Nicolas Dalby was well prepared when Paul Felder asked him about what he would like next following his win over Muslim Salikhov in July.
Fresh off his third straight victory, the 38-year-old laid out a compelling argument for who he would like to face, where he would like to compete, and when he would like to do so, stumping for his 30th professional fight to come against a ranked opponent as part of the UFC’s 30th anniversary extravaganza at Madison Square Garden in New York City. With his birthday coming on November 16, it would also be a chance to celebrate, as well.
“In the end, I don’t care too much about where I fight,” Dalby said with a smile as we spoke ahead of his bout this weekend in Sao Paulo against surging prospect Gabriel Bonfim. “I do appreciate that it’s a warm place because the winter is coming here in Denmark and as my body fat is getting lower, I get so cold; I have to wear double layers all the time.”
While he did not receive the ranked opponent or the NYC opportunity he was hoping for, the Danish veteran is getting to compete ahead of his birthday, and is honestly far more interested in the challenge he’ll be facing inside the Octagon than any of the other particulars about the fight.
And he knows he’s facing a serious challenge on Saturday.
“I care about the fight, and I think Bonfim is an interesting opponent,” he said of his 26-year-old foe, who has registered consecutive first-round submission wins to begin his UFC tenure. “There’s not too much footage to look at, but he’s got a lot of hype and an aggressive style, so that’s an interesting puzzle to solve.
“He’s getting a lot of hype, a lot of resources put into him, and it’s going to be unfortunate that I might be derailing him, but that’s also my opportunity to catch some of that hype and run with it,” continued the Danish veteran, who has gone 5-1 with one no contest verdict since returning to the promotion at home in Copenhagen in the fall of 2019. “I get to get an early birthday present (as well), and I really appreciate that.”
Some athletes bristle when they don’t get what they’ve asked for, turning it into a slight or grievance that they use as fuel going forward, even though carrying frustrations can have the inverse effect on an individual’s physical and mental well-being.
Dalby isn’t one of those athletes.
Thoughtful, analytical, and uncommonly open for a prominent competitor, the most successful fighter in Danish MMA history has been through too much both personally and professionally to be anything more than momentarily bothered by the fact that he’s once again sharing the Octagon with an unranked opponent.
“I feel like I’m in the best place in my life than maybe I’ve been in ever,” offered Dalby, who previously detailed his struggles with depression and alcohol abuse following his first stint in the UFC and is not far removed from having gone through a divorce. “Going through divorce was tough, but I think that even in the toughest of challenges, even though you feel like you don’t overcome them or win them, there is always some knowledge to be learned from it.
“I have bad days, but in a bigger perspective, I always try to look at what I can learn from whatever experience I have been through, privately or professionally. Some experiences are bigger, and the lessons learned are more obvious, but it was tough.
“I learned a lot through that process, but now I have a stable private life again, and I really feel like how well I feel privately rubs off on how I do professionally.”
His personal and professional lives overlapped again in the last couple months leading into his bout with Salikhov in mid-July, as after several years of not working together, Dalby reached out to his former coach, Tue Trnka, and asked if he was interested in ending his retirement in order to work with him once more.
“We reconnected six-and-a-half weeks before the Salikhov fight,” began Dalby, detailing how he and Trnka found their way back to working together once more. “I could see from a professional standpoint that I needed some better resources on my team. My selling line was ‘With this fight, I have the chance to be the winningest Danish fighter; do you want to be along on the ride to achieve that?’”
The pair had been together throughout Dalby’s career until Trnka opted to retire in 2016, and when their professional relationship ended, their personal relationship took a major hit, as well.
“Privately, we’ve been meeting a couple times over the last couple years, where I have the headroom for that again after getting divorced,” explained the welterweight standout, who carries a 22-4-1 record with that single no contest into Saturday’s co-main event pairing with Bonfim. “Getting a professional relationship has intensified our private relationship, and he’s very all-in, so those things kind of tie together, and now it works beautifully.
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“Those seven or eight years that passed seem like they never happened,” he added. “We’re having a lot of fun, productive, challenging sessions, but we’re growing all the time; it’s quite a collaboration. For the Salikhov fight, it was a bit of a rushed collaboration, but this time we’ve had a lot of time to work together the way we would like for a fight like this.”
Every relationship between fighter and coach is different, with each side having their own wants, needs, and expectations when it comes to those partnerships. Sometimes those working relationships extend to outside of the gym, and the bond deepens, while other times, it’s simply a business pairing.
For Dalby and Trnka, it was both and is again, and rekindling each has helped the streaking veteran countdown to Saturday’s contest feeling better than he ever has before.
“It’s very valuable,” he said when asked of having his longtime friend and coach back in the fold. “I think he’s one of the people in the world that knows me best. I don’t have strong family ties, so because of that time we’ve spent together and his being all-in as a coach, he was also one of my best friends.
“Now we both have kids — he’s got five, I’ve only got the one — so we don’t have as much time to talk about stuff outside of training, but we appreciate each other as people, and we can relate to each other more than we could before.
“From a private level, it’s nice to be around one of the people that knows me best. I still know how he works, he still knows how I work, and we have a lot of trust in one another. Professionally it’s the same — he knows how to talk to me, speak to me, get me in the right place mentally, physically, and technically. I have a lot of trust in his technical skills and his coaching skills, so it’s just all around positive in a big way.”
It couldn’t be coming together at a better time, either.
Earning three straight victories has once again carried the former Cage Warriors champion to the brink of breaking into the Top 15, and should he extend that to four by handing Bonfim his first professional loss, that matchup with a ranked opponent he originally hoped for this time around should materialize in the first half of 2024.
And he just might have a number next to his name, as well.
Nicolas Dalby Fight Week Interview | UFC São Paulo
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Nicolas Dalby Fight Week Interview | UFC São Paulo
“It’s very important,” Dalby said when asked about the stakes tethered to this matchup on Saturday. “Long term, I want to secure a stable financial life for me and my daughter, and this is another step on the way towards that goal.
“Professionally, it brings me even closer to fighting a ranked opponent, which brings me closer to the Top 10, which brings me closer to a potential title shot, so every step on the way is super-important.”
“The next fight is always the most important one and it’s going to bring me closer to all the things I want,” he added. “I’m all-in on this fight.”
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