"Last time there was a lot of pressure on me, a lot of questions, a lot
of what ifs, and this time I feel like I'm back and getting better every
day." - Alan Belcher
Alan Belcher feels unstoppable.
After a prolonged absence from the Octagon due to an eye injury, the heavy-handed, 16-5 middleweight from Jonesboro, Arkansas made a triumphant return on the UFC Fight Night card last September against Jason MacDonald. More than 16 months earlier, “The Talent” scored a Submission of the Night victory over former number one contender Patrick Cote.
Between those two events, Belcher was on a character defining road to recovery, which was certainly highlighted by his first round submission stoppage of BJJ black belt MacDonald. As he looks toward his future, all Belcher sees is gold, and no one at 185 pounds is going to get in his way.
“I feel like I'm right back in there,” he affirms. “I've been eating like a mad man staying on my nutrition and just changing the way I live my life. I've been working on a lot of different things. I think I do need to prove something in this fight, not to myself, but when I do fight and win it will do all the talking itself. I know what's going to happen. Losing isn't even an option right now. Everything is perfect right now. I'm going to win the fight, I'm going to get a shot at a top contender or go right to a shot at the title. My time is now, and I'm going to do really big things in the next couple years.”
The 28-year old representative of Duke Roufus’ Roufusport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Belcher’s own gym Remix MMA in Biloxi, Mississippi, is brimming with confidence heading into a May 5th showdown with arguably the most dangerous opponent in the weight class.
“I said I wanted to fight the toughest guy in the division, someone who would put me in line for a title shot, and that happened to be Rousimar Palhares,” said Belcher, whose only interest is to solidify his place among the elite, and a win over the Brazilian would do just that. “I think that most people who fight him don't really know what they're getting into. Most of the guys right now if they fought Palhares he would at some point be tapping them out or hurting them. I think I'm one of the only guys in the division with the size, the speed, the athleticism, and the jiu-jitsu skills to deal with him.”
At UFC on FOX 3 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the three fight winning streaks of both men will collide in a make or break matchup in the garden state. At 23-3, Palhares has accomplished in the UFC what many expected from the mini-Hulk with a BJJ black belt: a lot of powerful and frightening leg lock submissions. But “Toquinho” has faltered in his dust ups with top tier opponents like Dan Henderson and Nate Marquardt. Nevertheless, Palhares is a tough test for anyone in the division with his mix of incredible strength and a highly regarded ground attack.
“He's very confident and aggressive with what he does,” says Belcher. “He attacks the arms and legs, mainly the legs. He took second place in Abu Dhabi, which is strictly submission grappling, and he hurt a lot of people in it and these are the best grapplers in the world. He's a very dangerous opponent. He's trying to take an arm or a leg home with him. He's very confident and he's on a nice little streak, a nice little tear, and a lot of people are scared of him.”
Even a cursory fight fan can firmly estimate that Palhares wants to take this fight to the floor, and it is in that area that Belcher is the most overlooked. Don’t let his usual Muay Thai shorts fool you, as he is the proud owner of a BJJ black belt under 4th dan black belt Helio Soneca, who is one of the renowned founders of the Gracie Barra schools. Belcher has gone to great lengths to extensively train his ground game with top grapplers like Daniel Moraes (current head BJJ instructor at Belcher’s gym), Royce and Rickson Gracie, Robert Drysdale, Eric “Red” Schafer, Eddie Bravo, and tons of other black belts in the US and in Brazil. Simply put, Palhares isn’t the only one in this fight who feels comfortable on the mat.
“I've felt some of the best grapplers in the world,” asserts Belcher. “I think my grappling skills get better every single week. Striking takes athleticism and it's something where I need to keep my speed up and keep my timing. Grappling you do level up. In the standup, you can only get so far and you can always be beat - it's like being in a gun fight. In jiu-jitsu, it's really about your skills and I've come a long way. As far as just grappling, I think I am if not the top guy in the division, I'm close to it.”
At the time of the interview, Belcher was surrounded by a staggering amount of sports psychology books in the home of one of Roufusport’s most promising stars: Ben Askren.
“He's really one of the best MMA fighters right now, and, obviously, the best wrestler in the game, in my opinion,” says Belcher, noting that Askren is a walking encyclopedia for both wrestling and winning, and he liberally cites from his training partner’s collection. “Training with Ben Askren is amazing. I've learned a lot of stuff from him physically and mentally about how to make it to those elite levels, which he has done in wrestling and he's trying to do in MMA. I'm actually at his house right now, sitting in his office and surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of books that Ben has read, and mostly they are sports psychology and he's already referenced 10 books in our conversations today.”
Regardless of how even Belcher believes a potential black belt vs. black belt matchup is with Palhares, “The Talent” has a clear advantage keeping the fight standing.
“I don't mean to brag or boast, but I think I'm on a different level in kickboxing and Muay Thai than most guys in the UFC,” expresses Belcher, who likes to trade fists and feet first, then reverse his opponent’s takedown attempts and ending up on top second. “‘Striker vs. grappler’ is a really raw generalization of the fight, but, really, stylistically that's how it will work out. I don't intend on getting in a grappling match with Palhares and being stupid. The thing is, I'm a lot better striker than he is and I'm a lot longer than he is and I'm a lot better at that game than he is.”
This Saturday, Belcher will battle Palhares in a bout he believes will launch himself into title contention. “Last time there was a lot of pressure on me, a lot of questions, a lot of what ifs, and this time I feel like I'm back and getting better every day,” declares Belcher, who is single-minded in thinking this fight is happening at the right time in his career for only one outcome: a win. “I feel totally different and my mindset is different. I feel unstoppable right now. That's your headline.”
And it was.