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Craig feeling like a ‘wounded animal’ heading into contract fight at UFC London

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Paul Craig entered the UFC’s light heavyweight division with a brutal flourish in 2016, battering and then tapping Luis Henrique da Silva at UFC on FOX 22. The impressive victory capped a 8-fight unbeaten streak, which was punctuated by Craig lifting gold in the BAMMA promotion.

The mauling of da Silva earned Craig a Performance of the Night bonus. His personality and mic skills, along with his potential in a shallow division, made him a fan favourite and highly sought after interview. Then 2017 happened.

At UFC 209 last March, Craig was matched with an undefeated Tyson Pedro. Craig, who had been training part-time (while working in teenage education), was confident that his talent, paired with undivided attention to MMA, would be enough to conquer his Aussie opponent. Pedro had other ideas, though.

Craig lost that fight via TKO late in the first round. Four months later he was matched with another hot prospect at 205 lbs; Khalil Rountree. That fight was booked for UFC Fight Night 113 in Craig’s hometown of Glasgow.

For training Craig traveled to Sweden’s Allstars Gym to work with Jimi Manuwa, Alexander Gustafsson, and Ilir Latifi. He was sure that this level of training, as well as the support of a rabid Scottish crowd, would see him through the difficult battle with Rountree.

However, Craig was trounced on home soil and lost again via TKO in the first round. It was a painful loss for the Scot, both physically and emotionally.

Those losses prompted Craig to take a timeout. Now, after re-calibrating both his training and expectations, the ‘Bear Jew’ returns at UFC Fight Night: Werdum vs. Volkov in London, England. In the UK he’ll meet Russian UFC debutante Magomed Ankalaev hoping for redemption and the opportunity to continue fighting in the UFC.

“I’m on my last fight, I feel like a wounded animal,” said Craig in a surprisingly candid interview with Bloody Elbow. “I’m backed up against a wall here and I need to strike. I need to fight like Paul Craig or be out of the UFC. That’s what it is. It’s do or die for me.”

With the stakes higher than ever for Craig, he decided to stay away from Allstars and other well-known training camps. Instead he has remained at Scottish Hit Squad in Coatbridge, Scotland. That gym, headed by Brian Gallacher, has housed Craig for the vast majority of his fighting career.


MMA: UFC Fight Night-Rountree vs Craig

Jul 16, 2017: Craig looks down as Kahlil Rountree’s arm is raised inside Glasgow’s SSE Hydro Arena.

Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

“I’ve gotten into the UFC by training in Scotland and putting in the hard work in Scotland,” said Craig. “When I have been to places like Sweden or Vegas, it’s out of my comfort zone. Great guys there, great training, but it’s not always tailored towards me. At Scottish Hit Squad there is training that is tailored towards myself.”

In familiar surroundings Craig has watched a lot of footage on his next opponent, something he doesn’t typically do. With his coaches, Craig has formulated a game-plan for Ankalaev, which he says will lead to a victory either on the feet or via submission.

“He’s got good ground and pound, we’ve seen that, but some of his opponents; who he’s ground and pounded, have just lied there. He’s getting wins by TKO because the people he’s fighting have just given up and he’s just punched them until the referee’s stopped them. So I haven’t seen any massive knockout power,” said Craig.

Ankalaev has a 10-0 record, having fought primarily in Eastern Europe and the Russian Caucasus. Among Ankalaev’s achievements is a light heavyweight tournament victory inside Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s Akhmat promotion (see work from Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan regarding how this promotion is used to advance the goals of Kadyrov’s violent human rights breaking regime).

Craig says that, even though Akalaev’s record doesn’t feature UFC calibre fighters, he’s not looking past the Dagestani or underestimating his toughness.

“Well this is his first fight in the UFC and people are like, ‘Oh he’s not very experienced,’ and that’s not true,” said Craig. “Anyone who fights to get into the UFC is very very tough and have worked their arse off to get there.”

In thinking about the path of his opponent, Craig was reminded about his own road to the Octagon. “The route I took to the UFC was very hard,” he said. “I was fighting everyone that was put in front of me and there were times were I had to fight heavyweight. But when I got to the top, and that’s what it felt like for me; I got to the UFC and I’d won and then I’d got one Performance of the Night for that fight, I never reassessed my situation.”

Craig revealed that up until 2016 his dream had been to reach the UFC. Once he made it there, he admitted to feeling a little lost. Craig admitted that feeling unclear over his future goals in the sport may have contributed to his performances last year and some key decisions he made regarding his career.

“2017 was a hellish year for me, to be honest,” sighed Craig. “I get knocked out by Khalil and I get beat by Tyson Pedro. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t ready for UFC Glasgow, that’s the truth. I hadn’t fully recovered from my loss to Tyson Pedro — mentally — and when the UFC comes to your hometown it’s very hard to turn that down.”

Despite feeling under-prepared for his fight with Rountree (and the punishing loss that resulted from it), Craig said, if he could do it all again, he would still take that fight.

“I’m glad I did [take the Rountree fight], because standing in the middle of that Octagon and hearing Scotland, hearing Glasgow, the noise they made, that’s something I’ll never experience again. So I had to take that fight, but now I’m in a better place and I’m focusing on what made me who I am.”

And even if he did sum up 2017 as ‘hellish’, Craig said he had a lot of positive experiences that year. “I got to go to Vegas for the first time, got to fight on an actual UFC pay-per-view card, got to meet some amazing people, and for me, that was fantastic. But in regards to not having my head in the game; it wasn’t there one-hundred percent and I know that, but it’s something to learn from.”

Craig’s hopes on a continued UFC career pin on being able to turn those tough learning experiences into success in the cage. Versus Ankalaev he feels that his recent trial by fire will only mean good things for him and bad for the man opposite him.

“I do think that Ankalaev is very explosive, but in the last few fights I’ve fought top opponents; Khalil Rountree, whose an absolute savage, and then Tyson Pedro, who is coming off a sweet kimura submission. So after fighting legitimate 205 belt contenders, whereas he’s not fought anyone like that, I think it’s going to be a very very explosive fight, but once I get it to the mat — I’m going to cut off his face. You’re going to see the aggressive Paul that got me to the UFC, you’re going to see a different guy.

“As a fighter, everyone wants to go in there and put on a good performance, but first and foremost you need to get a win,” continued Craig. “This is a fight where I’m at the end of my contract. It’s make or break. So this week it will be a performance that will get that next contract, so I can continue to be Paul Craig the UFC fighter, rather than Paul Craig the MMA fighter.”

You can watch Craig’s ‘make or break’ moment this weekend on UFC Fight Pass. Paul Craig vs. Magomed Ankalaev is on the prelim portion of UFC London, which begins at 1:45pm ET.




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