Tucked away in the quaint South London suburb of Mitcham, an unsuspecting building sets the scene for the brand-new facility Great Britain Top Team calls home — and on any given day, you’re likely to find Nathaniel Wood inside grinding away.
“We have this state-of-the-art facility: 12,000 square foot, everything under one roof and it's 10 minutes from my house,” Wood said, beaming with excitement as he walked us through the facility which boasts a full size Octagon and boxing ring sandwiched between two large mat spaces alongside a variety of other amenities. “I think this was that extra little tool I needed in my arsenal, and now I've got it.”
Looking back at the past two performances of “The Prospect” proves his point — two decisive wins which cemented his move to the featherweight division have made a statement of their own following a near two-year layoff for the London native.
“Overall, I would say the year has been perfect for me. I had the fight that got canceled back in March, but I've now had two fights in the space of six weeks,” Wood said, expanding on the circumstances which led from an opponent change to a completely canceled fight just days out from the UFC’s return to London earlier this year.
But not to worry, as the 29-year-old took the unfortunate situation as a sign to make the leap out of the bantamweight division into the featherweight division — a move that has favored him in more ways than one.
“I hate the weight cut, it really does take it out of me,” Wood said. “I believe in my skillset enough to go up a weight, so I don't think that an opponent having 10 pounds on me is going to make a huge difference if I bring my ‘A’ game and stay active.
“So for me to fight at bantamweight, I needed 12 weeks’ notice. Now, I can fight regularly. I'm going into my fights healthy, I can have a life until the last couple of weeks, and I've got a smile on my face almost all through fight camp. It's just one less thing to worry about.”
One less thing to worry about — and a big thing, at that — was likely the game changer for the former Cage Warriors champion, who faced “setback after setback” during a near two-year layoff which finally ended at UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs Aspinall.
“I had a fight against Charles Rosa, and there was a lot of pressure on that one, especially being in London,” Wood said, referencing his return to the Octagon, which took place at the second UFC takeover of the O2 Arena in July. “That was my first fight coming back after almost a two-year layoff and my first fight going up a weight category. It felt good to kind of get that ring rust off and get back in there. And if I'm honest, I was in that flow state, just enjoying that moment.
“And then six weeks after the London fight, I was just on the treadmill thinking how I was healthy and how Paris is just two hours away from London. So we messaged Sean Shelby, and he said, ‘Leave it with me.’ Next thing I know, I've got an opponent. I was already fit, I was already healthy, it was perfect. This is what I love to do and I’m making up for lost time now.”
Making up for lost time while making a name for himself in his new division are two items that top the priority list currently for Wood, whose circumstances have serendipitously given him what feels like a fresh start.
“At bantamweight, I always had a kind of pathway. I was the Cage Warriors champ and got signed to the UFC at bantamweight,” he said. “But with a long layoff, it all kind of just moved on without me. The guys that were around my level at the time have now moved up and there wasn't really…a plan for me anymore at bantamweight.
“So I feel like everything now is just all kind of coming together. It's almost like the years and years of hard work are paying off now. This is the sort of year where I'm like, this is where I'm supposed to be. I'm in the gym, I'm at a weight class where I'm supposed to be, and I feel that the only way from here is up.”
The opening of Great Britain Top Team seems to be a bit of a catalyst for Wood’s recent success for a number of reasons, one of the biggest being it cut his daily commute from a minimum of three hours via London Underground to a ten-minute walk or drive down the road to train.
“In the UK, to get a good training facility you have to travel. Those journeys really did take it out of me. I'd turn up to training already exhausted, then after training, I’d have to head all the way back home, get home exhausted. It was very taxing, both on the body and mentally, just sitting on the train all day.”
For Wood, who has faced a lifelong battle with OCD and anxiety, eliminating the taxing commute and the weight cut looks to have paid dividends in his performances, and it has also opened the door for him to have to find ways to cope with new struggles.
“If I'm honest with my mental health without doing the strict weight cuts, I almost worry about other stuff now,” he explained with a small, ironic chuckle. “I've got rid of one worry: getting on the scales. But now I'm just focusing on my opponent. So the whole camp, I'm now thinking about my opponent. What's he doing? What's he up to? How good is he? Let's watch his last fights.”
Wood admittedly fell victim to these thought patterns while preparing to fight Charles Jourdain in Paris in September. In interviews following his victory, he alluded to “creating a monster” in his opponent leading up to the fight – thoughts that left his mind as soon as he stepped into the Octagon.
“As soon as I had him face to face in the Octagon, I was good. When I was facing him, I was like, I've got this in the bag. And I'd say after the first 20 seconds, once I felt his speed and power, I knew I had him.”
Nathaniel Wood Octagon Interview | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa
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Nathaniel Wood Octagon Interview | UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa
At 6-2 in the UFC, the Brit has had to overcome various obstacles prior to each time he entered the Octagon, but never had to do so alone, primarily thanks to his dad.
“I've got my dad before my fights; he gives me that pep talk or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “From my very first semi-pro fight, you know, he's always been there for me. He knows exactly who I am, everything about me. So I think he's the best person to kind of get in my head before a fight. It's almost like I'm going into the cage with another person. I can trust him with my life.”
Having someone like his dad quite literally in his corner, alongside former UFC bantamweight and GBTT owner and head coach Brad Pickett, the weight of Wood’s battles both inside and out of the Octagon seem a little less heavy.
“For me, I am fortunate enough to have people around me to talk to, but it's tough. It does make you a stronger person, that's for sure. Every day we're learning new things and how to deal with it. There's some things in life I'm not scared about because of how dark of a place I've been mentally. Anything else seems like nothing, you know? So yeah, there are surprisingly some benefits of it.”
As far as the future goes, Wood doesn’t have a fight booked (at least not today), so in the meantime, he’ll continue to train as if he’ll get another short notice call from Sean Shelby, and teach MMA classes at GBTT, and enjoy some time with his Belgian Malinois in his little slice of heaven, more commonly known as Mitcham.