Welterweight Papy Abedi received about as difficult an initiation as one can ask to enter the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
After all, there aren't many prospects who get thrown into the fire against a former (and still relevant) title challenger in their promotional debut. Unfortunately for "Makembo," Abedi fell short against Thiago Alves at UFC 138 last fall, losing for the first time in his young career.
But, that's not where this story ends.
The Swedish-Congolese fighter switched up his training, joining countryman Alexander Gustafsson on a trip to the United States to work with Alliance MMA, which brought his confidence back and has more than prepared him for his upcoming bout against James Head at UFC on Fuel TV 2 next Saturday (April 14, 2012) in his native Stockholm, Sweden.
He spoke with MMAmania.com about his adjustments in training, whether Alves was too much, too soon, and the reason he always has that cigar with him for walkouts and weigh-ins in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Note: Papy Abedi's trainer Andreas Michael translated for this interview
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You announced that you'd be having your next fight in Sweden immediately after your last fight, so how does it feel now that it finally is happening?
Papy Abedi: I feel fantastic, being a part of the fight card for the first UFC fight in Scandanavia, it's an honor to fight on this card.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You're an extremely confident individual. I want to know how you got your confidence back after your first career loss?
Papy Abedi: I changed teams and I started training with Alexander Gustafsson and his head coach. That helped my confidence because I was with a new coach that helped me prepare for this fight and that helped me get my confidence back by working in a different way than I'm used to working, working with different athletes, sparring with different athletes, world class athletes. They've helped me develop my technique and my skills and that in itself has helped me get my confidence back.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Now Alexander Gustafsson went and trained with Phil Davis after he defeated him and that's how he ended up training at Alliance. Thiago Alves offered for you to train at American Top Team. Did you go over there at all or did you instead decide to work at Alliance with Alexander Gustafsson and everyone else?
Andreas Michael: After [Alexander Gustafsson's] loss, we came back to Sweden and we discussed what the next step would be because I was away with the Olympic team when he lost. When I came back after the loss, I stopped working with the Olympic team. I walked away from that and decided to full time train the MMA team instead and what happened was Alex came to me and we discussed we were gonna go to Alliance or the Wolfslair with Bisping and Kongo. I decided the best thing would be to go and work on Alex's weakness which was wrestling. With that said, I now help coach Phil Davis and Dominick Cruz and all the guys from Alliance as well and we've become like a team there and we help each other. I help coach the striking and they help us with the wrestling so we just help each other grow. It was a perfect relationship and I get along with the head coach Eric Del Fierro very well. He's become a very close friend of mine and we help our teams go together.
Naturally, when Papy came into the picture, it was after I made the connection with Alliance and we took Papy with us because it's even easier for Papy to get better sparring because they have really good smaller weight classes there so it was a great match to go to Alliance and train with guys who could work with him and he could develop just as much as everyone else on our team could develop.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Looking back, did you feel that your first UFC fight being against Thiago Alves, was that too difficult for a UFC debut?
Papy Abedi: It was a very tough fight. My first fight in the UFC was very tough and I could have gotten an easier fight but at the same time, I don't feel it was impossible. If I had worked the way I work now, because right now I haven't left a stone unturned because I've been sparring with world class fighters, some of the best in the world. My camp has some of the best Scandinavian fighters and European fighters. I've had extremely tough preparation for this fight and the outcome would have been different if I had this before. You live and you learn and you grow from that experience and I've become a better and more mature fighter from that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What do you feel you personally have improved the most with all this work since the last time we saw you?
Papy Abedi: The last fight went so fast but now in this fight, I feel I've developed in all areas, cage work, grappling, my striking. I feel that I've developed my structure and there's more knowledge behind what I'm doing now. All the working with some of the best athletes in the world has helped me so much. I've been working on the small details on each part of my game, the striking, grappling, wrestling and I've become deeper into the game and it's helped me develop as an MMA fighter.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You're opponent, James Head, is a very good Muay Thai striker with very good jiu-jitsu. What do you think of him?
Papy Abedi: Well, he's still a strong opponent. Just because he doesn't have a name like Thiago Alves, that doesn't mean I'm not going to train hard. I'm actually training harder for this fight than I was when I fought Thiago and I'm concentrating 100 percent. I feel James Head is a very strong opponent and he's ready to fight and exchange and bring the fight to me. I've trained very hard and I hope James Head has trained hard because it's gonna be a great fight and we're gonna put on a great show for my hometown and home country.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): James Head is coming down from middleweight. I know you fought at middleweight before as well, but is there any concern about his size coming into this fight?
Papy Abedi: It's not about how big an opponent is, it's how you fight and how you train. I'm used to sparring and grappling and wrestling with people that are just as big or fight at middleweight or big welterweights. I'm getting used to the height and the reach and I feel prepared for that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you prefer or would you like to use your judo more?
Papy Abedi: It doesn't matter to me because I've been working everything. I have the judo background but I train MMA now. That means doing everything so I'm prepared for wherever the fight goes.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Something I think a lot of the American fans are curious about is you always have that cigar with you for weigh-ins or when you walk out to the cage. Is there a story behind why you use the cigar?
Papy Abedi: (laughs) It's the "Makambo" look. It suits me and that's how I've always been. I get more concentrated and I think in the correct way when I've got my own look and my own style. That's what I'm known for so I've just kept that through the years.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Do you still work as an electrical engineer or do you train full time now?
Papy Abedi: For the Thiago Alves fight, I had to work. I have two kids so I have to support them but for this fight, I took off work for a couple of months so I could concentrate on training and developing my skills so I could win this fight.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): When you picture a perfect victory against James Head, what do you see?
Papy Abedi: A perfect win for me is just a win. I want to do my best and doing my best is winning is all that I need to be satisfied. I want to get the best out of myself and it doesn't matter how I win. As long as I do my best and win, that's what matters.
Papy would like to thank all his coaches, his head coach Andreas Michael, Thomas Rasmus his Thai coach and Eric Del Fierro from Team Alliance, Stockholm Shoot and his home club Stockholm Muay Thai and all the club members who helped him in sparring. He'd like to thank my manager Manos as well. You can follow Papy Abedi on twitter @TeamMakembo.
So what do you think, Maniacs?
Will the change in scenery be enough to put Abedi over the top in his second UFC fight? Now that he's not facing someone like Thiago Alves, will the result be different?