Just like any other sport, the world of mixed martial arts is full of quirks. Between how fighters cut weight, what country they are from, who their sponsors are, what altitude they train at, or how they got their start in the sport, the world of MMA is ripe with ridiculous prejudgments and assumptions. So, how does this competitive environment deal with fighters who are self-trained?

Not good, if you ask World Series of Fighting welterweight champ Steve Carl.

Carl, who hails from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, does not belong to any specific team, although he primarily trains with Team Hard Drive in his hometown. Carl doesn’t have any specific coaches, but he does have some solid training partners that help him get ready for fights. This poses a difficult situation for him, because he doesn’t always get the respect that he deserves, based solely on pedigree.

Carl (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Carl (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

“I’m not your typical fighter,” Carl told The MMA Corner. “I don’t come from a big-name gym. I don’t have endless training partners and a whole list of coaches, you know? A lot of this is done on my own. There are a lot of doubters out there because of that, but you can’t doubt what I’ve already done.”

Carl’s record really speaks for itself. Fighting as a pro for over eight years, the champ has racked up a mark of 21-3 with 16 wins by submission. His only losses were to Bellator champ Douglas Lima, Bellator veteran Dan Hornbuckle and UFC vet Brian Foster. Other than those few setbacks in his 24-fight career, the 29-year-old has run through the majority of his opponents in the first round. That’s not bad for a guy that’s out there getting after it without a big-name coach or camp in his corner.

After a few tough fights in Bellator, Carl made a 4-0 run on the regional circuit and earned a spot on the inaugural WSOF card. He hasn’t looked back since. After taking a combined three minutes and 43 seconds to dispose of his first two opponents in the promotion, Carl earned a shot against longtime UFC vet Josh Burkman last October for the first-ever WSOF welterweight title.

In an amazing display of grappling prowess, the Iowan choked his opponent unconscious about a minute into the fourth round to win the first strap of his pro career. Although the fight was a little tougher than he expected, Carl was happy to get the finish.

“After the first round, I was able to get through it,” admitted Carl. “I don’t see myself being in a fight that’s that hard ever again.”

Carl speaks of the Burkman fight as if it went five rounds. That’s because he burned so much energy in the beginning. Even though he was pretty winded from the initial barrage, he still got the win. However, the fight was a lesson in what not to do in the future.

“I’m already avoiding it by being able to train right now,” explained Carl. “I’m just going to get in there and fight. Going into the Burkman fight, I was telling myself that I had one round. Immediately, when I got in there, I realized that if I pushed the pace, I was going to fade really, really fast.”

Carl pushed the pace, choked out Burkman and won WSOF gold, which was his intention from the beginning. However, no matter how good his grappling has been in the past, his next opponent is going to be his biggest mismatch yet. At the end of January, it was announced that Carl was going to be facing one of the most hated fighters in all of MMA, Rousimar Palhares.

MMA has had its fair share of heels. Between the later Ken Shamrock, Brock Lesnar, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Tito Ortiz, there have been plenty of characters that generate a genuine dislike in the hearts and minds of fans. However, none of them have generated the amount of animosity in fans as Palhares.

Even after an 8-4 run in almost six years in the UFC, the Brazilian was recently bounced from the promotion after his second official offense of holding a leg lock for much too long after a tapout, injuring his opponent for the second time. When combining this offense with similar offenses in submission grappling tournaments and a positive test for steroids in 2012, the promotion decided to permanently release him for his despicable behavior.

The WSOF brass saw an opportunity to bring in a fighter with world-class skills. Upon signing the Brazilian, the WSOF granted Palhares an immediate shot at Carl’s title.

Carl may not have his ideal opponent for his first title defense, but he does not have a pick-and-choose type of attitude. The former high school wrestler will take on anyone, anytime.

“He’s a bad match-up, stylistically,” Carl admitted. “There’s a reason why nobody else wants to fight him. Not only is he dirty, but he’s world-class. He’s really, really good. But, with the belt around your waist, you can be the kind of champion that is going to pick his fights and take easy opponents to try to hold onto the belt as long as possible, or you can take on any opponent they want you to and be a true champion. That’s what I want to do.”

In a sport that’s full of champions who have been accused of dodging real challenges—like Ronda Rousey, in regards to Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino—Carl is a breath of fresh air. He didn’t have to take on Palhares in his first title defense, but he’s confident in his skills, and he’s going into the fight with an open mind.

Carl (top) (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Carl (top) (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Palhares may be known for his patented leg locks, which have earned him eight of his 11 submission victories, but he is a very well-rounded fighter who has only been stopped by knockout. With only two wins of his own by knockout, Carl doesn’t really know what to expect.

“The best thing I can figure out, style-wise, is that he’s going to want a leg-lock war,” explained Carl. “That’s what he’s going to try to do. He’s going to want a leg-lock war, but I need to keep it a fight. Whether we’re on the feet or on the ground, I need to keep it a fight and not let him get into his game.

“Whenever I think about the fight, I’m just think about winning in five seconds. I’m kind of interested myself to see what’s going to happen. I’m interested to see if he’s going to stand or he’s going to try to take me down right off the bat. It’s not something I really worry about. My biggest thing is just getting into the cage with a clear head, and, when the bell rings, I just have to do it.”

Carl is a seasoned vet and, although he may not have the UFC background that Palhares does, he knows how to get things done. In 24 fights, he has only been to decision four times and his only submission loss was to the submission-heavy Hornbuckle nearly four years ago. Palhares is obviously on a much higher level of grappling than anyone Carl has faced, but Carl has no plans of losing his title anytime soon.

“I would like to at least get a couple more fights in after this, you know?” Carl elaborated. “The last couple years, I’ve only been able to fight twice a year. That’s not what I’m in this sport for. I want to compete. I don’t want to sit on the bench and wait. This is how I make my money. I want to get out there, and I want to fight. Being a fighter, it’s a really tough life. It’s pretty rough on your body, and I want to do what I can, while I can. And I can right now. I really want to get out there and compete, and, at the end of 2014, I want to still be holding this belt.”

Carl may not be attached to any specific coaches or camp, which goes against everything an up-and-coming fighter may be told, but what he’s doing works. Nobody can doubt his record or his finishing ability, but, by far, the biggest test comes Saturday night as he faces one of the biggest heels in the history of the sport. Live from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the champion will face the challenger in what is sure to be a battle for the ages.

“This is the proverbial ‘good guy versus bad guy’ fight,” Carl said. “A lot of people will tune in just because they want to see him lose. At the same time, a lot of people will tune in because they want to see if he is going to twist my leg all the way around and watch me screaming as I’m tapping—and him not letting go. I’m not the typical fighter. I’m the guy that does this…I don’t know how to put it…it still scares the shit out of me. Fighting still scares the living hell out of me, and that’s why I do it. It’s that rush. It’s overcoming that fear that makes me grow as a person. It’s a sport that continuously pushes me every day.”

Carl would like to thank Derrick Mehmen, Dave Sherzer, Kevin Burns, Otmane Benjilany, Team Hard Drive, all of his family, friends, training partners and fans. He would also like to thank his sponsors: Virus, Complete Nutrition, Warrior Culture Gear, Knockem or Lockem, Oral IV, Vertx, A Line Iron and Metals, and Never Hungover. “The biggest thanks goes to the haters. They’re the ones that keep me going. They’re the ones that keep the fire burning.” Follow Steve on Twitter: @Steve_Carl