For Nottingham’s Jim Wallhead, the focus has shifted. No longer consumed by the task of getting to the UFC (he’s there), no longer hellbent on winning (that, he believes, will come in time), Jim Wallhead, days from a fight against Luan Chagas at UFC 212, is concerned only with one thing – putting on a show, or, to use his parlance, having “a tear-up”.
It’s a simpler goal, sure. It’s one, Wallhead feels, can be completed without too much difficult. It’s also the result of a long, hard career and a frustrating outing in September, on his UFC debut, when he dropped a split-decision to Jessin Ayari in Germany. The result rained on the Englishman’s parade, it coloured him 0-1 in the UFC, and it left him regretting the fact he fought not like a UFC contender but, in his eyes, a rank amateur, someone distracted by the occasion and the magnitude of it all, someone swallowed by the opportunity.
“Me joining the UFC had been talked about for so long and there was a lot of pressure and expectancy going into the fight,” he told Fighters Only. “I just didn’t feel right. It took ten minutes to wake myself up and by that time it was too late. I knocked him down twice but I made the job hard for myself by not being there in the first two rounds.
“The fight in Germany wasn’t good for me for a number of reasons. My regular coach, someone who knows me inside out, wasn’t out there with me and I didn’t have much notice going into it. I was training, yeah, but I didn’t have much of a training camp. And, at this level, you need a training camp.
“I went into that fight with doubts and I found out pretty quickly Octagon jitters are a very real thing. I didn’t feel myself in there. I’d been to Russia and beaten (Gennady) Kovalev in front of his home people and that was no big deal. But, suddenly, in my head, here I was in the UFC, something I’d talked about for ages, and it seemed like a huge deal. I’ve been nervous for fights before, that wasn’t anything new, but this was a different type of nerves. I just didn’t feel myself before the fight or during the fight.”
It wasn’t so much Ayari who caused issues for Wallhead last September, more the concept of Octagon jitters; they robbed his limbs of energy and his mind of ideas. Yet Octagon jitters, according to those who know, tends to be a short-lived phenomena, something that lasts for one night only and then fades as time progresses and experience mounts up. Wallhead is still to learn this, of course, but already he feels different heading into UFC bout number two on Saturday (June 3).
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I was given the option of fighting in Glasgow on the Fight Night show or on this one in Brazil and it was a no-brainer really. I’ve always wanted to fight in Brazil and this was my chance. I can’t wait to go out there, have a great fight, and then sit down and watch the likes of (Max) Holloway and (Jose) Aldo on the main card.
“I’m sure Glasgow will be great. The Scottish fans are extremely passionate and they would have been right behind me. That would have been special in its own way. But I’m in this game for the experiences. It’s a job you do for the love of it, unless you reach that top level, and it’s all about the experiences you pick up along the way. Brazil will be an experience. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to fight for a while and now I’m getting the chance to do it. I can’t wait.”
Though Wallhead will seemingly perform with renewed positivity and purpose this weekend, one problem remains. As was the case in September, when he fought a German in Germany, Wallhead is about to face a Brazilian in Brazil. “Yeah,” he said, “I fought a German in Germany and now I’m fighting a Brazilian in Brazil, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I’ve been used to that kind of set up in my career before. It’s nothing new. I just see an opponent and a fight. So long as I’m right, and I am for this one, that’s all that matters. The fight takes care of itself.”
Normally that’s the case. Normally a fight takes care of itself. But Wallhead only has to look at his UFC debut last year to realise things don’t always go to plan.
Indeed, even Wallhead’s road to the UFC has been anything but straightforward, conventional or predictable. Instead, it has been long and winding, shrouded in uncertainty. It was something suggested nearly a decade ago, yet something that didn’t come to fruition until 2016, when Wallhead was thirty-two.
“If I’d never got to the UFC it would have been a big regret of mine, I’m sure,” he said. “You can fight all around the world, and you can fight in other organisations, but it’s the UFC that attracted most of us to this sport in the first place. That was certainly the case for me. I remember watching it on TV and remember saying to myself, ‘I’d love some of that.’ So to then become a mixed martial artist but never get into the UFC would have been hard for me to take. It was great to finally tick that box in terms of my career.
“My next goal is to win a fight in the UFC. I just want to put on a performance I can be proud of. That would do me. Whether I win or lose, I’d just like to know I put on a memorable performance that everyone went home talking about. That’s what it’s all about for me at this stage. I want that for myself. I will do that.”
Now Wallhead believes his emergence in the UFC couldn’t have been timed better. It has, after all, coincided with his move to London Shootfighters, having been a mainstay of Nottingham’s Rough House gym, and also come at a point in his career where he has accumulated all the experience he could hope to accumulate.
Saturday marks Wallhead’s fortieth professional MMA fight. That speaks to his experience, his knowledge, his nous. But he’s also still young enough, at thirty-three, to presumably squeeze some more out of an already accomplished twelve-year career.
“I know I still have plenty left,” he said. “Before the split-decision loss, before joining the UFC, I was on the best run of my career and producing some of my best performances. I joined London Shootfighters three years ago and it all just took off from there. In fact, London Shootfighters have been massive for me and have been part of the reason why I’ve managed to finally get to the UFC.
“It is a little weird being the older, experienced guy now but I’m embracing it. I’ve been around the block, I’ve got a lot of knowledge and I’m able to use it now in fights. Some of these guys might be a little quicker or stronger than me, but I’m on my own path and feel really good within myself. In fact, I’ve never felt better than I do right now. I’m smashing all my PBs in training and I just got my brown belt in BJJ.
“I’m approaching this fight differently to the last one. In this one I’m not going in there with any pressure. I’m just going to have a fight. I’m going to stand there with him, have a tear-up and see what happens. If I knock him out, great. That will be amazing. If he knocks me out, I’ll brush myself down and say ‘fair play’. If it happens, it happens. But there’s no point going out there and worrying about what is going to happen. I’ve done that in the past and it hasn’t worked for me. This one is just going to be an old-fashioned scrap and I’m going to try and take him out.”
Wallhead’s next opponent, Luan Chagas, is ten years the Brit’s junior and without a win since December 2015 (a draw with Sergio Moraes and a defeat to Erik Silva have blotted his UFC copy book thus far). Nicknamed ‘Tarzan’, he enters Saturday’s contest with Wallhead in a similar headspace and with a similar goal in mind: perform, put on a show and get in the win column.
“I’ve watched a few of his early fights and also his UFC ones,” said Wallhead, 29-10. “They’re all good at this level, aren’t they? You don’t get any easy ones in the UFC. He’s got a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and he can also punch. He’ll be a threat wherever the fight goes. He had some good moments in his fight with Moraes, and showed he could hang with him on the ground. But I’ve also seen some things in his game that I know I can exploit.”