“I'm working everything the same and I'm not changing anything. The way we are working this is that I'm training for any type of fighter." - Anthony Njokuani
On July 2nd at UFC 132, lightweight Anthony Njokuani became the newest member of a scarcely populated club for MMA lore enthusiasts as “The Assassin” managed to land over 100 significant strikes in a single fight. It’s a rarely obtained honor because of the much lower strike counts in MMA and if a fighter gets hurt they usually stay hurt. In the end, this feat was achieved through Njokuani’s relentless standup and Andre Winner’s hard head.
“I was actually surprised he didn't go down,” admits Njokuani. “When I was throwing the punches I looked at the ref and was like, ‘You're not going to do anything about this?’ Because he wasn't fighting back and I was hitting him with clean shots. It goes to show what kind of trooper he is. He's not one to give up and he just keeps coming.”
At some points, especially in the first round, it looked like a video game or a Rocky movie. Njokuani took the center of the Octagon with his hands high, his chin low and fired off a steady stream of precise and powerful combinations like a Muay Thai robot. On the receiving end, Winner ate a few shots early until the Brit had his back against the cage while being bombarded by Njokuani’s knees and Winner was doing everything he could just to remain upright. It was as dominant a standup performance as Njokuani could have envisioned and in large part it was a direct reaction to his previous UFC outing.
“During the fight, I was noticing that I was punching and kicking a lot crisper,” remembers Njokuani. “I was keeping my hands up, I was looking for openings for clean shots and using my head movement a lot more. It had to do with all the work I put into my training to help me improve to be the tough fighter that I was that night with Andre Winner and that I am now. From watching the [Edson] Barboza fight and everything I did in the gym after that, it helped me be a better striker.”
The striking assault continued uninterrupted for all three rounds, earning Njokuani his first victory in the UFC and elevating his overall record to 15-5. “Mentally I was really focused and I was actually fighting smart,” states Njokuani, who, after eight years of competing in MMA, agrees with UFC commentator Joe Rogan that this was his best showing in the cage. “I was able to put everything together that day. I do feel like that was my best performance and Joe Rogan was right on it. The thing that pushed me was getting my first UFC win.”
At 31 years old, the Nigerian born Njokuani made his Octagon debut earlier this year at UFC 128 against Brazilian bomber Edson Barboza. Prior to the UFC, “The Assassin” was a human highlight reel with three consecutive “Knockout of the Night” bonuses in his 4-3 WEC career. The Barboza fight was a particularly transforming experience for him because it was Njokuani’s only ever decision loss and it was against a fellow striker. For the first time, he had 15 minutes of fight footage of himself standing and trading to see what really needed to be improved.
“Ever since I watched that fight between me and Edson Barboza, I knew that there was a lot of stuff that caused me to lose that fight,” states Njokuani. “That's why when I went back to the gym I started tweaking everything. That's the reason I think I performed the way I performed against Andre Winner. The performance I had with Edson Barboza showed me I had a lot to work on to be a better striker. Watching myself and seeing myself was everything I needed to see to be a better striker in this game. Without that, I wouldn't have improved at all. If I didn't have that type of fight (with Barboza), I wouldn't have seen those things and I would have continued to do the same things over and over. I'm glad I had that kind of striking match with Barboza.”
Fight fans were glad too, considering the UFC 128 bout with Barboza won a much deserved “Fight of the Night” award. It’s no surprise Njokuani’s exciting Muay Thai style has made him a fan favorite, but one particular fanbase has been steadily growing which has a very special meaning for him.
“I have noticed a lot of Nigerians have contacted me on Facebook and on Twitter,” explains Njokuani about his popularity with his native countrymen. “Even when I see them out in public they surprise me and know who I am. Just a couple months ago, I met some Nigerian friends at a hotel and we took pictures. They were very happy that there was a person like them out there doing what I was doing and they were very proud of me. It's an extremely warm feeling hearing that from my people. I'm very happy that I'm doing something like this for them and spreading the name out there for Nigeria.”
For the third time in 2011, “The Assassin” will take to the cage and this time it will be against a fellow WEC veteran: Danny Castillo. On December 30th at UFC 141, Njokuani faces an unyielding wrestler who has shown a growing proficiency with his standup in the 12-4 Castillo. This will be the fourth Octagon appearance this year alone for “Last Call,” including November 19th’s first round TKO drubbing of Shamar Bailey. The in-shape and motivated Castillo stepped in for Njokuani’s original opponent, Ramsey Nijem, who pulled out due to injury.
“Danny Castillo is an extremely strong and tough wrestler,” says Njokuani. “He comes from one of the best fight teams, so I know he’s going to bring it. But putting on a good show and putting on a good performance is the most important thing I look at. The person who I'm fighting is more about what I want to give to the crowd. I'm going in there to play my own game and I’ll be different than his other opponents and I'm happy to get a knockout or a decision.”
To prepare for this dust-up in the desert, Njokuani is cutting his training time between two gyms in his new hometown of Las Vegas. For his highly regarded striking, Njokuani is at One Kick’s Gym working out with the likes of UFC middleweight Steve Cantwell and Njokuani’s brother, Chidi, who has a 5-3 MMA record. For his often unused ground game, Njokuani trains with world renowned and heavily decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu red and black belt Sergio Penha. For his gameplan, he wants to stay on the course he’s currently on, keep proving he’s one of the elite strikers in the UFC, and rack up some wins.
“I'm working everything the same and I'm not changing anything,” tells Njokuani. “The way we are working this is that I'm training for any type of fighter. I'm not training for one specific type of fighter; I'm training for every type of fighter. The same game that we've been working with for the last two fights, we're going to continue working on that and we're not going to change anything from it. It's been pretty much working out, so we're going to stick to that.”
On December 30th at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Njokuani will tangle with Castillo in what is most likely to be a crowd pleasing standup duel if the hometown favorite has his say. Njokuani is coming off back-to-back three round striking wars, but is ready for anything “Last Call” has for him. “I like to go about thinking every fight is going to be different. That's why I try to work my movements in the beginning to figure out my opponent and then that's when I work my ‘business.’”
Sometimes that “business” means 116 significant strikes landed. Other times it means a knockout and an early night for Njokuani. From the perspective of “The Assassin”, it all really depends on how tough Castillo’s chin is come December 30th.