Wearing white shorts and a red T-shirt — and some cuts and bruises on his face, but not too many — Nik Lentz, with short messy brown hair and a beard, stands beside the referee in the Octagon. On the other side, in red shorts stands Manny Gamburyan, bald and bearded, his right eye bloody and swollen. They’ve just finished the featherweight fight at the May 10, 2014 Ultimate Fighting Championship Fight Night 40 in Cincinnati. Lentz dominated with a bombardment of punches and kicks and devastating knees to the body and face.
The announcer standing behind them bellows into the microphone, “And the winner by unanimous decision: Nik ‘The Carny’ Lentz!” The ref raises Lentz’s fist and the crowd roars.
Moments later Lentz talks with reporters who ask him, among other questions, “Your fight game has come around quite a bit — what gives?”
Lentz, 29, tells how two years ago, after fighting as a lightweight (155 pounds) for six years, he “threw his life away” and got rid of his whole team and hired a new nutritionist and joined a new camp, American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., where he moved from his home in Minnesota, and he cut down to featherweight (145). “When I was fighting at 155, I was just one tough SOB, but I was a waste of talent,” Lentz says. He says he didn’t have true confidence in himself back then, but he does now.
In his post-fight interviews, Lentz declares himself the No. 3 featherweight in the world and he says that in 2015 he’s going to be ready for the title. “You can put a lot of money on it,” he says. “Any of you think you can beat me, think again.” His eyes are wide and his eyebrows are arched and he says to the fans and to the world and to life, like a man who’s been through a thing or two, “I’m standing right here. Come get some.”
Lentz has totally transformed his fighting and his life in the last two years. That transformation began even before he threw his old life away, before he won his first featherweight fight by first-round knockout, before he became the first American to win two fights in Brazil, before he took No. 2 in the world Chad Mendes the distance, even before he dropped down to the featherweight division.
It’s hard to believe now, but he was once on his way out of the UFC, considered a boring fighter, someone who won but put the crowd to sleep and caused viewers to change the channel. Fans hated him, his bosses ripped him in public, pundits and announcers criticized him, and he fought like someone just trying to hang on.
Then he learned that fighting to survive wasn’t enough. He had to learn to fight for something. And that changed everything.
Let’s go back to Dec. 11, 2011. Lentz is in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre for UFC 140, to fight Mark Bocek. Lentz wears loose red shorts and black gloves with blue tape around the wrists. As he steps into the Octagon, the crowd is booing him.
Lentz is on a mission tonight, with two objectives: One, he needs to change his reputation. He’s undefeated in seven UFC fights, but he’s won using a wrestling style that UFC fans find offensively boring.
Bocek enters the Octagon wearing tight black shorts and black gloves with red tape. He has long red hair and a red beard. Although he can’t match Lentz’s record, the crowd greets him with cheers.
Lentz knows he needs to fight better, and that’s his plan. If he fights this fight just right, he’ll have a good chance at meeting his second objective: Go home with $105,000. He’s only getting $15,000 to be here, and winning would net him another 15 grand. But if the fight is good enough, if it’s named the Fight Of The Night — the best of the night’s 12 fights — both he and Bocek will earn a $75,000 bonus. So that’s the plan, not just win, but win AND entertain, because, well, he has to.
The fight begins. The crowd is chanting “Bo-CHECK. Bo-CHECK. Bo-CHECK.”
There’s a lot at stake here for Lentz. For years he’s fought on his own terms, almost like he held a mental middle finger in the air, determined to do things his way. Entering this fight, he’s begun to realize that in order to survive, he might need to begin doing things not just for himself, but for others. Winning, at least winning the way he has been winning, down on the mat, is not enough.
Rumor has it that because the fans hate Lentz so much, UFC President Dana White is looking to cut him first chance he gets — that’s bad enough. But there’s something else at stake tonight that nobody in the arena knows about except for Lentz and his father, Jon, who on this night is in his corner with his team, just as he’s been in his son’s corner his whole life.