Born and raised in Arkansas, TJ Brown may be fighting in front of a packed house at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas this weekend along with his friend and teammate Bryce Mitchell, but he hasn’t forgotten when the pair – and the sport of MMA – weren’t the toast of the town.
“I definitely remember when it wasn't as popular as it is now,” said Brown. “People weren't running to the bars to watch UFC fights, and now, you go around town and the places are full of people watching UFC fights. It's definitely been a big change, and specifically in the gym, the numbers in that gym have just grown ridiculously, from kids to adults.”
These days, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see everyone from fans to students to politicians making their way to the Westside MMA gym in Little Rock, and it’s a development that brings a smile to the face of the 32-year-old Brown.
“It's been amazing,” he said. “There's huge numbers in the gym, you have State representatives coming and saying 'Hi' to you, it's really neat to see Arkansas come together and support us, and really let them know that you have two UFC fighters right here in Arkansas. And us not having a professional sports team, it kinda gives them somebody to yell for.”
The state will have plenty of yelling to do on Saturday, with Brown facing Erik Silva and Mitchell squaring off with Ilia Topuria, and the fact that they get to do it in front of a live crowd that they can actually hear makes it even better.
“I cannot explain how excited I am to fight in front of the live crowd,” said Brown, who hasn’t done so since his Octagon debut in Virginia in February of 2020. “That's one of the reasons I do this, so I'm just excited to get back out there in front of a crowd. I'm pumped. I know everybody's different, but I enjoy the lights. I love that spotlight and there's some kind of energy that comes from the crowd that you can feed off in your fights, and it's just an electric feeling that I've been missing and I'm excited to get back to.”
Brown is in a good place leading up to his sixth UFC fight despite falling short in his June bout against Shayilan Nuerdanbieke, a decision loss that snapped a two-fight winning streak. That ability to shake off a setback and move forward is not unique to a veteran of 25 pro fights.
“I'm able to use it for a positive thing,” he said. “The things that sit on my mind of what I could have done better sit with me, so I make it a point to train on those things and not let those mistakes happen again. So they do kind of sit with me, but I try to use them in a positive way and almost use them as motivation.”
It’s a good lesson to take for the fighter, as well as for his son Kyler, and that relationship is what keeps Brown motivated, especially since he didn’t have one when he was growing up, only recently connecting with his father for the first time in June.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “For me, I had so much anxiety leading up to it, I was kinda nervous about doing it, so it was a small win for me to just get the courage together and to go meet him. He seemed all right, he was nice, but he kept making all these excuses to why he wasn't there and this and that. I was like, man, just own it, and let's get to know each other now. But at the end of the day, it wasn't bad.”
An absence like that is never good, but the real winner was Kyler, as his dad vowed that he would always be in his life.
“It's a beautiful thing to be able to break that chain,” Brown said. “I just remember growing up, wishing I had a dad around, wondering where dad was, why wasn't dad here, asking all these questions, and I was like, my son is never gonna ask these questions. And I made a point to do my best. And by no means am I perfect, but I've tried to learn from the mistakes I made and I'm just trying to be here.”
He's lived up to that promise, and he’s also living up to another one by making his name in the biggest promotion in his sport. He’s honest when he says he never saw everything play out like it has, but now that he’s here, he’s not stopping because he can’t. He’s got to win - for himself, for Kyler, for Arkansas.
“I never thought I'd see myself where I am today,” said Brown. “But little by little, I built the confidence and built the skills to be where I am today. But boy, I tell you what, it does come with a responsibility that I didn't know was gonna come. But it's good for me. It keeps me sharp and keeps me on my toes, and the days when I don't feel like getting my ass out of bed, it's good to remember I've got a few folks counting on me out there or looking at me, so I'm trying to fill those shoes as best I can, but I wasn't ready for it, that's for sure.”
UFC 282: Błachowicz vs Ankalaev took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 10, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!