When it comes to the topic of 2009, don’t expect UFC light heavyweight prospect Steve Cantwell to be holding it up as a banner year in his life and career, but as he approaches his long-awaited return to the Octagon Saturday night against Stanislav Nedkov, he can safely say that 2010 has been a lot better for him.
“The anticipation’s definitely been growing, and so far it’s been better than last year,” said the 24-year old Las Vegan. “Last year I lost two fights, got one cancelled, and had a lot of drama, so I’m hoping to come back strong and finish out the year strong with a nice big win.”
For those just arriving, Steve Cantwell’s 2009 campaign involved back-to-back losses to Luiz Cane and Brian Stann and a scrapped UFC 108 bout against Vladimir Matyushenko that hit the skids after he wasn’t medically cleared by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. It would have been enough to test the spirit of anyone, but Cantwell – who was cleared and licensed by the NSAC in May – saw his proverbial glass as half-full, not half-empty, and he remained a gym rat during his time off from competition.
“A lot of people talk about ring rust, but I think a lot of that has to do with gym rust and I actually had a lot of commitments as far as training partners,” he said. “I had to help Stephan (Bonnar) get ready for both his Krzysztof (Soszynski) fights, a couple of my buddies in the gym had fights coming up, and I played a major role in a lot of training camps. You have to be in good shape just to participate in those training camps and that kept me motivated to stay in the gym. And in the time off, I actually got my Kru instructor certification in Muay Thai and my black belt in jiu-jitsu. It wasn’t wasted time.”
The busy schedule also allowed Cantwell to distract himself from the real pain of 2009 – the loss to his buddy Stann in their September rubber match. And it wasn’t just that he lost, because he was able to at least accept that his UFC 97 defeat against Luiz Cane came after a punishing three round battle, but the way he lost to the man he had traded knockouts with when they were in the WEC.
“It was disappointing,” said Cantwell of the three round unanimous decision defeat. “There were fans booing that night, and he (Stann) continued to run. Call it his gameplan or whatever it was, but I’m sorry, our job is to put on a good fight for the fans, and if you can’t do that, then you don’t belong in the UFC. That whole backpedalling and running gameplan, that’s not fighting; it’s bad. I prepared for a war and I’m extremely disappointed that he fought like that, considering all the talk that we were gonna go out there and bang it out. I trained for a three round war; he trained for a track meet.”
Time has apparently not healed this wound, and though Stann fought a disciplined 15 minutes that saw him baffle Cantwell with an effective stick and move game, ‘The Robot’ wasn’t impressed – then or now.
“If it wasn’t for the cage, I would have walked away,” he said. “I’ve never been a bully, so for me to sit there and beat a dude up who’s running from me, it wasn’t easy to do.”
What the fight did provide though was a blueprint to frustrate Cantwell, who at one point stopped, dropped his hands and called for Stann to trade with him. So if Cantwell did take something from the fight, it was to tighten up his ability to cut off his opponents.
“It’s not that I don’t know what to do when guys circle and backpedal like that; it’s that I really did not expect that from Brian Stann,” said Cantwell. “But I obviously went back to my coach and he taught me how to cut people off a little bit better. We actually got a cage in the gym, and a lot of the work I had done before was in a ring, so I was a lot better at cutting people off in a square than I was in the Octagon. In the Octagon, you can’t corner them as easy because there is no corner, so them circling is a pain in the butt. But you’ve got to know what to throw and when to throw it and how to control where the fight goes. A lot of cage work actually helped that, and it wasn’t too hard, but it’s still a work in progress.”
So while that aspect of his game has improved, along with his striking and groundwork, Cantwell’s fight philosophy, one that has carried him to a 7-3 record with seven finishes, remains unchanged.
“Never in the back of my head am I saying ‘oh, I’m gonna win a close decision,’” he said. “I go into every fight trying to end it.”
This weekend, the object of his finishing intentions will be Bulgarian debutant Stanislav Nedkov, a fighter bringing a perfect 11-0 record and wins over Kevin Randleman and Travis Wiuff to the O2 Arena in London.
“I’ve seen some tape on him but I haven’t studied it extensively,” said Cantwell of his foe. “He’s pretty much the same every fight, but he’s no one to look past and I’m definitely not taking him for granted, but I’m training to go through him. He’s a tough, extremely strong, explosive dude, so as long as I fight an intelligent fight, it should go my way. But if I do the wrong things, it will definitely be a tough fight.”
A tough fight has never scared Cantwell away, but with two straight losses, a year-long layoff, and the necessity to acclimate to Europe on fight week, it could get kind of rough for him. Not that you’ll hear that from him, especially since he has traveled overseas to fight once before, to beat Leonardo Pecanha in a 2006 bout in Slovenia.
“Basically what I learned the last time I fought there (in Europe) was that I ate when I was hungry, I slept when I was tired and I fought when it was time to fight. That’s basically what I’m gonna do this time.”
As for the other stuff, he doesn’t worry about it. His outlook is realistic, yet optimistic, and while there’s time to be made up, he’s ready to do what it takes to climb the light heavyweight ladder.
“I’m still one of the younger fighters in the division and I just want to fight,” he said. “I want to bring my stock back up, I want to fight some good, tough guys, quality opponents who want to fight, and just see where it goes. Obviously I want to fight for the belt one day and hold that belt, but I’ve got a lot of work to do. I lost my last two fights, so I’ve got to win fights and finish fights. I definitely want to stay busy and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. There are a lot of good guys in the division who have been killing it and I’m way behind.”