To speak with Cameron Saaiman is to get a look into the mind of a 22-year-old who seems at once full of youthful exuberance while possessing an assured maturity of someone with a bit more seasoning than his seven professional fights would signify. The undefeated South African bantamweight overcame a small blunder in his debut – an illegal knee that resulted in a lost point – and tallied a TKO win over Steven Koslow in the last minute at UFC 282. That early mistake could’ve easily derailed his opening appearance, but Saaiman remained composed and patient before opening up for the finish.
Upon reflection, he has a much better understanding of how he needs to handle his second jaunt into the Octagon inside T-Mobile Arena.
“Slow it down and take it all in,” Saaiman told UFC.com. “I think that is something - with a rush of getting everything done - that passed my mind quite a bit, but also, it was so much fun being able to be part of such a massive event, and now I’m part of another massive event. I'm just super grateful to be here.”
When Saaiman takes on Mana Martinez at UFC 285: Jones vs Gane, it’ll be the fifth fight in the span of a year for the Contender Series alumnus. In that span, he tallied four wins via finish.
While some fighters might seem like they just want to rush into any and all opportunities that present themselves, Saaiman lays out a bit more of a method to what seems like a mad schedule. Ultimately, though, the high-frequency approach is just a product of a lack of anything else really holding his attention and interest at the moment.
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“I literally have nothing else to do right now,” he said. “I enjoy being in camp. I enjoy training, I enjoy staying active. Even if I'm not technically in camp, I just eat as if I'm in camp. I'm still getting to most of my training sessions. It’s just it's fun for me. I'm very fortunate to be in the position where my body is keeping up with that recent activity.”
For all the training one can do, nothing replicates the pressure cooker that is a UFC fight, and the man in Saaiman’s sights for his sophomore appearance is Martinez. The Texas-bred Martinez is 2-1 through his first trio of Octagon appearances as he also tries to gain some traction in the loaded bantamweight division.
For Saaiman, Martinez represents a good measuring stick to see where his game stands at the moment.
“I have time on my side,” Saaiman said. “So I'll be looking to not only build and build a good record, but also just really be very focused on improving every aspect of the game with every fight. And sometimes that takes time, as well. So it's just about focusing on getting it done come this weekend and really looking back at that setting with my coaches and my team and saying, ‘OK, where do we need a lot of work and how much time is that going to take?’ And then, once we do that, then we’ll get another fight.”
During this early portion of his career, Saaiman is as focused on making a name for himself as he is rounding out his skill set and allowing each opponent to reveal different portions of his game he needs to sharpen up before eventually making the climb toward the Top 15.
It’s a heady approach from “MSP.” On a card which Jon Jones headlines, it’s easy to think about how quickly one could ascend the divisional ladder in hopes of attaining gold as quickly as possible, but Saaiman seems like the type who wants to cement himself as a contender when those big opportunities do come.
Along with teammate Dricus Du Plessis, Saaiman is helping lay a strong foundation for South African mixed martial artists.
The two shared a special moment in December as they both picked up milestone victories – a debut win for Saaiman and a Top 10-establishing victory for Du Plessis via submission against Darren Till. When they made the long journey back home, the reception made it clear their years of hard work and sacrifice were paying off.
“We have the best fans in the world,” Saaiman said. “Coming back to South Africa was just so much fun. We are really paving the way for future South Africans to get into to the UFC or at least just get international exposure. I think it's motivating for the athletes back home as well.”
As far as the defining traits of a South African fighter, Saaiman cites a high work rate and a particular “ferociousness” that comes out despite generally congenial manner he and Dricus possess.
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That awareness of responsibility only adds to the mature aura Saaiman projects early in his UFC journey, and he hopes March 4 is representative of his country, as well as the kind of contender he intends on developing into as he makes his way through his career.
“South Africans are a proud sporting nation,” he said. “We are tough, tough human beings. We are not behind on international standards. We were ready to roll with the big guys, and I think we got to show that in a few appearances now, as well, that we are ready.”