Losing a family member is never an easy thing. Tragedy strikes at the most random times, and, unfortunately, whether it’s an accident or a crime, the family that is left behind must find ways to work through the pain—and sometimes the spotlight—and make an attempt to carry on with their own lives. For professional athletes, it can be even more difficult when the media puts their own twists and turns on the story in an attempt to connect the tragedy to future performance.

This past summer, professional mixed martial artist Ryan Roberts and his family suffered a devastating loss. On Aug. 21, his sister, Andrea Kruger, was brutally murdered on her way home from work at the hands of a despicable person. The loss is something that he and his family will have to work through in the privacy of their own lives, but the fact that he is an MMA fighter makes it very easy for assumptions to fly.

Roberts is a veteran of the sport whose first pro fight took place in August 2006. The Nebraska native was first introduced to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, widely considered one of the roots of modern MMA, in Denver nearly a decade ago and has been training ever since. In his 30-fight pro career, he has won and lost in every fashion imaginable and has never put on a boring fight. His record, which stands at 17-10-1-1, may seem deceiving, but one can be sure that this guy is tough as nails and never backs down from a challenge.

Roberts’ last fight was against Josh Arocho at Victory Fighting Championship 38. After five rounds of complete domination, Roberts secured the VFC featherweight title by taking all the rounds on all three scorecards. He was scheduled to follow that performance with a battle against fellow Midwestern vet L.C. Davis for the promotion’s bantamweight title at VFC 39, but he was sidelined on short notice.

“I was going to fight L.C. on March 30 of this year, but two weeks before that, I partially tore my PCL and MCL,” explained Roberts in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “It kept me out of that bout, and I’m ready to make that up.”

Roberts had not really been in the gym too much when the tragedy struck, because he was trying to give his knee the proper amount of time to recover. Then, he found out he was going to get the shot at Davis that he wanted earlier in the year.

“I found out about a couple of months ago,” said Roberts. “I’ve had about 15 weeks to prepare for this fight, which is when I started dieting. I started dieting at 178 pounds, when I found out that this fight was more than likely going to happen, and it was probably week 13 that we found out it was booked.

“I was back in the gym, 100 percent, when I found out I was going to have the opportunity to fight L.C. I went in and hit mitts a few times before then, but didn’t really do much. I was really trying to allow my knee to heal.”

Davis also began his pro career back in 2006, and he’s a very tough, very respectable fighter. He’s 20-5 and riding a four-fight winning steak, with three of those wins by first- or second-round TKO. Coincidentally, Davis is also dealing with the loss of a family member. On Oct. 24, his brother, Ryan Cobbins, went missing and still has not been found. While this loss has hit Davis and his family very hard, he has been able to focus on his upcoming bout and fight through the pain, just like Roberts.

With media outlets focused on appearance rather than reality, some have attempted to draw connections between the visible similarities between Davis and the individual who took the life of Roberts’ sister, but Roberts wants to set the record straight.

“As far as what I think of L.C., I think he’s a great guy,” admitted Roberts. “He’s been a pillar in the MMA community for a long time. I look up to him. I’m a fan of his.

“I’m trying to keep this between L.C. and I. Some people out there are trying to make this into something it’s not. The fact that the ‘gentleman’ who took Andrea’s life is a black guy with tattoos on his neck and face and stuff, and L.C.’s got some tattoos on his neck, people are trying to turn it into something like that, you know? We tried to make this happen well before anything happened with Andrea. This has absolutely nothing to do with [the accused killer] and his pathetic family. This is just a competition in the great sport of mixed martial arts, between two of the toughest lighter-weight guys in the Midwest. That’s really all it is.”

Roberts and Davis are professionals and they are conducting themselves in that very manner. They are tough, veteran fighters that have no other intentions than to go in the ring and put on an amazing show.

“I expect action right away,” Roberts stated. “From the word ‘go,’ I think him and I are just going to slug it out. There might be a little bit of a feeling-out process, but I think we’re going to get in there and mix it up right away. I do not expect this fight to go five rounds. I’m physically and mentally prepared for it to go five rounds, but I don’t think it’s going to get there.”

The match-up itself is very interesting. Both men have been training a long time, but their styles are different. Davis and his partner, fellow pro fighter Jason High, run HD MMA in the Kansas City area, but Davis is also a Miletich-trained fighter. His wins are split fairly evenly between knockouts, submissions and decisions, and he has only been stopped two times. If Davis can get the finish, he will take the advantage, but if he needs to ride it out through all the rounds, he will do what he can to preserve a win. Roberts is not as patient and refined.

Roberts is a scrapper in every sense of the word. He carries more of a bulldog style, and he goes in for the kill right from the get-go. Like many of the fighters from Omaha’s Premier Combat Center, he goes in and tries to make the fight exciting, win or lose. Sometimes this puts him in precarious situations, but he never has to walk out of the cage feeling like he didn’t give it his all.

“As far as the match-up, I think it’s a great match-up for myself,” Roberts elaborated. “L.C. is a great fighter who’s very technical, and he likes to fight his fight. He does have some pressure. He puts some pressure on people, but it’s in the way in which he would like to compete, and he doesn’t like getting pushed out of his comfort zone. That’s exactly what I like to do. I like to push people, and I’m not as technical as L.C. is. I’m a brawler, and I think that’s something that doesn’t work good for him. I’m very excited about the match-up.”

Roberts may have a brawling, in-your-face style, but don’t be fooled by this assessment. PCC has great trainers and a bunch of old-school vets in the house, and the training is some of the best the Midwest has to offer. With owners Kurt Podany and UFC veteran Ryan Jensen at the helm, the BJJ blue belt has a very technical training background of his own and is extremely dangerous when he steps into the cage.

“The thing about Premier Combat Center is that, if you show up for practice every day, you become extremely well-rounded,” explained the Nebraskan. “There’s not one area that I’m better than any other. My wrestling’s really solid right now. My jiu-jitsu’s really solid right now. My stand-up, working with Danny Molina, our striking instructor there, [and] Kurt Podany, our Muay Thai instructor. I’m very well-rounded and ready to go wherever the fight takes it.”

Training and physical health both carry a great deal of importance when preparing for a fight, but mental state is almost more important than anything. Both men have been dealing with their own tragedies in the latter half of 2013, and both have been able to stay focused on the task at hand, but Roberts has a fresh perspective that has been playing into his preparation and it has nothing to do with the loss of his sister.

Many fighters hit a point in their careers when it’s no longer fun. UFC vet and former WEC lightweight champ Jamie Varner had his own demons to deal with a few years back after a tough losing streak. Varner had no love for the sport, and when it was all about the paycheck, he was ready to give it all up. Varner got his head right, learned to love his craft again, and came back with some wins, including a huge TKO of Edson Barboza in his UFC debut. Roberts had a similar rough patch in his fighting career.

“Some of my losses came with me applying that pressure and thinking I’ve got to win to pay the bills, and it never works out for me,” Roberts explained. “Honestly, at this stage of my life, I don’t have to fight for the money. I fight because I love to, and I get to go out there and train for every fight like it could possibly be my last fight. If something happened to my health, I still need to be there for my family and support them. If it’s a family decision and this is my last fight, and things don’t go the way I want and I get injured, it could be my last fight. Being able to have that mindset, and being able to train for every fight as if it were my last, is very rewarding for me.”

If there’s one huge difference in Roberts, it’s that mentality. Money is a big motivator for some people, but for most people out there, money is not enough of a motivator to perform at their best, and, frankly, will only make someone just do enough to get by. Taking the dollars out of the equation has allowed Roberts to perform at a higher level. By removing that pressure, Roberts will be able to apply a higher amount of pressure to Davis, which could prove to be detrimental to the current bantamweight champ.

When the cage door closes on Saturday night at the Ralston Arena in Ralston, Neb., Roberts and Davis will square off for the bantamweight title at VFC 41. Both men will be looking to take home the strap, and both men are fighting for lost siblings that weren’t able to fight for themselves on those tragic occasions. Neither man will be bringing any sort of personal vendetta into the ring, because none exists. However, fans must understand that both men are exciting fighters and this will literally be a “don’t blink” main event.

For Roberts, his sister Andrea will forever be on his mind, and she shows up when he really needs her.

“You know, I don’t know if anything’s really changed as far as my mentality towards fighting. There’s times—not so much when I’ve been in the gym at Premier, but when I’m doing some of my conditioning and some of my cardio, you know, where I’m getting tired and I want to quit—it makes me think about her and I push harder.”

Roberts would like to thank all of his family, friends, coaches, training partners, and sponsors, but, more than anyone else, he would like to thank his wife Lori—“If she wouldn’t let me, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Follow Ryan on Twitter: @AreYouReadyMMA

Photo: Ryan Roberts (top) (Keith Mills/Sherdog)