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Andrew Craig: Comfortable in the Black Hat

"I imagine I’ll get booed pretty good. But my feelings stopped being hurt a while ago." - Andrew Craig

UFC middleweight Andrew CraigIf you’ve ever had the opportunity to chat with UFC middleweight prospect Andrew Craig, you probably walked away thinking that the Texan is the nicest villain in mixed martial arts today. And not villain by anything he’s done, just by circumstance.

Let’s face it, fighting Kyle Noke in Australia, Ronny Markes in Brazil, Chris Leben anywhere, and now Luke Barnatt in England will affix a permanent black hat on your head. But the 27-year-old road warrior wouldn’t change a thing.

“When would one find time to visit these countries in the span of two years?” he asks. “I don’t think that’s gonna happen. Australia, Brazil, and now the UK, I’m totally cool with that.”

Maybe it’s because he likes to travel, or perhaps it’s that Craig is picking up priceless volumes of experience with each trip. Yeah, it’s nice coming up on the local circuit and winning fight after fight. Try doing it with an arena full of fans screaming for your opponent to destroy you.

Take the lone loss of Craig’s ten fight career against Markes in January. Already warned that the diehard Brazilian fans would not be kind to anyone fighting one of their home country heroes, Craig prepared for the worst. But didn’t get it.

“That was actually talked up to be a lot worse than it really was,” he laughed. “Leister Bowling was telling me about when he went down there with Brendan Schaub when Schaub fought (Minotauro) Nogueira. Luckily I didn’t fight a national hero like Nogueira, so it was a little different for me. But I went out there for the Ronny Markes fight, and I was terrified about walking into the arena. Then you’ve got Brazilians hanging over the rails and high fiving me. So that one wasn’t near as bad, but it was still probably as bad as it will get.”

In more ways than one, as he lost a three round decision to Markes. Craig bounced back six months later though, getting a rare home game in the States when he fought longtime middleweight star Chris Leben. “The Crippler” has always been a fan favorite, but with the former Ultimate Fighter competitor looking to make a comeback at UFC 162, there was even more of a sentimental element to the fight. And you guessed it, Craig was the bad guy again.

“I’ve been following Leben ever since I had a Twitter account and I would see a retweet a few times a day about how they wanted Leben to kick my ass,” said Craig. “There were quite a few people that wanted me to put Leben out too, but I think just because he’s such a fan favorite and I’m a bit of an unknown, a lot of people really wanted to see him do well at my expense.”

That didn’t happen though, as Craig scored a three round split decision win, easily his biggest to date, even if it wasn’t a career-altering one in terms of mainstream recognition.

“You’re trying to build a resume, and obviously that was a great one, though it wasn’t like beating Chris Leben a few years ago,” he said. “But it’s still Chris Leben, right?”

Right, and with a 3-1 UFC record that includes wins over Noke and Rafael Natal, Craig should probably be getting more attention. Will he get it should he beat TUF 17’s Barnatt? Probably not, even though he will be in a tough scrap with the 6-foot-6 Brit.

“It’s definitely a much smaller name for the next one, but probably just as dangerous an opponent,”Craig kicks natal said Craig. “He’s kind of like me, still building his skills, but has a lot more to offer than Chris did.”

What Barnatt doesn’t have is the UFC experience Craig does, a key factor when talent levels are close to being equal.

“It’s one of the rare occasions where I have more experience than the other guy,” he said. “He’s still a bit of a raw talent and still refining his skills, and still learning a lot. We’re in the same boat on that one. But I’ve definitely fought tougher dudes, I’ve got more UFC experience, and more international experience. He did the show and I’m sure that’s a tough road, but I do think I have way more experience, I’m a little grittier than he is, and I’ve got a couple more years worth of skills than he does.”

He also has thick skin and deaf ears when it comes to being the one facing the home country hero.

“I imagine I’ll get booed pretty good,” said Craig. “But my feelings stopped being hurt a while ago. It’s gonna take more than that to affect me.”

And should he leave Manchester with another win, maybe 2014 will be the year when Andrew Craig takes over.

“I’ve always had a high opinion of myself,” he laughs. “I think you have to to be in this sport, so I’ve always thought that I had the goods and that people should look out for me. It just hasn’t really been that way thus far. I’ve been fighting these tough guys and beating the majority of them, but I still feel like I’m flying under the radar. I feel like I will beat Luke, but since this is a Facebook fight, who knows how many people will take notice of it? So I would say 2014 will be my year to shine a little bit more.”