“I’m gonna win. There is no ‘whether you win or not’ — I’m gonna win.”
Those were Bryan Battle’s words at the end of May, when the 16 contestants on Season 29 of The Ultimate Fighter participated in Media Day before heading into the house to compete.
He echoed the same sentiments to his new coach, Alexander Volkanovski, when the UFC featherweight champion made him the final addition to his squad and the penultimate fighter picked out of the group.
“I walked over, said, ‘Thanks for picking me. Just so you know, I’m gonna win the whole competition,’” recalled Battle, who now faces off with teammate Gilbert Urbina in the middleweight finale on Saturday night following an injury to fellow finalist Tresean Gore. “When I said it, he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know,’ saying what he’s got to say, but in my mind, I’ve been The Ultimate Fighter this entire time.
“Now it’s just a matter of actually making it happen.”
The 26-year-old has carried a Kelvin Gastelum vibe throughout the season, having been selected next to last and continually exceeding expectations to reach the finals of the middleweight competition, just like the Season 17 winner. Whether it’s because of his limited experience or the perceived quality of competition he’s fought, few people looked at the crop of 185-pound talents heading into the house and circled Battle as their choice to win the whole thing.
And even though he’s a win away from running the table this weekend, “Pooh Bear” is still being doubted.
“It’s weird because even with my performance on the show, when Tresean was supposed to fight, everyone had Tresean winning,” Battle said with a laugh, amused by his perpetual underdog status. “Gilbert is filling in now, and a lot of people still think Gilbert is going to win.”
The skepticism of the public doesn’t bother the middleweight finalist, who defeated Kemran Lachinov by unanimous decision and submitted Andre Petroski to reach to the finals, as he’s too filled with confidence from the lessons he learned during the course of the show and hearing Volkanovski sing his praises on multiple episodes since returning home.
“It was really…” he began, unable to find the right words. “Volk didn’t really gas me up when we were on the show, not the way he did in the behind-the-scenes stuff because he didn’t want to cause turmoil within the team, so watching that back, it was…”
He trailed off again.
“It warmed my heart, man,” he resumed. “It’s a weird thing that a lot of people sleep on me, but having someone like Volk recognize my talents means a lot more than a million random people thinkin’ I ain’t s***, you know?
“The world champ thinks I’m the real deal, so who cares what all these trolls think?”
He lets out a laugh, but the power of that reality has clearly set in with Battle, whom Volkanovski praised throughout the show for his eagerness to learn, his ability to take direction and coaching, and his “jack-of-all-trades” style inside the cage.
While the season played out on television over a dozen weeks, the amount of time the contestants spent inside the house was more condensed, which means there wasn’t a great deal of time for picking up too many new techniques or really spending time drilling — weight management and fight prep were the main focuses — but that doesn’t mean Battle didn’t take a few critical things away from being a member of Team Volkanovski and working with the all-star coaching staff “Alexander the Great” assembled.
“There was just so much wisdom (in the room) because those guys have seen so much and been a part of so much,” he said of working with the staff that included Volkanovski’s head coach Joe Lopez, jiu jitsu coach Craig Jones, and wrestling coach Frank Hickman. “What they were really able to teach me about the brainier aspects of the game is the stuff that I’ll remember forever — their philosophies on certain things, like the way you approach fighting, or being on the ground and whether you go for attacks or be defensive.
Dana White's Contender Series Returns August 31
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“You always know there are levels to the game and still room to grow, but then when you’re in the same training room as the world champ at 145 pounds, and the No. 1 pound-for-pound grappler in the world, you’re like ‘Okay, there are a lot of levels I can still improve to.’
“It was a great experience and excited me to know I can still get a lot better,” he added. “I feel like I’m already a problem, but I feel like I can become more of a problem.”
The middleweight finalist has good reason to feel that way, as he’s reached the gates of the UFC just a little more than five years after making his amateur debut, and barely two years after turning pro, and he’s beaten some solid competition along the way.
Until last fall, Battle was the only person to get the better of Dana White’s Contender Series graduate and current UFC welterweight Impa Kasanganay, having gotten the better of the impressive prospect one fight prior to defeating Cody Brundage, who suffered a loss on the summer talent search program last year and is expected to return for a second time this coming season.
“I’ve always known how to win, and now I’m building pieces around that innate ability to win in order to make my wins more and more impressive,” began Battle. “We’ve done a lot in a little bit of time — fought some really tough guys — and my confidence is through the roof.
“I’ve really had time to focus on some of the things that Volk and the coaching staff were preaching, I got back with my coaches, and we were able to hunker down and focus on a lot of things. There is still so much for me to get better at, and it’s funny to me because it’s almost like the better you get, the more you realize how much better you can be, so it’s a very exciting time.
“I’m looking forward to showing everyone how much I’ve grown since I was on the show,” he added. “When you see me fight Gilbert, you should expect to see a completely different Bryan Battle than the guy that fought Andre Petroski.”
And when he does step in against Urbina on Saturday, Battle intends to complete his Gastelum-esque run standing in the center of the Octagon triumphant, just like he told everyone he would before this whole thing started.
“I think the first two-and-a-half minutes will be competitive,” he said, offering his thoughts on how the fight will play out this weekend. “I think Gilbert is going to bring his ‘A Game’ and give me a lot of challenges. Unfortunately, he just hasn’t had the time to prepare for my pace, the pressure I’m going to put on him, and all the different looks that I’m going to give him.
“I’m ready to hold up that trophy. In my mind, I’ve already done it; now I just have to physically make it happen.”