Monday, April 2, 2007

Fickett’s Road: One step at a time

By Jason Probst

Experience is what you get looking for something else. And in the mind of Drew Fickett, the 35 fights he’s had are just the primer for reinventing himself with each outing.

With a record of 30-5, Fickett, 27, is one of the emerging new breed in the sport; he’s had more fights than birthdays. But despite the frenetic pace that’s kept him remarkably active, he’s still learning, taking something with him from each match.

Facing Keita Nakamura Thursday at UFC Fight Night in a welterweight bout, the Arizona-based Fickett is no longer the new guy in the UFC, with six appearances in the show behind him. But that experience has come with a price. And given that it’s only Nakamura’s second UFC fight (following a hard-fought decision loss to Brock Larson last December), Fickett’s hoping that the tables might be turned this time, given the disappointment of his debut in the UFC against Nick Diaz, in February 2005 at the Mandalay Bay. He was TKO’d in the first round of bout where he never really got untracked.

“I was just like really, really scared. I was in tears the morning of the fight. I wasn’t intimidated by Nick, it’s the whole scene,” Fickett recalled. “In his interview he said he had a lot more experience. Then I stepped into the lights and said Holy Cow!”

Fickett didn’t understand what Diaz was talking about. He had twice as many fights (25 vs. 12) as the Stockton-based battler. It was only afterward he realized that Diaz’ aforementioned edge in experience was in the UFC. While Diaz had a mere dozen bouts, he’d fought three in the UFC, and had already gotten through the nerve-wracking experience of getting familiar with the setting. It’s there that all the trappings come home to roost. Big John McCarthy comes in to give you instructions. The walk into the Octagon. Seeing yourself on the big screen. 10,000 pairs of eyes watching. You can’t train for it and the adrenaline dump can be paralyzing before the first blow is even thrown.

Since then, Fickett’s fought five times, going 3-2, including giving Josh Koscheck his sole loss on a last-second TKO in a bout where Koscheck had dominated until a stunning turnaround at the end. With the powerful wrestler grinding on him for fourteen minutes, Fickett could’ve mailed it in that night and been content to go the distance. But instead, he kept throwing, landing a pinpoint knee as Koscheck shot in, setting up a rear naked choke that finished the bout with just 22 seconds left.

He’s come a long way since that night in the Mandalay Bay against Diaz, where it all went to hell.

“After (Diaz) it was really easy to settle my nerves. Especially going from the Mandalay Bay to the Thomas and Mack, The Hard Rock Café and then back to the Mandalay Bay,” Fickett said of his recent UFC bouts. “It’s an experience, man. There’s nothing you can do to prepare for it. All I can say for first-time fighters is you gotta realize you’re going to freak out.”

The turning point in his career was in August 2003, when he took on veteran Dennis “Superman” Hallman in Fickett’s King of The Cage debut. Though he had a 15-2 record, up to that point fighting was just something Fickett did because he was good at it, and it was more of a hobby than a vocation.

After an intense bout with Hallman, which saw both men mounted and in dire straits as the momentum went back and forth, Fickett gutted out a tough finish to the third round -- Hallman sunk in an armbar in the final twenty seconds, and Fickett rode out the clock. Afterward, Hallman told this writer that he could hear the arm popping -- but Fickett simply wouldn’t tap.

He took the biggest win of his career at that point via split decision, and it dawned on him that this might be something more than a hobby.

“After the Hallman fight I was like hey, I might be able to do something with this. I watched UFC and I didn’t really care. I’m more of a football fan anyways. I was like hey, maybe I can compete with some of these guys. It was a turning point for me,” Fickett said. “I’d just kinda scrounged here and there, doing odd jobs, like waiting tables, working a carwash, just different stuff. I’ve always enjoyed serving jobs at restaurants, and you get paid for as much enthusiasm as you put out. I lived pretty poor, usually with roommates. I’m a pretty frugal person. It’s pretty easy to get by now that I’m making money. I wrestled in high school and college, and we were actually at a Rage in The Cage, when I was 19, in 1999. Me and my buddy were there watching some fights, we were like 'Wow, we could compete with these guys!’ We were like let’s go in there.”

Fickett’s always in there to win, even when he’s behind on points. But sometimes you can find yourself reacting instead of initiating, which was the case in his last outing against Karo Parisyan, where the judo-savvy veteran took a unanimous decision in a bout where Fickett seemed to be a beat behind.

“I’m always trying to finish. I never want to win a fight on decision. I’d rather be finished than lose a fight on decision. Whether you’re technically winning or losing in the eyes of the judges, you gotta think of it as a street fight,’ Fickett said. But sometimes, against a tough wrestler like (Josh) Koscheck, you have to realize the inevitable narrowing of opportunity. “All I had to work with was my bottom game. Koscheck was happy being on top. With his level of wrestling, I don’t care how much you train, you’re not going to be able to stop the takedown. I was looking to work subs and catch him on the feet the whole fight. You can see where I almost got a heel hook, or caught him with the knees. I’m gonna fight till the end.”

He’s scouted Nakamura and figures his opponent will be looking for a ground fight, something more akin to a lengthy submission wrestling match than a brawl.

“I’ve watched more film on this guy than most of my opponents. My buddies downloaded a bunch of his fights, including a bootleg of his Abu Dhabi (grappling matches). He looks like he’s got a good solid butterfly guard, and I think he’s gonna have a hard time adapting his jiu-jitsu to MMA,” Fickett said. “I like his movement on his feet, he’s a little under aggressive. I want to push the pace on him like Karo did against me. His biggest weakness is his wrestling. It looks like he had decent takedown defense.” Keeping an even keel, whether you win or lose, is key.

“You gotta give it a grain of salt. We’re never as good as we think we are, and thankfully never as bad,” Fickett said.

And the most important thing, he’s realized, is to learn from your fights. Like the quick guillotine Josh Burkman sunk on him in a submission loss that ended nearly as fast as the fight unfolded.

“That choke, Kurt Pellegrino tried that choke on me. I’ve learned so much from everyone I fight, I learned so much from Karo, I’m just trying to get better and improve,” Fickett said. He beat Pellegrino via choke after getting out of the submission. And with a stacked 170-lb. landscape, there are plenty of templates to draw from, like new champ Georges St-Pierre and top contender Diego Sanchez.

“I think St-Pierre is the real deal. I don’t see any weaknesses in his game. If he had one weakness it’s on his back but he’s still very strong. That’s the only way anybody could pull something off. His wrestling is so athletic, he’s probably the most athletic guy in our sport. I look up to his skill as a fighter,” Fickett said. “Diego’s awesome, a style similar to me, and he’s got a lot of really good guys around him. He brings it, all 15 minutes, even guys he might be losing to, he always tends to pull it out at the end. Kind of like Fedor, he’s had some really close fights, but he pulls it out in dramatic fashion.”

“For this fight I’ve been really disciplined, watching my drinking. I like to hang out with my friends, curb my beer and food intake. I get up in the morning, eat regular foods, and play the piano for an hour, to clear my head. I train from 12-2 every day, alternate it with wrestling, striking,” Fickett said. “Later that night I’ll eat, then lift or run, but never lift or run the same day. That’s about it. I train 2-3 hours a day.”

He’s not bummed about the loss to Parisyan. It’s just another lesson he can analyze on tape, and take something he’ll use in the future.

“I realized in my fight vs. Karo, I’ve always been a really good technical boxer, but I realized my arms are really short versus my weight and my size, so I gotta work in with more power punches,” Fickett said. “I’ve been using more power punches, and it’s working for me. You know how Chuck (Liddell) uses looping punches? I’m just getting that into my game. I really want to fight more. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m competing more. Between my last fight was like five months, the more frequently you fight, you do better. I’d like to fight every month. I love competing and getting in there.”

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