In his UFC debut in September of 2009, Nik "The Carny" Lentz stepped in as a replacement opponent against Rafaello Oliveira, and, as the underdog, he earned a unanimous decision victory. Next, he took another favorite, Thiago Tavares, to a draw, before upsetting better known Ultimate Fighter graduate Rob Emerson with another unanimous decision win. So, if the majority pick Andre Winner to beat Lentz in their UFC 118 clash on August 28th, don't expect it to affect his confidence.
'"It (being the underdog) doesn't affect (my mindset) at all,” said Lentz. “I can be the underdog for every fight; it doesn't matter and I don't look at it any different. I don't think I'm the underdog. I always think I'm going to come out on top, and it's been a couple of years and I've been right every time. When it comes down to it, it's time to fight, and I'm going to win, and it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks - it just matters what I think. For every fight I think I'm the favorite."
A victory over Winner (12-3-1) could add a great deal of momentum to Lentz’s (20-3-2) career. England's Winner was a finalist on The Ultimate Fighter 9, and has since scored a first round knockout over Rolando Delgado, and a unanimous decision victory over common opponent Rafaello Oliveira. That said, while Winner's profile has secured him the role of favorite, among the keenest observers, those familiar with both fighters’ UFC resumes, there'll be a significant percentage picking “The Carny” to win on the 28th - for good reason.
Thus far, the Texas-born Minnesotan Lentz, 26, has demonstrated a well-rounded game. Though he has frequently relied on his background in wrestling, he has also shown off his submission offense and defense, as well as solid stand up. Comparatively, Winner, 28, has also proved to have skills on the mat, submitting Cameron Dollar during The Ultimate Fighter, but he is far more inclined to avoid the takedown and out-strike his opponent. The Minnesotan has nothing but respect for the UK native’s abilities, and though he is wary of the dangers that will be present when their styles collide, he maintains his characteristic self-belief.
"He's experienced and he's had a lot of fights,” said Lentz of Winner. “He's a good striker, very athletic, and he's gonna be a tough opponent but I think I'm gonna come out on top"
When it comes to dissecting Winner's game and developing a strategy to shut down the explosive striker, the former University of Minnesota wrestler has an enviable braintrust on his side to perform the technical breakdown. Lentz is part of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy (a team he joined after realizing that his fight preparation had been less than ideal) with coaches that include Greg Nelson, the chief architect of Brock Lesnar and Sean Sherk's UFC performances.
"I have coaches and a lot smarter people who do that (develop a gameplan) for me. I have Greg Nelson, I have a whole team of stand up fighters and MMA guys and they work on the fighting, they watch the videos".
After three UFC fights, Lentz is now acclimatized to competing in MMA's biggest show. On August 28, he'll be ready to enjoy the atmosphere, and has all but shed the Octagon anxiety that often prevents fighters from performing at their best early in their early UFC showings. Although he didn't experience overwhelming nerves in the usual sense, the excitement and atmosphere did sap his energy.
"I felt fine, I felt really good in the first fight,” he recalls. “Going out, I felt like I was in great shape and I got really tired. I wasn't nervous but I got extremely tired in the first round of the fight and then in the second round I recovered. I definitely felt different. But it's (Octagon jitters) pretty much gone. It's become quite normal - you get used to the cameras and you get used to the crowd. It's actually a lot nicer place to fight."
“The Carny” doesn't have a specific finish or prediction in mind for the fight. He's prepared for a dynamic contest and ready to take whatever opportunities the fight presents him.
"I have no distinct goal of knocking him out or taking him down or whatever. Just however the fight goes, the main thing is winning. However I have to win, that's how I'm gonna do it," said the former state champion wrestler, who made his MMA debut in 2005.
Lentz isn't just looking at this as a chance to add another win to his record. It's an opportunity for him to demonstrate the gamut of his MMA skills and show that the "wrestler" label doesn't apply to the 2010 version of the lightweight prospect. And if you want to prove you've got high level striking and jiu-jitsu, showcasing those skills against Winner is a good way to do it.
"This is gonna be a great fight for me to show people that I'm not just a wrestler. I can stand up, I can fight, and I can do everything that the top level people in MMA can do."