The saying is that you should never meet your idols. On September 27, Aussie UFC fighter Jake Matthews not only meets his idol, he has to fight him, too.
“Diego Sanchez is one of my heroes,” states Matthews. “I remember watching DVDs of him winning The Ultimate Fighter when I was in Grade 5. So this will be different to any other fight I’ve had.”
“The Celtic Kid” admits to mixed emotions about the matchup. It’s a bout he’s chased and believes he can win, but he doesn’t want to be the person who makes Sanchez hang up the gloves.
“It’s bittersweet. I obviously want to do well against him, and I’m very excited for the fight. But it’ll be sad if it ends up being his last one. He and BJ Penn are my biggest idols and role models in the sport. I’ve never had to fight somebody I’ve looked up to before.”
Matthews, 26, actually got the call to face Sanchez while doing basic training for the Australian Defence Force. It had been a lifelong goal of his to join the military, and when the Covid-19 pandemic effectively shut down his home state of Victoria, Matthews decided to enlist.
“The basic training was just an introduction. I spent five weeks there, then went straight into my fight camp,” he explains. “If I hadn’t started fighting, I would have joined the military at 18. I didn’t really want to juggle two careers. I’ve got my foot in the door with the military now, so once the fighting career wraps up, I’ll do that.”
Training for the Army meant Matthews’ official fight camp was a little shorter than usual, but the welterweight prospect says he’s feeling fitter than ever.
“It’s been a seven-week camp this time, and I don’t recall missing a single session. I feel great,” he reports. “I don’t have as many training partners as usual [due to the pandemic]. Instead of having 20 guys of different levels, we’ve got a smaller group of really high-level fighters.”
Matthews is currently coached by former UFC middleweight Dan Kelly, who has put together a quality team.
“We’ve got Jimmy Crute, Cal Potter, Ben Sosoli, Dan Kelly – with me, that’s five guys who are either in the UFC or have been,” says Matthews. “That’s a lot for one gym. I don’t know if there’s another in Australia with that many.
“Personally, I’ve just scratched the surface in terms of what there is to learn. You can never master mixed martial arts. But there’s no better person to learn from than Dan Kelly. He’s a four-time Olympian, experienced UFC fighter and one of the most resilient men I’ve ever met. It’s good to be able to train alongside him and under him. When he takes you down with those judo throws, he’s very heavy!”
On a two-fight win streak, Matthews is coming into the bout against Diego Sanchez on a high. And he hopes a win against the legend will make more people sit up and pay attention.
“I think I’ve had five wins and one loss in my past six fights, and that’s pretty decent in the UFC. Now, I’m hoping to get my third straight. It’s always great for the confidence, especially beating an opponent like my last one – Emil Meek was a tough guy”
The Aussie continues, “He was very similar to Diego, except bigger, stronger and younger. Has that aggressiveness. Loves to swing and slog. I think that, going off my last fight, I should be pretty capable of having Diego covered.”
A problem he isn’t worried about is Octagon jitters. Many fighters experience considerable nervousness on fight day, but not Matthews.
“I’ve never suffered from nerves. I don’t know exactly why – whether it’s from playing high-level football when I was younger, which exposed me to performing in front of crowds and under pressure. Or maybe I’m not smart enough to be nervous,” he jokes.
On a more serious note, the 26-year-old identifies an area of his game that has definitely improved – and a big motivation behind it.
“The one thing that’s changed over the years is my ability to push on when I’m hit hard. Especially since having my daughter, it’s just unconsciously happened. When the sessions get hard, when the sparring gets hard and I might have somebody teeing off on me, I now have the resilience to keep pushing through.”
Matthews may indeed be hit hard at UFC 253. Sanchez has 10 knockouts on his record and has proven that, even at 38 years of age, he’s still dangerous.
“I don’t know which Diego I’m going to face,” says Matthews. “I really hope it’s the Diego of old – The Nightmare. He may come out swinging, or he may relentlessly try to take me down. Who knows? I don’t think even Diego knows which version will rock up. I’ve just got to be prepared and adapt.”
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