A couple days prior to his clash with Daniel Pineda in March, Tucker Lutz was brimming with confidence.
Fighting for the first time in over a year and eager to get the sour taste of a disappointing outing against Pat Sabatini out of his mouth, “Top Gun” was sure that he’d march into the Octagon, get the better of things, and get moving in a position direction once again.
But that’s not what happened.
After dropping the first round to the veteran from Texas, Lutz got hurried and loose in his attacks, ultimately putting himself in line for Pineda to latch onto a guillotine choke and squeeze out a finish just ahead of the three-minute mark of the second round.
“That s*** was crushing. That s*** stung real bad; I can’t lie,” Lutz said of the loss when we spoke ahead of his return to action against Melsik Baghdasaryan this weekend in Las Vegas. “I wasn’t bulls****ing when I said I had a great camp, but he’s a veteran.
“I was feeling good in that fight, but he clipped me in the first round — and I wasn’t stung too bad — and I go to the stool going into the second and I was just so worried about being down a round that I came in and sloppily rushed the wrestling, didn’t set it up at all.
“After that, it was a rough couple weeks,” added the Maryland native, who won 12 straight, including a pair of victories on Season 4 of Dana White’s Contender series and his promotional debut against Kevin Aguilar, before dropping his last two outings. “This sport wears on you. In the moment, it’s never any consolation or solace that ‘This will be good for you.’”
Truer words have never been spoken, and it’s something we don’t think about or speak about enough when discussing these competitors and the mental toll stepping into the Octagon carries.
We’re all quick to say things like, “This will be a good learning experience for them” or “They’ll get better as a result of this loss,” but none of that helps in the moment.
Immediately following the bout, fighters aren’t thinking about silver linings and positives that can be drawn from a performance where things just didn’t break their way — they’re pissed off and picking apart their efforts; weeks of hard work and preparation all for naught, with a number of other questions and uncertainties often rearing their heads in those frustrating times, as well.
For Lutz, a second consecutive loss had him wondering whether or not he still had a spot on the UFC roster, so when he was offered this relatively quick turnaround against Baghdasaryan, the 28-year-old father of one, with another on the way, breathed a massive sigh of relief and started thinking about those positive takeaways and how the defeats can help him going forward.
“It took a couple weeks and I’m safely on the other side of that now,” Lutz said, sipping coffee on an overcast day as thunderstorms rolled into the region. “To be honest, when they offered me something — when I didn’t get cut — that’s when there was no more bitterness. I’m not sitting around thrilled that I’m coming off two losses, but I feel like I’ve matured as a fighter, as a professional, as a man to where I can put that s*** behind me and focus on the here and the now and the task at hand.
“I spent most of my life with a chip on my shoulder, (carrying) heavy resentment, and I think that s*** weighs you down,” he added. “I think being here and now, being present — I’m not a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, but I think it’s better suited to be (even-keeled), and maybe a little positive is better.”
In the moment, what Lutz was saying hit home, as I too am someone that spent many years stomping through life with a massive chip on my shoulder, bushels of resentment strapped to my back.
While it still does now as I read it back and recount it here, it also brings to mind Rod Tidwell, the standoffish slot receiver for the Arizona Cardinals in Jerry Maguire, brought to life by Cuba Gooding Jr. in an Academy Award-winning performance.
Despite all the numbers and skill, the homegrown star wasn’t getting the contract he was after or the attention he felt he was due, and he wore that frustration, that resentment, that disappointment everywhere he went. It wasn’t until he showed there was more than a talented, but disruptive, presence inside that red and white No. 85 jersey that everything Tidwell gets everything he’s been after.
So am I saying Lutz should dance?
Not specifically, but letting go of that “I’ll show you all” streak he seems to share with the fictional wideout feels like a positive step towards getting back in the win column and showing everyone he’s talented enough to hang with some of the best fighters in the division.
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And it’s clear that the man whose nickname is the title of a different Tom Cruise film feels the same way.
“Being more professional about things, having a better mindset going into things, and just focusing on getting better and the task at hand has served me well in this camp, in particular,” offered “Top Gun,” who teamed up with a nutritionist for this training camp and really appreciated having roughly eight weeks to prepare for Baghdasaryan.
"I think all my UFC fights were 11- or 12-weeks’ notice, and if I get a name and a date, I’m not one to be able to structure myself wisely. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, so I’m going all-out.
“I think with a 12-week camp, it’s almost a hundred percent likelihood of burnout,” he added. “This one, there is a feeling of freshness to it. It’s been a nice change of pace.”
A change of pace and a change in mindset once again have Lutz feeling confident as he readies to head into battle.
Only this time, he’s loose and appreciative, steadfast in his belief that he has everything it takes to beat Baghdasaryan and is ready to have some fun on Saturday, rather than being wound tightly, chomping at the bit to prove everyone that doubts him wrong.
“I know what’s at stake,” he offered. “I was uncertain if I was still on the roster. I know everything is on the line here, but I don’t put any extra pressure on myself.
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“Why stew over things? Why waste energy? I’m just focused on getting better every day. This is the most attention to detail I’ve had on the skill side of things; falling in love with the process.
"Just when you think you’ve been hustling, there is a lot more room to add detailed elements like I’ve been doing.
“I’m just grateful to be here.”
Spoken like someone that’s ready to get out there and dance a little bit this weekend.