There was a point not that long ago when Chad Anheliger thought his dreams of stepping into the Octagon might not come true.
As he slowly rebuilt his record following a 2-5 start to his career, the Canadian bantamweight watched as competitors he was chasing continued to move forward, landing greater opportunities while showing no interest in signing to face him. Sitting at home last April watching the fights, he saw the cast announcement for Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter, recognized a familiar name, and couldn’t contain his frustrations any longer.
“It was never about tearing anybody else down,” Anheliger said of his Instagram post that featured the TUF 29 bantamweight cast announcement side-by-side with him landing a flying knee on Brady Hiestand, who had been announced as one of the competitors in the 135-pound weight class. Part of the caption read, “When getting knocked out by me gets you a UFC shot / I guess I won’t have 30 fighters turn me down? Right?”
“You get frustrated when — I had been saying that for the last two years as guys — and not just Brady, but that was a very clear example of it — get these opportunities that I didn’t think they had earned,” continued the 35-year-old, who makes his promotional debut this weekend opposite Jesse Strader. “I know COVID had a lot to do with it because travel was a big problem, but I’m getting older and I was watching my (window of opportunity) become less and less, and frustration was getting high.
“I knew how tough Brady was — that fight was tough — and I really had to bear down and get that W, and then it didn’t really mean much,” continued Anheliger with a laugh. “It was just another regional win against another guy — another green checkmark on my record — but then he goes out there and shows how good he really is, and that helped, for sure.”
Hiestand advanced to the bantamweight finale, losing a grimy back-and-forth battle with fellow Team Volkanovski member Ricky Turcios, showing a ton of promise and landing himself a place on the UFC roster.
“I wouldn’t even be surprised if that had something to do with me getting the opportunity on the Contender Series,” added Anheliger, who parlayed a split decision win over heavily favored Muin Gafurov in early September into a UFC contract of his own. “If anything, I’m at the point now where next time I see Brady, I’ll have to buy him a beer for helping me out.”
Reaching the UFC later in his career after having battled back from an ugly start and several years as a fighting vagabond, going wherever the next opportunity was available in hopes of cobbling together enough wins to land on the radar of the major promotions, has given Anheliger a different perspective on Saturday’s clash with Strader.
Where most debuting fighters are wide-eyed and a little shell-shocked about competing on the biggest stage of the sport, “The Monster” returns to Las Vegas feeling like he can finally just go out there this weekend and fight.
“I felt a lot more pressure in my other fights leading up to this because I knew how much was riding on my win streak,” explained the newcomer, who arrives on a nine-fight winning streak. “I knew that my last chance to get into the UFC was to keep that streak alive because I didn’t have a great record, I was getting older, so I had a lot of pressure to win those fights.
“Now I feel like a lot of that pressure is off and I can focus a lot more on performing, and that’s what gets me excited. I just want to put on a great fight so that people remember my fight, remember my name. Obviously winning is important, but I’m really excited to get out there and this is my chance to really show what I can do, and I plan on making the most of it.”
Just in case there were any questions about his preparation or readiness to compete this weekend creeping into the back of his mind in the late stages of camp, Anheliger watched a couple weeks back as one of his teammates, Hakeem Dawodu, got back into the win column with an impressive, technical victory over TUF 27 winner Michael Trizano.
“It just re-affirms what we’re doing in our gym, Champions Creed,” he said of watching Dawodu’s performance. “I don’t need to go anywhere else. I don’t need to travel around to train. I don’t need to do anything different.
“A lot of people get that thought when they get close to the UFC or make the UFC that they should be moving to these big gyms, but that’s just not true. Our gym has absolutely everything that anyone could need, and Hakeem is a prime example of that. He’s levels above the guys that are already at the highest level, so it really shows that I’m in the right place, doing the right things.”
Bolstered by his teammate’s dominant performance and brimming with confidence as he returns to the familiar confines of the UFC APEX, all that is left for Anheliger to do now is go out and have a dynamic performance of his own.
“The key factor for wanting the fight is that he’s exciting,” he said of the pairing with Strader, who lost to rising star Montel Jackson in his first Octagon appearance last March. “I’ve seen some of his regional fights and he likes to trade on the feet, he doesn’t mind getting tired and sloppy and fighting hard, looking for finishes, and that’s the type of fight that gets me excited.
“I feel like I showed a lot of my grappling abilities on the Contender Series, so I’m real excited to flip it around and show the more violent side, which I think this fight is going to be. I think it’s going to be great for the fans, and that’s what gets me fired up for this matchup.”
Should things play out as he envisions and result in him getting his hand raised in the center of the Octagon, Anheliger isn’t sure how he’s going to react, but he does know that the victory will be dedicated to those that helped him get here.
“I don’t know how I’m going to react, but I’ve put in so much hard work and at this point of my career, I was already satisfied with what I had accomplished,” he admitted. “The UFC is obviously the best way to finish off my career — it’s the feather in the cap — but this win is going to be a lot more for the people that have supported me for so long and drove to all these small towns and were following me for 10, 12 years.
“Those people deserve to see me compete on the big stage, getting a big win, and I’m going to give them something to cheer about.”
UFC Fight Night: Walker vs Hill took place on Saturday, February 19, 2022, live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive all of the action on UFC Fight Pass.