboxing, MMA, whatever. I've done it all. I'm like, that's what I want to do. That's the next chapter of my life, but I don't want to get into that until I'm done until I have put the stamp on my career that I'm happy with. One piece of that is coming up next Saturday beating Zak Ottow and then seeing where my career takes me after that. Hopefully somewhere I can make money and I can look back and be like, man, it was a hell of a ride. There was ups and downs, but I came out on top. That's how I want my story to end whether that’s in the UFC, whether that’s in Bellator, where that's in [0:26:04] either way, I want to make my legacy right with me and I want to make money while doing it and I want to take that money and put it on and open up an SPA, take out an SPA loan and open up my own gym. 

Shane: It would be a fitting ending to what's so far been an incredible story. I hope that you get to put that stamp on it and us here at Millions where we're just excited to watch you finish this story and then begin another one. 

Kyle: Yeah, yeah, yep, I'm excited. There's a few other things I want to do, but we'll see. Definitely that that's part of what's going on in the future for me. 

Shane: Alright man, well, I'll let you get going. Thanks so much for dropping in and chatting with me. I really appreciate it. And nothing left now to do except let's go out there and let's get it, man. 

Kyle: Let's go. 

Shane: All right, bro. Take it easy. 

Kyle: Alright, thanks for having me on. 

You can support Kyle on his quest to return to the UFC by shopping his merch and you can follow his fight journey by regularly checking out the MILLIONS blog.  You can also follow him on instagram @kyle_stewart0331.