From ice to cage Former Stingrays tough guy Nate Kiser will keep gloves on in MMA debut tonight

“I’ve been fighting my whole hockey career. This seemed to be the next logical step for me,” said former Stingrays enforcer Nate Kiser, who will make his Mixed Martial Arts debut tonight in Charlotte as an amateur.

Paul Zoeller

Nate Kiser figures he’s had about 125 fights during his career, but tonight will be the first one without skates.

Kiser, a former hockey player for the South Carolina Stingrays, will make his mixed martial arts fighting debut tonight in Charlotte.

For seven seasons Kiser was one of the ECHL’s most feared tough guys. During nearly 500 professional hockey games, Kiser, who finished his career with a franchise record 1,131 penalty minutes, dropped his gloves to fight about once every four games.

When he retired from hockey after the 2011 season, Kiser was looking for a way to stay competitive. He had always been a fan of MMA, and after his first training session at the Krav Maga studios in West Ashley, he was hooked.

“I think it was something I was meant to do,” said Kiser, who turns 31 today. “I think it’s something that has always been inside of me. This is something that I’ve wanted to try before I got too old and out of shape.

“I’ve been fighting my whole hockey career. This seemed to be the next logical step for me.”

Fighting on ice and fighting in an MAA cage have little in common, as Kiser quickly discovered. Throughout his hockey career, Kiser proved he could take and deliver punches. But there’s more to MMA than just trying to knock your opponent silly. There’s kicking, wrestling, jujitsu and submission holds.

The 6-2, 220-pound Kiser admits his first foray into the world of jujitsu and submission holds was a humbling experience.

“I was rolling with guys that weighed 175 pounds and they were submitting me with their toes,” Kiser joked. “My goal that first night was to get through the five-minute rounds without having to tap out.”

Kiser has proven to be a quick study. His wrestling and jujitsu skills have improved exponentially over the past six months.

“He’s a sponge,” said Jason Salvo, a training partner and fellow MMA fighter. “He picks up things so quickly. He’s submitting guys now that have a lot more experience than he does.”

The most difficult part of Kiser’s transition from ice hockey enforcer to MMA fighter was convincing his wife Jessica to support him in his new career path. Jessica had seen her husband fight plenty of times on the ice, but there was something about being in a cage that didn’t sit well with her.

The death of Tyrone Mims in August after his MMA fight in Mount Pleasant didn’t help Kiser’s cause. It was nearly a tipping point for Jessica, who briefly put a halt to Kiser’s fighting career before it began.

“I thought he was crazy to want to do this,” Jessica said. “I was definitely not in favor of it at first. I thought we’d put the hockey and the fighting behind us when he retired. I wanted to start a family and get on with our lives.”

It took a lot of lobbying, but eventually Kiser convinced his wife to go along with it.

“As rough as hockey is, you don’t see players dying,” Jessica said. “One day, I’d be OK with it and the next I didn’t want him out there. When I didn’t support him, he would get really down in the dumps and I realized how much this meant to him.”

Nate said without Jessica’s blessing, he wouldn’t step into the cage.

“I wouldn’t be able do this without her,” he said.

Jessica will be there tonight, flinching every time Nate gets punched.

“I’m sure there will be times when I won’t be able to watch,” she said. “I think I’m going to need a few adult beverages to get through it.”

Matt Robinson, owner/operator of Krav Maga, said Kiser has unlimited potential. Robinson still can recall the first time he saw Kiser playing for the Stingrays.

“It was scary to watch,” Robinson said. “Nate can strike with the best people in MMA. He’s a great athlete and he picks everything up so quickly. On his feet, he’ll be almost impossible to beat, and he’s getting better every day on the ground.”

MMA doesn’t pay the bills, not yet anyway. Kiser will need between three to five amateur fights, depending on the governing body, before he’s able to turn professional.

To make ends meet, Kiser still has his gutter business. Before retiring from hockey, Kiser and former Stingrays head coach Jason Fitzismmons started a company, Fitzsimmons Gutters.

Kiser typically spends long days on job sites installing gutters. He takes a break around lunch time to train for about 90 minutes, then it’s back to his paying job until the sun sets. Most nights he returns to the studio for another couple of hours to hone his fighting skills.

“I’ve never seen anyone as dedicated as Nate,” Robinson said. “He’s got a lot on his plate, but he never misses a training session.”

Kiser suffered just one concussion during his hockey career, and that came when he fell on the ice. Despite recent research on concussions and long-term effects from repeated head trauma, Kiser isn’t concerned about possible health issues later in life.

“I think I’ve been blessed with a pretty hard head,” Kiser joked. “It’s not like in boxing where a guy gets punched in the face 300 times during a fight. I think the sport is safer than people think it is.”

Kiser doesn’t know a lot about tonight’s opponent, Colter Brown, who has already won two fights, both by submissions.

“At first I was worried about Nate,” Jessica said. “But after watching him for the last couple of months, I’m starting to worry about the other guy.”