Photo by Keith Mills via Sherdog
It didn't surprise anyone on the east coast that Tom DeBlass will be making his UFC debut.
The only surprise was the lack of preparation, given that he was offered the bout against Cyrille Diabate at UFC on Fuel TV 2 this Saturday (April 14, 2012) on just 12 days' notice. Perhaps when you understand just how hard Tom DeBlass trains and prepares for his fights, maybe it would make a little bit more sense.
DeBlass comes from an elite heritage of training, becoming a renowned grappler under Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt Ricardo Almeida, who trains under Renzo Gracie. After receiving a laundry list of accolades in BJJ competition throughout the mid to late 2000's, DeBlass went all in after transitioning to mixed martial arts.
Working countless hours with the likes of Frankie Edgar's boxing coach Mark Henry, Almeida and at his own academy, DeBlass has transitions masterfully to our beloved combat sport, quickly winning the Ring of Combat light heavyweight title after just over a year of professional competition.
The undefeated combatant spoke with MMAmania.com about getting the call to the UFC, what smoothed his transitions to MMA and preparing for the absolute worst against Cyrille Diabate in this extensive and exclusive interview.
It's a long one but definitely worth it. Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You seem like a guy that's got a plan for everything. You timed out your pro debut after all those years of grappling in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What was it like to get that call for the UFC? Did you feel you were ready for it beforehand?
Tom DeBlass: Yeah, I felt ready after about my sixth fight or so. I think that's when people started wondering when I was gonna get the call. I've competed so much in jiu-jitsu and grappling and won some high level competitions, most of the high level competitions in the world at the brown belt level. I was at the world class stage for a while and competing at a high level was real easy. I was expecting a call, I signed with Ali, my new manager and I actually pulled out of a Ring of Combat fight on April 22nd to let a nagging injury heal and I just started getting back into training the week before I got the call. I was expecting it, but I wasn't expecting it to be in Sweden on 12 days' notice. I've never fought on 12 days' notice before.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): But your confidence level is definitely high despite all the obstacles in your way?
Tom DeBlass: Yeah, I believe in God's plan. I had visions of fighting Cyrille Diabate for a while now, believe it or not. I actually had a feeling that his opponent was gonna pull out of his fight with an injury but I thought we'd have more time to prepare. I believe Cyrille is a very good match-up for me. Even though he's very tall, I feel I'm very strong and compact and I have good takedowns and of course, my jiu-jitsu's where it's at and we know that's his weakness.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Yeah I was just gonna start with that. Cyrille Diabate, he's a great kickboxer but his kryptonite has been tough grapplers like the Gustafssons and Anthony Perosh's of the world. This seems like a picture perfect match-up for you. For your UFC debut, if you're gonna step up on short notice against somebody, this seems like an ideal match-up.
Tom DeBlass: I think he's a really dangerous guy on his feet, but this is MMA, it's not kickboxing. I think I'm also very dangerous on the feet. I throw hard, I hit hard, I'm fast and I've got fast hands and I think I might connect with him so I'll definitely show as well. I think his jiu-jitsu is better than most people think actually. If you watch some of his fights, when he got submitted, he was taking a beating beforehand so it took a little while before they put him away. I'm very, very good with top control once I put people down and I make people get uncomfortable and I think I'm gonna do the same thing to him.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): He's a really long, lanky guy. That makes him easier to take down if he doesn't use his length right. How do you plan on dealing with a guy that's got a seven inch height advantage on you heading into this fight?
Tom DeBlass: I think everybody that I've fought has been taller than me other than like two guys. One of my main training partners is 6'4. I'm training with someone now who's 6'7. To be honest, I'd rather they be taller especially if they're not a wrestler because like you said, I feel it is easier to take down a taller guy when they're not a wrestler because their leg is right there. I think I'm gonna have a strength advantage on Cyrille and I know he's been working on his wrestling but this is something I've been doing for a long, long time. My jiu-jitsu and taking the fight to the ground and imposing my will. I think that's gonna work to my advantage. Hopefully he doesn't catch me at the end of his punches but he likes to come forward and that's what I want. I want him to come forward like he always does.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've had all those years behind you with the grappling and you've already had several fights in mixed martial arts. Is there any pressure, taking such a giant leap forward in your career?
Tom DeBlass: I think there's pressure before every fight. I take myself very seriously. I'm a pretty serious guy when it comes to fighting but really there's not any more pressure to fighting in the UFC compared to when I was defending my title at Ring of Combat. Actually, there's probably less pressure when you're taking a fight on 12 days notice against a very tough opponent. I know what to expect because of so many people doing that already.
In Ring of Combat, people were actually getting tired of me fighting there because I wasn't really running into bad spots there and the pressure to win there was much more extreme than it is now. I'm just gonna go out there whether it's a ring, the cage, the Octagon, my backyard, a fight's a fight. I throw my punches, he throws his punches. I show my skills and he shows his skills and whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen. I'm definitely not gonna let being in the UFC give me those first time "jitters" so to speak.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You posted something about how this weight cut is going to be a lot different too because you've never had such a short time to prepare for a fight. Is that a concern at all? Is this expected to be your toughest weight cut?
Tom DeBlass: I actually started cutting weight the day I found out. I don't think it's gonna be as tough as I originally thought it would be. It'll be a little bit of pain in the butt like it always is, being in a fight, but thank God it started coming off right away. As soon as I started cutting, it started shedding so I'll probably get there around 217 and will just have 12 pounds to go so it's not too bad. I'll rehydrate and be ready to go. I look at this fight as destiny. What was meant to be is meant to be. I'm not nervous. I'm not scared. I have no fear. I don't care about getting hurt. It doesn't bother me. I'm going out there and I'm gonna fight to the best of my ability.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Normally, when you're preparing for a fight, you get all that time to prepare and train specifically for your opponent but you're having to balance your prefight preparation with cutting weight so is that a strain mentally at all?
Tom DeBlass: Everything was a strain for those first four days. I had to get my medicals and UFC medicals are no joke. Then I had to take the drug test and in two days I was in four different locations and then I had to cut the weight and get training sessions in and it was a little overwhelming at first. Now things have calmed down and I have the best coaches in the world I think. I've been working with Mark Henry and Ricardo Almeida on the gameplan and I think that since I am taking it on the 12 days' notice, Cyrille is not a wrestler who's gonna try to take me down and grind me out and make me tired. He still fights very slow-paced like he always has. Even when he won the decision against Steve Cantwell, I heard the third round was very slow-paced. That gives me an opportunity to get loose and really impose my gameplan on him and make him tired.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I'd like to talk a bit about your background since this is the first time our readers have had a chance to really get to know you. I'm interested in the transition you made to come over from Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What was the spark after all those years of training under Ricardo Almeida, what was that made you want to switch over to MMA? Was it just the next step?
Tom DeBlass: It was the next step. I think for someone in my position, if I didn't do it, it would almost be wrong. I was young enough, I had my own jiu-jitsu academy where I had the time to train and obviously I'm a competitor so why not fight? It's important that I put myself in uncomfortable situations for my team, for my students to show them that I'm willing to put it all on the line and I'm a man of my word. My teacher's done it. His teacher's done it with Renzo Gracie and Ricardo and it was just the next step. I'm not a jiu-jitsu guy that's just a jiu-jitsu guy. I've always liked to throw hands. I've always liked to be in a fight and I'm going into this fight looking to throw punches too. I know he's a world class kickboxer but I'm a fighter. The transition feels natural.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know you had all those years of jiu-jitsu competition, but what are some of the key differences for you in making the transition in using your jiu-jitsu for MMA? Is it just that you can't be as patient, you can't leave as much space because of strikes?
Tom DeBlass: The key difference is when you're on the bottom, you either have to submit or reverse really quickly. The bottom is not where you want to hang out. You don't want to use closed guard too often and just get caught on the bottom and take those strikes. In MMA, you have to be athletic. There's no way around it. You have to have an athletic style. you can't be a spider guard player. you have to have an athletic and explosive style. If you don't have that jiu-jitsu game, you have to learn how to make that your jiu-jitsu game because all of these guys are very submission aware. I think all fights in the UFC are like that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Can you talk about what you did specifically that helped make your transition to MMA better? A lot of the guys who are straight Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters, when they make the transition, they have a lot of trouble if someone forces them to stand because they haven't added that level of their game yet.
Tom DeBlass: I think Mark Henry, that just sums it up right there. Mark really understands MMA rather than just boxing and I hooked up with him for basically a year straight before I ever fought. So finally, when I stepped into the cage, I was comfortable with my hands. If you look at my last two fights, I keep it standing and I didn't even look for the takedown and I really train MMA rather than just jiu-jitsu. I understood that being a world class jiu-jitsu guy is not enough. You have to have hands, you have to have wrestling and you have to have everything. Mark really dissects the game and really understands it and I'm a fast learner and everything he told me for the most part, I sucked up and I understood it. Ricardo's the same way, he understands it too. If you look at his style, he wants to be on top. He's not a guard player, he wants to take people down so I just understood that MMA is just that, MMA. Not just jiu-jitsu.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You've got this reputation as one of the hardest workers in all of mixed martial arts. I heard you drive over 1000 miles a week just for your training and you for 2-3 times a day every day. Can you tell me a little bit about the time and dedication that you have to your training?
Tom DeBlass: Yeah, I don't think there's any way around it. Being on a team with Frankie Edgar who I think is the hardest worker helps that. I actually drive about 1200-1500 miles a week. I've been driving to New York City lately which is about two hours from my house on Mondays, come back to my academy Monday nights. I drive to Trenton which is an hour from my house on Tuesday to train at Ricardo's, come back and train at my academy. Drive to Mark Henry's and my strength and conditioning coaches which is about an hour from my house on Wednesdays and come back and wrestle at my academy. Ricardo's again Thursday and come back and wrestle with Matt Pletcher at my academy. Mark Henry's on Fridays, I really don't get to spend much time with my family during fight camps and it gets a little bit tiresome but at the same time, if you're gonna choose this way to live, you've got to do it the best way.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): I know that you had all your MMA fights in Ring of Combat in New Jersey but do you feel like all your years of travelling around the world for Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments, that's gonna help you with the fact that you're going overseas for this fight?
Tom DeBlass: Yeah, I'm a competitor. When I won the nationals in jiu-jitsu, I was there alone. I took a flight out there to California alone and that was it. I competed in Barcelona and I was in Japan last month with Frankie. Whenever I was at a UFC fight with them, I always imagined myself being there. Actually, I'm gonna feel the energy from all my friends back home and no matter where that fight is, it doesn't matter. You've got 15 minutes or 25 minutes, whichever you're fighting for and it's come and it's gonna go so it's up to you to put your heart and soul into it and of course I'm hoping on 12 days notice, I have that endurance and that stamina to take me there. I'm gonna have to fight smart. Regardless of what happens, I'm gonna fight my heart out.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): When you close your eyes and picture victory, what do you see?
Tom DeBlass: I don't picture victory yet, believe it or not, because if I picture victory now, I'll get too happy. I understand that in order to get victory, I have to first put myself through hell and back. When I close my eyes, I picture my faced bloodied, my nose smashed and I picture me still being able to fight through that like Frankie Edgar does. I picture me being in the worst situations and then prevailing. That's what I picture and I'm sure my hand's raised. If it is raised, God willing, I'm sure it will be one of the best feelings in the world.
Tom would like thank God, his family, his mother and father, his daughter Isabelle, his fiance Delilah, Ricardo Almeida, Mark Henry, Brian Blue, his manager Ali and all his students at his academy. You can follow him on twitter @TomDeBlass.
So how do you think DeBlass will fare?
Will his elite grappling background be too much for the lanky Diabate to handle? Can DeBlass live up to the hype while making his UFC debut so far from his home?