Max Metzgar takes a break from his MMA training at a gym in Columbus, Ohio. The 2015 Oak Park and River Forest High School alum makes his professional debut on the Bellator card June 16 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. | Provided

Since graduating from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2015, Max Metzgar’s life has taken some twists and turns.

But thanks to his perseverance, he’s kept running his race, and his journey brings him home this week. On June 16 at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, Metzgar makes his professional debut as a fighter on the Bellator MMA Tour.

To say he’s excited is an understatement.

“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Metzgar in a phone interview with Wednesday Journal. “Before I got signed with Bellator, I was constantly praying to let me make my pro debut in Chicago. I visualized that dream every day, and somehow Bellator books a show there and signs me to it. It’s just so surreal.”

While at OPRF, Metzgar played football and was one of the captains for the Huskies’ 2015 IHSA Class 3A wrestling championship team that also won a national title, the first school in Illinois history to get that honor.

Upon graduation, Metzgar went to Ohio State University. He almost joined the wrestling team as a walk-on, but realized he needed to save up money to function in the world, and instead became a dishwasher in one of the school’s dining halls.

Metzgar originally declared business as his major. But it didn’t take him long to realize that he didn’t want to sit behind a desk all day for a living.

“When I was a kid, I was diagnosed with ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder],” he said. “I’ve always been a high-energy and creative person, and I realized I didn’t want to be in the business school.”

Metzgar changed majors from business to communications and wound up taking classes with several members of the OSU football team. He was on the honor roll and interned with Big 10 Network, ESPN and Fox Sports.

But after he received his degree in December of 2019, Metzgar saw his options dry up as potential job opportunities never came to fruition.

“I thought I was going to be in a good position to get a job offer,” he said. “But when I graduated, that just wasn’t the case, and I ended up having to move back into my father’s basement. I pretty much felt like a failure.”

Needing to make a living, Metzgar worked three jobs, at O’Hare International Airport driving freight to the cargo planes, as a cleaner at offices and as a promotion salesperson for Sprint, working outside in downtown Chicago.

“It was such a crazy pivot point,” he said. “I was on top of the world my senior year [at OSU]. I was a cool kid on campus running around with the football team and working for Big 10 Network, and when I graduated, I felt the whole world came crashing down on me.”

Just when things seemed so uncertain, the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. While opportunities dried up for many, Metzgar found a potential career door opening for him.

“When the pandemic hit, I had a moment of clarity,” he said. “The whole world stopped, and this was my opportunity to pivot. I took a step back and said my life isn’t going the way I want it to, so what am I going to do about it?”

The answer? Mixed martial arts. Metzgar had a friend in Columbus, Ohio, who introduced him to the sport at a local gym, and he became interested.

“I decided to move back to Columbus and go all-in on becoming a professional MMA fighter,” said Metzgar. “I got a job working in a factory doing 12-hour shifts four days a week, and I was training full-time outside of that.”

Metzgar then took a job at a restaurant with flexible hours and better pay. That allowed him more training time, and he started his MMA career as an amateur. 

Max Metzgar prepares to attack his opponent in the cage during an amateur MMA bout. The 2015 Oak Park and River Forest High School alum will make his professional debut with Bellator June 16 at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. | Provided

Metzgar defeated Clinton Ewing by unanimous decision in his debut on Jan. 30, 2021. He won his first seven fights without dropping a round and became the top-ranked lightweight in the Midwest.

Last month, Bellator signed Metzgar to his first professional contract. As he makes his pro debut this week, he’s feeling very confident.

“I’m very strategic and diligent in my training,” he said. “I’m taking the same kind of approach that I took being an honor roll student at OSU. … I’ve been telling people I’m getting my Ph.D. in MMA. I study the sport intellectually as much as possible. You can be a brute, but that’s only going to take you so far. My strategy and tactics are what separate me from other guys; I try to dissect them like a surgeon.”

Metzgar fights David McKinney in the opening bout of the Bellator card at 5 p.m. It will be available to stream for free on YouTube. Type in “Bellator MMA” in the search bar to gain access.

If you want to see the action in person, tickets are available from Ticketmaster as well as from Metzgar’s website at Type in the code MAX.

Join the discussion on social media!