Two elite strikers will go toe to toe in the co-main event of UFC on ESPN 31 on Saturday night as former sparring partners Brad Riddell and Rafael Fiziev get set to face off at the UFC Apex.

Despite being an individual sport, MMA is very much a team game when it comes to fight preparation, and Fiziev and Riddell have crossed paths before, with both men having coached and trained at Phuket gym Tiger Muay Thai.

The team-based nature of training camp has led to countless examples of fighters stating their opposition to facing off against teammates inside the octagon. But, with both Riddell and Fiziev eyeing the top of the UFC lightweight division, the matchup just made sense for their respective careers.

Chatting to Australian-based outlet Submission Radio, New Zealand’s Riddell explained the relationship between the pair, and recalled how they spent time chatting together before they signed their respective bout agreements.

“I just texted him and just said that they sent me his name on a contract and I hadn’t signed it, and just let me know when you’re free for call,” he explained.

“I was leaving a training session. He messaged me he was free, so I gave him a call and we just had a chat.

“I just said that there wasn’t anybody available to fight other than him. Like, me and him it seemed like for some reason, me and him were the only two guys available in the top 15 available to fight this year. Otherwise we had to wait, or we had to fight somebody unranked. And you know, it’s a lot of work to get into the rankings, obviously.

“I also don’t wanna wait, because I like money in my bank as well. I enjoy fighting, and so does he. So, we just did, like, I just said, ‘Man, friends before and after?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, let’s make some money.’ And he said, ‘Don’t get injured in fight camp,’ which I haven’t, which is good. And yeah, that was it.”

With both men seasoned strikers, many fans are anticipating an all-out stand-up war between the pair, with the two lightweights following hot on the heels of fellow 155ers Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler, who served up a Fight of the Year candidate at UFC 269.

But despite the stylistic matchup, Riddell said there’s no point going into the trenches if you’re going to come out with a loss, and referred to Chandler’s upbeat attitude to defeat after his three-round war with Gaethje.

“I think everybody wants it to be like a stand-up bloodbath. Three rounds of just standing there having a good bang at each other,” he said.

“But I mean, it could go anywhere. At the end of the day, you have to win. That’s the goal. You have to win, otherwise you don’t progress. I don’t really believe that if you lose and have a – like, for instance, Chandler’s fight. He was very happy with the way it went.

“But from my point of view, and in my mind, if I lose, even if the fight is that exciting, it’s just, it’s too detrimental on your career.

“I’m in the sport to prove I’m the best, and losing doesn’t aid me in any way in my argument. So, I will win at whatever cost it takes. If I took him down and he couldn’t get up, I’ll keep taking them down.”

Riddell and Fiziev have prior experience of facing each other, having sparred together in Thailand. But Riddell said it would be foolish to put too much stock in those sessions as much has changed since those times.

“It was like four or five years ago,” he said.

“He’s changed a lot since then, and I’ve changed a lot. I barely did MMA back then, so a whole heap’s changed for me. But I definitely don’t think I’ll rely on those sparring sessions too much.

“You change in six months, three months in this sport. It evolves so quickly, you can’t rely on some s**t from four years ago.

“I feel like we’re very similar. We’re very evenly matched sort of everywhere. I don’t think either of us stand out significantly above each other in any aspect of the sport. So, I think it’s gonna be a very even, interesting fight. It will be I guess who turns up on the night

“From memory, obviously he’s hard to strike with. Even though he hasn’t wrestled much in the UFC, he’s a very good wrestler. He’s got some pretty good submissions up his sleeve and stuff like that. It’s hard to say, because I’m not gonna talk s**t about my mate, but it’s gonna be a pretty epic fight. I think as excited as everybody is, they have good reason to be.”

At the end of the day, both Riddell and Fiziev have their eyes on the same prize – the undisputed UFC lightweight title – and while both men have a little way to go before they’ll be able to challenge for the belt, they both know that victory on Saturday night is essential to making that journey to the top as swift as possible.

For Riddell, there’s no personal issue at stake. It’s just a fight between two guys who happen to know each other pretty well.

“Business. It’s just business,” he said.

“I wanna make money to feed my kids, and he wants to make money to feed his kids. He wants to be the champ. So do I.

“So, you just think about that instead of thinking about the fact that we’re mates. Just think about it as like healthy competition. And in my opinion, he’s one of the best in the top 15 for sure, and so I want to test myself against him because, I mean, why would you not wanna test yourself against the best people in the world? So, I think Raf’s one of the best for sure.”

Listen to the full Submission Radio interview with Riddell below.