World Series of Fighting (WSOF) 31 "Ivanov vs. Copeland" comes to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket, Conn., tomorrow night (Fri., June 17, 2016), featuring a main event between Heavyweight champion, Blagoi Ivanov, looking to make his his second title defense at the expense of a tough guy with a friendly nickname in Josh "Cuddly Bear" Copeland.
The NBC Sports Network (NBCSN)-televised co-main event puts Lightweight contenders -- Mike Ricci and Jason High -- on a collision course, with the winner hopeful to challenge division champion Justin Gaethje in the near future. Ricci has won three straight since 2014, but had to withdraw during the WSOF 25 "Lightweight Tournament" because of an injury. Standing across the Decagon from him will be High, a fellow former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who made a sensational debut on the same WSOF card as Ricci, recording a second round head kick knockout against Estevan Payan.
Ricci was prepared to run through the tournament to earn a title shot, while High was brought in to have a showcase fight outside of it. WSOF considers this fight to be a No. 1 contender bout, but High isn't worried about the future.
"I honestly haven't even thought about (Gaethje). The only time I think about Justin Gaethje is when people ask me about him. I'm thinking about Mike Ricci right now (and) I don't really think about him that often either -- honestly. He's just a faceless target for me, you know?"
If you've heard or read anything Ricci has said, it's clear he doesn't think of himself as "faceless." Ricci considers himself top three in the world at 155 pounds, a statement that doesn't impress High one bit.
"He can be number three -- it still doesn't change that I'm number one."
The last person to beat High is current UFC Lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos. With only two losses in the last six years, it may be fair for High to think that highly of himself, too, but he does give Ricci some credit as an opponent.
"He's a tough guy, man. Obviously, he's got the height and reach on me. He's tall and rangy, he likes to stay at his range and kickbox. He poses some problems, but I'm ready. I've been training hard, I've been getting some good work in, so I'm ready to go."
That hard training involves High crisscrossing back-and-forth between American Top Team in South Florida and his own local branch of ATT in Lenexa, Kansas.
"I'm back home working with L.C. Davis and all my guys at American Top Team HD. I spent a few weeks in Florida at American Top Team and got some awesome tips down there."
It has been a little while since we saw Davis in action at Bellator 143, so I asked High to give us a little status update given Davis has been out ever since suffering a serious eye injury against Joe Warren.
"He's doing really good. I think he's going to get cleared pretty soon to fight. I think he's going to the doctor (at) the end of this month maybe to get cleared to train. He's already actually been training -- not like hard, he's just been staying in shape, you know? I think he's gonna come back ready to go."
Injuries aren't what kept High on the sidelines since Nov. 2015. On the contrary, he has been itching to take another fight and just waiting for the opportunity to materialize.
"I've just been waiting for the fight, for the call you know? I wouldn't say anything's been keeping me out of action -- I've been staying busy, though. It's just kind of like ... in World Series there's a lot of guys trying to fight and I've just got to get in there whenever."
High has certainly made the most of his opportunities thus far, including that highlight-reel finish of Payan.
"Yeah, it went pretty well. I do a lot of visualization and stuff, but I don't have like a set gameplan. I try not to go in there with too concrete a plans because they always get scuttled, you know? But, it went well. It went about as well as it can go, you know? I got in there and got it done without taking any injuries. I was in the gym the next week."
Things haven't gone nearly that well for Ricci. He not only had to withdraw from the WSOF 25 tournament, but also had to withdraw from a Caros Fodor fight this January. High seems unconcerned Ricci will pull out with another injury this weekend.
"I don't really know what's going on with him, but he's pulled out of his last two fights. That's nothing that I can control. We are [close] and I haven't heard anything about him being injured. That's not something that I wake up every day worrying about. I can't control it, you know?"
High has had his own problems in the past with things he can control, namely his response to what he perceived to be an early stoppage in a fight. During our interview, High addressed it and says he's learned from that mistake.
"I thought it was a little overblown, that's just my personal opinion, but I definitely was in the wrong. It was just an unfortunate situation. Dana and the UFC kinda made like a knee jerk reaction. Sometimes if I'm watching the UFC, I get a little tinge of nostalgia. I feel like I should be in there competing with those guys, but there's a lot of good guys for me to beat up at World Series, so I'm happy."
High's definitely found his new home in WSOF and he has a tagline for all of his fellow Lightweights to remember from Mike Ricci to Justin Gaethje.
"Yeah, it's whatever. He can get it, too."
We'll see if Ricci "gets it" at Foxwoods tomorrow night on NBCSN!
The complete audio of our interview is below and complete fight coverage is HERE on MMAmania.com.