When I was six years old, I took one lap on the ice at my first hockey practice before signaling my father to meet me in the dressing room. As I skated off the ice, I knew it would be the last time I took part in an organized hockey event.
I felt sick to my stomach, nervous, but not like when I was called to do a math problem on the blackboard or put on the spot by a distant relative at some Christmas gathering that wanted me to tell them a funny joke when all I wanted to do was sneak through the masses, snag another one of Nanny’s date squares, and disappear downstairs with my brother and my cousins.
This was pressure, the weight of expectations bearing down on me, the younger brother of the star goalie on the rep team, hitting the ice for first time; everyone wondering if I would follow a similar trajectory, and my parents pinning their social status to our success or failure on the ice in a hockey-mad city that needed to care about a lot more than hockey.
I felt all that as a six-year-old at practice, so when Dustin Stoltzfus said that the compounding pressure that comes with competing inside the Octagon caused him to lose his love for the sport and for training during the three-fight slide that kicked off his UFC career, I understood right away.
“The two biggest things were the frustration of not even coming very close to your own perceived potential, and then just having the stress of the situation, both internally and externally, snowballing so much out of control that there is no room for the enjoyment of the process,” explained Stoltzfus as we spoke on August 15, nine days after he recorded his first UFC victory and 19 days out from his middleweight clash with Abus Magomedov on the initial UFC fight card in Paris this weekend.
“That’s where I was mostly at — not even really able to enjoy training as much as I usually was, not as able to enjoy the process of fight week and the fight itself because I was so stressed.
“(It was) mostly internally,” he continued, “just wanting to prove to myself that I can do it because I had been saying that I know I belong here, that my skills are good enough to be here, but not being able to show that to myself and to others was very frustrating.”
Stoltzfus garnered praise from UFC President Dana White following his victory on Season 4 of the Contender Series, and he hit the Octagon for the first time with a 13-1 record, riding a 10-fight winning streak. His confidence was sky-high, buoyed by a string of stoppage victories, and he envisioned his success carrying over once he reached the biggest stage in the sport.
But it didn’t happen.
He lost his debut to Kyle Daukaus at UFC 255, dropping a unanimous decision to the former CFFC middleweight champ. Eight months later, he succumbed to a third-round rear-naked choke against Rodolfo Vieira that turned his loss into a losing streak. Five months after that, he was again forced to tap to a third-round rear-naked choke, this time against veteran Gerald Meerschaert.
In the span of 16 months, Stoltzfus went from flying high to feeling extremely low; a 10-fight run of success replaced by a three-fight skid and questions about whether he was able to compete at this level.
“It’s exponential growth,” he said of the pressures that mounted with each subsequent setback. “Every one gets worse and worse.”
There’s never just one thing that contributes to situations like this; rather, it’s a mix of many different variables all coming together to sabotage you at the worst possible moment.
Part of it was a combination of slow starts and too much confidence in his ability to rally, leading to lapses in judgment that are far more costly when competing at the highest level against skilled, experienced athletes.
Part of it was constantly competing halfway around the world in Las Vegas, in the largely empty UFC APEX, with a corner consisting of one coach, his brother or a fighter-friend that was in town, and occasionally his manager.
It may sound trivial, but think about how uncomfortable it can feel to not have the people you want by your side the most there to guide you through the most challenging moments. Now add another human being trying to separate you from your consciousness to that mix and tell me you wouldn’t feel an overwhelming wave of pressure, too.
“I was going into these third rounds in my eyes winning some of these fights, and having momentum on my side, expecting that the finish was coming in the next round, and maybe letting my focus drift a little bit; losing positions and exchanges that maybe I shouldn’t have,” said Stoltzfus, who rallied after dropping the opening round on all three scorecards to collect a unanimous decision win over Dwight Grant on Long Island in mid-July.
“With Dwight, I was definitely going for the finishes and really would have liked to have one — and I got pretty close at the end of two — but I wasn’t going to go into that third round and just assume that if I put more pressure on him, he was going to break. I wasn’t going to do that again.
“I was just going to keep to the game plan and if it comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
A finish didn’t come, but a victory did, and after returning home to Germersheim, Germany, Stoltzfus got the call to make a relative quick turnaround against a dangerous, familiar opponent.
“I don’t know how much UFC fans know Abus, but he’s been the No. 1 welterweight over here in Germany for some time, so he’s always been someone that I’ve sort of been looking at as, if not an opponent, then a goal to reach for years now,” he said of Magomedov, who enters with a 24-4-1 record and riding a two-fight winning streak. “He’s very good and very talented, and it’s a tough fight for anyone.”
While hustling right back into the Octagon wasn’t necessarily what Stoltzfus was thinking upon returning from his latest American excursion, the positive vibes of coming off a victory, coupled with the fact that he could have his full complement of coaches in his corner prompted him to accept the assignment and head to Paris searching for a second straight victory.
“I’m here, I’m fit coming off a good fight camp and a good fight,” he said, explaining his rationale for jumping right back into camp and taking another fight so quickly. “I was able to get right back into the swing of things over here, and it being a little bit short-notice, I’ve just been doing my camp here at home.
“I’m going in with probably my best corner yet as far as coaches that have been working with me through the years,” he added. “This time, we’re in Paris so all of my top coaches can just go, which makes things much easier. It’s not as much of a time or money investment to get people over there, so that’s the plus side of that.”
Main Event Preview | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa
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Main Event Preview | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa
As for the nerves and pressure, they haven’t been an issue.
“It’s almost non-existent. I keep forgetting I’m this close to a fight,” said Stoltzfus. “Obviously I’m putting in a lot of work, and I’m tired and sore all the time, but the pressure and the nerves aren’t there this time, just because I am coming off a win.”
Between the early call time and the crowd at UBS Arena, Stoltzfus was able to avoid the mental pitfalls that plagued him throughout his first three outings and secure a victory on Long Island.
Now, bolstered by that experience, he’s ready to do it all over again, hopeful that he’s put the worst of the anxiety behind him, and emboldened by having experienced the thrill of victory inside the Octagon for the first time.
“I’m suspecting there will be the usual nerves, but not the debilitating nerves that I have been having,” admitted Stoltzfus. “Even if they are there, I suspect that walking out to that crowd again will help me loosen up and do my thing.
“Walking out and having the full crowd in there — for me, personally, it takes a lot of the pressure off myself. It’s a little hard to explain, but it’s not just me in there; it’s an experience that we’re all having together, and so I can just go in and do my thing.
“I’ve gone through this whole situation now and come out on the end of it the way I wanted to,” he added. “Now I know how that feels, what I need to do in order to get myself into that mindset, and I should be able to replicate that.”
UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa took place on September 3, 2022, live from the Accor Arena in Paris, France. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!