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Cub Swanson: The Long, Hard Road

"I train with the best, and I hang with the best, and I’m capable of
being the best, period. Having that mentality has changed things for
me." - Cub Swanson

UFC featherweight Cub SwansonSilence fills the line as a question that is equal parts simple and complex stops Cub Swanson dead in his tracks.

Though he’s not much of a talker, the Palms Springs, California native has always been a thoughtful interview subject – someone that takes the time to answer every question in a thorough, genuine manner rather than breaking off platitudes and pulling another pat response from a well-rehearsed script.

On the cusp of returning to the cage for the first time in just under a year and poised to position himself as the No. 1 contender in the talented featherweight division, being asked to sum up what has been an arduous journey laced with detours, traffic jams and car problems has led to dead air filling the phone line.

“It’s pretty emotional, man,” Swanson says after a deep exhale, the call thrust back into silence after the four words escape his mouth.

To know why putting the right words together is so tough for the 30-year-old contender, you first have to understand the path that brought him to this place.

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Prior to making his UFC debut, Cub Swanson thought about walking away from the sport.

Just like most fighters, the Team Jackson-Winkeljohn representative had dealt with injuries throughout his up-and-down tenure in the WEC. After having already had his first Octagon appearance pushed back once due to injuries, Swanson was forced to withdraw from a scheduled bout against Erik Koch for a second time after shattering the left side of his face during a training camp sparring session.

Always talented, but never quite able to put it all together consistently from fight-to-fight, Swanson was at rock bottom before ever getting to realize his dream of fighting on the biggest stage in the sport.

But rather than walk away, the resilient featherweight opted to change his approach and start believing in himself the way the all-star cast of coaches and teammates that surrounded him on a daily basis always had.

“You get to a point where all these amazing coaches and fighters believe in you and you’re like, `Why can’t you believe in yourself?’ That was the biggest thing,” Swanson told me prior to his UFC 152 showdown with Charles Oliveira.

“When everything happened with my face, I had to dig deep inside and determine if I really wanted to continue fighting. Having to look inside yourself and see what you’re made of -having those trials and tribulations, you find out who you are.

“I train with the best, and I hang with the best, and I’m capable of being the best, period. Having that mentality has changed things for me.”

Swanson won that fight with Oliveira, stopping the young Brazilian just past the midway point of the opening round to earn his third consecutive victory. He’s added another two wins to his resume since then, running his winning streak to five as he prepares to hit the cage against Jeremy Stephens Saturday night at the AT&T Center in San Antonio.

A technical striker with a black belt ground game riding shotgun, it has never been a question of skill with Swanson – it has mostly been mental, and with each subsequent appearance, you can see his confidence growing.

It was on display when he controlled the action in a dangerous match-up with fellow rising star Dustin Poirier in February 2013, usurping the emerging talent’s place in the pecking order with a unanimous decision win that still eats at “The Diamond” to this day.

It was evident in his patient, poised finish of Dennis Siver at UFC 162. After dropping the opening round to the powerful German kickboxer, Swanson stayed true to his game plan and picked his spots, leveling the fight at one round each in the second before bringing the fight to a halt midway through the third after a series of powerful, precision strikes.

Riding an unmatched wave of momentum in the division, “Killer Cub” appeared on the brink of a title shot – or at the very least, a pairing with another of the top contenders in the 145-pound ranks. The last thing he expected was to spend nearly 12 months between appearances, but that’s exactly what happened.

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“I was getting a little stir-crazy,” he admits with a laugh. “Not having answers is what drives me nuts. If there is a plan and you tell me what the deal is, I’ll deal with it whether I like it or not – I’ll make a plan and attack it – but if you leave me with nothing to work with it was driving me nuts a little bit.”

Despite his run of success, previous setbacks against top contenders Ricardo Lamas and Chad Mendes left the proud Southern California resident stalled in his quest for championship gold. Having turned back Poirier and Siver in successive appearances, there weren’t many fights that made sense for the now 20-5 standout.

He listened as other fighters called him out, waiting for the right opportunity to present itself or the UFC to give him a clear picture of the direction the division was heading.

“People were calling me out here and there, and that would get me excited,” says Swanson. “Not knowing what was up with the title fight, they kept telling me, `Just wait. Just wait. A little longer. A little longer.’

“Originally I was supposed to fight last year on the end of the year card, and then it fell through. Then every month they kept pushing back, pushing back, pushing back and now here we are at the end of June.

“I hate it when it’s happening because we’re fighters and we want to fight, but looking back, it was nice,” he says of the 357-day span between his victory over Siver and Saturday’s pairing with Stephens. “I wanted to stay ready, so even though I was traveling a little bit and having fun, I trained the entire year.”

Throughout his time in limbo, Swanson lobbied for major opportunities – throwing his name in the ring to face Ricardo Lamas when “The Bully” was without an opponent and lobbying to be the next to face Jose Aldo when plans for the Brazilian champion had yet to be determined.

With the UFC deciding to pair Aldo in a championship rematch with Mendes in early August at UFC 176, the vacancy on the soft-spoken finisher’s dance card was quickly filled by the newest addition to the featherweight title picture.

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Three consecutive losses prompted Jeremy Stephens to reevaluate his place in the lightweight ranks.

Though many of his setbacks came against perennial contenders and veteran competitors, the hard-hitting “Lil Heathen” opted to relocate to the 145-pound weight class in hopes of jump-starting his stalled career.

Three fights later, the 28-year-old finds himself on the brink of title contention, consecutive victories over Estevan Payan, Rony Jason and Darren Elkins propelling him into the final match of this weekend’s two-event, 21-bout festival of fighting.

“My first reaction was that I didn’t want the fans to be upset,” begins Swanson, offering his assessment of his pairing with Stephens. “I know what he brings to the table and he’s a tough dude, so I know it makes for an exciting fight, but I was afraid the fans would be let down with (this matchup) as far as rankings and all that crap.

“But to me it was the next best thing from getting a title shot. I didn’t get the title shot – okay, they gave me the opportunity and they gave me the stage. They’re trusting me to headline a card, giving me the five fives which is a stepping stone to a title fight and seeing how I perform (over that many rounds).

“When I look at it from that perspective, it has been a blessing.”

It should be seen as a blessing by fight fans as well, as the closing act on Saturday’s long day of UFC action is guaranteed to produce excitement. While the first doubleheader in the company’s history ended with a quick finish that felt somewhat anticlimactic, this battle between featherweight title contenders is bound to be electric from start to finish.

“He’s been growing the last couple fights, adding a couple things to his arsenal. I do study film, but he always fights basically the same way – he always brings it and he always throws everything he’s got every time. He’s going to try to knock my head off. He might try to take me down, might try to smother me, but whatever game plan his coaches come up with for me, at the end of the day, his fighting style is trying to take my head off.

“I really want to finish him,” Swanson adds in a manner that is different than the typical “I’m going to finish him in the first round” assessment most fighters offer on the eve of their next appearance.

He’s not trying to talk himself into believing the words he’s saying. Rather, he’s making his intentions known and setting out his plan of action in advance so fans can know what to expect when the cage door closes for the final time on Saturday night.

“I think because of the five fives, it has really changed the way I’ve approached this fight as far as conditioning and training, so I’m trying not to think about the later rounds because I know I’m capable of it and I don’t want to think about them like they’re some big thing. I’m going to take whatever I can get and be going for the finish because I know he’s a tough kid.”

Along with having changed the way he’s prepared for his next foray into the cage, being the final bout to hit the Octagon this weekend is also something the 25-fight veteran takes to heart as well.

With nearly 10 years as a professional under his belt and nary a headlining turn to his credit, this opportunity is not something Swanson takes lightly.

“This is the first headlining fight I’ve had in my whole career,” he reflects. “I’ve never fought for a title in my whole career either.”

Like everything else in his journey from a 15-second loss to TUF alum Shannon Gugerty at Total Combat 4 in Tijuana, Mexico to the brink of challenging for UFC gold, the chance he’s being given this weekend stirs up mixed emotions in the dynamic talent.

“On one hand, I’m honored and excited to see my face as the main guy on the poster; that’s a dream come true. On the other hand, I’m like, `Hell yeah! It’s about time! You deserve it! You worked your ass off in this game – 10 years and with Zuffa for seven.’”

Swanson breaks out laughing. Boastfulness – even if it is warranted – still isn’t his style.

“Like I’ve said many times: I’ve taken the long, hard road, but here I am.”

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“This is such a complicated game that sometimes people peak later in their career and I think people with a more basic game peak earlier. You see these guys that blow up on the scene, but then can’t (take it to the next level).

“I feel like those guys have a more simplistic game and can’t evolve past that, while guys that try to master everything from the get-go can’t put it together until later in their careers because it’s so hard to master so many crafts.

“It’s about finding your own style sometimes.”

After years of searching, Cub Swanson has found his style and a rhythm inside the cage.

Three years ago, he was stuck on the sidelines, dealing with orbital, nasal and cheek fractures, plus a broken jaw.

His dreams of competing in the UFC had once again been put on hold and questions about whether he would ever live up to his potential and get the opportunity to make those dreams a reality started to creep into his mind.

Today, he’s the hottest contender in the 145-pound weight class, riding a five-fight winning streak into the first main event appearance of his career. With a victory Saturday night over Stephens, Swanson will likely earn himself a shot at the UFC featherweight title.

With all of that resting on his shoulders and racing through his thoughts, he searches to sum up 10 years of highs and lows, thrilling wins and crushing defeats in a sentence or two.

He clears his throat.

“When I was at my lowest, I kept having to tell myself, `You can do better. You can do better,’ never losing faith in myself. It’s crazy to me to see it finally happening.

“I’m proud of myself.”

He should be.