You came in as a huge underdog to Devonte Smith at UFC 241. You took the fight on five days’ notice and cut upwards of 20 pounds. You shocked many with a first round KO of Smith that night. Now with some time to reflect on a whirlwind experience, what are your takeaways?
I am just so grateful, man. It’s amazing I even got the opportunity. I know so many guys who never even get the opportunity. That starts running through your head sometimes. I am happy that things turned out the way they did. It’s crazy because I had just fought three weeks before that fight. I had just come out of a fight camp and I got right back into one, if you can call it that, for four days. It was a whirlwind of emotions. To reach the pinnacle of something that I have been pushing for my entire career, twelve and a half years, felt really good!
For the average fan, I think they thought I was going to get murdered. No, man. I am a veteran. I have been doing this for a long time. I have a pro boxing match, I have done kickboxing. I have done shoot fighting over in China. I have done a lot of stuff. For me, it’s just all about understanding how everything falls into place and then taking full advantage. I don’t think I was the underdog. I don’t ever feel like I am the underdog. I have put in the work. I train with world class training partners from grappling to strikers and coaches. I don’t feel like I am in trouble or in trouble in a certain position.
There were a lot of images of you post fight but the one that stands out is the one which you just had all of your emotions on your face right after the stoppage. What was going through your mind in that moment?
It was weird. There was a lot of stuff going through my mind. I am always a very emotional fighter. I put a lot in to it. When the plan all goes well I release all of that. You can literally see the emotion. It’s not generic. It’s not me showboating. It’s just a release of everything that built up. That was the biggest one of my career so there was a massive amount of energy released. It was just raw excitement and fulfilment in that one moment. It was a unique feeling. It wasn’t like having my child. I had my first child earlier this year. It wasn’t exactly like that but it was similar. It was a moment where I knew I could do this. I knew I could fight through and survive. I thought of my girl, my family and how it was also beneficial to them. It was all connected into that emotion. At the same time, being selfish, I had now finally gotten to that point that I was working towards since I was a kid. I have always liked martial arts. I have always wanted to be involved in martial arts, then when I found MMA I fell in love with it.
I heard that you talked to your coach and weren’t 100% sure you wanted to take the opportunity. What made the ultimate decision to actually go ahead and take the fight?
I turned 33 in October. My manager just said that opportunities don’t come around like this for guys your age. You might have to take the long road to the UFC. You might have to fight on the Contender Series. You might have to come around and fight on the Contender Series again. I’ve seen guys win on the show and still not get to the UFC afterwards, especially guys that are slightly older like I am. This was a prime opportunity.
You are a long-time pro and a weight cut is nothing new to you but this one had to be hard being on such short notice. What was it like cutting all that weight in such a short time?
It was brutal but at the same time it wasn’t super bad simply because I had just fought a few week earlier. I was a little bit bigger but my body was in shape at the same time. The last six pounds hurt really bad. They weren’t my regular prep and cut routine. They didn’t come off the way they were supposed to. They actually hurt. I laid in bed one Thursday night just aching. Oh my god, it hurt so bad.
Naturally everyone wanted to know who you had in your sights after the win – future fights, belts – and you plainly said you weren’t here for belts, that you were here to make money.
I’m realistic. I’m 33. The champ now is what, 28? 30? And they have been fighting in the UFC for years now. Look at fucking Tony Ferguson. He has been fighting forever. He has won his last nine of ten fights and he still doesn’t have a title shot. I’m not going to be calling for a title shot. That is disrespectful to the sport. That’s disrespectful for the people in front of me who have already earned it. I am just here to make money. If during that time I get an opportunity, so be it but I am being more understanding that I am a martial artist first before I am an MMA fighter. You have to respect the path you must take to get to where you want to get to.
That’s actually very refreshing because, as you know, most fighters are calling for title shots or a fight with Conor McGregor after a win or two.
I just want to find the interesting fights. I want my career to be worthwhile. I want legendary fights and fights that people will remember and I know the type of fights I can have if I get matched up with the right opponents.
You recently bought the gym you have been associated with for quite some time. What does it mean for you now to own Pittsburgh MMA and Fitness?
It was crazy because me and my girl Nicole, she is basically the backbone of it all. I have my coaching staff, too. It was just an amazing process. This is the same gym I walked into twelve and a half years ago not knowing anything about MMA. That was Fight Club Pittsburgh. I walked in there and said I wanted to fight. They laughed and said that everybody says that. I have been there for twelve years. After seven or eight years I started working there. Then my buddy took the gym over and I was his manager, working with him. Then he couldn’t give it the time and I decided to buy it from him. Now I am here. Then I made it to the UFC. I think getting my gym meant more to me than being in the UFC. I have students and people that look up to me. I teach the kids classes. I will be teaching the kids class at the gym until the day I die. I don’t care how much money I make or how famous I am, I will come in three or four times a week and teach the kids. It keeps me straight. It keeps me in the right place. From teaching them, there is nothing like teaching a child. For a kid who doesn’t know or have the understanding of how their body should be positioned or how it works, they learn technique and it makes me better seeing them learn. That is the biggest thing that has helped me coaching, it has actually made me a much better fighter. For me, teaching it to other people, it helps me understand it even better and then I can translate it to better myself. If I can translate it to someone else I know I can translate it to myself.