The UFC's long-awaited return to Abu Dhabi will feature one of the organization's more seasoned travelers as Andrew "Highlight" Craig prepares for his fourth excursion outside of the United States. The 6'1 American, who fights out of his native Texas is coming off just the second loss of his professional career: a submission to British fighter Luke Barnatt last year at UFC Fight Night 30 in Manchester.
While Craig is not one to make excuses for his losses, he did ponder over his lack of mental fortitude ahead of that match, which he believes cost him dearly during the fight.
"I think you can chalk it up to a lot of things." Craig said in an exclusive interview with Bloody Elbow. "I think Luke was obviously the better man that night - he beat me up pretty good; I think my preparation physically was fine, but mentally, I don't think I was as strong of a fighter that night and he made me pay for it."
The Texan certainly paid for his mental deficiencies on fight night, as Craig was dropped in the opening round and fell victim to a rear-naked choke a few minutes later in the second round. The loss was the second of his career and the first by submission.
Divulging further into the reasons behind his mental lapse, Craig believes he "drifted" from one fight to the next without a true sense of purpose and lacked the correct goals to motivate him in consecutive fights. Having achieved his original ambition of fighting in the UFC, Craig faced the daunting task of finding his place within the crowded organization.
"I felt flat up until that point; the UFC has been real big on the mental preparation, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it has a lot to do with my goals and what I set out to do. When I originally started fighting, it was to win fights and make it to the UFC; once I was actually in the UFC, I felt I just drifted from one fight to the next with no real goals set out, and that showed against Luke.
I think without those goals it is hard to stay as focused as you should," he added.
While he may have deviated slightly from his path, Craig has now refitted himself with an entirely new set of goals. "Now, I have kind of realigned myself with what I want to accomplish and what I want to get out of fighting. I think it'll prove by that in the [upcoming] fight."
Apart from his mental preparation, "Highlight" made his first trip out to Jackson's MMA in Albuquerque, where he took up residence in the home of fellow UFC middleweight competitor Tim Kennedy.
"Training has been fantastic for this fight. I made my first trip out to Jackson's MMA, which I had never done before out in Albuquerque. Tim Kennedy was nice enough to give me a room at his house, so I got to train out there with those guys."
The Houston native could not have been more complimentary of his temporary gym - even going so far as christening its coaches as the "Phil Jackson of MMA coaches." Having spent the majority of his fighting career in Texas, Craig was amazed by the efficiency and versatility of the entire staff.
"Man, talk about just fantastic coaches, fantastic training partners - really those coaches, I think they are really next level. If I had to compare, they're like the Phil Jackson of MMA coaches. They know what they are doing and it is all from the same point of view, whether it be the physical preparation, the technical side of things, or the mental side of things, they have it all covered."
I went in there not knowing whether or not it would be a good enough fit for me, but after spending that much time there, I can't say enough good things about it."
Craig's two week stay in Albuquerque was certainly a productive one. Apart from picking the brains of head coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn, Craig also got to train with many of the gym's elite competitors, including UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, his temporary housemate Kennedy, as well as his former opponent Kyle Noke. Lesser-known training partners included Legacy FC fighters Clint Roberts and Phil Hawes.
Looking ahead to his UFC Fight Night 39 match-up against Chris Camozzi, Craig is expecting a grueling battle as both of them are coming off losses. Camozzi, in particular, is riding a two-fight losing streak, and while that could lead to a slightly more timid and cautious fighter, Craig expects a different reaction entirely.
"I don't think that [two-fight losing streak] is going to change too much about Camozzi. I think he is a real gamer and comes to fight. He really wants to put it out there; he is aggressive, he likes to attack, and this really might make him more aggressive, where he will really be looking to make a statement to continue fighting in the UFC."
If restructuring his UFC goals did not rekindle his motivation, then the idea of an aggressive, determined Camozzi staring across from him in the cage certainly did.
"Just knowing that my opponent across the cage is going to be so hungry to beat me is all I really need to amp my training up 100 percent."
Andrew's upcoming fight takes place in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, where the UFC has not been featured live since the infamous UFC 112 PPV card in 2010. When asked about his thoughts on his upcoming travels, Craig expressed concerns with the difficulties of competing abroad. Issues such as jet lag and dietary complications tend to bother fighters during the rigorous weight cut ahead of their fights, and Craig is no different.
Three out of Craig's five previous UFC bouts took place outside of the U.S. Each of those three contests took place on separate continents, meaning that the Texan has become a cultured competitor as well as a seasoned traveler. While the globe-trotting has not impacted his physical preparation, Craig admits it can be quite difficult to find the necessary nutrition during fight week.
"It doesn't impact the preparation, but what it does impact is my diet and nutrition. I think that is the hardest part to nail in a foreign country. I have done Australia, I've done Brazil, I've done Manchester and now Abu Dhabi, and all those it is hard to keep on the same diet that you want to keep at; that same regiment. Whereas when I fought in Vegas and in California, it was easy 'cause I could just go to the Whole Foods Store and get exactly what I needed."
With his long-term UFC goals taking shape, Craig is looking forward to a sort of career renaissance heading into his sixth outing in the octagon. While he is certainly not looking past Camozzi, he is motivated to return to his winning ways and ultimately take his place amongst the top competitors in the middleweight division.
"This would be my sixth fight in the UFC; It would be my fourth win. Before I was looking at it just one fight at a time - right now I am looking at stringing wins together. I want to string wins together, fight for line in the Top 10 and just keep moving up the ladder."
UFC Fight Night 39 takes place April 11 at the DU Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.