The thought of his UFC debut made Mark Holst sick – literally. Following his loss to John Gunderson at The Ultimate Fighter 11 finale in June, the 25-year-old was en route to a post-fight medical check-up when he tried to process the events of the evening. The results weren’t pretty.
“I was definitely very nervous before the big fight, but I was also really disappointed with the results,” says Holst. “Even though it was all over, I was so overwhelmed that I threw up in the elevator at The Palms. It looked like a murder scene.”
Okay, so maybe that’s an overshare. But it’s refreshing to hear a fighter admit that first-time jitters are real. (He’d like to add that he and his cornermen did a thorough and immediate job of cleaning up the mess.) Holst has been training for over ten years and fighting professionally since the age of 20, but that background couldn’t truly prepare him for the experience of first setting foot in the Octagon.
“I’m just glad to get it over with,” he says, “because with that first time over, you can relax and focus during the next fight.” For Holst, that next opportunity comes on October 16, when he fights newcomer Paul Sass at UFC 120 in London, England.
“Boots” – a reference to his vicious knees and kicks – is currently 0-1 in the Octagon, 8-2 overall. He’s had only one loss prior to joining the UFC, and up until the Gunderson match, not a single fight had gone the distance.
“I came back stronger after my first loss and I expect to bounce back in the same way again,” says the lightweight. “A lot of people say I didn’t show up for Gunderson and I kind of agree. It was a boring show compared to the fights I’m known for normally putting on. But my opponent was a very slick fighter. He was really smart and knew the game.”
Holst doesn’t necessarily think that Gunderson outclassed him. Rather, he believes that the unanimous decision loss was ultimately a result of his passivity.
“I watched the fight over and over again and I know what went wrong,” he says. “I was waiting for the referee to stand me up instead of standing up myself and making it happen. I was looking too hard for the submissions. I purposely let him score the takedowns so I could work those subs, but it just didn’t work out.”
He knows that next time he can’t afford to hold back. Undefeated Sass, 10-0, will make his UFC debut having earned ninety percent of his victories via submission. To break the stats down even further, an amazing seven are by triangle choke, and six out of those seven were slapped on his opponents in the first round.
A purple belt in Renzo Gracie Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Pat Cooligan, Holst doesn’t seem concerned with Sass’ history. He says he’ll be able hold his own on the ground – but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s something he expects to do.
“I think he’s going to try really hard to take me down, and I don’t have a problem with that,” he says. “But I might like to keep it standing and use my Muay Thai.”
After all, five separate trips to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand over the past few years shouldn’t be for naught. “Muay Thai is where I started,” he explains. “The way I used to train in Thailand was hardcore. Wake up at 6 AM, train for three hours, take a rest, and then train for another three hours… it was a lifestyle I embraced. I want to be able to showcase those striking skills that I’ve developed. In fact they’re what I’m banking on for the win.”
It’s a bold statement coming from someone whose standup was not at all on display in June. Holst agrees and points the finger at his own wrestling for the disappointing outcome.
“I don’t think it was up to par last time,” he says, “so the biggest change in training was to work on that skill a lot more. Now that I’m confident in both my striking and my takedown defense, I think that’s going to make all the difference the next time around.”
Another switch-up in his routine was to stay local. For his last fight, Holst traveled to train with some of the biggest names in MMA: Greg Jackson in New Mexico, Renzo Gracie in New York, and Ricardo Almeida in New Jersey. Unfortunately, he learned that maybe it was too much of a good thing.
“It was awesome but I was all over the place,” he says. “I think there was a bit too much traveling and it had an effect on me. Right after the loss, when I was back in the gym and training for the next fight, I decided that I would stay here and work with the guys at home.”
There was still a one-week stint at Gracie’s in New York, as well as a few sessions with the one and only Georges St-Pierre in Montreal – the latter probably being the reason he suddenly feels so confident about his wrestling. (“GSP kicked my ass in a nice way,” he says.) But his home base, Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts, is where Holst did most of his homework.
“I watched some tape with instructors and we saw a lot of holes in Sass’ game,” he says. “He has a very different style, and I know a lot of his subs are slick and tricky, but there is nothing he has that I haven’t trained for or already seen.”
Holst adds that Sass’ major disadvantage will be the mental pressure that comes with a major debut.
“Fighting in the Octagon for the first time, and in front of a home crowd, he should be really nervous,” says Holst. “I’m obviously past it and feeling comfortable. All I have to do now is put on an exciting show.”