clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

From foe to friend: One journeyman's unconventional path to the Octagon

New, comments

The thirty minutes Nicolas Dalby and Ivica Truscek spent beating one another up in the cage led to an unlikely friendship, and forged one journeyman's unlikely path to the Octagon.

On Saturday, April 10th, sharp-eyed fans may notice an unfamiliar face in the corner of Danish fighter Nicolas Dalby. Coaches, teammates, nutritionists, cutmen, and even (in the case of welterweight champion Robbie Lawler) chiropractors are common figures in a fighter's corner, but opponents are usually kept safely on the other side of the cage.

When Nicolas Dalby enters the cage to face Zak Cummings in Zagreb, however, one of Croatia's most enduring and endearing combat athletes will stand beside him. His name is Ivica Trušček, and a few years ago he was trying his hardest to knock Dalby's block off.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

In March 2010, Nicolas Dalby made his pro debut at a small show in Sonderberg, Denmark, winning by rear naked choke. Just one month before in nearby Holland, a Croatian fighter by the name of Ivica Trušček had already fought his 12th bout. But Ivica lost.

In the six years that followed these men followed two very different paths. If Dalby had ever entertained the idea of catching up to Trušček's record, the chance for that is long gone now. Dalby has fought 13 times since his debut; even ignoring his 12-fight lead, Ivica has entered the cage or ring 43 times since February 2010. Of course, Nicolas remains undefeated, while Ivica has tasted defeat in 24 of his 55 bouts.

This is a story of two archetypes: the prospect, and the journeyman. Both are integral to the sport of MMA, but the latter rarely receives the kind of adoration and praise lavished upon the former.

Nicolas and Ivica crossed paths for the first time in August of 2013. The event was Royal Arena 2, and the two were scheduled for a three-round main event fight.

"I didn't know Nicolas before fighting his teammate, Kenneth Rosfort-Nees, in Denmark," Ivica told me. "I first saw him beating the crap out of some poor Brazilian guy and I told my coach to remind me never to fight at welterweight again. Sure enough, when the offer came I forgot all about it, and probably lost a few years of my life because of it."

Already a veteran of 30 fights, Ivica resolved to employ every ounce of his knowledge, every trick that five years of hard experience had taught him.

Always humble, Ivica gives Nicolas his due when recounting their fight. "I had plenty of time to prepare, and my coach and I made a pretty good analysis of him, or so we thought. At the weigh-ins we played the usual tough guy staring game, and I asked him, ‘Who goes first?' meaning ‘Who will break first tomorrow?.'

"Next day, as the fight started, I got pushed to the fence, and felt really weak there so I told him in the ear: ‘Lets fight like men! It's your hometown!" just to get him off of me. It worked, but not quite as I wanted. Nicolas is a very high output guy, something I dislike very much from an opponent, so for the next two and a half rounds he hit me with everything but the kitchen sink. I managed to get in exactly one counter left hook that knocked his front teeth out, but besides that I was getting smashed real good. From punches to kicks, and in the final minute he took me down and landed a beautiful elbow that sliced my head open, just to put a cherry on top of his performance. The canvas was unlike anything I've seen: very rough, like sandpaper. During the fight Dalby moved his feet, and huge pieces of skin went flying to the cage fence, but he didn't even blink."

Nicolas Dalby took a unanimous decision, and Ivica returned to Croatia, having notched his 12th defeat. Reflecting on the outcome, he remembers thinking, "One tough mother fucker just beat me good. Never again will I do that to myself."

As might be expected, the fight was not as one-sided as Ivica tells it. "The Terror" is an awkward, unorthodox fighter, and Dalby did not have an easy time figuring him out. Dalby kept a brutal pace, true to form, but Ivica never backed down. When Nicolas surged, Ivica retreated, dragging his trademark left hook after him. When Nicolas hung back, Ivica kept a stiff jab in his face, making him pay for every inch of space. Chin tucked behind his shoulder, Ivica made himself a difficult target, and waited patiently for his chance to put the Dane away. It never came, of course, but Nicolas Dalby learned a thing or two about fistfighting that day, courtesy of Ivica Trušček.

He even invited Ivica to his after-party, though Ivica declined. Instead opting to stay holed up in his hotel with Dalby's teammate Damir Hadzovic, engaging in what he calls "unsportsmanlike activities."

The months passed, and Ivica's relentless schedule carried on. He fought six times between October of 2012 and March of 2013, traveling all over Europe to meet such tough opponents as Artiom Damkovsky and Piotr Hallman. On March 2nd Ivica faced Danish fighter Ayub Tashkilot. "I beat him," Ivica says. "But lost the decision because of a point deduction." Not three days after the close defeat, one of many in his career, Ivica received a phone call.

It was Tue Trnka, head coach of Rumble Sports. He informed Ivica that his fighter Nicolas Dalby was scheduled for a co-main event in Aarhus, but his opponent had pulled out. Did Ivica know of any fighters who could step in on short notice?

"I only know one guy deranged enough to fight," Ivica informed him. "But Nicolas already beat him a few months ago."

Four days later Ivica found himself back in Denmark, staring across the cage at an all-too-familiar face.

"I had a plan to do everything the opposite to our first fight," he says. "During the weigh-ins I didn't even look him in the eyes. He won the first fight by constantly attacking and going forward. Since I couldn't stop him doing that with punches, I resolved to do the same thing I condemned him for in the first fight. I took him down. That was about the only success I had, though!"

Even Ivica remembers a few highlights fondly, however. "The second small success in the match was when I heard Dalby's coach instructing him to throw an uppercut as a counter to my takedown attempts, so I faked the shot and threw the hardest overhand right I could and hit him picture perfect on the chin. I won the fight in that second, but just in my silly head; he just shook his head and continued to obliterate me. I thought, ‘Motherfucker! not only is he bigger, stronger, better conditioned and technically cleaner than me, he had to have an iron chin too. Of course.'"

After losing to Dalby a second time, Ivica hugged his foe and told him he never wanted to fight him again, "this time for real."

OPPORTUNITIES

Combat sports enjoy international popularity because of the relative ease with which they are trained. Consider the humble origins of Ghanaian boxer Azumah Nelson, or watch Muay Thai great Singdam Kiatmuu9 training in a ring built slapdash on cinder blocks, and you realize that the will to fight is far and away the most important trait a would-be fighter can have. Strap on a pair of gloves (or not) and you're good to go.

Still, circumstances play a key role in the development of a fighter's career. Wealth, independence, and smart management are rare and precious commodities. Nicolas Dalby trains full-time at Rumble Sports, the top MMA gym in Denmark. Fighters like Damir Hadzovic, Pannie Kianzad, and Mats Nillson number among his teammates. With this support, Dalby has been able to afford a slow, methodical schedule, giving him the necessary time to rest and recover after each fight, and carefully prepare for the next one. Combined with Dalby's great skill, it is no surprise that this approach eventually led him to the UFC.

Ivica Trušček's situation is very different. He has a wife and three children, and fighting alone is not enough to support them. Instead, he works part-time at his father's printing business in a small village near Križevci, Croatia. Twice a week he drives an hour and a half to train for the evening at Croatia Top Team in Zagreb. When he can't manage the trip to the capital, Ivica trains with his brother, lifting weights and practicing techniques that he finds on Youtube. On the weekends, he works as a bouncer.

Ivica's passion for MMA makes him something of an oddball in Križevci. "My parents never accepted it," he said in a WFC documentary. "After 30 fights mother still begs me every time not to go and stay at home. She crosses herself [when I fight], though she isn't religious." Though his wife supports him, only Ivica's children are truly accustomed to his strange habit. "When I'm winning," he says with a smile, "I show them my victories on the computer. So it's normal to them. They know that papa goes boxing."

"I wish that I was more patient," Ivica says, when asked about the beginning of his MMA career. "It would have been better to take the opponents where my chances of winning were at least 50 percent. I also wish I knew all the little tricks I picked up along the way, like cage control and setting up traps, establishing patterns and then breaking them."

After their second fight, Dalby invited Ivica to live and train with him in Denmark, but Ivica was forced to decline. "I'm a father of three and a family man first," he says. "And a fighter second. I can only leave my pack to get my ass kicked, and then hurry back home."

Ivica's path has been a hard one, but he has persevered, and achieved some remarkable successes along the way. You may find his name dotting the win columns of UFC veterans like Dalby, Mairbek Taisumov, Piotr Hallman, and Islam Makhachev, but Ivica has earned more than a few impressive wins of his own. Recently Ivica upset the Final Fighting Championship welterweight champion Viktor Halmi, knocking him out in the very first round.

"In three years," he says, "I see myself as a champion in FFC, a top European promotion. I think that is a realistic goal, considering my record."

REALISM AND THE ROAD TO THE OCTAGON

Now 28 years old with an unglamorous record, Ivica accepts the fact that he will most likely never step into the Octagon as a fighter. "I was watching UFC before Mirko [Cro Cop] knew what MMA was," he says wryly, but when you "train with coaches and partners only two days a week, and when you compare that to a serious camp where guys train two times a day, it's obvious why I'm not a UFC caliber fighter."

And that's why Nicolas Dalby, star of Danish MMA and UFC contender, reached out. When Nicolas learned that he would be scheduled for a fight in Zagreb, so close to Ivica's hometown, he wanted the terror of Europe's regional MMA circuit in his corner.

"Dalby knew that I, like every other MMA fighter in the world, dream of being in the UFC. So, as I could never get in with 24 defeats, Nicolas will do me a great honor by having me in his corner and letting me experience the organization in that way at least. I promised to be quiet as a mouse, and hopefully I won't spill the ice all over the canvas."

Journeymen and professional opponents are the backbone of MMA, as well as every other professional combat sport. In a fight there is only one winner, and one loser. Fighters like Ivica Trušček show up when called, pad the records of more privileged fighters, and every now and then shock a hometown crowd into silence, or inspire them to cheers.

The ultimate irony is that Nicolas Dalby, having fought on average only two times a year since his professional debut, has a far easier time finding opponents than the far-traveled journeyman who gave him his first real test. I asked Ivica why he hasn't fought in over four months, an uncharacteristically long break for him. "As I said, it's too late for a change," he laughs. "So a healthy four-month layoff was not my decision. I had three fights scheduled, but all of them fell through. It feels like I'm retired and I hate it. I'm dangerous enough to beat a lot of the talented guys, but if they beat me--so what? 20 others did it before. So fighting me is a lose-lose situation, and most people avoid it."

Anything can happen, of course. A winning record is typically a prerequisite for entrance into the UFC, but the organization's international expansion creates a demand for local fighters, especially those willing to step up on short-notice. Still, this man of unusual character has satisfied himself with realistic goals, and remains thankful to Nicolas Dalby for the rare opportunity to live out a lifelong dream.

"After all is said and done, I'm proud I survived the half-hour beating I took from Nicolas," says Ivica. "It's one of the highlights of my journeyman career, for sure. And because of the thing he is doing for me now, I feel confident in calling him my friend."