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No pushover

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

When Nate Marquardt entered Colorado's Wheat Ridge High School, he barely weighed 100 pounds. His friends knew of his athletic ability, but his high school coaches seemed to shun him because of his size.

What coach, after all, wanted to stake his reputation on a pipsqueak quarterback?

Even when he graduated, Marquardt, at about 130 pounds, was hardly what one would call imposing. And no one would have written in his high school yearbook that he would become one of the world's toughest fighters in less than 10 years – and as a 185-pounder, at that.

But that's where Marquardt has landed as he prepares to challenge champion Anderson Silva on Saturday for the UFC middleweight title in UFC 73 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

Marquardt is a seven-time middleweight King of Pancrase who is no longer the tiny, shunned kid he was in high school.

"I was always small for my age and I guess I'm just a late bloomer," Marquardt , 28, said.

"I was always one of the smallest kids in my class. In high school, I was always very athletic. The other athletes respected me as an athlete, because they knew, but sometimes the coaches couldn't quite see it or would just overlook me because of my size."

But Marquardt never doubted himself because of his size. And when he began to spurt up after he left high school, while he was attending the University of Colorado at Denver, he was finally able to show off his skills.

But even though he did well in school and was hardly an illiterate jock, he had no passion for his college courses – and the lure of learning the sport of marital arts at its epicenter was great.

So it took a daring move for a kid who was born in a quiet Wyoming town to quit school, to give up a good-paying job, leave a girlfriend and his family behind and go to Japan to pursue a dream of becoming a world-class mixed martial artist.

"I felt I was wasting my time in school and it wasn't really challenging me," Marquardt said. "Maybe if I'd picked something else that was different or harder, it would have provided some kind of spark or motivation, but I didn't have that."

What he did have, though, was an invitation to go to Japan to compete with some of the best fighters in the world. Despite all he'd have to give up, he never hesitated. And even though he was very lonely, he says he never regretted the move.

"It was a very difficult life because it was a culture shock," Marquardt said. "I was very homesick, not just for my family and friends, but for America. The food was different, I didn't speak the language and no one spoke English and I was lonely a lot."

But he was learning to fight and he could see that he was getting better everyday. And so he never seriously considered packing up and returning home.

He went on to become a star in Pancrase – a Japanese MMA organization which refers to its title-holders as King, rather than as champion – and wound up training with and fighting some of the top middleweights in the world.

He's been in the UFC since 2005 and has gone 4-0, reeling off wins over Ivan Salaverry, Joe Doerksen, Crafton Wallace and Dean Lister, which put him in position to challenge Silva.

Silva won the title in stunning fashion last year by stopping Rich Franklin in the first round. It wasn't so much that Silva (18-4) beat Franklin that was so shocking, but rather the way it happened.

"I don't have anything bad to say about Rich because he's obviously such a great fighter, but I was surprised by what he did to defend the clinch when he was put into it," Marquardt said. "I was surprised he didn't try a few basic moves to try to neutralize the clinch."

Silva's demolition of Chris Leben in his UFC debut and his one-sided rout of Franklin instantly made him a big name in the business, but Marquardt (25-6-2) isn't concerned.

He's largely been overlooked in the buildup to one of the UFC's biggest cards, as fighters such as Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans and Sean Sherk have garnered much of the pre-fight media attention.

His coach, Greg Jackson, said that is an extra spark that will help Marquardt on Saturday. "He's very comfortable with being overlooked," Jackson said. "It just gives him something to prove."

Both men are jiu-jitsu black belts and both are powerful punchers. But while Silva has clearly proven he can deal with the pressure of being the focal point of the main event, Marquardt has not.

He won't be under the radar on Saturday, though, as he'll be in the main event in front of a sold-out arena and a huge pay-per-view audience.

Jackson doesn't have to worry how Marquardt will react because he already knows. He said when Marquardt made his UFC debut on Aug. 6, 2005, against Salaverry, they sat in the dressing room watching other UFC fighters discuss their fight.

All of the fighters, Jackson said, were expecting Salaverry to win.

"That puts a lot of pressure on a guy, to hear all of your peers talking and say they expect you to be killed," Jackson said. "But Nate is a guy who's hard to shake mentally. He has a deep belief in his talent and in what he's about to do and he went out there and fought a great fight against a very talented guy.

"After that, I knew that with his athletic ability, he could be as good as he wanted to be. I have all the respect in the world for Anderson Silva, but I really believe he's going to bring out the best in Nate."

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