The beauty of the fight game is that in 15 minutes or less, guys like Frankie Saenz can change their life forever. It may sound melodramatic, but it’s true.
Arizona’s Saenz wasn’t a coddled athlete walked through life to get to this point. He was a worker, a grinder, someone who used those traits to compete at the Division I level in wrestling, and then took them into the world of mixed martial arts. While building a name in his new sport, he worked, because that’s what was necessary, but on Saturday, this full-time fighter can take himself to a new level in his career if he can topple bantamweight superstar Urijah Faber in their UFC 194 bout in Las Vegas.
“I’m trying to treat it like any other fight,” Saenz said. “I know it's the biggest fight of my life, but I'm trying to approach it the way I've approached my last few fights, where I've been pretty successful. I'm trying to stay healthy, be intense and make sure I can keep up with the grind of Urijah Faber.”
Faber, a former WEC featherweight champion and UFC bantamweight title challenger, has only lost once in a non-title fight, and that was in a five-rounder against Frankie Edgar in May. Take away that defeat, and “The California Kid” won six of his previous seven bouts, all against top-notch competition, and he’s got his sights set on fighting the winner of January’s 135-pound title fight between TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz. Saenz can throw a wrench in those plans and he knows it, but he is also well aware of the challenge that awaits him.
“He's a future Hall of Famer and someone I actually looked up to coming up in my MMA career,” Saenz said of Faber. “He's got everything - he's got speed, tons of experience, I know he can finish a fight at any time, and I've just got to be ready for everything. I've got to be ready for that grind, for those scrambles, and I've got to be a better wrestler than him that night.”
It’s a lot to keep together in the space of an eight-week training camp, and Saenz – who works with fellow UFC fighters Henry Cejudo and Roman Salazar at the Fight Ready gym in Scottsdale – admits that as the stakes get higher, there is more to pay attention to.
“What I've noticed getting ready for these fights is that they're bigger and the guys you're fighting are a lot tougher, so there's just a lot more things to get prepared for,” he said. “But I don't think in any training camp you feel a hundred percent ready - I could have done a little bit more of this, a little bit more of that.”
He laughs, knowing what the next question is going to be, and he doesn’t shy away from revealing that he’s one of those fighters who never feels like he’s doing enough, so he does everything.
“I think it's just me,” Saenz said. “I'm one of those guys they've got to kick out of the gym all the time. I always have to be doing something. But I think it's a good thing, these butterflies and stuff. Once I get in the cage, it's just a different story.”
Since 2012, when he was disqualified for an illegal knee against Jeff Fletcher, Saenz hasn’t lost. That’s more than three years and seven fights, with three of those victories coming against Nolan Ticman, Iuri Alcantara and Sirwan Kakai in the UFC. So what’s been the difference-maker over the last three years?
“Maybe just my attitude, coming in every day, telling myself 'hey, I need to get a good workout today. I'm doing what I love, today needs to be a good day,'” And it's just continuing that every day and having those days where I'm training hard. If it's a good day or not a good day, just taking something away from it, and I think that's been the difference, getting me more motivated just to work out, instead of looking at it as a job, where I'm just dreading it. Maybe it's me getting older and maturing a little bit and just having a different outlook on it. But it's just a different attitude altogether.”
Today, the 35-year-old sits at number 13 in the 135-pound rankings, and he could move up higher with a win over the number four-ranked Faber. A victory would certainly be a major upset, not necessarily because there’s a big talent gap between the two, but because everyone knows Faber, while Saenz has been quietly adding to his winning streak.
Maybe what separates the two is how Saenz reacts to the big fight week spotlight, something Faber has seen more than a few times over the years. Saenz is looking forward to it though.
“I just started thinking about that the other day, all the media stuff and the craziness that's going to happen out there,” he said. “But I guess it's one of those things you gotta experience and handle it like a professional. Seeing the excitement of everyone around the world getting pumped up for this card has got me excited too. I was excited for this card before I even got on it, so it's pretty cool. I've got a lot of support and I think it's going to be a pretty neat experience.”
The first of many? That’s the plan.
“This is what I signed up for and this is what I wanted,” he said. “I quit my job, I quit everything to follow this dream and it's got me to this point, and I can't wait to figure out where the rest of it is going to take me. I'm just excited. I feel like I get this win, and who knows. I want that title more than anyone and I can't wait for everything that comes along with it.”