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Robert Drysdale: The Sky's The Limit

"While I consider myself a good strategist, I’ve always had an urge to finish people. I didn’t want to wait 10 minutes to win. I wanted to tap you within two minutes." - Robert Drysdale

UFC light heavyweight Robert DrysdaleNearly a year has passed since it was announced that one of the best grapplers in the world today, Robert Drysdale, was about to grace the Octagon. Finally, on Sunday, the wait is over.

“I wasn’t looking forward to waiting, but I try to be positive about everything that happens and I try to look at it in a way where I had more time to prepare,” said Drysdale, who makes his UFC debut on the TUF 19 Finale card against fellow debutant Keith Berish. “I said ‘Okay, I’m not fighting now, I’m fighting down the road – more time to train.’ And I’m happy that my day finally came.”

It wasn’t without some bumps in that road, whether it was due to injury, a run-in with the Nevada State Athletic Commission that saw him not medically cleared for a UFC 167 bout due to elevated testosterone (Drysdale thought he had a TUE but the paperwork got mixed up), or just the usual waiting for an opponent and a fight to come through. Or maybe Drysdale just wanted to build anticipation and make an entrance.

“I think that people around me are certainly excited, but a positive trait of mine is that I’m not very affected about this,” he said. “If there is pressure, I don’t feel it. The pressure I feel is only what I put on myself to win, and that’s been the same since I was 15 years old. That’s never changed, and it probably never will.”

There is anticipation though, and for good reason. A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who has won the BJJ world championship and an Abu Dhabi open weight title, the 32-year-old Drysdale is the real deal on the mat, and he’s proving to be the same way in MMA, winning all six of his pro fights, all by submission in the first round. Yet despite his success, you have to wonder why he decided to put the gloves on himself, when he could still make a good living teaching, as well as training some of the sport’s best in Las Vegas.

“From the beginning, it never was the money or what I could get out of MMA, and it still isn’t,” he said. “For me, it really is a challenge. To me, fighting is hard, and when I think of MMA, I have a hard time thinking of anything more intense than stepping into a cage against another human being who has been training his whole life to destroy you, to knock you out. I don’t think there’s any other activity in life that takes more courage. And I’m the kind of person that if something frightens me in any way, it’s a matter of honor for me to do it, and fighting’s always been something I consider extremely difficult. Because it’s highly strategic and so physical and mental and emotional, all at the same time, I set the bar really high for myself in the sense that I wasn’t content just watching. If I had just gone on to have a successful career in jiu-jitsu, I would have been very disappointed in myself. I could never live with myself unless I tried. It’s because it’s hard that I want to do it.”

Turning pro in 2010, Drysdale has been untouchable thus far, but at the UFC level, no matter how good you are, you will get touched, whether it’s a left hook to the liver or a right kick to the head. As the saying goes, a black belt turns into a blue belt when he gets punched in the face, and despite his elite ground attack, Berish is going to look to take him out before it even gets to that point. That’s the danger that gets Drysdale going, but his family may not share his enthusiasm for the battle.

“My mom wasn’t too happy,” he admits. “My mom was okay with jiu-jitsu, but as a kid I was always attracted to combat in one way or another, so I guess she kind of knew that I was going to drift in that direction. But MMA, for such a long time it had such a bad rep in Brazil. It was associated with death. You were going to walk in there, you’re going to be a gladiator; she probably thought we would be fighting with swords and axes. (Laughs) But now she’s okay with it. My dad wasn’t supportive in the beginning, but once I started doing better in jiu-jitsu and he realized I was making a living from it, he became more supportive.”

And you’ve got to admire someone who is going out of his comfort zone to put it all on the line with the world watching. There’s no more vulnerable position an athlete can be in, but when Drysdale compares fighting to his time in jiu-jitsu tournaments, you’ll be surprised with how he’s reacted to competing in both realms.

“Competing was always something hard for me,” he said. “I kind of forced myself to do it, I pushed myself, and I got better at it. But I remember sometimes, you wake up and you’re in the semifinals of the world championship and being so anxious. I was on the verge of vomiting before I went out. But my last few fights, I was fine. It was much better than I thought it would be. My first MMA fight, I created such big expectations, but when it was time, I was fine and I felt I belonged there. Although MMA is a more aggressive sport than jiu-jitsu, without a doubt, in theory you should be more nervous, but I’m actually less nervous. Mentally, I don’t remember ever being so calm and relaxed about fighting.”

Maybe that’s because if he gets an opponent into his space, it’s been game over thus far. But while he is widely – and rightfully – praised for his mat game, you won’t ever see him injuring his shoulder from patting himself on the back.

“I see a lot of flaws in my own jiu-jitsu, and I really don’t want to put myself above other practitioners in any way,” he said. “I don’t see myself that way. But if I can point to any difference (in jiu-jitsu), I’ve always had a game that was aggressive. If anything, it hurt me in jiu-jitsu because jiu-jitsu is so strategic it can make it boring. A UFC fan would watch a jiu-jitsu match and go, ‘oh, that’s boring.’ And I can see why he’d say that compared to MMA because MMA is so dynamic. And while I consider myself a good strategist, I’ve always had an urge to finish people. I didn’t want to wait 10 minutes to win. I wanted to tap you within two minutes, and in a way, I think that translates well into MMA. I developed a game that is more submission-oriented than most guys.”

Of course, he’s not promising flying armbars and 30-second finishes, though those are both distinct possibilities whenever he’s in there. Instead, he just wants to fight and see where it leads him. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

“I want to see how far I can get in the world of fighting,” said Drysdale. “I think that’s a much better goal than to say ‘oh, I want a UFC belt.’ Let’s find out how high you can raise the bar. The sky’s the limit, and that’s more of my mindset.”