For a fighter under contract with the UFC, getting to compete outside of the Octagon can be like playing with a double-edged sword.
On one hand, no one likes sitting on the sidelines for an indefinite length of time, waiting for the division to sort itself out and provide you with an opening. On the other hand, being the UFC fighter headlining a regional show against a heavy underdog means getting a win isn't good enough; you need to earn the victory in impressive fashion. After all, you're a UFC fighter; you're supposed to win.
That is the reality facing Danny Downes later tonight.
Having last fought in December against Tie Quan Zhang, the long-time Duke Roufus trainee will headline North American Fighting Championship: Mayhem in his adopted hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Eager to get back into the cage and without a trip into the Octagon on the horizon, Downes jumped at the chance to shake off the ring rust and take a fight.
"I hadn't planned on fighting outside the UFC, but the opportunity presented itself a couple weeks ago. Duke (Roufus) asked me if I wanted to take a fight and I said, `Well yeah, I'm always down for a fight.' I wish I knew how the negotiations and things like that went down, but that's why I tell people management gets its cut; they took care of that stuff.
"I didn't know how long I would be waiting around, so it's nice to get a fight. It's important to stay sharp; you can spar, you can train, you can do as many sprints as you want, but nothing can compare to actually getting into the cage and having a fight."
Though he's grateful for the opportunity, Downes also knows that accepting a fight outside of the UFC comes with heightened expectations, especially fighting in Milwaukee.
"There is definitely added pressure being in the main event of a hometown fight. Obviously, a lot more people are coming to see you. Going into this, I'm the favorite, so I can't just win; I have to win and win decisively. There is always a lot of anticipation and pressure leading up to it, but once you get in the cage and they shut that door, all bets are off. Then the training and my ability will take over."
It's clear that Downes isn't taking this fight lightly.
In addition to knowing that he's expected to do more than just win this time, Downes has been able to count on Roufus and the emerging team of talent that has been steadily assembling at his gym in Milwaukee to help him prepare. Over the last two years, the Roufusport team has developed into one of the up-and-coming outfits in the sport, though Downes has a different perspective on things, having been in the gym since 2004.
"There was a time when it was just me and two other guys kickboxing; there weren't too many other fighters there. The way that its grown — we've got all these guys — in a way, its cool to see where its come from, but at the same time, I've been going there day in and day out for a while, its just the same routine for me."
"Its great to have training partners like Anthony Pettis and Erik Koch. It's not the best for your ego," laughed Downes, speaking with HeavyMMA on Wednesday afternoon "If you're looking for a confidence boost, it's not the best gym to be in, but it's definitely a good place to just better. We're just trying to become total mixed martial arts fighters, and looking forward to more things."
The charismatic and comical Downes has a particularly unique way of looking at training with Pettis, the last WEC lightweight champion who is set to meet Clay Guida at the Ultimate Fighter Finale in Las Vegas next month.
"Anthony is so innovative with the way he strikes. A lot of those things just happen in slow motion; he'll do these things where time slows down and you think to yourself, `Wait - is he doing that?' and then BOOM there's a leg across your face and you're stuck wondering, `What the? Why can't he just keep both feet on the ground like a normal person?' The one thing though, no matter who I go against, where I go in the cage, they're not going to show me something I haven't seen before because I get something new thrown at me every sparring session."
While some fighters might look at the opportunity to compete on a smaller show as a walk in the park, allowing complacency to creep into their preparation, that isn't the case with Downes. Though this fight isn't at the level he's aspired to reaching since beginning his pro career in October 2007, he knows an impressive victory tonight holds the key to making his UFC debut later this year.
"Having a UFC contract, I'm in the big time now. The stuff you could get away with on the smaller shows, the regional shows just doesn't hack it against the best in the world. But when I got into this, I didn't start so that I could be the best local, Wisconsin fighter; I did this because I wanted to make it to the top and see how far I could go. That's what I was looking for in MMA, and Zuffa is the place to be.
"A lot of it is you have to be a self-motivator. Having teammates and coaches motivate you is great, but unless you have that desire in there, it's not going to do you any good. The other part is that I know with this fight, a win is not enough; I've got to win and win impressively. And at the very least, there's my ego. I know I can't handle losing; I can't even play Jenga with my girlfriend without getting pissed off if I lose. So at the end of it, there is my vanity and my ego, so hopefully that will power me through if nothing else."
Downes said he's heard mention of the UFC bringing an event to Milwaukee later this year, and that fighting on the first UFC event in his current hometown would certainly interest him, but he has more immediate plans to take care of first.
"I'm just going to take care of business this Friday, maybe party a little bit, have a late Cinco de Mayo celebration, and then get back to the gym."