With one of the sport's better nicknames and a track record of being in exciting fights, Brad "One Punch" Pickett seemed on the verge of reaching the top mix in the bantamweight division when World Extreme Cagefighting merged its top stars into the UFC at the start of 2011.
But suddenly, he seems to be facing a number of battles. He's 33 in what's considered a young man's division that's built on speed and conditioning. He's been bothered this year by a herniated disc in his back. Plus, when Pickett (21-4) returns to fight in the U.K. for the first time since hitting the big time, at UFC 138 at the L.G. Arena in Birmingham, he's facing the worst kind of opponent: a strong fighter who isn't well-known to fans.
Renan Barao (26-1, 1 no contest) comes into the fight with as good a record as any fighter in the UFC, but the Brazilian is largely unknown because he mostly has fought in prelims. The native of Natal, Brazil, has lived up to his record, though, by submitting Anthony Leone and Chris Cariaso in his first two WEC fights last year and by winning a decision over Cole Escovedo in dominant fashion in his UFC debut. And at 24, he should be on the rise.
Last year, Pickett beat the highly regarded Demetrious Johnson, lost a decision in a thrilling fight with Scott Jorgensen and rebounded with a win over Ivan Menjivar on the final WEC show.
But from there his luck took a turn for the worse. Pickett's UFC debut was scheduled for May 28 against Miguel Angel Torres, his highest-profile opponent to date. But he had to pull out due to his back injury. Johnson beat Torres on a close decision and parlayed that win into a recent title shot at Dominick Cruz.
"It helps your confidence seeing a guy you beat do so well," Pickett said about Johnson's good fortune. "But if I lose some different fights, I'm going in the wrong direction. If I keep winning, good things will happen."
However, his injury has made him realize that notching some wins may need to happen fast.
"A back injury is very annoying," he said. "Even for this fight, with your back, you never know. I was quite worried. It is what it is. I have had to be a bit smarter and listen to my body more. If it happens again, it happens again. But I try to try and train the best I could. I had a little issue with it in my camp at one point, but a couple of days of rest and I was fine. I was able to keep my fitness at a very good level. The camp is done and I'm here to fight." Pickett began in MMA at the age of 25, after he got bored with boxing, and is realistic about his age. "There's nothing I can change about my age. I can just keep winning and doing the best I can. If it [a title shot] doesn't happen, it doesn't happen. If it's meant to be, it'll happen."
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Pickett grew up an athlete and always expected he would end up playing professional soccer. Boxing, where he got his "One Punch" nickname, was really his secondary sport that he used for added soccer fitness. But a combination of size and knee problems ended his main dream.
"When I was younger, I always thought I would be a professional footballer," he said. "I was the best in the school growing up by far. But I was a late grower, so I wasn't quite big enough. I didn't grow as fast as the other kids and that hurt me. I loved football."
Standing just 5-foot-6 and considerably lighter back then than he is now as a bantamweight fighter, Pickett got up to the semi-pro level in soccer before his bad knee ended his professional dreams. While some soccer players have been able to transition the skill of kicking into MMA, he hasn't noticed any of that coming into play in his transition.
"But it gives me good cardio, good stamina," he said. "I still play football with my buddies and when I play now, it's quite tiring. I'm carrying a lot more muscle today."
After soccer, he devoted his energy into boxing but found it boring, and then, at 25, stumbled into MMA.
"I was just doing the same thing over and over again: jab, cross, uppercut, hook," he said. "When I went to train MMA, I had to learn to take someone down, I had to learn to defend and do a choke, an armbar … I needed so much knowledge. It stimulated my brain so much more. I never thought I'd get to this level. I grew as the sport did." Pickett has won 10 of his last 11 fights and knocked down Jorgensen in his only loss, where he did better in the stand-up but lost the wrestling aspect of the fight.
MMA has grown faster in the U.K. than anyone would have expected for several reasons. Like in the U.S., "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show was part of it, as was the early popularity of British fighter Michael Bisping, who was on "TUF" Season 3. But Pickett said that Alex Reid, a mediocre fighter who became a celebrity by marrying glamour model Katie "Jordan" Price, also was a big part of it.
"To me, it's the No. 1 combat sport," he said. "I thought it would be higher than boxing at some point, but I didn't think it would happen this quick. They [know] now, but not for all the right reasons. There's a cage fighter who went on a reality show, which the whole country saw, so everyone knows about the sport. Alex Reid, I know him, he's a really nice guy, but he's not the highest level of the sport. He's more lower-level. He married a famous girl – that made him famous. He was on 'Celebrity Big Brother.' I've got no animosity toward him. He grabbed the opportunity by the horns. It's not his fault; I'm happy for him."
The London native heads to South Florida to train with the American Top Team for 10 weeks before every fight. Being in Florida has kept him away from the distractions of being a U.K. fighter in the No. 2 bout, behind the Chris Leben-vs.-Mark Munoz main event, in the company's first fight back in Britain in more than a year.
"That's one of the best things," he said about training for this show outside of the U.K. "I just eat, sleep and train. I don't have any day-to-day distractions."
As far as the fight goes, he doesn't see much difference between this and fighting last year in WEC, but he knows for recognition's sake, especially back home, it's a world of difference.
"I really loved the WEC. To me it's the same organization run by the same people as now," he said. "WEC had the best fighters in the world in my weight class. UFC now has the best fighters in the world in my weight class. So it's the same thing, but it's just in front of a bigger audience.
"In WEC, a lot of people haven't seen it and don't know who I am. This is a good opportunity to show UFC fans in the U.K. what I am about. People here talk all the time about Bisping and [Dan] Hardy, and I believe I'm up there with them." However UFC 138 has not been heavily promoted. This is due to a combination of the company running events four weekends in a row, and it being on a "lame-duck" network – Spike TV – as the next-to-last major fight card on the network. The card airs in the U.S. on tape delay, at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific.
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