by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com (Photo courtesy of April Pishna)
(Photo courtesy of April Pishna – PishnaPhoto.com)

Mike Nickels is anything but a conventional individual. Throughout his life it seems that regardless of his circumstances, Mike has gone his own route, authority or beaten path be damned.

From elephant trainer [no kidding], to tattoo artist, to MMA fighter, Nickels’ unique path in life has lead him to live more in just a few short years than many do in their entire lives. Not only has Mike’s personal life seen its share of unique circumstances, but his fighting career has as well.

Starting off in 2004 for the Ring of Fire promotion in Colorado, Nickels’ heavily tattooed frame and tell it like it is, straightforward style made him an instant crowd favorite. It was soon thereafter that Mike’s unique persona landed him a chance of a lifetime, after just a few professional fights.

Cast in Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter, Nickels became one of the series’ most recognizable people. Even after breaking his nose early on in his opening bout loss to Matt Hamill, Mike showed the gritty determination that he’d been known for in Colorado and continued to fight until the very end.

Upon rebounding with an impressive win at the TUF 3 Finale over Wes Combs, Nickels would be scheduled to face fellow TUF alum Keith Jardine. But after two attempts, the fight never materialized, including Mike weighing in for their scheduled UFC 64 bout, only to drop out a few hours later due to a slipped disk.

After nearly a year away from fighting, Nickels is healthy again, ready to fight, and will do so for the Ring of Fire promotion this Saturday at the Broomfield Events Center, squaring off against Carpassio Owens in what should be a ruckus occasion both inside, and outside the ring.

Shortly after finishing a shift at Twisted Sol Tattoos, which Mike co-owns, Nickels spoke to MMAWeekly to discuss his road back from injury, his upcoming Ring of Fire showdown and what lays ahead for one of the truly “individual” fighters in MMA.

MMAWeekly: First thing Mike, tell us what you’ve been up to since you last fought at the TUF 3 Finale last year.

Mike Nickels: Well, before my fight with Keith Jardine I slipped a disk in my back, so I spent a good amount of time rehabbing that and getting my back nice and strong. And then just training, working on my hands and my wrestling, getting together with a handful of pro fighters in Colorado, improving our knowledge and training exercises.

MMAWeekly: Let’s talk about that scheduled bout with Keith for a moment. You were there at the event, had weighed in, and then you pulled out of the fight. Tell us what happened.

Mike Nickels: Keith had pulled out [of the originally scheduled date] because of an injury, so I had ended up training for 12 weeks straight and about a week before the [rescheduled] fight I was wrestling and slipped a disk in my back. I immediately went from the academy to the physical therapist and then to a chiropractor and then to a doctor. I didn’t want to miss the fight, so I was practically doing pretty much everything I could do to try to get it to work. The fight at the Mandalay Bay for the UFC was going to be the pinnacle of my career so far, so I really didn’t want to miss that fight.

So I thought I could go there and rehab it the week of the fight. I went to the weigh-ins and that night before the fight I went down to the training rooms to see where my back was at and what I could. I was having real sharp pain when I throw a jab, right kick and worst of all I had a bunch of blood surrounding the muscle on my back, which was tender to the touch. So I couldn’t even really effectively roll on my back and at that point I just knew that even though I wanted to fight, against a guy like Keith, I needed to be 100% to put up a good fight, so I had to back out.

MMAWeekly: Was there any time during your rehab that you wondered if you’d return at all or was it pretty much right to work getting healthy without any hesitation?

Mike Nickels: As soon as I got back into town I went straight to actively rehabbing my back. I contacted the UFC to let them know I was actively rehabbing it and that I would be available, I’ve been training ever since. After about a month after that fight was supposed to go down, I was able to grapple more and slowly but surely everything started to go into place. Now I’ve picked up a chiropractic office sponsorship – the chiropractic office of the [NFL’s] Denver Broncos – and they’re a really effective, efficient team and everything’s just gotten better and better. I finally feel like I’ve got everything back in place and the muscles are loose that had been tensed up for about a year.

I really thought I was going to live with this injury the rest of my life, but just really in the last four months, it’s just weekly massages and chiropractic adjustments to get everything back in place. I’ve been training hard, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling with guys like Nathan Marquardt, Eliot Marshall, Duane Ludwig, and pretty much all the UFC-level fighters that Colorado has right now. We’re all getting together a couple times a week, working out. So I feel like even though I’ve had this time off to give my body some rest, I’m injury free and I’m stronger than ever. My hands are stronger than ever, my wrestling is getting better day by day and my Jiu-Jitsu just continues to progress.

MMAWeekly: All right, now the first step towards getting back to the UFC is your fight this weekend for the Ring of Fire promotion against Carpassio Owens. Tell us your thoughts on that fight.

Mike Nickels: For this next fight, the guy I’m fighting, Carpaccio Owens, he’s a monster. He’s got huge muscles and looks like a WWE action figure [laughs], but that’s not really functional. I’ve watched his last fight, I was there, and he had a hard time with his endurance – which is one of my strong points. I think on the ground I have the advantage [and] standing up I have the advantage. My goal really for this fight is; I haven’t gotten my hands off, so intention for this fight is to take the center of the ring and make him deal with my hands. If he tries that long shot, I’ll sprawl, spin around, take his back and finish him. You know, I don’t see the fight going longer than the first round.

MMAWeekly: This will be your first fight in Colorado in quite a while. What do you think about getting a chance to fight in front of the hometown crowd again?

Mike Nickels: Really, that part of it is awesome. I fought Matt Hamill on that [TUF] show and really wasn’t myself in that fight. I mean, Matt was an incredible competitor anyway, but I really wasn’t at 100%. I fought Wes Combs [at the TUF 3 Finale] and they didn’t air that fight, so all of America got to watch me lose and nobody got to see what it looks like when I win. So for me, this Colorado show, being able to fight in front of the hometown crowd, the people that have supported me since I started fighting, is going to be a rush.

It’s probably going to be the biggest arena I’ve fought in. I think they’ve sold out 6,000 people and I’ve been selling a gang-load of tickets, so I’m really expecting a roar when I come out. I’m going to try to feed off that energy, harness it, and use it to my advantage.

MMAWeekly: Should all go well in this upcoming fight, what kind of goals/plans do you have set for yourself for the remainder of the year?

Mike Nickels: For me, all of this is so amazing: the [TUF] show, fighting for the UFC, and just having these opportunities. To be able to spend my life living and training in the martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, wrestling, I’m fascinated by the mathematics of those. I’m just having a blast. I think the fight that the UFC is offering me after this fight is a huge fight. It’s easily just as big as Keith Jardine, if not bigger. It’s going to be a blast.

To me, it’s all about the experience. I don’t know if I’ll ever be World Champion one day, but I really don’t base my pride and ego off my ability to beat people up. To me it’s just the experience and exploration of the martial arts I’ve been learning. So if I’m going to have a blast, I’m going to take advantage of whatever falls in front of me. Train my heart out and continue to get smarter with my training, stay injury-free, sharpen up my hands; increase my submissions, timing, endurance and see where I can take it.

MMAWeekly: Thanks for your time Mike, it’s appreciated. Is there anything you want to say as we head out?

Mike Nickels: I’ve got to give a lot of love to all the fans. I’ve received a lot of letters of support and encouragement from a lot of people – they’re really awesome. My family, of course, my children and my wife for being so patient with my training schedule. All the people at the tattoo shop that have supported me and held down the shop while I was busy training or out fighting.

All the guys at the academy that I train with who have bled and sweat with me, I’ve got to give love to those guys at Colorado BJJ and Muay Thai of Colorado. Duane Ludwig for helping me out, Eliot Marshall for putting in some ground time with me. For all the fans, come down to the Broomfield Events Center and check out the fights. And if this fight goes as planned, keep your eyes out for that next Spike TV UFC Fight Night, I’ll be fighting somebody famous, so it should be a blast!