It took Callan Potter nine years and 25 fights to make it onto MMA’s biggest stage, but “The Rockstar” -- who was given just two weeks’ notice to fight at UFC 234 opposite Jalin Turner -- lasted just 53 seconds in his Octagon debut.
Potter, a cult favourite on Australia’s regional MMA scene, caught up with Sherdog.com to talk about his shaky start at UFC 234, his journey from liquor store manager and part-time rock star to full-time fighter, moving back up to 170 pounds and what he hopes to achieve in his time left in the sport.
“Obviously the two week period from receiving the invite to [UFC 234] was a bit of a whirlwind” Potter said of his February debut. “As you could imagine, there were quite a few battles we had to fight before we got into the cage. That became the main focus. Look, it was an amazing experience, it’s obviously opened a lot of doors for me. As far as the performance goes, it was extremely underwhelming, but I’m glad we got the opportunity.
“It was really surprising” he elaborated. “I told a lot of the people that I interviewed that day that I was anticipating a rebirth of the nerves that I haven’t felt in the cage in a long time. I was anticipating that would happen during the walk out, and when Bruce Buffer announced my name, that they might be surreal moments and erupt some anxiety within me. Very surprisingly, [I didn’t feel that] at all. I felt sensational, I felt calm, very relaxed. It felt similar to another fight, just a bigger arena. It felt very natural. About 53 seconds after that, things got a lot a bit shady.”
A big factor in Potter’s less-than-stellar performance, which saw the Renegade MMA representative pull guard and fish for submissions before Turner put him out with a knee and follow up punches, was the weight cut; Potter had competed most recently at welterweight last December before the UFC called on him to drop back down to lightweight to fill in for an injured Alex Gorgees.
“The lightweight limit itself, be it 10 days or 10 months, has become fairly difficult; verging on unrealistic” Potter said. “As far as the performance, I take nothing away from Jalin. He did a sensational job. It would be unprofessional to turn around and discredit his performance due to external factors. He did his job and that’s why he got the win. As far as the weight cut, the lightweight limit has just become unrealistic. I suspect that might be the last time we have to reach those numbers, which is sensational. As we push forward we’re looking to venture back to up to welterweight.”
Potter, who first began competing in 2010 on “dark shows” that did not make it onto his professional record, is candid about his disappointment with his February showing, but maintains that a mentality born of long experience in the sport helped neutralize the sting of the loss.
“It’s still comes down to, you lost a fight” he said. “Which is very sad, I never want to do it again and if you can go the rest of your life without feeling that sense of loss, that sense of failure, that would be sensational. But it’s part of the industry; it’s part of the game. You win some, you lose some. I was extremely disappointed, but maybe an hour or two after [the fight], I was relaxed. I began assessing what went wrong, reflecting on ‘these are the things that I can control, that I could have changed; these are the things that I couldn’t control and couldn’t change.’ You look at it a lot more analytically rather than emotionally. That comes with being a veteran.”
Potter’s maturity and levelheadedness are products of a career characterized by peaks and troughs, with the 34-year-old having won and lost against the very best that Australia and New Zealand had to offer at lightweight and welterweight before getting his opportunity in the big leagues. Along the way, the BJJ black belt picked up regional titles from HEX Fight Series, Eternal MMA and Valor, and past opponents include eventual UFC alums Jake Matthews, whom Potter now trains with, and Richard Walsh, and famed City Kickboxing head coach Eugene Bareman, who has been credited for his work with UFC champion Israel Adesanya and a stable of up-and-comers in Auckland.
Reflecting on his journey and his decision to pursue fighting full-time about two years into his professional career, Potter described an industry still in its infancy, and an impulse to “have a crack” at the big time.
“Back in the day when I started competing, MMA, especially in Melbourne, was a very up-and-down scene” he said. “You’d get fights that were on kickboxing shows and billed as ‘No Holds Barred.’ I had three or fights like that which weren’t registered [i.e. appearing on his professional record]… We used to have to piggyback on kickboxing cards; MMA was seen as a bit of a novelty.
“I think I was about four or five fights before I made a decision that this was something I wanted to work towards” he continued. “Renegade MMA had just opened up and there was an opportunity to get some coaching work there. I decided that I wanted to really have a crack, back when I didn’t have kids or was trying to buy a house. That was the time to do it.”
When Potter went full-time as a fighter and coach, he left behind a job as manager of a liquor store -- a “bottlo" to use the Australian parlance -- and his days as a singer on Melbourne’s cover band circuit, which earned him his nickname “The Rockstar.” It’s a time that Potter looks back at fondly, in no small part due to its simplicity compared to his present day.
“I was a liquor manager at IGA [Independent Grocers of Australia]” he said, smiling. “I always like to say, selling grog to Australians is not a difficult job, it’s pretty easy. It was an enjoyable job, but once I realized that I was spending 50 percent of my time doing my actual job and 50 percent of my time watching kickboxing and jiu-jitsu videos around the store, I knew it was time to move on. I believe there’s not much sense wasting time. What you want to be doing with your time is exactly what you should be doing with your time. You don’t get many chances at this big thing, and you might as well give it the best that you’ve got.”
“[With music], that all started with my best mate from school” he elaborated. “He got right into his guitar playing. We would hang out on Fridays and Saturdays, and he would play his guitar while I would sing. From there, him and I were supposed to play together for a band at a local pub where I worked as well, and then he bailed out! So I ended up singing with some backing tracks, and got a gig there for the next two years. From there I began playing with some other bands, which was sensational and very fun… I did it all at the right age. If somebody offered me the same opportunities now, I couldn’t handle it. I get to 10 p.m. and I’m ready to go to sleep.”
Potter, a father of two young daughters and a mentor to an expanding crop of grapplers and MMA fighters from the area, embraces his role as his gym’s skipper alongside former UFC middleweight Dan Kelly. Indeed, when his time is up in the sport, Potter sees coaching full-time as the next logical step, and isn’t coy about the lessons he imparts on young fighters just starting out.
“The one thing I’ve always said to a lot of our [students] is that, instead of waiting to get a fight booked and then getting yourself in shape, stay in shape” Potter said. “Be in shape, train year round.
“When you start enjoying the training, it’s a great life to live” he continued. “[Conversely], if you’re waking up dreading that you have to spar or grapple, then it’s awful. You might as well be a manager at IGA. If you enjoy the training, the process, it’s good. I have good days in training and bad days in training, but it’s all better than shovelling sand in the Sahara. It’s a great life to live -- that’s what I tell the young guys; to enjoy it. We spent so much time on these mats, giving up our bodies, our sanity, saying ‘no’ to catching up with people and other social events. You want to make sure you’re enjoying the time you spend training.”
The advice that Potter gives to his students is the same advice that he lives by, approaching the final stages of his career with a view to making memories. By Potter’s estimation, he has approximately two years left before his journey inside the cage is over, and his objective is to make every moment count.
“My main focus is winning my next bout, whenever that gets signed” he said. “Obviously I don’t want to be losing two in a row, especially in the UFC. That would be my main thing. My goal after that, with my age and my skillset, what I’m looking for is to make memories. I’ve got the chance to fight in the big league and make a good profit from dedicating my life to this sport, and I just want to make those memories.
“I’d like to make it into the UFC ranks, and I’d love nothing more than to compete against some big names” he continued, obviously enthused about the future. “When I’m that little bit older -- Dan Kelly kind of old -- I can look back and have those memories and stories. You are giving up so much physically to this sport, through training and dieting. I’d like to pull back what I’ve paid in memories.”
With MMA in the Australasian region having recently entered a golden age, and an upcoming mega-fight featuring Australian middleweight champion Robert Whittaker against adopted-Kiwi Israel Adesanya, who just snatched the interim belt a fortnight ago in Atlanta, Potter figures it’s as good a time as ever to leave his mark. And when asked specifically about his prediction for the unification bout -- which would go down as one of the biggest combat sports’ events in Australia’s history -- his enthusiasm is palpable.
“It’s such a good fight, man,” he said. “Both guys are sensational athletes. I find it very difficult to pick -- the slick, smooth, accurate striking of Israel, [versus] Rob who has so many strings to his bow. I remember watching Rob on [Cage Fighting Championship] cards back in the day where he was beating the absolute who’s who of regional names.
“They’re both such great representatives of ANZAC MMA. It’s going to be such a high level MMA fight. I’d love to fight on the card early, then get to my seat to watch that one play out.”
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.