Tony Martin had a chip on his shoulder going into UFC 229, but that didn’t stop him from putting on an impressive performance — rather the opposite.
Martin, a lightweight turned welterweight, knocked out Ryan LaFlare in the third round of the first fight at UFC 229, headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s highly-anticipated title defense against Conor McGregor. Martin, best known for his grappling earlier in his MMA career, dominated LaFlare. He eventually finished the one-time UFC headliner with strikes in the final frame, notching the biggest win of his career and his first TKO as a professional.
“It worked out the way I wanted it to work out,” Martin told BloodyElbow.com earlier this week. “Ryan’s a really tough fighter. (It’s) really tough to finish him.”
Martin might’ve been happy with his performance on the biggest card of the year, but he’s not happy with the amount of respect the UFC has shown him throughout his 10-fight tenure, which dates back to 2014.
More confident than ever thanks to his recent success, Martin expects an increase in respect from the UFC after his win over LaFlare.
“I feel like I haven’t gotten the respect that I’ve deserved being in the UFC and being an elite-level fighter,” he said. “If [the LaFlare win] didn’t earn my respect, then there’s really not much else I can do.”
Martin defeated Keita Nakamura in his welterweight debut in April — a win, Martin said, the UFC wasn’t happy with. He wanted to get back into the cage right away after that win, but instead was forced to sit on the sidelines for nearly six months until UFC 229.
“I try to fill in,” Martin said. “I tried to fill in for Neil Magny (against Alex Oliveira at UFC Sao Paulo in September), I tried to fill in for these other fights. I said, ‘Hey, do you guys need me? I’m ready.’ At some point, I don’t want to be waiting five, six months for a fight. This is my time.”
Martin is also unsatisfied with his lack of big spots on cards. He’s only been on a main card once in his UFC career, in March 2015 when he lost to Leonardo Santos. (Coincidentally, on that same card LaFlare lost to Demain Maia in the main event.) Three of his last five fights — four of which are wins — have been on the UFC Fight Pass early preliminary card.
One might argue that just being on the Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor card counts for something, but Martin believes he was placed on UFC 229 just to fill the card up — he said it did not represent the beginning of a push from the UFC, something he’s still looking for.
“I’m getting no push behind me to help build my brand,” Martin said. “I have two, three years in my prime left. I need a real push now.”
In the early days of his MMA career, Martin trained under the tutelage of MMA pioneer Brock Larson. He later started working with boxing coach Eddie Alvarez in Boston, and also trained at Mark Dellagrotte’s Sityodtong. Last year, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt made the full-time move to Florida to train at American Top Team, one of the premier MMA gyms in the world.
Martin admitted when he first started out in the UFC four years ago, his striking had a long way to go. But once he started working with Alvarez, he developed some tools on the feet. Fast forward to today, Martin seems to be a well-rounded mixed martial artist — his move to ATT has certainly helped with that, too. Though Martin believes his striking is now “top notch,” he doesn’t think the UFC has noticed his improvements just yet.
“I’ve been listening to the commentary for my last few fights, and everything is always just, ‘Tony’s a good grappler, his jiu-jitsu is underrated,’” Martin said. “Not once have they talked about my striking. It’s almost like they think it’s nonexistent.
“When you look at my first five fights in the UFC, you think, ‘This isn’t an elite-level fighter.’ You can tell I have a skill-set that works for me, but I don’t know if you could be like, ‘OK, this guy could be a title contender.’ Then I started to get better and better and better.”
Martin had only been training in MMA for three years when he made his UFC debut. Now, he’s been training for seven years — hence his steady improvements and boost in confidence.
“I’m telling you, I’m a late blossomer,” he said. “I feel like if the UFC gets behind me, it’s going to be very beneficial for both sides.”
The win over LaFlare marked Martin’s first finish since January 2016, when he submitted newcomer Felipe Oliveiri in a come-from-behind win. Martin believes his many trips to the scorecards has something to do with the lack of respect he has gotten from the UFC — he said he’s “more of a methodical fighter,” and the UFC apparently isn’t into that.
“I don’t go out there and try to just brawl and try to make a bloody mess out of myself and my opponent,” Martin said. “This is a sport to me. My goal is to hit and not get hit.
“I’m always trying to finish, but it’s hard at this level, especially when you’re going against guys with six fights. Those guys have been in the deep waters with top-level opponents. It’s hard to put those guys away.”
Martin has one fight left on his UFC contract, but despite a two-fight winning streak, doesn’t expect to get a new deal done before his next fight. Though UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby was impressed with his recent win, Martin said, he believes the UFC wants him to fight out his contract. In an ideal world, Martin would have already re-signed with the UFC and lined up his next fight since the LaFlare win. But he’s not worried about fighting out his contract, because he’s very confident he’ll put on a great performance in his next fight.
Fighting out contracts is a big risk for fighters, because so much is at stake in just one fight. But the possibility of losing his next fight and subsequently not getting a new contract hasn’t even crossed Martin’s mind.
“It definitely puts a lot of pressure on me to have a dominant performance with a big knockout to really set myself apart from the rest,” Martin said. ... “I’m not gonna beg them for a new contract, because I believe I’m gonna have a dominant win in my next fight. … I’ll handle my business, then we’ll renegotiate if that’s what they wanna do.”
Many fighters have found other — and perhaps better — opportunities outside the UFC in the past few years. For example, former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez signed with ONE Championship earlier this week. But Martin plans to stay with the UFC after his current contract is up, even if it means getting paid less than what other promotions offer him.
He wants to be the best fighter in the world, and if you ask him, the only way that could ever happen is if he’s on the UFC roster.
“I know the UFC champions are always considered the best fighters in the world,” Martin said. ... “I didn’t come to the UFC to just fight in the UFC, to make more money, to fight on the Conor vs. Khabib card. That’s all secondary stuff.
“I truly believe me being the best in the world is a goal I can achieve, but it’s gonna take a lot of work, obviously a bit of luck, and timing. I truly think it’s my time.”