"For me to transition myself into the role of a UFC fighter, it is a lot more of a mental game now than it ever was." - Nick Ring
The UFC wasn’t created to be the greatest “toughman” competition; it was created to end them. The Octagon is the ultimate proving ground for highly trained warriors to collide to display athleticism and skill. Even for 18-year veteran martial artists like Nick Ring, acclimating to the talent level of his opponents has required an adjustment period and a re-dedication to the craft itself. But Ring’s added time, effort, and seriousness towards mixed martial arts has already resulted in success and great rewards inside the Octagon.
“My life has changed, changed incredibly since I joined the UFC,” states Ring. “I used to be a backyard tough guy. Ever since hitting the UFC, there's a lot more to this than I think most people realize. You don't just go in there and kick someone's ass and go home. There's a lot more preparation than that. These guys you're fighting, they're serious competitors. They're not weekend warriors. They're not just strolling through. These are professional athletes competing at the highest level. You have to do a lot more. This is about eating, breathing, and sleeping your martial arts - you really have to take this seriously. This is the cream of the crop, this is the Olympics of your sport. The UFC is already the Olympics of MMA. My life has changed absolutely; it's not the same as it ever was. It's different in a very real and tangible sense for me.”
No greater illustration of said tangibility was Ring’s place at the forefront of UFC 149 in his hometown of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. At 33 years old, he was an unofficial host, master of ceremonies, and a featured attraction in a rematch against The Ultimate Fighter season 11 castmate/winner Court McGee, and the surefire fan favorite as the local boy done good. It was a magical night, which Ring never could have expected, as “The Stampede City” wasn’t the most likely choice to host a UFC PPV, but it proved to be the right one with a ravenous crowd ready to cheer for their homegrown middleweight star.
“For my career up until this point, that was definitely the highlight of my career,” reveals Ring. “I've never fought in front of a crowd of 20,000 where they were actually cheering for me (laughs). I'm usually fighting out of town and it's usually a range of indifference or I'm fighting their hometown boy and they don't like me. That was the first time I had that much support. It felt incredible. As a fighter you walk out to the Octagon alone and you fight alone, but when I got to the waiting area and the crowd saw me coming out, to hear this big roar of 20,000 people screaming my name was the most incredible feeling I've ever had. I didn't feel like I was fighting alone. I felt like I was fighting for the honor of the city. I was glad to represent Calgary. I don't think anything will be an experience like that ever again. That was the biggest thing I've ever done personally."
If the event couldn’t have been better, Ring had one particular Calgary native in attendance rooting for him who many would say is the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be fan anyone could ever ask for: Bret “The Hitman” Hart.
“Before any of the UFC announcements had taken place, when [Bret Hart] had heard that I was fighting on the card, he stepped up and showed me as much support as he could,” says Ring with all the glowing respect all children of the 80’s and/or 90’s ought to have for the “Excellence of Execution”, especially a Canadian one. “It was a big honor to me because Bret Hart is a living legend around these parts. I remember when I was a kid and I watched and supported him on WWF and now the shoe is kind of on the other foot and here he is watching and supporting me. I can't say enough how honored I was to have Bret Hart behind me and cheering and supporting me in my corner.”
After all the previous pomp and circumstance, the clash between Ring and McGee lived up to the hype in another close decision in favor of “The Promise”. Elevating his overall record to 13-1, Ring took control of the bout early before McGee picked up steam at the finish. In some ways, the struggle was similar to that of the opening round majority decision on TUF back in 2010, but a noticeable maturity was shown by both fighters’ in-cage abilities. In their respective two years competing in the Octagon, Ring and McGee are clearly evolving and just as exciting of a matchup.
“I feel like it was a different fight completely,” asserts Ring. “I believe we have both gotten better, obviously. I think you got to see two guys who have gotten more refined over the past couple years and as a martial artist that's what you're looking for. Court has gotten better at what he regularly does, like putting the pressure on. Anyone who fights Court has to deal with his never quit attitude. He's just not a guy who will ever give in. As a fighter, he definitely shows his character in his unwillingness to give in and his uncompromising will to never give up. I think we've definitely grown as fighters. I think it was a better fight overall and tactically. I think the pressure was on us more overall than the one in the house. He's a good competitor and, besides him being a good competitor, I like him as a human being. He's a solid person.”
Up next for Ring is a Montreal melee on November 17th with the 11-2, 1 NC Greek gladiator Costa Philippou at UFC 154. Since losing his Octagon debut, Costa has rattled off four impressive victories, including a knockout of Jared Hamman at UFC 140 and back-to-back striking duel wins over McGee and, most recently, Riki Fukuda. The product of Long Island’s Ray Longo and Matt Serra continues to show off his vaunted boxing skills and incredible takedown defense. While this will not be an exhibition of the “sweet science”, Ring’s own former pro boxing experience could play a role in what will most likely be a very technical standup scrap.
“Costa is a very good competitor and a very technical fighter,” states Ring. “He was definitely on my radar. When I watch a guy like him, I see somebody who has got his game down to a science. He's very methodical. I actually like watching the guy fight, so it's an honor to fight a guy who is such a technician. I think this will be a very interesting challenge and I think it will be different than the Court McGee fight. These two athletes have a very different approach and different styles coming into a match. That's what is so interesting about MMA, that each guy brings different skills to the table. I've got a lot to learn from Costa and this will put me on a big learning curve.”
In preparation for Philippou, Ring spent the majority of his camp at home with the Calgary crew from Champion’s Creed that got him to the UFC. “These guys have helped me all along the way and I would have never got here if it wasn't for these guys and I appreciate all the help,” affirms Ring of BJJ coaches Brian and Sheila Bird, boxing coach Doug Harder, wrestling coach Mike Dunn, Muay Thai coach Chad Sawyer, strength & conditioning coach Matt Jordan, and fellow fighter/training partner Brad Cardinal. In the lead-up to this particular bout though, Ring did take two detours to two world-renowned gyms to mix things up and get himself out of his comfort zone.
“When you're training at a gym, no matter what gym it is, you have a few training partners and the gym itself has a certain style, a certain culture,” explains Ring. “When you take off and go to another gym, you can see they have different strengths and weaknesses and they have different looks and different approaches to fighting. I think it is important in your career to be bouncing around a little bit and training with guys that don't have the same style for you. When you do train with the same guys all the time, you do get somewhat complacent and they get somewhat complacent. They know how to stuff all of your moves and you know how to stuff all of theirs. When you train with these new guys, they have a completely different style and if you aren't good at what you do - you'll find out pretty quickly. I think me getting out of town for this fight is extremely helpful.”
The first athletic excursion was to lovely Las Vegas, Nevada to butt heads with the top talent at Xtreme Couture. “I got to train with Martin Kampmann a bit and he's a very, very good competitor and I felt like a learned a lot working with him,” says Ring, who had the chance to train a lot of grappling and clinch work at the famous “Sin City” gym. Ring’s second trip was to Eastern Canada to go to Montreal’s MMA super-camp Tristar gym. he slept in the dorms for several weeks with other out-of-towners like former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres, so they can train under Firas Zahabi and battle against UFC stars like Rory MacDonald and UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
“They've got some of the most incredible strikers,” tells Ring. “Don't get me wrong, they've got some of the most incredible wrestlers as well. You look at guys like Rory MacDonald and Georges St-Pierre - just phenomenal. It's a world-class gym and some of the most phenomenal strikers are just hanging out in the Montreal area. That whole town has a long history of having some of the best boxers, best kickboxers, and they have some of the best wrestlers like the Zilbermans. Going back to the 60s they've always had a strong fight community.”
From the outside looking in, three different gyms across two countries, including a small army of coaches and training partners seems, like overkill to step into a cage to defeat one man. But to the individuals who are called professional athletes in one sport or another, there is simply no limit to the amount of preparation one puts into winning. For professional athletes, while maintaining their impeccable physique is a given, a victory at the highest level of competition is as much, if not more, mental than physical. In the UFC, all the fighters are physically tough enough to win, but once inside the Octagon, they need to be mentally tough enough to know how to win.
“Mentally, it's a lot more taxing,” discloses Ring. “You have to have it in your mind that you're going to be winning and you have to be looking at the bigger picture. You have to have a good inventory of what your strengths and weaknesses are and steer a fight toward your strengths. I always trained hard, but for me to transition myself into the role of a UFC fighter, it is a lot more of a mental game now than it ever was. Everyone in the cage is a strong guy and tough, but there are a few mental characteristics that separate the good ones from the bad ones. You have to find for yourself what's good and what's bad, what thoughts are moving you forward and what thoughts are keeping you back. You have to keep all of that in check before you get into the cage. You have to know what you're trying to accomplish when you're fighting against that person. It is a lot more involved for me than it ever was before.”
This Saturday at the Bell Centre in “La Belle Ville,” Ring looks to derail Philippou’s winning streak in a struggle of skills.
“They're going to see two fighters who are both up-and-comers at the top of their game and are really technical strikers,” asserts Ring, whose journey from local martial artist to an internationally known fighting powerhouse takes a step further with each Octagon appearance. “When I first started doing all of this I was a local kid who wanted to be a big fighter. I don't know if anyone thought I would get there or not, but here it is and I'm actually getting to walk the walk. I think the fans are in for a treat.”