Almost no one makes it through a standard career as a mixed martial artist without suffering a defeat or two along the way, but what happens when an athlete that experienced near-perfect results on the regional circuit steps into the UFC cage and continuously struggles?
“It’s been interesting,” said Kyle Nelson, who arrived in the UFC with a 12-1 record, but enters his bout with Blake Bilder on Saturday in Vancouver sporting a 1-4-1 mark inside the Octagon. “Some of the first fights in the UFC I got on short notice and stuff like that, so I believe that contributed a lot to my performances.
“The Jai Herbert fight, the Dooho Choi fight, I feel like I’ve been more settled in, got a bit more notice for the fights, so I was able to go the distance, and then to have the judges react the way they did has been interesting.”
Last summer in London against Herbert, the Muskoka, Ontario man believed he did enough to merit the victory, only to land on the wrong side of the scorecards against the former Cage Warriors champion. Earlier this year, Nelson fought Choi to a majority draw, which only came about after the South Korean fighter was docked a point in the third round for an inadvertent headbutt.
“From my side of things, being in there, I felt like I had won both those fights; I felt like I was the offensive fighter,” said Nelson, who looks to rebound in his first fight on Canadian soil since opening his UFC career with back-to-back appearances in his home province. “We’ve seen Dooho Choi move forward and be super-aggressive and active against all his other opponents, but after I touched him and came close to submitting him, he kind of shut down. It was the same with Herbert — after I hit him with a couple low kicks and a couple punches, he got on his bike a bit more, moved a lot more.
“I don’t see exactly where the judges were coming from in those fights, but that just means I’m going to have to step up the output even more, make sure it’s even more decisive of a victory,” he added. “Everybody says, ‘Don’t leave it in the hands of the judges,’ but that’s harder to do than it is to say.”
While the lack of positive results is undoubtedly frustrating, the 32-year-old veteran has been making sure to mine those fights for underlying positives; finding pieces of each performance that added to his confidence and propelled him through camp as he readied to face Bilder this weekend.
One thing Nelson is quick to point to is his conditioning, which failed him in his early forays into the UFC Octagon.
After a pair of tough, competitive, 15-minute battles with Herbert and Choi, “The Monster” now has full faith in his gas tank, and believes he’ll be able to crank up the output and pressure when he steps in on Saturday.
“Now that I know I’ve got the cardio to go three rounds with no problems, without getting tired, I can start to up the output and put out a similar output to what I had in the first and second round of the Billy Quarantillo fight, the Matt Sayles fight, the Diego Ferreira fight,” began Nelson, who is one of four fighters from Ontario making the trek west to compete at UFC 289. “(In those fights), my first round, I was picking them apart, came close to finishing a lot of those guys, and then with the short notice and bad weight cuts, it caught up with me.
"Now that I know I can do that for three rounds, I can put that pressure on the whole time and I don’t see anyone in the 145-pound division being able to hold up against that. In the last two fights, I feel like I improved greatly from my previous fights, so I’m going to take those improvements, keep moving forward, and I’ve improved a bunch since that last fight, too.”
In Bilder, Nelson faces off with someone that hasn’t faced defeat in either his professional or amateur career.
Now 32 years old, “El Animal” posted a 7-0 mark as an amateur before making his pro debut early in 2018, posting six wins and one draw before dispatching Tristar Gym product Alex Morgan in the first round on Season 6 of Dana White’s Contender Series to earn a UFC contract before outlasting hard-nosed veteran Shane Young in his promotional debut at UFC 284.
As well as he’s done to this point, Nelson believes he represents a solid step up in competition for Bilder, citing his own strength of schedule and the array of skills he’ll carry with him into the Octagon this weekend as elements that will contribute to his finding success on Saturday night.
“I don’t see anywhere that Blake is better than any of my previous opponents,” began Nelson, who has shared the Octagon with a collection of veteran stalwarts and previously ranked opponents through his first six UFC appearances. “I think Dooho Choi’s striking, Jai Herbert’s striking, Diego Ferreira’s grappling — I’ve faced the best of the best in a lot of these areas.
“Before I was in the UFC, I fought an Olympic wrestler. I’ve fought black belts in jiu jitsu — I feel like I’ve got the experience in facing the best of the best in their own styles and some of the best that mix them together. I don’t think that’s something that Blake Bilder’s run into yet, and I think being undefeated, not having been tested, I think the way I’m going to test him is going to be the difference in this fight.
“I’ve seen it all, I’ve fought six times in the Octagon, and I’ve faced the best of the best everywhere,” he added. “I think it’s going to be an awakening for Blake.”
Buoyed by the improvements he’s made in the gym, the growth he’s felt over his last couple fights, and what should be a partisan crowd in Vancouver, Nelson believes his West Coast business trip this weekend should prove productive and rewarding.
“It’s gonna be awesome; it’s going to be very similar to my first UFC fight,” he said of competing in Canada again. “I got that one on three days’ notice in Toronto, but that felt like I was home and that’s what I’m expecting when I walk into the cage in Vancouver.
“I’m going to feel like I’m walking in my front door — I’m home; this is where I’m supposed to be. All my friends and family are in the audience, cheering me on. It’s going to be my night, it’s my fight, and it’s going to show in my performance.”