"I’m going to be in his face, and he’s not going to be able to handle
it. I don’t think he’s ever fought anyone as tenacious and aggressive as
me." - Nik Lentz
After the fight is over, when the results appear online as the latest entry on a fighter’s resume, the subtle nuances, close calls, and near misses of the bout fade into the ether. All that remains is a win or a loss, the round and time the fight ended, and the method – decision, submission, or knockout.
While a resume conveys the bare essentials of a fighter’s career – their “tale of the tape” statistics, and an account of who they’ve beaten, who got the better of them, and how both happened – those names, dates, and results don’t tell the whole story. They’re the black and white bits that jump off the page, but the good stuff is in the grey that is often unseen or forgotten over time.
A 15-minute contest that goes to a decision could have more excitement than a bout that ends with a knockout in the closing seconds of the final round. On paper, the former looks like a boring affair, while the latter creates visions of a back-and-forth slugfest in our heads, the reality now lost on a resume, reduced to a handful of words and numbers.
Nik Lentz knows all about a fighter’s resume only conveying part of the story.
The 28-year-old Minnesotan began his UFC career by going unbeaten over his first 18 months in the organization, collecting five wins, with a majority draw with Thiago Tavares in January 2010 standing as the only hiccup. Instead of being propelled up the ranks by his string of success, Lentz’ suffocating brand of grappling and constant trips to the scorecards were the focus; sticking points with fans and critics who dubbed him “boring” while overlooking how difficult it is to go unbeaten in six consecutive trips into the UFC cage.
“The intent has always been there,” laughs Lentz, discussing his string of decision victories. “Regardless of what people want to think, these guys fighting in the UFC are not easy to finish, and I sure wasn’t given an easy road. Nobody was throwing me easy fights; they gave me hard opponents all the time.
“Even the guys who are not well known are still some of the top guys in the weight class in the sport. I was just missing little things – I would be very close to a submission or I would be very close to a knockout, but I was just missing something.”
Following his six-fight unbeaten run, Lentz hit a rough patch, going winless in his next three fights – a “no contest” result against Charles Oliveira was followed consecutive losses to Mark Bocek and Evan Dunham. He needed a change, and opted to hit the reset button on his career by changing camps and changing weight classes.
After an extended association with Greg Nelson and The Academy, Lentz opted to shift his training camps to Coconut Creek, Florida, home of American Top Team, and enlisted nutrition specialist Mike Dolce to make help him make the move to the featherweight division.
Seven months after losing to Dunham, Lentz made his featherweight debut against Eiji Mitsuoka, and everything clicked.
“I always felt like I did pretty well at ’55,” says Lentz, who stopped Mitsuoka just 3:45 into the first round of their UFC 150 encounter. “Once I got new coaches, and started doing all the right things, I realized how wrong I had been preparing. I realized how much I was missing. Sometimes you don’t know how much you’re missing to get to the next level, and you get better coaching, better training.
“Now I’ve got all these new coaches, new tools, a nutritionist, a strength trainer, that just kind of opened my mind to realizing that I could pursue a championship. I always knew that I could be a champion in fighting, but it wasn’t until I got all the new coaches and stuff that it really clicked; that I really thought now is the time that I can actually do it.”
His performance against Mitsuoka appears to have changed the way a lot of people viewed him as well, the UFC brass included. After struggling to climb the ladder in the deep lightweight ranks during his unbeaten run, Lentz’ first-round stoppage win over the Japanese veteran last August has quickly elevated him to the fringes of contention in the featherweight division.
Though the weight class is growing deeper with each passing month as more lightweights opt to relocate south of the 155-pound weight limit, Lentz will look to continue his climb towards championship gold when he squares off with perennial contender Diego Nunes this coming Saturday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Coming off a victory in a Fight of the Night-winning battle with Bart Palaszewski last October, Nunes has been a fixture near the top of the featherweight division, boasting wins over former WEC champion Mike Brown and Manny Gamburyan, while dropping decisions to former title challenger Kenny Florian and rising contender Dennis Siver.
The 30-year-old Brazilian is viewed by many as a gatekeeper in the 145-pound ranks – a tough out hopefuls need to beat in order to be considered worthy of title contention. Lentz sees his next opponent the same way, and is intent on making another statement as he moves to the next level.
“I was super-excited, but I didn’t do anything different,” admits Lentz of his reaction to the news that he’d be facing the top-10-ranked Nunes in his sophomore appearance in the featherweight division. “It’s always the same: they text me and say this guy, and I always say yes, regardless of who it is. It’s always been the same, so it’s pretty simple, but I do like the matchup. I like the fight. I was real excited once I got a chance to think about it a little more. I’m ready for this. I’m ready to bust through that gate, not just walk through it. I’m ready to kick that sucker down.”
Looking at his resume, it’d be easy to dismiss Lentz and his upward ambitions following just a single appearance in his new division. The focused and candid featherweight contender knows this, but he also knows the wins and losses on his resume don’t tell the whole story.
“It’s all a process. I haven’t always planned it right, and I haven’t always done everything the way you’re supposed to, but I feel like it has all been for a purpose. Looking back and saying something like, `I’m pissed off because people didn’t pay attention’ doesn’t do me any good. People need to pay attention now.
“When I moved down to ’45 and changed over to ATT, I got a lot of new coaches, and everyone started seeing how talented I was, people started saying, `There is so much potential here that you haven’t been using.’ It took a move to ’45 for me to realize that myself. Once that happened, it changed my whole outlook on fighting.
“It was a frustrating process, but I think it has all worked out. Now I know how the game works. Now I know I’ve put the time in. Now I know I can beat the top-level opponents.”
And that’s exactly what he intends to do when he steps into cage with Nunes Saturday night.
“I’m going to be in his face, and he’s not going to be able to handle it. I don’t think he’s ever fought anyone as tenacious and aggressive as me. I don’t think he’ll be able to keep up with all of the parts of the game. I think we’re on the same level when it comes to striking, but once we get into the scrambles, once we get into the wrestling, once we get into the clinch, once we do all these things, I think it’s just going to wear on him.
“(The finish) is going to happen just like Mitsuoka. The same way it happened with him where it was kind of a slow, systematic destruction. He came in, he tried to strike, and he got hit. He tried to go for the takedown on me, which wasn’t his game plan. I blocked his takedown, got on top, and when he tried to stand up, I threw him down a bunch of times, and finally he cracked.
“That’s what’s going to happen with Diego too.”