After suffering his first UFC loss, featherweight TUF: Live alumnus Sam Sicilia thought it might be a good idea for a change of scenery and relocated his fight camp from his home state of Washington to the airy desert of Phoenix at the world renowned MMA Lab, headed by UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson.
With his initial loss to Brazilian Rony Jason at UFC 153 in October 2012, Sicilia (11-2) knew it was time to expose himself to the upper echelon of mixed martial artists. But even for a well-seasoned scrapper such as himself, sparring at The MMA Lab was no walk in the park.
“I don’t know if I’ve won a round in there,” Sicilia laughed.
“They’re really aggressive in practice. You walk in, and you immediately think no one likes each other. But then, afterwards, everyone is so cool and supportive. This gym has really been an eye-opener. I feel like these guys have been invested in me, as they help me train, and it feels really good.”
With Henderson and fellow UFC fighter John Tuck preparing for their respective bouts at UFC on Fox 7 just a week later, the training for Sicilia’s TUF 17 Finale bout with Venezuelan striker Maximo Blanco has been hot and heavy.
“I haven’t had an easy round, or a round off in I don’t know how long,” Sicilia told MMAWeekly.com. “Benson’s got his fight and John Tuck is fighting on that card, and we’re working together. They’re not changing my style, necessarily, but adding to it. So it feels really good.”
After winning his first professional fight via unanimous decision, Sicilia went on to have his next ten victories end before the final bell tolled – including a second round knockout of TUF 15 castmate Cristiano Marcello in his UFC debut.
With the finishes piling up, the fan-friendly style that Sicilia strived for had become a detriment; something we saw in the Jason fight, and something he acknowledges trying to curtail after suffering that disheartening loss.
“I go out there trying to be the human highlight reel for every second of the fight. Instead of making the finish happen, I just need to go out there and fight my fight and know it will happen eventually and stop trying to force it,” said the 27-year-old.
“If I get him clipped or hurt, I can sense that, and I will put him away, instead of just going out there and chucking and chasing him. Eventually, at this level, that isn’t going to cut it anymore.
“I’ve been geared more towards a fight, rather than a sport. I get in there and emotions kind of take over. I kind of tell myself, ‘This guy has to go, and that’s it.’ Now, it’s about finding me a balance – stay athletic, stay moving and get in there and chuck. And just keeping a tighter defense too.”
Sicilia, who made it to the UFC by being a finisher, is quick to point out that although he has a new camp and strategy, aggression is still the name of his game.
“We want to keep that aggression,” he said. “But just not the, ‘Okay, I’m gonna bite down on my mouthpiece and just go.’ It’s more about picking a power puncher and grinding them and knowing they’ll break, and then I get the KO; instead of maybe, in the past, just going for the one-punch KO.”
For the featherweight power puncher, he’s aware it is his aggression that has endeared him to legions of fans. And despite a new focus, the brawling will still be there, but it will now be on his terms.
“I never want to ditch that, we’re just adding thing to it,” stated Sicilia. “Instead of just going out the whole time and chucking and chasing him down, it’s more of a brawl-on-my-own-terms sort of deal – move around in there and determine when I’m going to chuck.”
With his aggression in check and a looming fight with another slugger in Blanco, Sicilia is well aware of the “cut culture” that is happening in the UFC, and that his job may be on the line if he were to suffer back-to-back losses.
With pressure mounting and all eyes on the Mandalay Bay Events Center for The Ultimate Fighter 17 Finale on Saturday, Sicilia is keen to his situation. “I definitely feel the pressure,” he said.
“It’s been a positive pressure, though. Just because I go into practice every day knowing I kinda got to make it work for me. I can’t spend every day worrying, that won’t do anyone any good. So, yeah, the pressure’s there, but that’s when I do best anyway, when my back is against the wall.
“I’m not getting kicked out of the UFC by Maximo Blanco, that’s for damn sure.”
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