Tucker Lutz has spent the last year and change on the sidelines, the sour taste of defeat still lingering in his mouth as he readies to finally make his return to the Octagon this weekend against Daniel Pineda in San Antonio.
“It’s been a trying year-and-a-half, that’s for sure,” said Lutz, a member of the Dana White’s Contender Series Class of 2020 who hasn’t competed since dropping a unanimous decision to Pat Sabatini in November 2021.
Being out of action this long was never the plan, but it may have ultimately been for the best, even if getting to the point of understanding and appreciating that has been challenging for the Maryland native.
“It was trying mentally to have something that I love — and something that I was getting a little jaded about, in terms of this line of work — ripped away for a while. It sucked, but it was perspective-enhancing at the same time,” he said, unpacking the details of a physically and mentally difficult year.
“I had the fight in March and my performances sparring were great. It was a great performance camp, but upstairs, mentally — I don’t know if burnout is the right word, but I was definitely getting jaded to where (I was like), ‘Man, f*** this s***!’” admitted Lutz, whose fight with SeungWoo Choi at the end of March was scuttled at the 11th hour. “To have it ripped away, man, I’m in a position now that a year or two before, I would have killed someone to be in.
“It sucks having to be on the shelf and having to deal, but I think overall it has made me a better athlete, a better person in terms of how I approach things with gratitude.”
After the fight with Choi was scrapped, Lutz hustled back into the gym, eager to not let his previous camp go to waste and hopeful that he could get something booked quickly.
Instead, a lingering back injury got worse, forcing him to press pause on pursuing a fight and focus on figuring out what was wrong, which turned out to be more than he had anticipated.
“I’ve been having a nagging back injury and I got chewed up pretty bad,” said Lutz, who scored a unanimous decision win over tough veteran Kevin Aguilar in his promotional debut. “I finally got imaging done and it’s worse than what we assumed, so most of my year last year was the rebuilding phase — I did a bunch of physical therapy, saw a bunch of specialists that wanted to cut me open.”
Sitting on the sidelines, constantly trying to stay ready, hoping each day will be the day the phone rings with your next assignment can be difficult enough, but when the only thing on the horizon is PT and doctors suggesting you go under the knife, it can be even more daunting to deal with, as Lutz found out.
“I went through some serious depressive moments, and I’ve made some serious lifestyle choices because of this,” began Lutz, whose saving grace during this time away was getting to be present and actively involved in the first year of his son’s life in a way that he couldn’t have been if he were preparing to compete two or three times during the year.
“I’ve had depressive issues in the past, and then with the injury, I was drinking a lot, which is obviously not good for someone that is going through something mentally, so I’ve been off the booze, quit that for good, not that I was a raging alcoholic or anything — but it was terrible medicine for me at the time.
“The only good thing was being able to be very immersive in my son’s first year, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a tinge of constant black cloud (hanging over me) for much of it.
“Not to sound hyperbolic, but I have to pinch myself because s*** is good now,” he said with a laugh. “I almost have this paranoia that something colossally wrong is going to happen, and I’ve struggled with that for a while. It’s something I’ve been able to work through, and I feel blessed because I get to chase my dream and do something I love.
“Last year was a tough and trying year, and it’s nice to be on the other side.”
Even nicer than being on the other side of those dark days is that he’s a couple days away from stepping into the Octagon again, ready to face off with another tough veteran from Texas.
“I grew up watching UFC, WEC, so I was definitely familiar with the name, and I think it’s a great matchup,” he said of the fight with Pineda, the 37-year-old Texas native who has also been on the sidelines since the spring of 2021. “He’s tough and I think that’s probably his best attribute.
“I think the chin is starting to go a little bit — your chin does not get better with age in this sport — and I love the matchup. I think I’m the cleaner striker, he’s got better wrestling and jiu jitsu than I thought, but after the fight with Sabatini — I started off as a grappler and then enjoyed the striking a little more the more mature I got as a fighter, but I’ve been getting back to my roots, and those have been the biggest gains for this camp and the camp with Choi.”
While he’s made peace with the outcome of his fight with Sabatini — to a certain degree, at least — the fact that poor decision-making resulted in his lengthy winning streak being halted still sticks in his craw, and that loss is still the last result on his resume.
“I’m still coming off a loss, but dwelling on the negatives is not entirely useful,” said Lutz, who has every intention of changing that on Saturday night in San Antonio.
“I’m expecting a finish,” he said. “It’s been way too long since I got a finish and I think it’s a great stylistic matchup to do that.”
And after a long, trying year deal with injuries, burnout, and depression, Lutz is just looking forward to feeling the canvas under his feet again this weekend.
“It’s gonna feel like home, baby,” he said of stepping back into the Octagon. “It’s gonna feel like home.”
Welcome home, Tuck.
UFC Fight Night: Vera vs Sandhagen took place live from the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas on March 25, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!