"At the end of the day you have to realize that this is your job. The lights don’t matter." - Ruan Potts
“I pretty much started up in a weird way,” said Potts in the understatement of 2014. “I was offering services to do mouthguards in the gym, I saw the sport and I thought this looks interesting, so I started competing in it.”
Just like that, South Africa’s Potts became a mixed martial arts fighter and began the journey that brings him to Cincinnati this Saturday to make his UFC debut against Soa Palelei.
Of course a story like this is never that cut and dried. It’s not like Potts walked into a Bronx locker room and then declare he was going to play centerfield for the Yankees without ever picking up a bat. When the 36-year-old went from selling mouthguards to using one, he had already been studying judo since he was a teenager, eventually becoming a national champion in the art. So he did have an athletic background, but there were other hurdles to jump, mainly the fact that South Africa wasn’t exactly a hotbed for MMA.
“MMA is a name that people knew about, but only in the last three, four years has it actually taken off,” he said. “EFC Africa, the organization that I fought for, has done the promotion, and it’s a mainstream sport now. It’s like our rugby and cricket and it’s on our sports channels, where before you would only know about events via fliers or maybe radio advertisements. It wasn’t really televised at all, and now it’s bigger and it’s much more mainstream.”
Luckily, Potts started his pro career during those last few years in 2011, and it also helped that his coach was the last South African to compete in the Octagon, Mark Robinson. Want more good fortune for the Cape Town native? He wasn’t greeted with the usual ‘what are you doing?’ that several fighters get when they put a good day job to the side to chase a fighting dream.
“I’ve always had the backing of friends and family, and they’ve been supportive for me throughout my career,” said Potts. “I went from one extreme to the next – from mouthguards to actually competing – and I found a passion for it. It’s a healthy sport, and to keep on top of your game you have to stay fit and have a healthy lifestyle, and that’s important.”
Did I mention that he can fight? You can’t forget that part, and in nine pro bouts the heavyweight has gone 8-1, ending each of his fights before the final bell, four by submission and four by knockout. It’s an impressive run to say the least, and even though there are no familiar names on his list of victims, he’s clearly cleaned out the South African scene, warranting a call to the big show. Will he be ready for a veteran finisher like Soa Palelei? Some don’t think so, but he likes that.
“I’m a strange one in that way,” he laughs. “I thrive on doubters and pessimists and stuff like that. My instinct is that I love a challenge and I’ve always been like that. If someone says no, you’ll never make it to whatever it is in life, I’m the one that’s there to prove to them yes, you can. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. As long as you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything in life. And I’ve managed to do that so far in my life, and a huge goal was obviously getting to the UFC and I’ve managed to do that now too, so it’s awesome. For the next fight, people are going to be saying ‘we don’t know where this South African is coming from, he doesn’t stand a chance,’ and I’m hopefully going to prove them wrong again and say, yes, South Africans do have what it takes to fight with the world’s best and compete on the world’s best platform. And maybe I can help open the door for other Africans to get through to the UFC and be able to compete on that large stage. I’m hoping to be an ambassador for the country and the continent.”
That’s a lot to put on your plate, but Potts has never been one to scoff at hard work or climbing seemingly impossible mountains. As for the famed UFC jitters, again, he’s not too concerned.
“At the end of the day you have to realize that this is your job,” he said. “The lights don’t matter. You’re doing it for your friends and family, but it’s your career too, so you have to be able to have that switch. I’ve managed to do it throughout my career with the EFC, and I’m hoping to continue that with the UFC. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and let’s hope it continues, that I’m focused when the pressure’s on. It should be good.”