Nick Hein on journey from Judo to MMA: 'From the first minute, I was infected by it'

Photography by Valentino Kerkhof

One of the UFC's newest lightweights, Germany's Nick Hein, talks about his road to the UFC and his projects outside the cage.

Germany's Nick Hein is one of the newest additions to the UFC roster. Hailing from Cologne, Germany, the former national team Judoka was the 2006 U-23 European Judo champion as well as the 2006 and 2007 German national champion. After a failed bid for the 2008 Olympics in China, as well as a bad leg injury, Hein made the decision to turn his attention to his longtime secondary passion, MMA.

Hein began his career at welterweight, going 9-1 (1 NC) before dropping to lightweight for his last bout, a decision win over Michael Erdinc. I wrote more about his fighting style here, but he has all the makings of a strong prospect in the UFC's 155 lb division. Hein will be making his debut against Drew Dober at the UFC's upcoming Fight Night card in Berlin. He sat down with me (over several thousand miles of land and ocean) to talk about his life in and out of the cage, and what brought him to MMA.

Why MMA?
Okay, so I need to go back a little bit, because I used to do Judo for 20 years. And I remember in, I think it was 2000/2001 I got those... You know the old VHS video tapes? Somebody gave it to me and said, "You need to watch this." I think it's the common story everyone has that, like, most of the fighters have that. They got those VHS. And I put it in the video recorder and I switched on and I was, from the first minute, I was infected by it. I was totally... Yes, it was like this. I was totally stunned. And, for me that was... I couldn't believe that something next to Bloodsport, like this, would exist. You know, Bloodsport was for me the top, and then there's something really comparable.

Of course it wasn't right from the start that I said, "I'm going to do that." But, it grew, it grew every day a little bit. And then, I remember, I bought the first pair of boxing gloves and I started boxing with a friend and, yeah. So, it went like this. And then, I remember, 2008 I went in the qualification for the Olympic games in the German national team, Judo. And during that time I got... I had a tough time, I had good competition. I remember, in the end of the year I ended up with a broken leg and I thought, "You know, all this..." For me, the fire, the passion went out.

"I'm going to finish Judo. I'm going to quit that s**t. I'm going to do MMA."

And I remember that I was in the hospital and my parents came in and they wanted to say, "Hello," and "How are you?" They wanted to give me a good feeling, that I'm... That, you know, we stick together and everything is okay. And right from the start I said, "I'm going to finish Judo. I'm going to quit that shit. I'm going to do MMA." And my parents went, like, "Oh no, now he's crazy." And yes, that was actually beginning, like half a year later I did my first fight. I still was in the Judo national team and I had to do it secretly. I couldn't make it official, because otherwise there would have been punishment. Because, they count on you, you have to be in good shape and stuff. So, I had to do it secretly and I did. I did my first fight and, yeah, I won. And from that day I knew, "This is it."

Do you see yourself as a Judoka in MMA, or is this a new sport for you?
It's a good question. I think I also have to go back a little bit, because since the first day, I remember when I was a kid I had this dream, like, one day I'm going to be really good at something. Maybe, I know it sounds crazy, but maybe, like, the best in the world, or the best in something that I wanted to do. I saw, I remember... I mean, my mother and I, we argue about that, because she thinks the story is a little different. But, I am pretty sure it's like this, how I am going to tell you.

"My mother said I started Judo because of a girl, but I'm pretty sure it was my story with Bruce Lee."

I saw Bruce Lee and I thought, "Wow, that's awesome, I want to do something like this." And my mother said I started Judo because of a girl, but I'm pretty sure it was my story with Bruce Lee. And I saw this guy, and I thought, "I want to be good in that." But, in our village, there was no Jeet Kune Do, no Karate, and there was Judo. So, I started Judo and I think, having this passion, being the best in something, grew. And I saw I was good in Judo, so it grew with Judo. But, nevertheless, I always had the feeling that I want to evolve, I want to be better. I want to, like, I like boxing, I like ground fighting and some Jiu Jitsu. But, you know, for me it wasn't necessary because of the Judo. I was good in that.

But then, up to a point, I recognized it didn't make me happy anymore. I want to do something, maybe, different. But, still being in this competition, being able, maybe, to go to Olympics, made me stick to that. And then, when the disappointment of not going to the Olympics and stuff released this pressure of focusing on Judo, I could release this idea of being an MMA fighter. And this is actually what I'm still, like, still have. Of course I want to be good, I want to see how good or how far I can go this way, but nevertheless I love what I do. I would even love it when I would do good on local competitions, for example. So this is, my aim is just doing what I love and see how far I can go.

But are you going to be a Judoka in the cage?
For me it's like, I think I want to do that, what gives me at the end, will give me the win. During the way I started MMA, I found out that I can pop, punch quite good, you know? I don't always hit, I don't always land my punches, but when I land them they can cause some damage. So, in the fight, if I have the opportunity to take somebody down with a punch, I'm going to do that. And of course, punching is not in regular Judo competition involved, but for me being a fighter it's, what you can get you take.

Of course, if I can throw him with a beautiful seoi-nage I'm going to do that. If it gives me the, at the end my hand gets raised, I'm going to do whatever it takes. So for me, I don't really try to show that I'm a Judo guy, you know, I'm just using the skills that I have. And if I will find out that I can do some Jean-Claude Van Damme kicks I'm going to do them. Then I'm going to throw them like "Da-da-dow."

You come out of a pretty small camp, Club do Leao. Tell me about how you train.

"I'm telling you, don't underestimate the crazy Germans."

As we already figured out, Germany is still in the process of developing some mixed martial arts basement. So of course, we are still far away from the standard of, for example, the States have. But, what I have to say is, we are really really dragging every opportunity we have. I mean, of course, there's not those big training centers, comparative to the States where you have everything at one place. But, I have a car and we have Olympic boxers, we have some high class Jiu Jitsu players, we have world class wrestlers. The only problem is, I leave my house and comeback during the night and I race down hundreds of kilometers a day. It's possible. Not every day, but at some point it's like this. So of course it's, you can't compare it to the States, I totally agree with you, but maybe that's also something... You know, you saw Rocky, right? I mean, he's training with the meat. And finally, he gets Apollo, he gets there. And I'm telling you, don't underestimate the crazy Germans.

We are trying our best and we have some... I mean, my manager Tim, he's really really good in organizing camps, with good guys. Right now he's already planning for the future. And maybe, you know, we don't have all the good guys in one place, but we organize them. We have really good fighters already, also in UFC, from Poland, from the Netherlands, from France. You can change places as well. It's something you have to bring with your heart, maybe with your will. And of course, in my case, a wife that is willing to live with a crazy guy like this, always going to places for training. But, until now it works and I'm confident. I'm really confident that we are up to the challenge.

You're a police officer as well. How much of a full time job is that on top of MMA?
First, it's like, right now it's not that I'm full time, it's part time. This is possible because... When you hear the whole story it gets a little more colorful, because, you know, I'm married to a Japanese woman, my wife is Japanese, we have a son. I got to know her during my stay in Japan. I went there for several months and we got to know each other and yeah, she decided to bet all she has on me. And she came to Germany, we got married, and there's this good opportunity the German police office gives you, when you have a family like this. And of course I want to let my wife take part in society, so she needed to learn a language, she needed to find a job, to take part in society. The German police, they give you the opportunity for that and they say, "Okay, we give you the opportunity of part time that you get your family stuff done."

So, there's a conflict and there's opportunity, like there is now, that... For example, I can take the little guy, the little fella, his name is Noah, I can take sometimes also to training. He's someone that everybody there loves to see. And he's there running around on the mat during my training sometimes. And also, sometimes, my family is watching him, so my wife is able to do her stuff and I'm able to do the training.

So, when I'm at the police I'm totally focused on that, but during, like, it's really reduced, so I can focus on my family and, of course, on the training. And this is something... To answer your question in the short way is, I don't have too many other hobbies, you know? It's just, I have to focus on that.

You're on a TV show, Diese Kaminskis, what's it about? How did you end up there?
I think a comparable program would be, I don't know, you know this show "Six Feet Under"? Yeah, it's kind of like this one. It's really a... Actually, when I talk about both things, I sometimes don't believe them myself. But, it really happened like this: You know, they were looking... The plot of the show is like this: There's three undertakers. There's three undertakers and they are total idiots, they have no idea what they are doing. And they are also, they are brothers. It's a comedy, and they are supposed to... They want to make a new start in their life, being undertakers, because they think everyone dies, so there's always enough clients. And so, they're going to make a big business. But nevertheless, they really spoil everything. So, it's quite funny and there's three brothers and I'm playing Marco. Marco is the youngest and dumbest of all.

Actually, they were looking for somebody that is, you know, that has a little biceps, and they maybe is really playing that character. And actually, I don't really have to play him, you know, I just have to get loose. This role was really made for me. A friend said to the producer here, he said, "I know somebody who would really be right." I must mention this, the other actors, they are all professional actors. But for me, I didn't go to acting school, so they just said, "C'mon." And I said, "Yeah, why not? I can try." So, I got invited, I went there with my one day notice, and I just played the role and they were fascinated. So, I got the job. And the first show was really a success and the TV channel bought another six shows. And there's like a big TV prize, it's not like the Oscars, but in Germany for TV, and we are nominated. It's something that I didn't really work for, but I just got it. And they're really satisfied with my stuff. That is also something that just came and fell into my hands.

What was it like to get the UFC call? Were you expecting it?
It didn't fall in my lap, it was... Actually it started, you know, I was always something like, saying for example, you are a parent and you have a child and this child one day comes to you and says, "Daddy I want to be an astronaut." And you say, "Yes, of course you're going to be an astronaut." Because you love your child and you want to give him a good feeling of, you know. For me it was like, I was saying, "I want... One day I have this dream." I always had this dream when I was sitting in my car and you hear some good music coming, some maybe Van Halen or stuff. And then, yeah, in my mind I was already walking out in the stadium to my music.

"All the s***ty years before were just equalized in maybe six months."

But, actually that it would happen, "pfft" I don't know if I would really believe that. Because, as I told several times before, Germany's not really the place, hasn't been the place 'til now, for MMA. We weren't really on the map. It was a dream, but you know... And then Tim called me half a year ago and said, "What do you think? Why shouldn't we work together and work on this aim, this dream?" And I was really... That was maybe the first time I thought, when somebody's really believing in me. I mean, he called me, we are not living at the same place, and he called me and said, "You know, I think you can do it. Why don't you think... Shouldn't we work together?" I was like, "Really? Can it be real?" We started to work together and then from that day on I just can tell you, you know, everything, all the shitty years before were just equalized in maybe six months. It went, really, like this.

When I got the call from Tim, telling me what really is now a reality, I remember I just... You know, we were sitting in the team, together in our gym, and we have like a couch, and I jumped up and I want to run and my foot got stuck and I fell down. And everyone was like, "Oh man, he's really an idiot." Because, they didn't know what I was listening on the phone at the time. It was just amazing.

Did trying out for the Ultimate Fighter ever cross your mind in the past?
Yes, it has. In my old club we have had some guys that were actually also sending in the videos and stuff for the Ultimate Fighter. And I was also thinking and talking, but the thing is, it also depends on who you are working with. At that time I didn't really have the right people to work with. And so, of course I've thought of that. I can tell you also, this interview we are right now having, for example, I already had that in my mind five years ago. I was already exercising myself. It was always something that I thought, "Yeah, could happen, man. I want to do that." But, there wasn't really a door to step actually through to do something. It was always far away.

You're making your debut against Drew Dober. How are you getting ready for this fight?


Just another day in the office. No, actually it's as you said. It's the way I'd think of any fight. It's really hard to... I think it's really hard and really, yeah, hard is the best word, to always focus specifically on this person, because I'm not going to really be able to change from a Judo player to a, I don't know, a Taekwondo, kick fighter. I'm having my style. I try to develop every time, every fight try to be better.

Of course we are studying his fights, of course we are going to find out if he has a mistake he's doing, or I don't know. It's the same business for him. He's going to do that, probably already knows everything... I don't know, I think it's usual business. But, nonetheless it's always the same, I try to become better every time. It's a long process and I'm not going to... It's not my intention to end my career after this fight. I believe in God and I hope his intentions for me are a little further than that. So, I'm going to go for being a better fighter and do what I have to do.

How do people perceive the sport in Germany?

"In my opinion it's a fight between two generations."

Right now it's, in my opinion it's a fight between two generations. We have the old generation which grow up that boxing is the only real, accepted fighting sport with throwing fists. Kickboxing is already something that is, "Mmm, we don't know yet. Oh, those guys with kicking, I don't know." And then we have the young generation that is going to make the decisions in the future. Young guys are already training MMA and loving the sport, that also grew up with it, kind of. The UFC already exists... They celebrate the 20th birthday. So, it's 20 years, I'm now 29. So, since I have access to internet and stuff, I, like my fellas, I grew up being able to also watch the sport develop.

And also, like in the States, it had problems getting acceptance. Because, the actual problem is how people can't really identify with the idea of still fighting with a guy that is lying on the ground. And maybe now we are still five years, or maybe a little more years, behind the United States in this development of thought. But this is a problem that's going to find a solution in a few years. Because, we have, only in my club we have two lawyers, we have two doctors, right, we have a police officer, me. I mean, not the police officers, but maybe the lawyers of tomorrow are going to decide who's going to be able to broadcast on TV.

And the politicians from today, the older generation, is still working against it. But the next generation of new politicians, that already have been in a mixed martial arts club and have practiced it, they are going to decide who's going to be able to make events, as we have the problem with media and TV. So, this is something that is just a matter of time. And it's going to happen, everyone loves it here. We love it, the guys love it, the girls love it. It's just, it's going to take a little time. And, as I told you, we are trying to push that a little, because there's great potential in Germany. Also Europe, everywhere, but I can just talk for Germany of course, as being German.

Right now we are really living off some crazy individuals that are putting all their effort into it and that are raising it up. And the media and, of course, the big companies are going to find out how awesome the sport is. They are going to put money in it, because then they can bring commercials. But, as I told you, I think it's just a matter of time.

Has your toughest fight come in the cage, or in uniform?
Oh, that's a good one. Actually, my toughest fight would be none of both. Because, my toughest fight has been with myself through all the years, deciding to do what I'm doing now. Because, convincing myself to keep on that crazy idea, one day being one of.. I think I'm now the fifth German in the UFC in 20 years?

Actually, with the way the UFC advertises fighters by birth nationality I think you'll be the second.

Yes... I just realized how cool that is. Yeah... So, I just got stuck in this thought. I just said to Tim that I was so happy about what you said that I just forgot the question. It's the punches, you know, after a while you start to forget what people ask you.

"I'm still looking for my personal 'landing on the moon.'"

And my toughest fight... You know, you can't really consider the police. The fights I had I won easily. Because, usually the guys are drunks, so it's not that hard. And, of course, every fight... It wouldn't be fair to say "That was the toughest," or "That was the toughest." So, actually, toughest fight.. I don't know, really with myself. The fight's in my head. In the cage they were all tough, but I'm still looking for my personal "landing on the moon." Like, this big fight that I'm going to show my son one day and saying like, "That was your father." And then he's going, "Yay!" So, I hope there's still something coming up in the future.

You can follow Nick on Twitter @NickHeinMMA

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