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Pat Sabatini poses for a post fight portrait backstage during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

Pat Sabatini's Perfect Timing

Featherweight Reflects On A Stellar 3-0 Rookie Campaign In 2021

Having spoken with Pat Sabatini ahead of each of his last two UFC appearances, I can say with some degree of confidence that the first-year featherweight will be appreciative of the praise and accolades bestowed on him during this awards season, but far more focused on keeping it moving.

The former CFFC featherweight champion posted a 3-0 mark inside the Octagon in 2021, defeating Canadian veteran Tristan Connelly by unanimous decision in April, Jamall Emmers by first-round submission in late August, and Tucker Lutz by unanimous decision in mid-November to push his winning streak to five and his record to 16-3 overall. Each time, he’s come away from the Octagon locked in on the improvements and adjustments he can make and what comes next, rather than reveling in his most recent victory.

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“I’m definitely reflecting on it a little bit more, especially with a little more time around the holidays, but as always, I’m looking forward and into the future,” said Sabatini, confirming my hunch when we caught up just before Christmas.

“Looking back at Year One, it was definitely a crazy year, in a good way. It started out getting that short notice call against Rafael Alves, who missed weight, which got my foot in the door. Had a really tough guy in my first fight, Tristan Connelly. In a weird way, I’m glad it went all three rounds because that is more ring time, more experience, and the taste of fighting in front of that big crowd was crazy.

“That’s a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

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After his debut win over Connelly at UFC 261, the 31-year-old sat down at his post-fight media availability and said he was just excited to get the first one out of the way, already eager to move past the nerves and uncertainty that accompanied his UFC debut less than an hour after experiencing a moment he didn’t think would happen at times.

Sabatini was on the cusp of securing an opportunity to compete inside the Octagon at the start of 2020.

He carried an 11-2 record and three straight victories into his third defense of the CFFC featherweight title on the first day of February, and after navigating a host of cancellations in the second half of the previous year, a victory over James Gonzalez would have further cemented his standing as one of the top regional talents in the 145-pound weight class.

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With the number of fighters from the rugged East Coast regional circuit that had previously matriculated to the biggest stage in the sport, including his teammate and surging welterweight Sean Brady, Sabatini would have been on the short list of potential short notice calls if something opened up at featherweight or afforded a chance to compete on Dana White’s Contender Series in the fall. If he dominated and secured another finish, as he’d done in two of his previous three appearances and nine of his first 11 victories, a direct path to the Octagon may have opened up.

Instead of making his dreams come that evening, Sabatini exited the cage unsure if he would ever compete again.

Gonzalez clamped onto a modified armbar right out of the chute. Though Sabatini refused to tap, the fight was stopped as soon as he freed himself from the challenger’s grasp as his arm was clearly compromised. The title changed hands, and Sabatini told his coaches that his career was over.

When the anguish subsided, Sabatini opted against hanging up his gloves, instead staying the course and returning to action seven months later, registering a first-round stoppage win over Jordan Titoni to get things moving in the right direction again. Three months later, he re-claimed the title he lost to Gonzalez with a submission win over Jesse Stirn.

He got the call to the UFC soon after, and out-wrestled Connolly for three rounds to secure a victory in his debut.

Sabatini secured a first-round submission victory in his sophomore appearance in the Octagon, snaring Emmers in a heel hook less than two minutes into the fight. When we spoke about it heading into his third bout, the Philadelphia native was more frustrated with having gotten caught coming forward and rocked by Emmers than he was excited about collecting himself and the finish shortly thereafter.

He swept the scorecards against Lutz in November to secure his third win of 2021, which ultimately landed him a place alongside fellow first-year standouts Casey O’Neill, Michael Chandler, and Paddy Pimblett on the list of Top UFC Newcomers.

“To be able to go from such a low point where I thought my career was over and all my hard work was out the door to finding myself, applying myself differently, and roll off these last five wins, it’s still very surreal to me,” said Sabatini, who credits making a commitment to meditating as a key piece in putting together the winning streak that carried him to the UFC and to three victories inside the Octagon in 2021. “But I know there is more work to be done and I’m going to continue to carry that mindset moving forward.”

While he earned a finish in his middle bout, it’s clear that the former CFFC champion values his three-round battles with Connelly and Lutz as much, if not more, than his bonus-winning effort against Emmers because just as he’s always focused on the next opponent, he sees those battles for the long-term value they carry in regard to his future.

Pat Sabatini warms up backstage during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Pat Sabatini warms up backstage during the UFC 261 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 24, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

“I feel like CFFC was definitely a super-valuable thing for me, fighting under their banner,” began the former two-time titleholder, who competed in six championship fights during his time with the promotion. “There are no easy fights in CFFC and preparing for those five-rounders is such a different mindset. When you know there is a possibility that you might have to go a full 25 minutes, it changes aspects of your preparation a lot.

“This game is so mental, and being able to say that I’ve been through those kinds of camps, being prepared for those five-rounders is just preparing me for the future. The more comfortable I can be in there, the more of the skill set I can show. Those are super-valuable experiences being able to go the full 15 minutes with such high-level fighters.

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“I feel like I got into the UFC at the perfect time in my life,” he added. “Before, I wasn’t quite mature enough mentally, and the mental game is everything in this sport. I feel like I have such better control over my mind, which controls my skill set, my performance, my body; everything.”

Sabatini speaks like he fights, straightforward and clean, preferring direct answers in as few words as possible to meandering thoughts that make for a nice soundbite, but don’t really contain any substance. He’s a thoughtful interview and clearly an intelligent guy, but his vision truly doesn’t extend beyond the next opponent and the next fight.

Pat Sabatini reacts after his victory over Jamall Emmers in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 28, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Pat Sabatini reacts after his victory over Jamall Emmers in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 28, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Sure, he’s chasing a place in the rankings and has dreams of being a UFC champion like everyone else that graces the Octagon, but he’s content to get there one step at a time, using each appearance as a chance to gain more experience and get more comfortable competing at the highest level, and the time between to sharpen his skills and hone his craft alongside a collection of tough, game teammates under the guidance of Daniel Gracie, Erik Purcell, and John Marquez.

“I never have a name in particular, I never want to call people out,” he said. “I just want to go in there, go to war, and come out better on the other side; that’s always been the mission.

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“Whoever the next opponent is, I just want to be better whenever I’m in there.”

That has been the case through his first three UFC appearances, and there is no reason to believe that will change whenever Sabatini kicks off his sophomore year competing inside the Octagon in 2022.