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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Last Saturday night at UFC 150, Nik Lentz put forth one of the standout performances of the last several events, making a big impression in his featherweight debut by taking out Eiji Mitsuoka in just over three minutes. The quick TKO win marked his first stoppage by strikes, and was the result of a very big change in his professional career.
The Minnesota native lost to Evan Dunham in January, holding him winless in three consecutive fights for the first time ever in his career. That loss prompted some soul-searching, and a major shift in his approach to the fight game. It also led him away from his longtime home at The Academy in Minnesota, but it was a move he felt he needed to make, and one that definitely paid off.
"I wasn't getting the job done," Lentz admitted when speaking to MMATorch this week. "I wasn't missing huge parts of my game; I had the work ethic, I have the athletic ability, I had everything, I was just missing those little tweaks that a lot of these top level fighters have, and I didn't realize it until just recently. Sometimes it takes some misfortune in life to realize the mistakes you're [making]."
"I had a little stream of bad luck with fighting, as well as not being prepared properly. I knew I needed a little more explosion, so I went and got a new strength and conditioning trainer. I knew I needed to work with some better people, so I went, traveled around the United States, checked out a whole bunch of camps, [ATT] was the best one. My nutrition wasn't what it should be so I went and talked to [Mike] Dolce and he convinced me, 'Hey, making 145 lbs. would be an option.' Just through going and looking through all the coaches, looking through every place I had a hole, it just kind of worked out that way. And Florida couldn't have been better. American Top Team is by far the best gym in the world."
In addition to overhauling essentially everything about his approach to the sport, Lentz also snuck in time to get married in May. It's been hectic, but it all paid off on Saturday night, and Lentz really attributes a lot of his success to how prepared his coaches had him for Mitsuoka.
"There's been a lot of changes. A lot of good things have happened, a lot of bad things have happened, but I got everything back on schedule, I feel great, and I couldn't have been happier with the performance I had [last] weekend," Lentz said. "All my coaches at American Top Team prepared me very well, [I was] more prepared than I've ever been for a fight. Right at the beginning I knew exactly what I was going to do. I threw some punches, Mitsuoka kind of fell right into the trap, he threw a hook that I was waiting for and right when he threw that hook I hit him with the right hook. That actually hurt him right away. Then I hit him with a knee that flash knocked him out, dropped him, so he was hurt right from the beginning."
"Everything about that fight went exactly how my coaches told me that it would. They told me that if I put the pressure on him, right around the three minute mark he was going to crack, and sure enough, he did... My striking coach laid out exactly what Mitsuoka was going to do, and when he came out he did exactly what my striking coach said he was going to do. My wrestling coach laid out exactly how he was going to defend stuff, and right when I grabbed him, he did exactly what he was supposed to. So that was the difference. Every single coach there told me something [Mitsuoka] was going to do, and he did it exactly to a tee, just like they told me."
Though he'll be working out of state for his fight camps from now on, Lentz remains a Minnesota resident. He holds no ill will towards The Academy, but he admitted that, for himself, he needed to move on from there as his only home in order to take his game up to the next level.
"I needed to find something new," Lentz said. "The Academy is great. It has great fighters, it has great people, I just felt like I wasn't being pushed hard enough. I felt like I needed to go to a gym where there were other people on the same level as I am [who] could push me, and American Top Team was that one. I love the Academy, I still live in Minnesota, I'm still going to train at the Academy when I'm not in fight camps. I have nothing bad or anything to say about them. The only thing that I felt is I needed to move on to bigger and better things, and to do that I had to make sure that my fight camps were done somewhere else."
Of course, considering he isn't planning on moving out of Minnesota, he's got another set of issues to deal with. Timing his fights are going to become a trickier proposition, and there could be a financial concern in training away from home. However, he says he's re-worked some of his business deals, and will actually be in a better spot from now on working this way.
"The one thing that is unfortunate about traveling, to the events, as well as, I had Mike Dolce there the whole week helping me with the weight cut - which made a big difference - I need more time to plan," Lentz said. "If [the UFC] asked, 'Hey, do you want to fight in a month?' I'd have to get a plane ticket tomorrow to go to Florida. So it's going to take a little bit longer to schedule fights and stuff, but I would love to fight before the end of the year."
"As far as financially, I reworked a lot of my managerial contracts and stuff like that. I got new managers, I got new sponsorship guys, so some of the money I'm saving on that end has helped with training, as well as Top Team helps me out as far as where I'm staying and stuff like that. Overall, my financial burden is less than it was before."
Now that he's got all that in line, along with his first fight in the 145 lb. division out of the way, his next goal is a run at the UFC Featherweight Championship. He made it clear to Joe Rogan and everyone watching on Saturday night that he believes he's a contender in the division, but he's not quite sure where he'll start to make his way up the ladder.
"Truthfully, I haven't totally got a hold of all the [featherweights] yet," he admitted. "I've been fighting at 155 lbs. for so long, I'm still kind of stuck in that 155 lb. mode as far as knowing everything about people. When it comes to 145 lbs., I've only had one fight, I focused completely on Mitsuoka, so I don't know too much about most of the guys in the weight class yet. I'm still kind of learning that, looking through tapes, seeing the guys; and as far as matchups and stuff, that's another thing I'm leaving to the coaches."
"My coaches know my style, what I'm good against, what we need to work on, and my managers and stuff, they'll figure that kind of stuff out. I personally don't ever pick out fights, just because I don't really watch fights too much. I train, I do my own thing, and when I'm not training and fighting I'm doing other stuff that has nothing to do with fighting. So as far as who I want to fight, I think I can beat anyone in the world, so whoever they pick for me that's who I fight."
There are two matchups that could be on the docket, of course. First, one of the men he faced at lightweight, Charles Oliveira, has since gone to featherweight, and with their first matchup resulting in a no contest after an illegal knee, that's a fight Lentz would love to take again.
"That's definitely a fight I think is going to happen in the future," Lentz said. "I don't think that it will be the next fight I have or anything, but I think down the road I'm going to fight him; and this time I'm going to be way more prepared, I'm going to be a way better fighter, I'm going to be in way better shape, and it's going to turn out way different."
The other bout that will be on the minds of many is with current Champ Jose Aldo. Though he's not near title contention just yet, Lentz thinks that it's a matchup in which he could succeed.
"I think I match up great against him. I think that he's never faced a grappler like me, Lentz said. I honestly think that there's no 145 lb. [fighter who] has the same strength as me. As far as grappling and just pure strength. Mitsuoka came into that fight thinking he was going to be able to out-grapple me, and look what happened. There's going to be a big difference strength-wise between me and the rest of the 145 lb. world. So I think we match up great. He's definitely a freak athlete. All his shots have a lot of power in them. It's going to be an insanely hard fight once I get to that point. But you can't really look down the road too much, I have to win a lot more fights before I get to fight him, and by then who knows who's going to be the Champion, you know? I don't think he's as unbeatable as people think he is."
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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