In early 2013, Tarec Saffiedine captured the Strikeforce Welterweight title by defeating Nate Marquardt in the last fight in the history of that promotion. Throughout the five-round bout, Saffiedine, a former amateur kickboxer, abused the left leg of Marquardt with low kicks, leaving Marqurdt's lead stem badly bruised and swollen.
That brutalizing performance earned the 3-to-1 underdog Saffiedine his fourth straight victory with Strikeforce. In addition, the win launched Saffiedine into the top ten of the welterweight division, putting him in prime position to face top-level UFC fighters when transitioned to the promotion that bought and subsequently shuttered Strikeforce.
UFC matchmakers twice hoped to put Saffiedine against top-level opponents, and twice those fights fell through due to injuries to Saffiedine. Those injuries resulted in nearly a year off between fights for Saffiedine, and his name fell from the top-ten rankings.
Saffiedine admits that the layoff was somewhat frustrating, but in the end, having nearly a year off between fights was no big thing. "It was frustrating, especially since I had that momentum going (after the Marqaurdt fight), but it's just a little bump in the road. Those things happen. I had injuries in the past. In the beginning of my MMA career, I had a broken hand, and I had to step out for a few months. You just have to keep your focus and stay positive."
In fact, Saffiedine, said the time off might have actually been a blessing, forcing him to scale back his normal go, go, go attitude in the gym, "It gave me a lot of time to recover, not only from my injuries, but for my body. I'm somebody that even though I don't have a fight, I'm always at the gym, so I always have those little injuries, those nagging injuries that you don't want to take care of because you want to train, so it was a good time for me to take a step back from the gym. Obviously, I would love to fight, but those injuries occurred, and it was a good time for me to rest my mind and body."
"I've been training for two or three months now, and I'm ready to go. My body is healthy, and I'm ready for January 4."
The two fighters that the UFC initially matched with Saffiedine, Robbie Lawler and Matt Brown, are currently ranked third and eighth, respectively, in the 170-pound division, something that does not seem to warrant much consideration from Saffiedine as his fight with Jake Ellenberger nears. "It's all right. My time will come; I just have to be patient. I am focused on Jake and getting the win and then getting back in the top ten. I'm focused on Jake, and that's all that I care about. What comes next will come after, but right now I'm 100 per cent just focused on Jake."
In addition to fighting Ellenberger, Saffiedine will be fighting to get his name back into the minds of the always-fickle MMA fans.
Saffiedine knows that battle will also be won or lost in the Octagon. "I have to put on a good performance, and that's what I'm training for. I don't underestimate Jake, and I don't take him lightly. He's a dangerous opponent, and after that, I'm sure a lot of people will remember me."
"I don't do the rankings, but I assume a win over Jake will put me right up there with [Matt Brown, Carlos Condit, Tyron Woodley and Robbie Lawler], and that's what I'm looking for. Fighting the top fighters like Jake. A win against Jake is going to be huge for my career."
The UFC matchmakers did not forget what Saffiedine accomplished in his last fight. Despite the long layoff, they made his bout against Ellenberger the main event of the January 4 card in Singapore. Saffiedine is happy about the placement his fight received on the card, but as far as extra pressure goes, the Belgian fighter isn't feeling any. "I don't really think about it. The only think about is that I have to get ready for five rounds instead of three. That's all I really think about, being in shape and being ready mentally and physically and the rest I don't really pay attention to."
"I'm really excited to be a part of the main event in my first fight in the UFC, but as far as being under pressure, I don't really think about it."
The current state of the UFC's welterweight division also energizes Saffiedine. "The 170-pound division, along with the 155-pound division, has been really exciting for the past few years. Georges [St-Pierre] has been at the top for a while, and a lot of guys, including myself and all the guys in the top ten are really good and exciting fighters, and it's a stacked division, so I'm really excited to be a part of it."
"Everyone in the top ten is a really tremendous fighter, and I can't wait to face those guys. That's why I came to the U.S. That's why I left Belgium, to fight guys like Jake, to fight guys in the top ten. I didn't want to come to the U.S. and fight on low level shows. I wanted to fight the best guys, and that's why I am excited to be part of the UFC. I can't wait to showcase my skill."
"I know some people are going to think I am going to have some setbacks from my time off, but I can guarantee that's not going to be, and in a couple weeks I cannot wait to be back in it."
Win or lose, Saffiedine will be making history when he steps into the Octagon against Ellenberger on January 4. On that night, he will become the first Belgian to compete in the UFC. Saffiedine sees that achievement as only a small piece of the goals he has set for himself. "My short-term goal is to win against Jake for one principal reason. I don't just want to be the first Belgian to be in the UFC, I want to be the first Belgian to win in the UFC."
"I already made history in my country by winning the Strikeforce title, but I want to make history and represent my country in the UFC, and I want to keep improving after that, keep climbing the ranks."
As for how high he wants to climb after his UFC debut, there's no false modesty coming from Saffiedine, "I'm not going to hide it, and I don't think anyone would hide it to say that you want to be the champion one day. That's why we work hard, and that's why we're in the UFC. We all want gold, and I'm not going to lie about that. I'm not looking past Jake, but that's something we all want, and that's what I'm training for."
Saffiedine has witnessed some growth in MMA in his home country of Belgium since capturing the Strikeforce title with his victory over Marquardt, but he feels that growth will be more pronounced if he is able to find success in the UFC. "MMA is getting bigger in Europe, not as big as in the US or Brazil, but it is getting bigger, and a lot of people are getting into it. After I won the Strikeforce title, more people started following me and following my career. I got a lot of support from my country from that."
"I believe that [my success] helps motivate the people over there because it's hard to make a living at any sport in Belgium. There are only a few athletes that can make a living from their passion. I believe that it will help them to go toward martial arts and combat sports, and hopefully my win after this fight will help the UFC and MMA even more in Belgium."
One Belgian that has definitely been inspired by Saffiedine's success in MMA is his son, who has been featured in three videos posted to his father's YouTube page. Those videos have combined for more than 389,000 views. When asked if we would see more videos of his son cropping up, Saffiedine laughed before replying, "It was crazy. My wife and me, we just put it on Facebook and YouTube, and they blew up. It was pretty crazy. To be honest, we had to stop showing him those videos because he was getting too excited by it. I think I have one more that I might be putting up there."
More seriously, Saffiedine offered thanks to his coaches for sticking with him over the last few years. He specifically offered his gratitude for them giving up a good portion of the Christmas season over the past few years to help him prepare for fights. "It's been four years, so you kind of get used to it. You put the stuffing, turkey and mashed potatoes to the side, and I eat my own meal. I celebrate Christmas after the fights; it's just something you have to do. It sucks, but it's part of it. Hopefully next year I'll be able to spend Christmas with the family."
"Hopefully, next year they won't give me a fight in January, I wish, I wish, I wish."
Saffiedine has a record of 2-1 in the three previous fights that made him miss out on Christmas meals, defeating James Terry in 2010, and Marquardt in 2013, while losing to Tyron Woodley in 2011. On January 4, he'll try and improve that record while extending his winning streak to five straight when he faces Ellenberger in the main event of UFC Fight Night 34 in Singapore.
More from Bloody Elbow:
- Technique Recap: UFC 167, featuring Rick Story, Robbie Lawler, Johny Hendricks, Georges St-Pierre
- Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson on Jon Jones: 'One of the dirtiest opponents I have fought'
- MMA fighter fakes death before allegedly committing armed robbery & assault
- Keith Kizer discusses potential problems with open scoring system
- Daily MMA: 11/25: Dana's 'bush league' hit on GSP, Zahabi, Fertitta, Roach, Pacquiao, more