Per Eklund: Sweden’s First to Enter the Octagon

By Tim Leidecker Jan 15, 2008
When Per Eklund (Pictures) steps into the cage Saturday in Newcastle, England, it will be the ultimate challenge for the man from Stockholm, Sweden. Not only will the 27-year-old submission specialist be fighting for himself and his team, Hilti NHB, he will be the first Swede in the UFC. If that weren't enough, he's also making his big-league debut against TKO lightweight champion Sam Stout (Pictures).

Eklund has been universally recognized as the No. 1 fighter in Europe at 155 pounds. Pitting him against the best Canadian fighter in the division will compare Europe and Canada and also demonstrate how far European MMA has come in recent years.

The man from the Swedish capital has worked hard since debuting in MMA six years ago. In addition to fighting in his own backyard, he has traveled to Russia, Denmark, Finland, Holland and England to take on some of the best competition on the continent.

Highlighting those early years were wins in two four-man, one-night lightweight tournaments. One of those tournaments took place in FinnFight. For those unfamiliar with the promotion, FinnFight was notorious for holding the most brutal events in Europe around the turn of the millennium, using old-school vale tudo rules that practically allowed everything except biting, eye-gouging, groin strikes and hair-pulling.

Whoever survived the violence at FinnFight could consider himself a true fighter. Eklund more than survived -- he won.

Martins Denis: You stayed in Brazil in 2004, training along with Nova Uniao. Are you a member of the Brazilian team?
Per Eklund (Pictures): I am not a Nova Uniao fighter. It's a great team and I really like Dede [Andre Pederneiras]. He treated me well when I was there. I have been in Brazil three times, and last time I stayed seven months. So I wanted to try something new and I heard about Team Quest and that they had really good training. I contacted them and trained with them before my fight in Vancouver. I have a 2-year-old son that I take care of, so I can't travel as much as I want to. I get really good training here in Sweden.

Denis: How was that experience at Team Quest?
Eklund: They prepared me very well for the fights.

Denis: Before you entered MMA, what was your martial arts background?
Eklund: I don't have any background other than MMA. I started training submission wrestling, BJJ and MMA.

Denis: What's your belt in BJJ?
Eklund: I'm purple and I don't have a BJJ instructor here in Sweden.

Denis: When did you decide to become a MMA fighter and why?
Eklund: I, like most of the world, saw the early UFCs and I thought those guys were crazy going into a cage and fighting each other with almost no rules. I was amazed that it existed, a sport where you could do everything: standup, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. That's what got me hooked. I started training, and after about three months I joined a club tournament. After that I competed in several submission grappling events. So I debuted in St. Petersburg, Russia, after one and a half or two years of training. It was at that point I decided that I really wanted to be a professional fighter. It only took me six years.

Denis: Who are your coaches now?
Eklund: Stefan Fernström and Miguel Maluenda.

Denis: You competed in a grappling tournament in Brazil where you defeated Alexandre Franca Nogueira (Pictures)'s brother, Leonardo Nogueira, and lost the following contest. How do you view that experience?
Eklund: We can't compare Brazil to Scandinavia because Brazil is the Mecca of grappling. They have the best jiu-jitsu in the world; they are the source. But it's spreading fast all over the world -- Scandinavia, Europe and most other countries. We need a few years before you can compare the level. There are a lot of tough practitioners here that have a bright future. Just give them a few years.

Denis: In 2003 you drew at Shooto Finland against the tough Thomas Hytten (Pictures). What can you tell us about that match?
Eklund: Well, I don't want to sound like an a--hole, but that's the worst fight of my life. I took it on short notice and I was not in shape to fight. I got sick before the fight; I was puking and s---ting the whole night before the weigh-ins. It went the distance, and in my opinion I won the fight because I was chasing him and he was defending and avoiding me. But I don't think Thomas was in the best shape of his life either.

Denis: Was your fight against Tetsuya Kawajiri in Shooto the most important of your career?
Eklund: I didn't hesitate one second when I was asked to fight Kawajiri. It was a hard fight for me. It was also short notice -- two weeks -- and in a special-rules weight class. We fought at 73 kg instead of 70 kg [155 pounds]. I was walking around at 69 kg, and Kawajiri is a big and strong guy. I was surprised that the referee stopped the fight, as Kawajiri was only punching me in the back of the head. You can see the fight at YouTube.com. I wish I could fight Kawajiri again. I'll avenge my loss. I think I will sleep better at night if I do that.

Denis: You have four wins in your last four fights, including a victory by decision over American Top Team member Rafael Dias (Pictures) at BodogFight Vancouver. What do you have to say about your first opportunity in North America?
Eklund: It was a great opportunity to fight against Rafael. First I was a little disappointed that I had to fight him because I know him, and there are so many other fighters to fight. But you can't choose your opponents.

Denis: What is your regular training routine?
Eklund: I train in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon. I can't train as much as I did before because I have to work and, like I mentioned, take care of my son.

Denis: Normally the UFC airs a few preliminary matches when the outcome is a big KO, TKO or a submission or when the fight is fantastic. Do you think this is extra motivation for the fighters of the preliminary matches?
Eklund: I think this is a very smart move as I guess the fighters are going to try to get a KO or a sub to get on TV.

Denis: What are the chances we'll watch you on TV?
Eklund: I am going to do everything I can to make the fight exciting.

Denis: Will you have your teammates and friends rooting for you at the Metro Radio Arena or will you be in an unknown territory in England?
Eklund: Well, I've fought there two times before and I loved it. England has the best crowd by far. I guess they have the tradition of cheering on the soccer teams. So I hope I will have some people cheering for me this time as well.

Denis: What does this opportunity in the UFC mean to you?
Eklund: It's a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I am not letting it pass just like that. It means everything to me. It's my future that we are talking about.

Denis: Who do you pick and why in the title fight between B.J. Penn (Pictures) and Joe Stevenson?
Eklund: Penn is too good for Stevenson, as long as he doesn't get tired.

Denis: What can the fans expect from your performance on January 19th?
Eklund: Just watch the fight. Don't miss it.

Denis: Thanks for your time. Would you like to leave a message or thank sponsors?
Eklund: I want to thank all my sponsors, especially Stockholm Södermalm Construction, Fightgear.se, WNT Sport Nutrition, Kalori and Jabb.se for all their help. Without them I would not be able to train full time for this fight. They have a special place in my heart.

Martins Denis (dmartins@sherdog.com) is a regular Sherdog.com contributor
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Since Sam Stout (Pictures)'s backbone in fighting is kickboxing and Eklund has just come off his debut as a pro boxer, the question arises whether fans can expect a classic striking match between the two lightweight warriors.

"They can expect anything and everything," Eklund said. "I have been working hard on my standup and I don't think I will have a problem standing up with him. But since I started as a grappler, I think I am also more comfortable on the ground than he is. Regardless of the outcome, I don't expect the fight to go the distance."

The battle with Stout will be the first on Eklund's four-fight deal with Zuffa. Unlike other fighters, the Swede didn't mind tying himself to one promotion.

"It is much better having a contract over multiple fights," he said. "Otherwise you never know when you are fighting, and it's often on short notice."

Eklund has both short- and long-term goals as he enters a new phase of his career.

"I think every fighter has the dream to be the champion," he said, making no secret of his ambition. "That aside, I am very proud to be the first Swedish fighter in the UFC and I hope that the fans will enjoy my fights."

Tim Leidecker (tleidecker@sherdog.com) is a regular Sherdog.com contributor
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