Nik Lentz says he’s been transformed by training at American Top Team. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
As he walked to the Octagon for his first meeting with Charles Oliveira at UFC Live 4 nearly four years ago, Nik Lentz knew the odds were not in his favor.
Lentz’s home base, Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, had become a fading presence on the MMA scene, with stalwarts such as Sean Sherk and Nick Thompson electing to explore career options other than fighting. That, along with the fact that Lentz’s father was battling cancer during that time, made for a less than ideal camp.
Lentz became aware of how dire his situation was shortly before his entrance music hit.
“I barely trained for that fight. Warming up in the back for that fight, I literally was getting tired warming up,” Lentz said during a recent appearance on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “On my way out to the cage I was like, ‘Holy crap, I might be in for a rough ride today.’ I let life get to me and at that point, life almost broke me.”
Instead, it was an illegal knee from Oliveira that night in Pittsburgh that left Lentz a broken man -- literally. The blow, which occurred while Lentz was kneeling, fractured the Minnesotan’s eye socket and set the stage for Oliveira to sink in a fight-ending rear-naked choke 1:48 into round two. While referee Chip Snider did not see the foul, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission reviewed the bout and eventually changed the result to a no-contest.
More importantly, the first inkling of what would eventually become a full-fledged epiphany began to embed itself in Lentz’s brain.
“Of course it’s just a fight. He was all over me and caught me with some good punches, but the point was I was coming back and that’s why he looked for a way out with an illegal knee,” Lentz said. “It doesn’t matter what happens in the first round; it matters what happens at the end. I learned a lot from that fight and that was a changing point in my life. I wouldn’t [have] it any other way. That was almost destiny.
“That knee to my face cracked a whole bunch of bones in my head, but it taught me a lesson. It taught me if you actually want to do this for real, you better get to the right place and you better train like you’re supposed to.”
It took some time for Lentz to make the necessary wholesale changes in his life and career. After the Oliveira bout, Lentz suffered back-to-back losses to Mark Bocek and Evan Dunham. It was only then that “The Carny” left frigid Minnesota and his old camp to join American Top Team in sunny Coconut Creek, Fla.
That, along with a move from lightweight to featherweight, has paid serious dividends in the cage. With a new camp behind him and fighting in a different division, Lentz is 4-1, with his only loss coming against perennial contender Chad Mendes at UFC on Fox 9.
He will get his return date with Oliveira on Saturday at UFC Fight Night “Condit vs. Alves” at Goiania Arena in Goiania, Brazil. Lentz says he is a far different person and fighter than the one who stepped into the Octagon against “Charles do Bronx” on June 26, 2011.
“I changed everything about my life. Everything about it had to be changed because, at a certain point in my career, stuff wasn’t going where I wanted it to,” Lentz said. “So I just stopped my life completely and said, ‘What do you want to do, Nick? Do you want to be a world champion or just be an OK fighter that did well in the UFC?’ I said I wanted to be a world champion. So I sat down, I talked to everyone I could possibly get a hold of, and I changed every aspect of my life.”
After researching several gyms, Lentz came away most impressed with what American Top Team had to offer. Owner Dan Lambert offered a no-strings-attached trial run in the beginning, and shortly thereafter Lentz decided to become a fixture.
“I just fell in love with the place. I came down here and they treated me like they should,” Lentz said. “They threw me into the grind. They didn’t give me any favors, but they also didn’t treat me bad.”
It is a far cry from his final days in Minnesota, when Lentz struggled simply to find high-level training partners. Now, options abound.
“Every day I can go there, and I can find a coach that can teach me something new,” he said. “That adds up exponentially. Every day I go to the gym, and there’s a coach there that’s a better striker than me, there’s a coach there that’s a better wrestler than me and there’s a coach that’s a better jiu-jitsu guy than me. I’m always learning 100-percent. It’s been almost three years, and it’s made me a completely different person.”
Like Lentz, Oliveira left the lightweight division not long after their first meeting. The Macaco Gold Team product has posted a 5-2 mark at 145 pounds and carries a three-fight winning streak into their matchup. His only featherweight losses have come against top 10 fixtures Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson.
Still, Lentz doesn’t believe that it’s possible for Oliveira to have undergone the same type of transformation that he has over the past few years.
“I’m expecting him to be better, but as far as the progression, he did what the old Nik Lentz didn’t,” Lentz said. “He’s staying with the same gyms, doing the same things, and that’s why this time you’ll see how much farther I’ve passed him up.”