“I was full of nachos, not water.”
Kyle Stewart is recounting the less-than-ideal moment that he first got the call to the UFC last January. Gathered with family to watch their beloved Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL playoffs, Stewart’s next scheduled fight with LFA was nearly two months away. He figured he was safe to indulge, at least for the afternoon, until his manager called, asking if he could make weight in five days for the UFC’s inaugural ESPN card in Brooklyn.
“And I was like, that’s not really a question. You’re basically telling me I’ve got to make weight on Friday.”
Still, it was the moment Stewart had been waiting far too long for, and he wasn’t about to pass it up. He showed up on weight, and gamely battled through the media and mayhem that followed. Things wouldn’t go his way on fight night, and given the circumstances, it was beyond forgivable.
More than six months later, Stewart still doesn’t see it that way.
“The best way I can describe it was it was like a swing and a miss before I even really even realized that it was my turn to be up at bat,” he explains. “I didn't fight like I'm capable of fighting. And when I say fight, I mean from in here [points to chest]. That's why I was really heartbroken. I was embarrassed and I was gutted and I felt like a fraud in front of everybody.”
He wouldn’t wallow in that heartbreak, however. When the welterweight returned to The MMA Lab in Arizona to resume training, there was a new fire in his belly.
“I was motivated when I got back to the gym. I started plugging holes and working on things I was deficient in. I kept working, kept working; I had a lot guys stay after practice and keep working with me. I was pissed off. Coming into this fight, I’ve had plenty of time. I’ve been focused and ready and game planning and worrying about the things I need to do to go out and dominate.”
“This fight” is his UFC 240 tilt against veteran Erik Koch, a testament to the fact that the challenges of the UFC are not going to get easier.
“He’s been fighting in the UFC since before I had my first amateur fight in 2012. He’s a game opponent, tough, been in the game a long time. But you’re talking about fighting in the UFC. Who do you think you’re going to be fighting when you get here? They’re all killers here. The worst fighter in the UFC is one of the best fighters in the world. That’s just the way it is.”
This near-perfectionist attitude combined with a refusal to make excuses might be a mindset that was at least partially forged in Stewart’s eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he spent a combined two of those years deployed in Afghanistan.
“I wasn’t a great Marine. My first two years in the Marine Corps were rough, to say the least. I was a grunt. Nothing special about me, I wasn’t Special Forces. But I made it to the UFC because I refused to quit and that’s what grunts do: we just keep moving forward.”
Stewart is visibly moved as he says this, as if carrying a weight much larger than professional sports.
“I always carry my Marine Corps flag with me when I walk to the cage. And the thing I think a lot of people get confused is that they think of it as a ‘thank me for my service’ type of thing, and it’s not that at all. For me, that flag represents the men I served with, the ones that I went to combat with, and the ones watching down from the heavens, watching me make that walk to the Octagon after they knew me so many years ago. When I carry that flag, it holds me accountable to them, it holds me accountable to the people that represent where I came from.”
So when that magic moment of his first UFC victory finally arrives, what will the celebration look like for him and all those he carries with him?
“I’m probably going to cry, man. I’m dead serious. I’m a super-emotional person. Man, 10 years. I remember training in f****** Afghanistan…shadowboxing. I remember training at the bottom of a ship. I remember telling people this is what I was gonna do. I remember surgeries, I remember losses, I remember a 17-fight win streak, I remember fighting for the LFA title. I remember all these different things, and all of it is to get my hand raised in the UFC and prove that I freakin’ belong here.”
Steve Latrell is a writer and producer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheUFSteve