At UFC 209 in March, light heavyweight Paul Craig experienced defeat for the first time in his MMA career. The Scot’s lone loss came against Tyson Pedro, who won via TKO in the first round to drop Craig’s record down to 9-1. At this weekend’s UFC Fight Night: Nelson vs. Ponzinibbio, Craig looks to get back to winning ways versus Khalil Rountree (5-2). And he’ll be doing at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro Arena, his home turf.
“The last fight is where I noticed we were doing something wrong,” confessed Craig to Bloody Elbow. “So we went back to the drawing board and we found out where we went wrong and the reason behind losing that fight.” The reason, according to the former BAMMA light heavyweight champion, was that he had lost focus on what his best weapons were in the cage.
“I’m never going to claim to be this amazing striker,” said Craig. “I can strike and I do have decent stand-up - real good standup for MMA - but I’m a grappler. My wrestling and my jiu jitsu is where I’m strong. And that’s what I’m going to use to win against all these guys in the UFC.”
Though he and his team dissected the Tyson Pedro performance carefully, Craig decided not to watch video of the bout. “I lived that fight,” he said. “I could tell you every single punch I threw, every single knee I took, every single elbow shot that he missed. And for a month solid, that’s all that played in my head. Just that fight. Along with all these what ifs. What if I just slipped this way? What if I just did this? So I don’t need to relive that fight anymore.”
Once Craig got past the initial disappointment of losing his first fight, he began searching for positives to take away from the experience. One such positive was the lifting of the pressure he said comes with being an undefeated fighter. “You know, being 9-0 is great,” he said. “But there’s a lot of added pressure to try and keep that perfect record. And now that that’s gone, it feels like a weight is lifted off my shoulders. At the time it didn’t feel like that, but now that I’m back - I won’t have that added bit of pressure.”
But Craig knows that the state of his record, and how it makes him feel, won’t be enough to win fights in the UFC. So for his second fight in the promotion, Craig decided to drastically change up his training regime. Though he still worked with his team at Scottish Hit Squad in Coatbridge, he also jetted to Scandinavia to train with proven UFC talent.
“One of the downsides about staying in Scotland is that there’s loads of big guys, but not a lot of big guys who do MMA,” claimed Craig. “There’s guys who are my weight class, and bigger, have really good technique in just boxing, wrestling, or grappling, but I’m not able to get full MMA sparring. That was my reason to go elsewhere.”
Elsewhere for Craig was Allstars Training Center in Stockholm, Sweden; home to top ranked light heavyweights Alexander Gustafsson, Jimi Manuwa, and Ilir Latifi. “They’ve got some of the top guys in my division so I can’t see it being a bad idea to go and train with these guys.”
“I worked really closely with Latifi,” continued Craig. “Latifi is a stud. Just crazy strength, crazy work ethic. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met in the world of MMA - just the time he gave me, the way he spoke to me, just everything about him was bang on. I’ve got a lot of time for Latifi.”
Craig also sung the praises of title challengers Gustafsson and Manuwa, but he was especially thrilled with what he described as Latifi’s willingness and enthusiasm for helping him improve as a fighter. For Craig, this was most obvious when Latifi elected to spar left-handed - despite not being obligated to do so - in order to replicate Craig’s forthcoming opponent.
“Latifi fought south paw for me. Whether it was grappling or wrestling, it was southpaw. If it was boxing it was southpaw. Kickboxing, MMA sparring, it was southpaw. That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s some man.”
Getting used to a powerful southpaw was crucial for Craig since it’s his opponent’s left fist that has gotten his attention during the scouting process. “Rountree’s a southpaw with a big powerful backhand. His game plan is to try and wear you down with shots and then land that big back hand, that big strong hook. So my whole gameplan is to avoid that, drag him into my world of wrestling, pick him apart as he’s coming in, deliver big shots on the ground, and submit him.”
Further motivating Craig to pull off his game plan on Sunday is the fact that he’ll be competing in his home country for the very first time in his professional career. “Getting an opportunity to fight in the UFC is one thing. Getting to fight in Scotland is another. Being able to do the two of them together is massive,” said Craig, who lives a twenty-minute drive away from the SSE Hydro Arena. “It’s a great opportunity to be on this show and I don’t see any of the Scottish fighters taking a loss while they are on home soil. Nobody’s going to beat a Scot on his soil.”
Along with winning on Scottish soil, Craig is hoping to impress upon the rest of the world just how patriotic he and his fellow Caledonians can be. “Scottish people love what is theirs,” he said. “Maybe we don’t have the best weather, it’s currently summer and it’s been bucketing down with rain, but we still love Scotland.”
And to further ignite his love for his country, and motivation to defend it, Craig will be turning to a Hollywood blockbuster from the 1990s on the eve of his clash with Roundtree. “I’m going to watch Braveheart right before the fight and get myself well jacked! I’m viewing Roundtree as an invader. He’s come to take my land and my women.” said Craig, with a laugh.
You can see whether Craig, and the other Scots on the card, are able to successfully defend Glasgow by tuning in to UFC Fight Pass and Fox Sports 1 on July 16th (Sunday).