Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine got his UFC career off to the perfect start with a unanimous decision win over Hyun Gyu Lim in Singapore last month, which landed him a Fight of the Night bonus and moved him to No. 9 in the UFC’s official rankings.
His reward for that UFC Fight Night 34 performance is a UFC 172 fight with No. 5 ranked welterweight Jake Ellenberger and the opportunity to establish himself in the upper echelon of the 170-pound division and move into immediate contention for a title shot.
The two fighters were initially supposed to face off in the main event of UFC Fight Night 34. Ellenberger, however, was knocked out of the fight due to injury. Saffiedine is looking forward to finally testing himself against a seasoned welterweight who is a veteran of 11 UFC fights.
“It's an honor to face someone like Jake. He is one of the best and I want to face the best and beat the best,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
The contrast between Saffiedine’s first two UFC opponents is stark because Lim is primarily known for his striking whereas Ellenberger was an NCAA Division II wrestler and holds a purple belt in BJJ. The Belgium is not short of confidence though, as he prepares to step inside the Octagon for a second time.
“I am confident that I can win against Jake because I put a lot of efforts and work into what I do. I am confident in my skills and what I can do inside the cage,” he said.
Saffiedine’s five-round fight with Lim was one of the UFC’s best headlining bouts of the year, but was also the first card to be broadcast exclusively on UFC Fight Pass in many parts of the world. UFC 172 sees the 27-year-old make his PPV debut and he is relishing the opportunity to showcase his skills on a more prominent platform.
“I am excited to fight and knowing that millions of fans will be watching me fight, it’s definitely a great motivation and it's an honor to have my second fight inside the UFC on PPV. I can't wait.”
Many in attendance at UFC Fight Night 34 felt that Saffiedine would have walked away with a Knockout of the Night bonus if he had continued to target Lim with low kicks when the Korean was visibly hurt, instead of switching up tactics and deciding to mix up his offense.
Lim’s left leg was so badly damaged that he had to be carried to the press conference, but Saffiedine rejects the idea that he was only a couple more low kicks away from finishing the job.
“I had to remain focused on my game plan at all times during that fight. Lim was a really tough and dangerous opponent. Even hurt he was dangerous and against somebody like him you had to stay alert all the time. So I did what I felt was right to win most of the rounds and I felt I needed to take him down at some point. I’m not sure I was one or two low kicks away to finish him, he was really durable and I kicked him really hard. He had a lot of heart,” he said.
In the fifth round, Lim looked to be on the verge of scoring one of the most dramatic come-from-behind stoppage victories in UFC history and Saffiedine admits that he was surprised when the Korean somehow found a second wind in the final moments of a fight that, up until that stage, he had clearly been losing.
“He came out with everything he got because he knew he had to finish me to win the fight. I was a little tired coming into the last round and I knew he was going to give everything he had left. He rocked me at the end, but I was aware of everything at the same time. When we end up in the clinch, I was fully recovered, but the fight ended,” he said.
Saffiedine will be a regular visitor to Singapore because it was recently announced that he had joined the Evolve MMA Fight Team there. Also training out of Team Quest, he plans to divide his time between the two camps and believes he will reap the benefits of working with some of the top trainers in Asia.
“I traveled couple times in Singapore in 2013 because Heath Sims, my former trainer from Team Quest, lives there now, and he invited me to come over and train at Evolve. I really enjoyed the level of training, the team, and the coaches. I went to Thailand to train and fight a few times and I can tell you I never saw so many Muay Thai champions in one gym. It was great to learn from those champions. It's going to be a lot of traveling, but I don’t mind.”
Another recent addition to the Evolve MMA Fight Team was Ben Askren, raising the intriguing possibility of the most recent Strikeforce and Bellator 170-pound champions training together. Saffiedine said he is looking forward to working with the wrestling standout.
“I don’t think I am going to be able to train with him for this camp, but probably after my fight. I am looking foward to train with the entire pro team at Evolve, not just Ben Askren, but Shinya Aoki, Rafael dos Anjos, Eddie Ng, Jake Butler, Bruno Pucci, and all the other guys. There are so many high level fighters there and I can definitely benefit from learning from all those great fighters.”
Saffiedine fought eight times for Strikeforce, winning the welterweight title courtesy of a unanimous decision victory over Nate Marquardt in his final appearance. He’s no stranger to competing in the cage or being on American TV, but says one major contrast is the level of scrutiny he has been under since joining the UFC.
“I think the biggest difference for me were the fans and the media attention back in Belgium. Three years in Strikeforce and almost no media and after one fight in the UFC all the Belgian media wanted to interview me, it shows the popularity of the UFC worldwide.”
Winning the Strikeforce title might not have brought Saffiedine sufficient international recognition, but winning his first fight in the UFC certainly has. He has already fulfilled his ambition of becoming the first Belgian to step inside the Octagon, and a win over Ellenberger on his PPV debut would leave him within touching distance of a UFC title shot.
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