Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial
The phone rang a few weeks ago, and within minutes, Nick Pace's life, all 23 years of it, changed.
"I haven't been home since," Pace said. "I don't even know what's going on out there."
Pace, an instructor at Tiger Schulmann MMA in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, got the phone call from his coach that he was now under contract with World Extreme Cagefighting, the sister promotion of UFC owned by Zuffa.
With that phone call, easily the most exciting one of his young career, the undefeated Pace packed his bags and moved into the Tiger Schulmann headquarters and training facility in Elmwood Park, N.J.
No questions, no hesitations. Bye bye, Mom and Dad. Talk to you later, girlfriend. Be home in a few weeks. It's akin to a minor-league baseball player getting the call-up to the majors.
Pace is replacing the injured Clint Godfrey for a bantamweight bout against Demetrious Johnson (10-1) at WEC 51 on Thursday in Broomfield, Colo. The main event features featherweight champion Jose Aldo, Newsday's No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, making his second title defense, this time against Manny Gamburyan.
The WEC debut of Pace is the first fight of the night, which means you won't see it on the Versus telecast unless something spectacular happens. Pace's excitement and enthusiasm makes you think the spectacular could indeed happen.
"I am so pumped, it's the best thing ever," he said. "They're all top-level fighters and I get to go out there and prove to myself and them that I belong. All I have to do is worry about training and working out until I pass out."
Pace sleeps at the gym. Literally. His bed is an air mattress, his bedroom a high-altitude tent. Talk about eating and sleeping mixed martial arts.
With the fight in Broomfield - altitude 5,344 feet - this helps prepare the lungs and body for the change in elevation, making for an easier and quicker acclimation to the thinner air.
"I think it's necessary for someone who's at a professional level to train like a professional," said Pace, who watched friend and training partner Lyman Good do the same thing en route to the Bellator title. "What made me do it? I want to win."
Since setting up camp (and home) at the training facility, a typical day for Pace looks something like this: Wake up, quick 45-minute jog, breakfast, three hours of jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, lunch, cardio training, a trip to the chiropractor, dinner, two hours of jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, snack, watch MMA fights, sleep.
Pace (5-0) won all four of his fights in Ring of Combat, a regional promotion run by Bellmore's Lou Neglia that has spawned the careers of 32 UFC fighters, including lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and former welterweight champion Matt Serra. The karate black belt had two submissions and two wins by decision, plus a spectacular KO by flying knee in a Bellator fight.
Now, the kid steps onto the biggest stage of his young career on Thursday night.
"Some kids dream about being a rock star and they can't reach that dream," Pace said. "This is my dream and I can do it."