Ahead of the biggest fight in your professional career, what better way to scout your opponent than by living in the same house as them for weeks on end, watching over their training and learning all their fighting tendencies.
That was the case for Zac Pauga as he approaches his long-awaited The Ultimate Fighter final bout against Mohammed Usman, showcased on the main card of UFC Fight Night: Santos vs Hill this Saturday.
On The Ultimate Fighter, Pauga won both his bouts in impressive fashion, defeating Nyle Bartling by unanimous decision, then finishing Jordan Heiderman in the second round to advance to the final. But the show filmed nearly half a year ago, meaning Pauga has waited five months for his once in a lifetime opportunity.
“This experience is more like a regular fight week that I'm used to, even though it's on the main card of a UFC event,” Pauga said. “It's just getting here a few days before, doing some media and getting ready to fight, as opposed to living with my opponents for six weeks and having to see them every second of every day before we fight.
“This is probably the longest training camp for a UFC debut in history. You know, I had five straight months where I knew my opponent. I knew the date that I was fighting, and I was able to just create the best version of myself to zero in on this day.”
As one of the two heavyweight finalists on The Ultimate Fighter, Pauga needed to keep his success a secret from the public for those five months. But as he was quietly basking in his accomplishments at home, other members of the TUF house weren’t so humble.
“It was really hard for me to not tell people because I won and did well on this show,” Pauga said. “And, you know, everyone on the show that lost was kind of chirping on social media and trying to keep their 15 minutes of fame going, and I couldn't just say, ‘Hey, you guys know I beat all of you, right?’ So, yeah, it was very difficult for me these last five months to just keep my mouth shut.”
But staying away from social media and putting those fighters who he’d beaten behind him, Pauga could dial into his preparation for Usman. In addition to spending weeks in the TUF house alongside Usman, they were also former training partners for two years up until the show began.
Coming from a football background that included a stint on the Houston Texans’ practice squad as a running back, Pauga had spent hours every week studying the opposing team and watching film. And since, he has spent so much time around Usman, whether in the TUF house or at Elevation Fight Team in Colorado.
“What makes me different than Mohammed and every other fighter is that other than just being better than them in general is that I come to this game with an analytical mind,” Pauga said.
“I’m expecting big shots, big wild overhands, he might try and shoot a blast double. But we've known each other for a while. We've trained together a lot even before the show. He knows what I'm doing, and I know what he's going to do.”
These five months have also afforded Pauga valuable time to recover from the minor injuries he so often enters the cage with on fight night. This time around, he’ll make his first walk with a clean bill of health.
Staying healthy also opens the door for more time spent in the gym and perfecting your craft. For Pauga, that’s improving both his striking and wrestling, making him a completely different fighter than the one Usman is so familiar with.
Despite walking into the APEX with UFC President Dana White’s eyes fixed on you for the most important 15 minutes of your life, these improvements have removed all doubts and settled all his pre-fight nerves.
“You know, there's always pressure,” Pauga said. “There's more pressure [this fight], but every fight I've had has been the most important fight of my career. So, yes, there's a lot riding on this fight, but I've done the preparation. I've done the work. So, I'm not nervous. I don't have any butterflies.”
Along with this confidence came a chilling message as he signed off to make final preparations for the biggest fight of his career.
“On Saturday, at the end of the night, when this fight’s over, I will have dragged Mohammed to deep water, and while he's gasping for air, knock him out.”
UFC Fight Night: Santos vs Hill took place on August 6, 2022 live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!