George Sullivan can laugh now when talking about his last fight in New Jersey against Tim Means in April of 2015, but that wasn’t the case back then.
“It’s scary, man,” he said. “You don’t feel any pressure traveling to enemy territory. When I fought in Brazil, people wanted to kill me there. I thought it was awesome. (Laughs) But then I fight at home and I had 700 people there, and there was pressure.”
Sullivan was competitive against Means, but got submitted in the third round. The loss snapped an eight-fight winning streak stretching back to 2011, but more than the technical aspects of the defeat, “The Silencer” was upset that he let everything outside of the actual fight affect his performance.
“I was never mad I lost the fight,” he said. “I think I was more mad that I let the pressure get to me. When I lost the Kenny Robertson fight (due to injury), I was heartbroken. Then they (the UFC) said ‘we found you a new opponent.’ I think when they canceled my opponent on me, that mentally beat me more than the loss itself. I never felt the same about fighting Tim Means.”
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Add in the pressure of fighting at home in New Jersey for the first time as a UFC fighter, and Sullivan didn’t resemble the same Belmar battler who tore through the local circuit and won his first two Octagon bouts. But all is different now as he gets ready for his return to Prudential Center against Alexander Yakovlev.
“You can’t forget that when you are fighting at home, you have other people there with you, and you have to embrace it and smile and clap for yourself and be happy,” he said. “And I wasn’t doing that the last time I fought at home. I’m excited to just be fighting. I’m going to enjoy myself.”
Following the loss to Means, Sullivan bounced back three months later with a decision victory over Dominic Waters, and winning is always the best medicine.
“When I lost, the first thing I did was say ‘what do I need to do to get better? Let’s do it right away.’ I went right back to the gym and I was like ‘I have to fight for my job, I don’t want to lose it.’ I think some guys just want to say they got there and that’s it. I want to be successful here. I want to be somebody in the UFC.”
Now 3-1 in the promotion and 17-4, 1 NC overall, the 34-year-old is on solid ground in the Octagon and ready to move on. His journey shows that no matter how experienced you are, you can always learn something new under the bright lights. But if you do have that pre-UFC seasoning, it makes the transition a lot easier.
“I think some of these kids get in so easily they think ‘hey, I have what it takes,’” Sullican said. “And yeah, they beat some lemons and some guys that aren’t that talented, but I had to fight tougher competition to get in. I got in the old fashioned way by five title defenses. Some guys go on a six-fight win streak and they get that chance, and they fight somebody of a higher caliber and they’re like ‘what did I get myself into?’”
That’s not the case with Sullivan, though he did get an unexpected hiccup against Means. But like all veterans, learning from a loss is key if you want to return to the win column.
“That loss actually got the fun back for me,” he said. “I feel like there’s a weight lifted off of me and I can focus again.”
The target of that focus is now Yakovlev. After that, some training with American Top Team in Florida and then it’s time to target the big guns at 170 pounds.
“I think this is gonna be a year for me to try and make my run,” he said. “I already have three wins – the more wins I get I’m only gonna be fighting the better guys. I want to leave a statement on a couple guys and maybe get that fight and maybe break the top ten. I’d love to fight that caliber. I’ve never been knocked down or knocked out, I’ve never been physically hurt in a fight, and I always felt like I have what it takes. I just need to get the experience, and I’m getting that now. I think I’m ready to fight all the top guys.”