Stand up if you're British. Rather than a call to arms, that opening sentence represents the general attitude of British scrappers to mixed martial arts. If you're British, you stand up and strike. Overseas opposition expect this of British foes, and, for the most part, those from the UK love nothing more than an old-fashioned fist fight.
However, as a new decade spreads its wings and the next wave of mixed martial artists leap from the conveyor belt, a change is a comin'. Lightweight Paul Sass holds the world record for consecutive triangle choke victories, and openly prefers grappling to striking. He's from Liverpool, England. Do not adjust your sets. Welcome to the new breed.
“I'm just the complete opposite to everybody else, I guess,” laughs 22-year-old Sass. “I've always been a little bit different.”
Take one look at Sass's unblemished ten bout record and you'd be mistaken for thinking a typo had slipped through the net. Not only is the Liverpudlian unbeaten in ten, he's also won nine of those fights via submission. Perhaps more staggering is the fact Sass has scored seven of his ten victories by triangle choke. Moreover, the first seven fights of his career were ultimately decided by that submission method. Remember, this youngster's British, not Brazilian.
“I'm a ground fighter that loves to look for submissions,” explains Sass. “My stand up game has come on 100% since I started doing mixed martial arts, and I now feel more well-rounded than I've ever been. I usually see how the first couple of minutes of a fight are going, and if I'm getting my way with the stand-up, I can keep it there and win the fight. If not, I'll get the fight to the floor and go for submissions. Submissions are my thing.”
There's something unnerving about hearing a British fighter place grappling ahead of striking in order of preference. Those who have followed the exploits of British bangers in the UFC are usually guaranteed two things – plenty of passion and plenty of punches. The overall standard of wrestling and jiu-jitsu continues to improve in the British Isles, but most Brits still crave a close-quarter shootout on their feet.
Young enough to have grown up in tandem with mixed martial arts, Sass simply found triangles before left hooks.
“I started off doing the ground game and jiu-jitsu, and then moved on to striking afterward,” adds Sass. “A lot of people in Britain have done it the other way round. I just happened to find my feet on the floor first, and that's why I love jiu-jitsu so much.
“I did pure grappling for a couple of years, concentrated on nothing else, and then moved more towards striking as my career progressed. I always go into my fights with the intention of getting it to the ground and winning by submission. I don't think that mindset will change.”
Sass's dedication to his craft has landed him a world submission record and a stunningly impressive career resume. You'd be hard pressed to find a better set of statistics belonging to any UFC debutant this year. However, while the constant stream of triangle choke victories may appear somewhat gimmicky to skeptics, Sass insists there was nothing planned or scripted about the manner in which he's risen to prominence.
“I never went in looking for any of those triangles – they just happened naturally,” explains Paul. “I saw the opportunity for a triangle and took it. In a couple of those fights I'd actually gone for another submission first – say, an armbar or a kimura – and then eventually settled on the triangle, as that was the better option.
“It was almost like destiny that I was going to win fights by that method. The first time I ever took part in a grappling class I managed to pull off two triangles. The move hadn't even really been taught to me properly at that stage. I think it's just a natural submission for me.”
Sass has been making waves in the UK for the past three years now and, as the triangle chokes mounted, intrigue increased and vultures began to circle. It was only a matter of time before Britain's first submission wizard gravitated towards mixed martial arts' toughest playground.
“It was like a dream come true when I first found out the UFC were interested,” says Sass, who debuts at UFC 120 in London. “I don't think it will truly hit me and sink in until I fight at UFC 120, though. That's when I'll realise just what a big deal it all is. The events in England are crazy and the fans really come out in force. I'm also looking forward to fight in America when the time comes, as I've never fought out there before. Basically any event in the UFC is a must-see, as they are the biggest and best in the sport. I just can't wait to be a part of that.
“Getting in the UFC has been my main aim since I started doing mixed martial arts. My next aim after that is to become world champion. I'm taking it one step at a time, of course, but one leads to the other, and I hope that in a few years I can get a title.”
The Liverpool fighter's confidence is a product of consistency and competition, the latter of which is provided by Team Kaobon gym-mates Terry Etim, Paul Kelly and Paul Taylor, all of whom have performed in the UFC with noted distinction.
“I know there's going to be tough competition in the UFC, and I'm lucky to train with UFC guys like Terry, Paul and Paul,” says Sass. “They give me an idea on a daily basis of just how tough it's going to be. Those guys have been a big help to me and have helped me get ready for the step up. I'm not underestimating anybody in the UFC. I know this is the premier league of the sport and I'm ready to face the best in the world now.”
Upon first glancing at Sass's peculiar resume, the common assumption is that he's been able to get away with cherry-picking his method of victory due to sub-standard opposition. Most will presume that his run of submission wins will swiftly grind to a half upon entering the UFC.
“I wouldn't say I've fought the easiest opponents in the world – as I've been matched quite tough – but I'm definitely expecting a step up in the UFC,” argues Sass. “I haven't had an easy fight so far, but I know the opponents in the UFC will be better than the guys I've faced back home.”
A big fan of both Etim and former lightweight champion BJ Penn, prodigy Sass looks to confirm his status as the future of British mixed martial arts with a debut victory on October 16. The young ground master meets Canadian Mark Holst over three rounds at lightweight, and admits he's keeping things typically improvised ahead of the pair's clash.
“I knew nothing about my opponent when he was first mentioned, but then realised he took Paul Taylor's place against John Gunderson at The Ultimate Fighter 11 finale,” admits Sass.
“I haven't even watched any of his fights. I leave all that to my coaches. I let my coaches watch the tapes and then come up with a game plan that I can look to carry out in the fight. I just try and bring to the table the things I'm good at and make my opponent worry about me. I don't like to spend too much time worrying about what my opponent might or might not do. I don't want to be playing their games or fighting the kind of fight they want me to.”
Everybody, of course, knows the kind of fight Sass will be looking for on October 16. He's got a world record certificate and seven triangles that nod towards the sort of contest he's craving at UFC 120. While he accepts many of his future UFC foes will be wary of his reputation in the British Isles, Sass expects Holst to walk the line.
“All I know is he's got good standup and a decent ground game,” admits Sass. “I would say he's at a similar kind of level to the last few guys I've fought. I hope so anyway. I hope he goes the same way as those guys, too, and I can submit him quickly. I think we'll end up on the ground at some stage, as he's a pretty good grappler himself.”
As far as Sass is now concerned, a move to the UFC provides him with the opportunity to progress from being considered a 'pretty good grappler' to a great one. That will come in time. For now, Sass is concerned with securing his first Octagon victory and, in turn, proving his party trick is far from a flash gimmick. If offered the choice, it doesn't take a genius to figure out how Sass sees his opening UFC bout ending.
“Triangle choke,” he says with a chuckle. “I always want to win with a triangle.”