LAS VEGAS – Mac Danzig eyes the floor, scrapes his foot across the carpet and in a low, monotone voice makes, for a professional fighter, an extraordinary confession: He's feeling the pressure heading into the finale of The Ultimate Fighter on Saturday on Spike TV at the Palms.
Danzig was the favorite prior to the start of Season 6. He was the most experienced, the most skilled and the wisest of the 16 men who came in search of a UFC contract.
But as Danzig, 27, stands one victory away from that goal, doubts swirl within.
"I do have a lot of experience, but this particular fight is a whole different animal," Danzig says, roughly 48 hours before he meets teammate Tommy Speer in the TUF season finale. "There's a lot of pressure, and I'm feeling it. It's not the same as fighting on all the small shows I have coming up.
"This is as high profile a fight as I've ever had. On top of that, people expect me to win. I'm feeling pressure when it comes to that, but I'm just going to do my job. I'm very confident that once I get in there, everything will click."
Every fighter has doubts, but few speak of them as frankly as Danzig did. Speer, 23, certainly has those doubts, but he exudes confidence. It's all but impossible for anyone but those in his innermost circle to notice.
Speer, a one-time junior college football player who got addicted to mixed martial arts when he reluctantly agreed to go to a card, says he has little doubt he'll defeat his more high-profile rival.
"Out of everybody in that house, I looked around and I felt I was the most athletic," Speer said. "And I've been around winning. I've been a winner my whole life, more than any of them. I got addicted to winning and I believe I know how to win. Regardless of whether people thought I had a shot or not to, get here (to the TUF 6 finals) I felt I did and I was going to try to win."
Danzig is the more refined and polished fighter, while Speer relies on brute strength and youthful exuberance.
Former UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes, who coached both men on the show, quickly realized that Danzig was going to be one of the men to beat. But when he looked at Speer, he said he thought he was looking at a young and unpolished version of himself.
"I'm not going to say that when I first saw him, I said, 'Oh, this guy is going to make the finals,'" Hughes said, "but I saw that he and I were very similar and that I might be able to rub off on him and polish him up a little bit. I'll tell you what, technically and mentally, he's really come farther than I thought he would, especially this quickly."
Speer, who grew up on his parents' farm in Minnesota and still works there daily, arising at 4 a.m. to milk cows, saw his personality gradually become more outgoing. He's now at ease in public situations, though he laughed that it's not that surprising.
"When you have cameras and microphones following you everywhere you go, that's kind of going to happen, I guess," Speer said.
But Danzig, who says he's a private person, cherishes the professional opportunity that the television show provided, but not the intrusion into his personal life.
Previous TUF participants, particularly the winners, have become celebrities. Season 1 winner Forrest Griffin is one of the most popular MMA fighters in the world .
Danzig has already seen the enormous increase in attention and isn't particularly wild about it.
"I am a private person and this is something that's been very hard for me to deal with," Danzig said of his newly found celebrity. "I try to do my best not to be ungrateful or come off as someone who doesn't want to be bothered. People get the wrong ideas lots of times and they think you're a prima donna if you don't return calls.
"For me, it's just been overwhelming. It's been hundreds and hundreds of emails and all the calls and all the different interview requests I get. That sort of thing has been difficult for me to deal with and it's been crazy having people come up to me on the street I don't know who recognize me and want to talk to me."
As different as the two men are personally, though, they're both convinced they can win the fight and the guaranteed contract that comes with it.
Hughes, who has been training with Speer, said the matchup didn't surprise him.
"You're looking at two very talented and very professional guys, who put the work in and who clearly showed they understand what it takes to succeed at this level," Hughes said. "A lot of guys have the talent, but they also had the work ethic and the understanding that, hey, there a lot of things that go into making you a great fighter and great talent is just a piece of it."
- Mac Danzig
- Matt Hughes
- Tommy Speer