“I’m the first Saskatchewan-born fighter to get signed by the UFC. It’s a tremendous opportunity; I’m real excited, and I think it’s going to be a good time." - Mitch Clarke
When Mitch Clarke’s manager called him with the news that his fight with Evolution Fighting Championships was cancelled, the unbeaten Canadian was irritated, but only momentarily.
Instead of fighting on the regional circuit, Clarke would be fighting on the biggest stage of them all, squaring off with John Cholish at UFC 140 in Toronto on December 10. Irritation gave way to surprise, and has now been replaced by excitement according to Clarke.
“When it happened, I was more stunned than anything. It’s not something that I really expected. I expected maybe fighting some guys from TUF, some ex-UFC’ers to basically try and earn my way there, so I was just stunned. I was happy too, but mostly it just hits you all at once, and now it’s very real.
“I’m the first Saskatchewan-born fighter to get signed by the UFC. It’s a tremendous opportunity; I’m real excited, and I think it’s going to be a good time."
Every trip into the cage has been a good time for Clarke thus far. The University of Saskatchewan graduate has never tasted defeat, carrying a perfect 9-0 record into his debut. While there is certainly pressure attached to making your initial appearance in the UFC — and perhaps some added pressure of being a Canadian debuting on Canadian soil — Clarke is keeping it all in perspective.
“It is a big deal, but if I was fighting John Cholish on a smaller show, I probably wouldn’t have the same emotions. But at the same time, it is a big deal, so you’ve got to treat it like it’s a big deal, but not think about it so much.
“It’s really hard not to get caught up in the moment, but at the same time, when I’m in the gym, I’m working. I don’t want to always be thinking about it because that’s where you see guys stumble — they get caught up in the Octagon jitters, their first UFC.
“I think there is just as much pressure (on both of us) because it’s in the UFC. I think it’s possible that because it’s in Canada — well I hope I get a little bit of support, being Canadian, but I also have to look at the fact that New York is closer to Toronto than Edmonton or Saskatoon.
“I don’t think it’s too much added pressure. Some people know him, not a lot of people know me; I just want to go out there and fight well more than anything.”
Unlike some UFC neophytes who are welcomed to the Octagon by an experienced veteran, both Clarke and Cholish will be making their maiden voyage into the UFC cage in Toronto.
“Hopefully he kinda has those Octagon jitters,” Clarke said of his opponent. “He fought in Strikeforce, so he has a little bit more experience in that sense, but both of us are coming into the UFC for the first time. Both of us are prospects — I think — and I think the real winners are the UFC and the fans because I think we’re both going to lay it on the line.”
In addition to his core team of trainers and coaches, the Edmonton-based Clarke made the trip to Victoria, British Columbia in preparation for this fight to work with Adam Zugec.
“I’m real happy that I added Zugec to this training camp. He’s wanted me to come out for a while. The guy’s an MMA genius in my opinion; he knows so much, and knows everything so well. He’s got a well-run system for his school, and his whole team is so good.”
Tucked away on Vancouver Island, Zugec is a rising star in the coaching ranks. The head coach and trainer of former Strikeforce women’s bantamweight champion Sarah Kaufman, Zugec not only helped Clarke prepare for what to expect from Cholish inside the cage, but the experience of fighting on the big stage as well.
“The funny thing is that you’re going to the UFC, but on the undercard, it’s usually dead; it’s kind of interesting,” offered Zugec. “You’ve been fighting your whole career to get to the UFC — which is the Super Bowl to you — but you start off on the undercard, so you’ve got to be prepared for the shock of there not being a lot of people there during your fight.
“I think there is a shock there because it’s such a massive ordeal to you — it’s a big event, everybody wants to go, it will be sold out — but then when you’re fighting, it’s dead. I think that’s an interesting thing that you have to prepare yourself for. You’re expecting 50,000 people to be screaming, and there are 106. I think there is a psychological aspect to that.”
“I think those first UFC fights are big psychological barriers. I’m going to have him cutting weight with some very experienced fighters that will be on the same show, so I think that’s always helpful as well.”
Zugec, who has a close relationship with Greg Jackson and frequently works with the all-star cast from Albuquerque, said he’ll have Clarke preparing with UFC light heavyweight champion and UFC 140 headliner Jon Jones throughout the week in Toronto.
It’s just another element that adds to Clarke’s dream-come-true story.
“It’s not something I expected,” said the Saskatoon native. “You see so many really good fighters fight for years and never even touch the UFC, so to be able to be in the UFC — and fighting in Canada in the UFC — is a big deal; it’s awesome really. It’s where everyone wants to be, and that’s awesome.”