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'Sponge' worthy: Catching up with UFC welterweight Tarec Saffiedine

New, comments International correspondent James Goyder sits down with Tarec Saffiedine as "The Sponge" prepares for his UFC debut.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Tarec Saffiedine became the Strikeforce Welterweight Champion by beating Nate Marquardt back in January, a title which will be his until the day he dies due to the subsequent demise of the organization he won it with.

The Belgium banger will never get to defend that belt, but he is entitled to be optimistic about his future because the best fighters on the Strikeforce roster have now been absorbed into UFC and his next outing will be inside the Octagon in a division which is arguably the most competitive of them all at present.

Georges St. Pierre recently defended his 170-pound title, one he's held since 2008, against Nick Diaz in the main event of UFC 158 last Saturday night in Montreal. Saffiedine could have been on the card as well, however...

"I was offered a fight with Carlos Condit at UFC 158 but I was injured and it was too close to heal up and be ready for this fight," he said.

His status as Strikeforce champion might have been enough to put the Belgian in pole position for an immediate title shot, allowing the UFC matchmakers to unify the two titles in the same way they did by having belt holders Dan Henderson and Quinton Jackson fight each other after the acquisition of PRIDE.

However, Saffiedine expects to have to establish himself with a couple of wins on UFC cards before being given an opportunity to win another title.

"I don't know when my first UFC fight will be. Getting a title shot straightaway would have been great, but I haven't even had any title defenses in Strikeforce. Hopefully after a couple of fights I should get the title shot," he said.

Saffiedine has a background in kickboxing and Karate and it was his leg kicks which really caught the eye in a unanimous decision win over former UFC title challenger Nate Marquardt. He says he first started out as a stand-up fighter but made the transition to MMA as a teenager.

"I started when I was 15 with Taekwondo, my father did it when he was young and I wanted to try it out as well. I liked it but I really wanted to do MMA since I was reading a Manga book which was talking about MMA at that time, so a friend introduced me to Shihaishinkai which is a martial art really similar to MMA and I started training with it and got hooked," he said.

Entering an amateur tournament was an obvious progression for the Belgian teenager and, having studied such a diversity of martial arts, he found that MMA allowed him to put all of this experience to good use.

"I had my first professional MMA fight in Belgium after I won the Belgium Shooto amateur tournament. I won my fight and I was hooked, that's all I wanted to do since. I have competed in a lot of different styles before that and MMA is all those styles in one, so I really enjoyed competing in it," he said.

Despite enjoying success first as an amateur and then on the professional circuit in Europe, it is doubtful whether Saffiedine would ever have accomplished as much as he has today had he not taken the brave step of leaving Belgium in 2008 in order to train and compete in the United States.

The move has clearly paid dividends as he is now one of the top welterweights and, after going 7-1 for Strikeforce culminating in the successful title tilt against Marquardt, is set to face off with some of the best fighters in the world. Saffiedine was only 21 years old when he left his family and friends in Belgium behind to move to the U.S. but he says the decision was not a difficult one,

"It wasn't that hard (to do). I took it as an experience at first, to see where it would lead me after. Team Quest offered me to stay and train full time with the team and it was an opportunity I couldn't miss," he said.

Saffiedine spoke to in Singapore where he has been helping the Evolve MMA Fight Team prepare for bouts at ONE FC: "Kings & Champions" early next month and he says he has also been getting some good training in himself.

"My former coach, Heath Sims, is the main trainer at Evolve now and invited me to come train. I have been to Thailand many times to train but Evolve has the best group of trainers I have ever seen at one location. It's a beautiful state-of-the-art facility with the best fight team in Asia and I am learning something new everyday," he said.

When Saffiedine eventually does make his UFC debut, he will also make history by becoming the first Belgian to fight for the promotion. His country's name is not synonymous with competitive fighting, unless you count Jean Claude Van Damme's on-screen efforts, but the 26 year old says the sport is slowly increasing in popularity.

"It's getting bigger every year. I have more and more people following my career today and I am really thankful for it. I always tried to represent my country the best I can, it's important to me."

This interview appears courtesy of Evolve MMA.