There are two sides to Cub Swanson. First, there’s the cerebral fighter; the man who puts hours of diligent training and study into his preparation; the gentleman who doesn’t believe in talking trash to get ahead.
When he does, the other side of the 13-year MMA veteran comes out. The barely-tamed wild man; the ‘Killer’ Cub that lets loose inside the cage; the warrior who almost never fails to put on a show.
So, how does such a mild-mannered man become an uncaged animal once he steps in the cage?
The curious thing about Cub Swanson is that, unlike many of his peers, he doesn’t go into fights to earn a bonus with a standout showing. It’s just that his fighting style is so naturally geared to excitement, he keeps on winning them.
“I’m not going into it trying to get a bonus,” he explains to Fighters Only. “I’m just trying to go out there and have the best performance. I think that just comes with my style and the flair I put into it. That’s me putting my personality into my fighting style. I’m definitely not going in there trying to get bonuses, especially Fight of the Night – those fights take their toll on you. It makes for a longer recovery when you go the distance and have crazy battles.”
So, what’s the ultimate goal for a man who’s pretty much seen and done it all in an electrifying career? He’s gone from a 23-year-old exciting WEC prospect to one of the most consistently excellent MMA athletes of the last decade, with more wins at 145lb than anyone other than José Aldo. On paper, the main thing missing is a piece of UFC hardware to wrap around his waist.
That’s definitely something he wants. But his main aim is something less tangible, something you can’t write into the history books, something purer. He just wants to keep getting better as a mixed martial artist every time out.
“That’s pretty much it: trying to beat the guy that showed up last time,” he says. “Every time I go back in the gym after a fight I’m like, OK, was that the best version of me? Can I be better? How can I be better? When you’re on a win streak it becomes harder because to everybody else, you’re not doing anything wrong.
“On the losses, that’s when it becomes tough just to swallow everything you were blatantly doing wrong and then work on those things and move forward. Over the years, I’ve been able to look at what caused the loss and then go back and try to do better; just try to be honest with myself and always challenge myself.”
The clearest indicator that Swanson has succeeded in achieving his primary goal is that he seems so happy and relaxed in the cage. That also leads to what the fans want, which is cartwheel kicks, spinning elbows, powerful punch combinations and everything else that makes a thrilling fight.
“Oh yeah. I think that’s how to get the best out of myself,” he agrees. “One of the hardest parts about this whole journey has not just been the fighting ability, but mentally, going into a fight, how to approach it, how I feel in there and all these things where there’s never just one right answer. Learning all that stuff has been difficult. When I’m confident and happy is when I’m performing at my best. That allows me to be creative, have fun and put on a show. That’s very important for me. What keeps me going is that I’m still getting better. If I see a huge decline in my performance, I won’t do it anymore.”
It’s hard to argue that Swanson isn’t continuing to improve, based on his results. He’s enjoyed four wins in a row, and is up to fourth in the 145lb rankings – the highest since defeats to Frankie Edgar and Max Holloway derailed his run towards the title.
The excitement he’s brought in that time, particularly in his last two contests against Doo Ho Choi and Artem Lobov, also mean he’s arguably more popular than ever. However, he still admits there’s room for a little more improvement after absorbing more strikes than in any previous fight last time out.
“I was upset with myself that he [Lobov] landed more strikes on me than Doo Ho Choi did,” he says. “It was really because of the way our styles played out. He was a lot slower than me, so I was trying to beat him to the punch and then land straight after. I’d land one or two and then he’d land one or two and I’d land a few more. Every exchange I was doubling what he was landing, so at the time I felt that was a fair trade. But maybe I shouldn’t have allowed him to hit me that many times (laughs).”
Fortunately, he also hit a career-high number himself, which kept fans happy. The only thing you could argue was missing from the last few ‘Killer’ Cub fights is a stoppage. It’s not like he doesn’t have stopping power – he has 15 stoppages from 25 career wins – it’s just that he keeps coming up against some of the world’s most durable men.
Apparently, it would take a train to stop Choi and Lobov. Swanson hit them with his best shots and the stats back that up. In the Choi fight, 91% of the strikes he landed were classed as ‘significant’ by FightMetric. The figure was 83% against ‘The Russian Hammer’. What would he have to do to get a knockout?
“It’s weird because I’m always knocking people out and getting these big wins and then sometimes I’m fighting these other guys and hitting them with the hardest shots I’ve ever hit anybody with and they’re just taking it,” he says, laughing, as if he can still barely believe it. “It’s been making me question, like, damn, do I need to start lifting again?
“Doo Ho Choi surprised me with his heart but I knew Artem was going to be tough. Everybody knows Conor hits hard and that’s his main training partner. The fact he has been his main guy for so long tells me that he’s taking punishment and he’s still there and it doesn’t bother him. I knew going into the fight that he was going to be tough. I knew it.
“It was frustrating because everybody I talked to was saying I’d beat him in the first or second round. That’s what people thought. I just knew I was going to try but it was going to be harder than it looked.”
Most people who gave the 33-year-old flak for fighting ‘The Russian Hammer’ were silenced by the entertainment produced, as well as the competitive nature of the contest, despite the wide margin of victory on the judges’ cards. Regardless, a wealth of experience means Swanson knew it was the right fight for him.
“At this point in my career I’m finally starting to make a little bit of cash,” he explains. “A main event like that is a little bump, too. I took it as an experience thing. I wanted a title fight after that fight. That wasn’t really the opponent I was stoked about, but I was like, cool, no problem, let’s do it. I saw it as an opportunity to go five rounds and have a bump up to the main event and then be able to tell the media why the fight makes sense. I wanted to carry the load and really build up the event. I took all that on so it would prep me for my next fight, which I was hoping would be the title fight. And it’s very possible.”
So here we are. Swanson is right back where he belongs in the title picture. He knows the champion, Max Holloway, well. They fought once before, with the Hawaiian getting the upper hand, and it’s a loss Swanson is determined to avenge.
“He knows he didn’t get the best version of me,” he says. “As soon as that fight started, the people who know me say they knew it wasn’t me in there. That really hurt to hear people close to me say that. It burns. It’s not like he was a slouch. He’s the champ now and I’d like to get that one again and prove I am better than that. I believe I am better than him.”
However, as FO goes to press, momentum seems to be with Frankie Edgar in the race to get the first crack at Holloway. The current state of MMA dictates the Palm Springs native should be running a social media campaign to change that, but there’ll be no tweets directed at Dana White or videos calling out the champ.
“I’m not going to be begging for it and I’m not going to get my hopes up because I know what the game is like,” he says. “They are going to choose who they want to choose. I’m not going to be so wrapped up in it emotionally that it will hurt my passion for the sport, which it has done before. That was the whole thing when I fought Frankie. They promised me the fight and they had my emotions all riled up for almost a year straight and then let me down. That really killed my passion for the sport and I had to go and find it again.”
Following that setback came the Holloway fight and another loss. Back to square one. Many ‘fans’ wrote him off. Even Swanson started to doubt himself. But being the fighter he is, that wasn’t likely to stop him.
“After I had those back-to-back losses, I was at a low point and my passion wasn’t there. I reached out to a friend and he mentioned he had a buddy he worked with who was a sports psychologist. I decided to give it a try. We started working on simple things and talking. It’s been awesome for me. For these last four fights, I’ve been using him and talking and visualizing and just making sure I’m not stressing on things that are out of my control, like this title fight.
“I’m going to plead my case and state the facts but I can’t get all wrapped up emotionally in it because they make the final say. It’s out of my control. I can only do so much. I’ve already fought the fights I needed to and got the Ws. I don’t want to do any more than that.”
Not only has that work helped Swanson come back from a bad place, it’s almost certainly helped him become a better fighter.
But there’s one more motivating factor the Jackson-Wink product says is giving him even more drive. On August 21st, his daughter, Royal Rae Swanson, was born. Before even arriving into the world, Swanson told FO she was elevating his game to a new level.
“Just with the baby coming, I’ve got really motivated to clean up my time – just do the right things and the most important things. When the baby comes, I’m going to be fired up. When I’m away training, for the first time in my career, I’m fighting for somebody else. I think it’s going to be motivating and bring out a whole new fighter.”
So which is the real Cub Swanson? The doting father, introspective athlete and dedicated martial artist we see outside the cage, or the full-force, high-volume, all-out offensive dynamo that appears inside it? Actually, he’s both.
Now with the right mental approach to compliment the technique and savagery he brings to the Octagon, Cub Swanson is back on the title trail. And when he gets his chance to go five rounds against the man with the belt, you won’t want to miss it.
*** This feature originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Fighters Only magazine ***