Matt Schnell took part in an instant classic in July, pairing off with Sumudaerji to deliver the most captivating and exciting fight of the year, which ended with the veteran from Louisiana weathering a hurricane of punishment before rallying to secure a technical submission win.
It was a performance that showed the 32-year-old might not be entirely human — there could be some Wolverine mixed with the T-1000 from Terminator 2 in there — and allowed him to publicly lobby for a chance to face Matheus Nicolau, the streaking Brazilian stationed a couple spots ahead of him in the rankings.
While he didn’t get his wish for the fight to take place at Madison Square Garden last month, he did get the assignment, and the Top 10 flyweight will likely light up the main card this weekend in Orlando.
“It made sense: two guys that are relatively comparable in ranking; he’s been hot, he’s looked good, so it’s the next step,” he said, addressing the matchup with Nicolau and the callout that put the wheels in motion to put the two opposite one another on Saturday at Amway Center. “I intentionally called the shot that made sense because I knew that it would be likely that I would get it, and here we are.”
Getting to this fight and this point has been years in the making for Schnell, who first built a name for himself as one of the competitors featured on MTV’s Caged.
A pro since 2012 who also passed through The Ultimate Fighter, “Danger” stumbled out of the gates to begin his UFC career, suffering consecutive knockout losses. He rebounded with a four-fight winning streak that solidified his place on the roster and showed much more of what he’s capable of inside the Octagon, but it’s been a constant struggle since then, as mixed results, injuries and illnesses, and cancelled or catchweight fights have kept Schnell from building any real momentum.
The victory over Sumudaerji on Long Island this summer was a step in the right direction, and a reminder of what he brings to the table, but it’s also a performance that won’t mean as much if Schnell can’t go out and build on it this weekend.
“This is the fruits of our labor,” began the eighth-ranked flyweight, discussing his position in the division and overall place in the sport’s ecosystem. “This is why I spent my adolescence toiling in a gym rather than pursuing other interests.
“I’m happy to be here but, at this point, it’s somewhat expected for me and from me, and that’s something that kind of scares me about this thing: I don’t ever want to walk away from this sport embittered, but I’m always looking towards what’s next. I’ve constantly been a guy that has tried to put himself in a position to continue to improve, and because of that, sometimes nothing feels validating.
“It comes and it goes and we’re onto the next one, and I come up short Saturday night, the last one doesn’t matter whatsoever, and that’s just how it is,” continued Schnell, speaking hard truths that those observing from the outside will never quite understand. “That’s the sport we play, and I’m okay with it — I picked this life and I think I’ve shown well in things, so we’ll keep on grinding at it.
“It’s one of those things where you work hard, but after a while, people aren’t giving you flowers anymore because we’re doing what we’re supposed to do; we’re supposed to go out there and win fights.
“I do think that’s one people will remember for a long time, and that makes me feel good,” he added before wondering aloud if there is such a thing as Hall of Fame fights.
There are, and in addition featuring prominently in Fight of the Year lists in the coming weeks, that bout with Sumudaerji is the type of battle that should be considered for enshrinement at some point in the future.
But right now, Schnell is focused on the task at hand; one he knows is extremely difficult.
“I’m proud of that one, happy I was able to come out the victor, but we’ve got another one in front of us Saturday, so that’s what I’m focused on,” he said, shifting the conversation from his memorable banger on ABC to this weekend’s clash with Nicolau. “I know a lot of questions are going to surround the last one, but I’ve got a tall task in front of me.”
Currently riding a five-fight winning streak that includes three consecutive decision wins since returning to the UFC fold last March, Nicolau enters this weekend’s main card engagement positioned a couple spots ahead of Schnell in the rankings, sporting an impressive 6-1 record inside the Octagon and an 18-3-1 mark overall.
It’s a critical matchup in a division that should be front and center in 2023, and a chance for the hard-nosed, battle-tested veteran to take another well-earned step forward in his career.
“I think it just further proves that we’ve answered the call, we know the task at hand, and I’m taking the next step,” he said of being at this stage in his career, with a single digit next to his name, facing one of the best flyweights on the planet. “This guy is incredible. I’m fighting the best guys in the world; how ‘bout that?”
You can hear in Schnell’s voice that being here after having navigated a difficult road filled with detours, hazards, and a couple instances where he had to double-back and start again means a great deal to the all-action competitor, but it has more to do with the journey itself than the destination.
“I tell people all the time — and there’s a lot of people in my circle that hate when I say this — but I promise you I am nobody, from the backwoods of Nowhere. A lot of people get up there and say they’re not supposed to be there, and I’m not sure that I’m not supposed to be here, but I had to scratch and claw my way every step.
“We had the TV show, and I had good moments, but I got here because I did the leg work, took no shortcuts.”
July showed Schnell is appointment viewing each and every time he makes the walk to the Octagon. This weekend, he aims to show that he’s one of the division’s elite.
“I think I’m one of the best, and I’m willing to put my feet on the canvas and prove it,” he said. “Saturday night, let’s get out there and figure it out.”