Inside the Octagon, milliseconds can determine the outcome of a fight. Other times, it’s mere minutes outside of it that determine a fighter’s next career step. That’s what happened when Arnold Allen was called up to the UFC on seven days’ notice two years ago and then got stuck in traffic.
Had he missed the flight to Berlin, Germany, his UFC debut would’ve been called off. Allen, though, made it to the airport just in time and wasted none of it when he stepped foot into the cage days later, submitting Alan Omer in the third round for a Performance of the Night bonus just a week into his UFC stint.
His promotional debut followed a 13-month span in which Allen competed six times, prompting the then 21-year-old to ask on the mic right after his debut win what took the UFC so long to sign him. Ironically, ever since he raced his way onto the big stage, things have slowed down for Allen - two fights in 22 months instead of six in 13.
“It’s very frustrating, very frustrating,” Allen said going into his third Octagon appearance at UFC Fight Night: Manuwa vs. Anderson on March 18. “I want to be active. I’d like to get at least three fights this year – stay injury-free, keep my hands healthy, don’t get sick again. That’s the plan. But it’s very frustrating, especially when you write down your goals.”
Which is what Allen has done for years now. At the top, the paper listed getting a top 15 opponent and making it to the main card on a big Pay-Per-View event. That’s why, when Allen got matched up against top talent Mirsad Bektic as the PPV opener of Manchester’s UFC 204 card last year, Christmas came in October for Allen. Until it didn’t.
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“It was everything I wanted,” Allen said. “It was all rolled into one. So I was like ‘This is it, this is perfect.’ I planned it, it was happening and, obviously, me getting sick ruined it.”
Allen said he didn’t feel good during the majority of camp but tried to push through it until Tristar Gym head coach Firas Zahabi had seen enough and took him to his doctor. Allen still tried to talk the medicine man into giving him a pass for the fight but, “He just laughed at me, basically.”
When Bektic walked out to the cage that night to fight, and beat, replacement Russell Doane, commentator Brian Stann recalled on air how Bektic, during his own lengthy injury layoff, would text him after every featherweight fight claiming, “I can beat these guys.”
Allen, who was lying in bed at the time, taking a break for the event from “not training, being depressed, eating everything and watching every video on Youtube about fighting and martial arts,” suddenly found himself in the shoes of the guy he wanted to take his top 15 ranking from.
“You always analyze when you watch,” Allen said. “But when it comes to fights in your weight class, you’re not watching as a fan anymore; you start breaking it down as an opponent.”
Five weeks after visiting the doctor in Montreal, where Allen now does the majority of his camps, Allen was back to full health and back to work. And he hasn’t stopped since.
“I’m always in the gym, always prepping. I haven’t had a fight for one year now but for the majority of the year I was in camp. I wasn’t messing around, chilling at home. I was here (in Montreal), away from home probably nine months of the year, training every day, all day like I was in camp, waiting for a fight, asking for a fight. So, I’ve definitely gone up levels.”
Eager to showcase those new levels, Allen is back to making plans as well.
“I’d like to get on those Pay-Per-View cards, get on those big numbered cards. Obviously, I need to get my name out there, I want to get more exposure. I don’t want to be one of these guys who just sort of drift around at the bottom, where no one knows them. I want to make some waves, I want to climb the ranks in the division. That’s my goal.”
The path to achieving his goals finally continues on Saturday night for Allen. He’s in his backyard, against a popular opponent and, for the first time, on the main card. While it isn’t quite as perfect as UFC 204 would’ve been, Allen can’t wait to grab his chance with both hands and take advantage of his fight against fellow prospect Makwan Amirkhani any way he can – inside and outside the Octagon.
“I’ll fight him and if I put on a good performance, which I’m planning to, I’ll take some of his momentum. This is how this sport works: you steal some of his fans.”
Amirkhani’s UFC career has essentially taken the same route as Allen’s. Having fought on the same two events as his opponent after his debut in January of 2015, Amirkhani has become popular in an instant for his brash demeanor and flashy fighting style. It’s just what the doctor ordered for Allen to make up for lost time.
“Definitely. I think with a win here, it’s going to put me in the position to get those big fights. Not ‘big’ fights necessarily yet – I’m 23 –, so I’m in no rush to get into the top 15 or wherever, but hopefully I’ll get closer. I think this will be the fight, sort of a breakout fight. Amirkhani is popular, he’s got a lot of hype.”
Part of the appeal for Amirkhani is his brash demeanor, him attacking opponents verbally beforehand and then finishing them off in the cage. So far, none of those two have occurred to Allen. And while he doesn’t plan on letting “Mr. Finland” beat him, he might try to let some of his swagger rub off on him after the fight.
“I need to learn how to dress a bit better”, Allen laughed, sitting on the couch of Tristar Gym’s spare fighter dormitories. “I’m sitting here in my cut jeans and my hoodie and all that but maybe I’ll ask him after where he gets his suits from. He’s got some cool ones.”
After all, Arnold Allen wants to be prepared everywhere for when he gets his next perfect shot.