The last time Zach Makovsky was at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, he was only a spectator.
With only a little over a year of experience under his belt, he was on hand to watch UFC 79 over six years ago. Tonight (Feb. 22, 2014), "Fun Size" will be back inside the Mandalay Bay, only this time he will be fighting Josh Sampo on the UFC 170 prelims.
Makovsky was a guest on MMAmania's "Darce Side Radio" podcast and recalled that night back on December 29, 2007.
"That was right at the beginning of my career," Makovsky said. "I probably had like two or three fights at that point and I was like, ‘it would be so great to fight in Vegas some time,' and now I'm going back to Mandalay Bay and fighting there, so it's very special for sure."
The former Bellator bantamweight champion won his first fight in the UFC, back in December over Scott Jorgensen at UFC on FOX 9; a fight he took on less than two-weeks notice. Makovsky was obviously happy about getting a win in the promotion he, along with every other fighter, has worked to get to his whole career.
But he makes it clear that he's not going to be satisfied with just that accomplishment alone.
"It was definitely a great feeling," he said. "Don't get me wrong, making it to the UFC and fighting in the UFC has always been one of my top goals, if not my top goal in the sport, but you have to constantly change your goals. As I got there, I didn't want to be satisfied with just fighting in the UFC and just being there."
"Now that I'm fighting there, I want to do the best I can and hopefully make a run at the title. So I don't want or let myself get too excited and really... I don't know how to put it. Really enjoy it right now... When I'm done fighting, when I look back, then I will be more appreciative of it, but I want to stay focused right now and keep doing my thing. I was back in the gym after a few days of rest, as usual."
Living on the East Coast "hasn't been helping," he said, in regards to the copious amounts of snowfall the area has been hit with. Not being able to travel from Philadelphia up to New York -- where he cross trains at Marcelo Garcia's and The Wat -- hasn't stopped him from training.
"I always make sure I get something in," he said.
The next man in the way at a possible chance at Demetrious Johnson is Sampo. "The Gremlin" is also 1-0 in the UFC like Makovsky, and earned a "Fight of the Night" award on top of it. Sampo's performance against Ryan Benoit, combined with the good battle he and Jorgensen displayed, makes the tenth-ranked UFC flyweight think their UFC 170 match-up "should be an exciting fight."
"I'm excited to fight Josh, it's one of the fights I was looking to hopefully get," Makovsky admitted. "I think he is a very talented guy. I think he is very similar to me in a lot of ways. Probably the most similar guy to me that I've fought so far: comes from a collegiate background, good jiu-jitsu skills, and stand-up skills. I think overall, we both favor grappling over stand up. I think it is going to be very competitive wherever the fight plays out because we are so similar. I think it should be exciting no matter where the fight goes and I think it's going to be a mix of stand up and ground, all over the place."
While Makovsky's grappling has always been one of his strongest assets, it's his striking that has made vast improvements and it was quite evident in his win against Jorgensen. He showcased a solid jab, sprinkled in a few head kick attempts and landed some very clean and crisp combinations against the savvy veteran.
"I feel like my striking has had potential to be sharp and much more effective than it has been in my last couple of fights," Makovsky said. "Over the last couple of years I think I should've been doing more. It's just a matter of having the confidence to use it and understand when to use it."
"I think it is coming together. I'm still learning a lot and I am definitely more confident in my stand-up than I've ever been. But, I'm also going to be fighting some of the best guys in the world, so you have to be running on all cylinders and be able to use everything."
Makovsky splits time between his striking coach in Philadelphia, Ricky Lee, and New York, with Kru Phil Nurse at The Wat. The latter is one of the more touted Muay Thai coaches in MMA, and has helped a great deal with his confidence.
"He's incredibly athletic, incredibly fast and incredibly strong," Makovsky said, complementing Nurse. "When he puts you in the clinch, there's not much you can do. Working with him and his team at The Wat has been a real help. I've really been learning a lot from Phil. Like I said, having the confidence, Phil has really helped me with that. He talks to me about the mental side of fighting a lot."
"The first time I ever talked to him, one of the question he asked me right from the get-go was, ‘who is the champion in your weight class?' I said ‘Demetrious Johnson.' He said, ‘How do you think you would do against him? Do you think you can beat him?' I said 'Well, I think it would be a tough fight.' He said, ‘wrong answer.' He's been honing the mental side of things for me since I've been working with him. He's helping a lot."
"Fun Size" is near the bottom of the flyweight rankings (see them), but aside from Joseph Benavidez -- who has already lost twice to Johnson -- and John Dodson, the division is wide open. Ali Bagautinov could possible be the next in line at a shot against Johnson after defeating John Lineker, but Makovsky knows with a few wins he won't be far off from one.
"I certainly think there is a lot of talent at flyweight, but I also think there is no definitive pecking order, where it's like okay, you have to beat these guys and these guys to get there," he explained. "Like you said, Demetrious has beaten the other guys at the top. Other than Demetrious, Benavidez and John Dodson, I think it's kind of wide open for everyone. It's definitely, of course, on my mind. I just want to keep fighting and winning and make my way up there, but I'm not calling for any title shot or anything like that yet."
Too modest a competitor to be like a Chael Sonnen, you will never hear Makovsky be anything other than reserved and respectful. Although, he did get a chuckle when asked during the interview about being a fan of WWE legend Brett "The Hitman" Hart.
"I used to be really into pro wrestling in middle school and high school and even before, so the 'Hitman' was always one of my favorites," he said.
Maybe that's what's missing. Not so much the pre-fight hype, and call outs, but maybe a little strutting out to the Octagon with Hart's theme song playing?
Makovsky began to laugh at the thought of it, saying, "I'll think about it."