When Michael Bisping fell off the UFC Fight Night event, Ross Pearson was symbolically handed the United Kingdom flag as the most recognizable Brit on the card. Fighting at home, with a partisan crowd at his back, Pearson could very well ride the momentum to victory. Or be buried by it.
That’s exactly what happened to his opponent Melvin Guillard when he had a similar opportunity at UFC 136. That fight took place in Houston, which Guillard considers his "second" hometown, and he came in riding an impressive five-fight win streak. But when he entered the cage, he got steamrolled, losing in just 47 seconds.
"The pressure starts to build," Guillard said of the situation. "Too much pressure, and you bust the pipe."
Guillard’s experience isn’t all too uncommon. Many fighters have publicly stated that they prefer to fight on the road in order to avoid the extra media obligations and attention that comes with being the local attraction. Mentally, many view the journey to a far-off place as a "business trip."
Pearson hasn’t fought in his home country for nearly four years. It was only his second UFC fight, in 2009, when he defeated Aaron Riley in a second-round TKO caused by a doctor stoppage. That was part of a three-fight win streak that kicked off his UFC career. A win over Guillard at UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Munoz would give him his first three-fight victory stretch since then.
"I’m honored to fight for the country," Pearson said on Wednesday. "I kind of rise to that pressure. The bigger the occasion, the bigger the pressure, the bigger the fight, I kind of rise to it. I kind of need that pressure. I fight better under pressure and when my back is against the wall, and people are underestimating me. I’m ready to go. I’ve done everything in my power. I’ve trained like a world champion, I feel like a world champion and I’m ready to go out there and put on a show."
But if he has his way, it will be a different kind of show, not a blood-and-guts spill, but one part technical mastery, one part heart.
One week after watching Gilbert Melendez and Diego Sanchez tear the house down in a firefight, Pearson (15-6) has designs on the evening’s Fight of the Night bonus, but aims to do it with sublime skill over raw savagery.
"I love watching fights like that as a fan, but fighters don’t need to be in a fight like that every time," he said. "It was a great fight but skill-wise, there wasn’t a lot of skill. They just slugged it out. It was an amazing fight to watch, but they’re both more skilled fighters than what they showed. Diego took a beating, Gil took some punches. To me, that’s not what the sport’s about. It’s about being able to set your moves up and manipulate your opponent to make him do what you want him to do. Not just go out there and stand in the middle toe-to-toe.
"Sometimes you need to," he continued. "If both fighters are the same size, same skill level, same strength, it comes down to who wants it more and who’s going to take it the farthest. Who’s got the biggest balls? Sometimes you need it but not every fight. I’ve done too many of those fights were I have tried to have the biggest balls. I’m looking to improve my fighting game with skills. I love watch Anderson Silva fight. He fights with finesse. He makes violence look beautiful. I’m trying to copy that."
According to Pearson, this is one of those rare times where he is better than his opponent in every category. Sure, Guillard has more raw power than nearly every other lightweight on the planet, but Pearson still feels he has the striking edge given his technical prowess and accuracy. He likes his chances in wrestling, the clinch game, even if he finds himself with his back to the mat.
A victory would make it three in a row since he abandoned a short-lived run at featherweight. Pearson said the cut simply didn’t suit his body, and that he’d rather be an undersized lightweight fighting at 100 percent instead of an oversized featherweight trying to compete on half-empty fuel tanks.
Back to winning, back in his homeland, Pearson is filled with confidence that he’s on the right track, and that the changes he made will lead to victory now and a longer, more successful shelf life later.
"I’m just super confident right now," Pearson said. "The confidence is going to show on Saturday night. I’m going to feel confident in wherever the fight is. I’m not going to feel like I’m on the back foot or I’m scared. I’m going to fight out there with confidence."