Very few get broken in easy, but some get it harder than others on their UFC debut. English lightweight Curt Warburton was overjoyed to learn of his UFC breakthrough two months ago at his home in Bishop Auckland. Then, weeks later, he discovered exactly who would be welcoming him to the Octagon at UFC 120 in London.
Iowa veteran Spencer Fisher defeated Thiago Alves at UFC Fight Night 2 in 2005 and has been an ever-present with the organisation since. With 29 pro bouts to his name and a decade of fighting experience, it's fair to say Fisher is the kind of name to shake up any starry-eyed newcomer. Welcome to the UFC, Curt.
“I got butterflies when I was given his name,” recalls Warburton. “It took me by surprise a little bit, as he's a top fighter and very experienced. When you get used to seeing people fight on television, it becomes a little strange to then be told you've got to fight him. Like everyone else, I've enjoyed watching Spencer fight over the years, and it was a bit of a 'wow' moment for me when I discovered I'd be fighting him on my UFC debut.”
Once the initial shock wore off, Warburton digested the task facing him and insists he's now ready for the biggest moment of his career to date. Competing mainly at home in Durham, Warburton has been a professional for three-and-a-half years and counts many UFC fighters as either friends or former foes. The fighter joined Michael 'The Count' Bisping and Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson at the Wolfslair gym in 2008 and hasn't looked back since.
“I've taken it seriously since day one, but once I got a few sponsors and came down the Wolfslair I really decided to make a go of it and focus all my attention on making it,” explains Warburton, 6-1.
“After my first pro defeat I took a year out just to learn about the ground game. I came down to the Wolfslair and ten weeks later I had a fight. I then built on that momentum and had another eight weeks later.
“My last fight was last October and I think this move to the UFC has been in the pipeline ever since. I tried getting other fights, but was always told to be patient and wait, as something was in the pipeline. A couple of months ago I was told about the UFC's interest and was over the moon.”
With improvements aplenty, Warburton now feels ready for both the UFC and southpaw Fisher. He's undertaken the necessary research, gathered the most valuable advice and made sacrifices to reach this point in his fledgling career.
“This does feel like a bigger deal now,” admits Warburton. “I've packed in work and this is the one big chance I'm going to get. I've got to go out there and prove to everybody that I belong at this level. This is my chance to keep on doing something that I love. If I can't perform on the night, and can't do it on the big stage, I'll have to give up on something I love and go back to work. So there's a lot of pressure heading into this fight, but I feel I'm prepared to cope with it.”
Refreshingly, Warburton isn't the type to shield his pre-bout anxieties or dabble in false bravado. Able to deal with and embrace the reality of the situation, the honest Brit isn't short-changing the challenge at hand.
“I'm going to be nervous walking out in front of all those people,” concedes Curt. “But hopefully I can get the win amid the bright lights and all the noise. It's all a bit scary really, when you actually take the time to think about it. It's my first time in front of such a big crowd at a major event like this, but I think I can deal with it. I just hope everything goes well.”
In addition to experience gained from gym mates, Warburton has also shared ring time with another of Britain's leading mixed martial artists. Ross Pearson, winner of season nine of The Ultimate Fighter, has already faced Warburton three times (only once as pros) in England. The three fights were split, with one win apiece for each fighter, but Warburton admits he's gained much motivation from watching Pearson's subsequent progress.
“The three fights with Ross were all close and exciting,” remembers Warburton. “They were non-stop from start to finish.
“We both get on well now and those fights are in the past. I get asked a lot about those fights with Ross, and I don't really even like talking about them. I don't want to say anything bad about Ross, as he's a friend and a great fighter. I'm in no position to start talking about Ross right now. He's gone on since those fights and achieved great things in his career. I'm really pleased for him, more than anything. Watching Ross achieve what he has done has helped me, too. I think to myself, if Ross can do it, so can I.”
Sunderland's Pearson has since emerged as one of Britain's most aggressive and exciting mixed martial arts prospects, having followed up TUF success with wins over Aaron Riley and Dennis Siver. Warburton, meanwhile, waits patiently to make an impression all of his own.
“I'm a counter-fighter and I can also be aggressive when I need to be,” he says. “I've got a decent reach, so I always try to make that count in the fight. I like to draw my opponents in and then make them pay for their mistakes.
“I work hard on my wrestling and I've improved recently, but I'm still more of a striker when it comes down to it. If I start fighting regularly in the UFC, people will start to see my ground game come on a bit more and improve. I'm drilling my wrestling and my ground game all the time now.”
A key component in Warburton's desire to improve his grappling is the impact of Bisping and co. at the Wolfslair. If success breeds success, UFC fans can expect big things from Warburton in the coming years.
“At first I was a bit star struck when joining the Wolfslair,” recalls Curt. “I haven't done much work with the likes of Quinton and Cheick (Kongo), as they're a bit big for me, but I've done lots of work with Mike. I went out to Australia with him to help him prepare for Wanderlei Silva.
“Mike's helped us quite a lot, to be honest. I'm always sparring with him, always learning from him and he's always willing to give me advice and tips. He talks to us all and tells us what's expected of us in the gym and in the UFC. He's been there and done it. It gives me a lot of confidence to have someone like him around me, as I know I can trust what he's saying.”
As all debutants find out, Warburton will be all alone once he steps inside the Octagon. Before even having the chance to confront his experienced opponent, Warburton will first have to overcome the customary pre-fight nerves and apprehension that cloud the judgement of many UFC newcomers.
“I try not to think about the entrance too much, as I won't be able to get sleep at night,” jokes Warburton. “I just need to take the event in my stride, try not to let it overwhelm me and just treat the whole occasion as another fight. If I can just focus on the fight aspect, and forget everything else, I should be fine. I get nervous before every fight, but as soon as the music comes on and I walk out, the nerves disappear and I'm able to focus. I'm completely in my element once the fight starts.”
Warburton, more than anyone else, knows he'll have to be in his 'element' in order to claim the scalp of Fisher. The American contender has recently beaten the likes of Sam Stout, Caol Uno and Jeremy Stephens, and though coming off back-to-back losses, remains one of the most game and respected contenders in the 155-pound division. Aware of the dangers facing him, Warburton is also far more aware of the potential upshot.
“I'm happy with the fight and I look to take the positives from it,” he says. “When I put up a good performance and win the fight, there will be so much to gain from this win. Beating Fisher would be a great scalp for anyone, let alone someone making their UFC debut. It would set me on my way perfectly.
“I think Spencer has the right kind of style for me, as he'll look to make it an exciting fight and will stand up for a lot of it. He brings it all to the fight and leaves it all there on the table. I'm the same kind of fighter. Our two styles will blend really well and the fans could see a war.”
Warburton doesn't promise victory, but, like many of his British peers, assures excitement and passion. Content to be a heavy underdog going in, Warburton has little to lose and plenty to gain. Just the way he wants it.
“I want to beat him up for every second of the fight and play with him throughout,” admits Warburton. “I'd love to finish him inside the distance and get everybody talking.
“I'm a big underdog and I know people are writing me off. I don't try and read too much that gets written on the Internet, but a lot of my friends are well into it. They keep contacting me and asking if I've seen this and that, but I'm really not bothered if people write me off in this fight.
“Apparently people have been saying Fisher has been given an easy touch and that he's going to beat this newcomer from England. I'm happy to hear stuff like that, as all the pressure is going on him. He's now got to go out there and perform. He's got to beat me. Everybody's expecting him to walk all over me. We'll see.”