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Countless young adults leave college every year uncertain about their future path.
Waterford's Brennan Ward knew what he wanted do after he left Johnson & Wales - punch dudes in the face and make them tap out.
Ward, 25, will fight champion Alexander "Storm" Shlemenko tonight for the Bellator Mixed Martial Arts middleweight championship in the main event of a nationally televised card at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah, on SPIKE TV. The broadcast starts at 9 p.m.
"This is what I do to pay the bills," Ward said. "Not having a grown man's job, just doing what I like to do and making lots of money."
Mixed martial arts were a natural fit for Ward, who was a decorated wrestler at Waterford High School and Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
He was the 2006 Eastern Connecticut Conference 135-pound champion during his senior season, placing second at the CIAC Class M and State Open tournaments and third at the New Englands championships. He placed second at 184 pounds at the 2010 Division III national championships and earned All-American honors.
Trent Ward, Brennan's father, owns New London's Strike Zone gym.
"I first started boxing when I was really young, probably six or seven years old," Ward said. "I always boxed and wrestled all through high school and college. Then I started doing jui-jitsu in Providence about four or five years ago."
It's taken Ward very little time to rise up the ranks in Bellator. He began fighting for the organization last year and lost his first fight via a first-round submission to Aaron Johnson on Feb. 14.
Ward's professional career took a wild turn months later when he was named as a replacement to fight Justin Torrey on Sept. 7 to start the organization's eight-man tournament. Ward beat Torrey in the second round by technical knockout. He submitted Joe Pacheco in the second round of his semifinal match on Oct. 4, then won the tournament on Nov. 8 with another second-round TKO over Mikkel Parlo.
The tournament win earned Ward $100,000 and a shot at Shlemenko.
Shlemenko, 29, is from Omsk, Russia. He has a 49-7 record and is on a seven-match win streak. He's won 29 of his fights by TKO or knockout and seven by submission.
"He's got a lot of experience," Ward said. "He's a tough guy and resilient. …. He likes to strike mostly."
Ward has a 9-1 record and has won his last four fights. He's won six matches by TKO and two by submission.
"Of course I'm nervous," Ward said. "I'd figure something would be wrong with me if I wasn't nervous. I'm not scared of my opponent, but I'm nervous to perform my best. I'm fighting in front of a lot of people. It's a televised fight and lots of people will be at home watching. I want to perform my best. That's where the nerves come from. It's all performance-oriented nerves."