Gian Villante's push to UFC Fight Night 38
Gian Villante began with the biggest cliché in mixed martial arts pre-fight interviews, caught himself, then explained what he really meant.
"People always 'best camp' this and that, but this is the best I've felt in a camp as far as attitude, conditioning, strength, everything," the UFC light heavyweight from Levittown said. "I just feel on top of my game. If I can just display that on Sunday, that's all that matters."
That stage will be in Natal, Brazil, as Villante leaves the country for the first time in his life to fight Fabio Maldonado at UFC Fight Night 38 on Sunday.
The final two weeks of training camp can give even the nicest fighter an ornery demeanor. It's the tail end of a two- to three-month physical grind, plus that's when every calorie really counts. A fighter's voice can get raspy with an air of exhaustion as a postscript for each syllable. Villante has been there.
Not this time. He's actually happy.
"Mentally, I feel like I really am," said Villante, 28. "I'm having fun. Enjoying coming to the gym and working my butt off and getting myself as tired as I can and seeing how far I can push myself. I like that I'm able to push myself further than I thought I could. That's what I'm really enjoying."
Villante (11-4, 1-1 UFC) has tasted success before as both a heavyweight and light heavyweight champion in Ring of Combat. He was an All-American wrestler at MacArthur High School and an All-American football player at Hofstra.
But that first UFC win - a knockout of Cody Donovan last November - felt good. Made a world of difference, too, say the people around him.
"I don't really know how much he really believed in himself that he belonged where he was," trainer Keith Trimble said. "After that last win, it was 'I did that and I know belong here.'"
Another win this weekend against Maldonado (20-6, 3-3), a Brazilian with a strong background in boxing, would elevate Villante nicely in the light heavyweight division.
Villante doesn't need to look far for motivation. His best friend is one of his training partners and just so happens to be UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman.
Helping Weidman get through camp for his title defense against Anderson Silva late last year, Villante noticed what his own approach was missing.
"He set a schedule and made it so that every day he had a certain thing planned to do, at this time," Villante said. "Set a schedule for the week and that's what you do -- no matter what. You don't feel good, don't matter, you're going. It's worked."
That means grappling with Weidman during the day, then mitt work and conditioning with Trimble at Bellmore Kickboxing Academy on a Monday night. That means Brazilian jiujitsu practice at Matt Serra's academy right after wrestling practice at Hofstra on a Tuesday. That means sparring with Weidman or fellow UFC fighter Costas Philippou, followed by conditioning on a Wednesday.
Every day, there's something. Even on his one off day each week, there was swimming or a sauna or another type of active recovery. Something. Always something.
"In times past, I'd be like, 'Eh, my body's sore today, let me try to recover,' and I would think that would be better for myself, that I'm making my body feel better," Villante said. "In the long run, I wasn't pushing myself to the limit."