As he prepares for his first bout in the Fight Capital of the World, Las Vegas, Modestas Bukauskas is all business, even if he admits that facing Michal Oleksiejczuk on Saturday’s UFC 260 card is something he’s been looking forward to since the first time he put on the gloves.
“I think it's part of every fighter's dream to fight in Vegas,” he said. “All the biggest events in terms of combat sports in the world have been there, and it means a helluva lot, especially to represent Lithuania and Great Britain in Vegas. It's amazing and it's a great platform for me to really show off my skills and go out there and put on a great performance.”
But about that all business stuff, rest assured that the 27-year-old won’t be hitting the town, even after he goes to work this weekend.
“I'm gonna get there on the Tuesday and I'm gonna be gone by the Sunday, so I'm not gonna be able to experience it too much apart from going to the PI and the APEX and the fight itself,” he said. “But I'm pretty sure that there will be times down the line when I can enjoy that side a little bit more as well.”
That’s a fighter talking, and he knows that all the perks of being a professional athlete go hand-in-hand with winning, and it’s something Bukauskas knew intimately over the last four years as he won seven in a row, a stretch highlighted by a Performance of the Night finish of Andreas Michailidis in his UFC debut last July.
But three months later, Bukauskas felt the sting of defeat for the first time since 2016 when he was halted by Jimmy Crute. It was a disappointing defeat, and he had been there before, seeing exactly how fickle the world of mixed martial arts can be just a handful of fights into his pro career, when a 4-0 record turned to 4-2 in the space of two months.
“I was fortunate that it happened very early on in my career,” he said. “I was 4-0, everyone's jumping on the bandwagon, thinking this is the next big guy, he just trained with Jon Jones, loads of things, and then next thing you know, everyone turns their back as soon as you lose. And not only that, I lost a second one after that.”
In times like those, you learn who your friends are. And after losing to the Aussie up and comer, Bukauskas expected more of the same, but it wasn’t that way outside of the usual internet trolls.
“It was a little bit different this time around,” he said. “You've got the haters and this and that, which is totally understandable and normal, so I was already preparing myself for that. I knew that would happen. But I've got way more messages of encouragement and support and love. And that's given me an extra bit of fire and motivation and inspiration.”
It was a bright spot on a dark moment for the Lithuanian-born Londoner, who was disappointed by the result against Crute, but not discouraged. In his mind, it was simply an opportunity to learn some lessons and grow as a fighter. In other words, it just wasn’t his night, and at this level, if you’re not on, bad things can happen.
“It took a little bit longer this time mentally to get over the hump of losing, but more so because it was a fight that I definitely felt was a winnable fight,” said Bukauskas. “Obviously, I give a load of credit and a lot of respect to Jimmy Crute. Me and him actually had a beer afterwards as well and we just talked about it. So I have a lot of respect for Jimmy Crute and his whole team. The whole fight itself, there was no animosity, it was just pure competition, and I like that. Don't get me wrong, it's always nice to get into fights where there's animosity and bad blood with each other, but at the same time, it's nice to just go in there and see who the better man is, simple and plain.
“So when you go into the fight and you know you have the skill set and the ability and you just don't show up, that's more painful than anything,” he continues. “If I would have got my ass whupped for three rounds and beat from pillar to post, I actually would have took that a lot better because I'd just know that I'd need a helluva lot to improve on and it would be an easy transition. But when you go into a fight and you know you can beat the guy and get yourself right into the cream of the crop, the top of the UFC ladder, pretty early in your career, and then it doesn't go that way, that was painful. But his game plan was just much better. He had a very good strategy and it showed. I'm actually very thankful for that fight because it enabled me to see what areas I need to put more focus on and tighten things up in my training camps. There's always a silver lining, even in the bad situations. I was very thankful that I had this now at the start of my UFC career as opposed to later on, and I could learn and really fix all the areas straight away.”
Luckily for Bukauskas, there are no steps backward in a UFC career. You go from one killer to the next, and this weekend, the next man up is Poland’s Oleksiejczuk, a fighter on a two-fight losing skid, but one who owns knockouts over Gadzhimurad Antigulov and Gian Villante, so he can hang at this level, and he’s just as hungry to get back in the win column as Bukauskas is. But when it comes to confidence, Bukauskas gives off the vibe that nothing will stop him from getting his hand raised in his first trip to Las Vegas.
“When you lose, you feel like everybody's against you, but in this game, you gotta win or learn and I definitely learned a helluva lot of lessons,” he said. “I've implemented them into my game and I can't wait to show 'The Baltic Gladiator 2.0' in the next fight. I aim to go on another massive win streak this year and stake my claim in the light heavyweight division.”