It was only three years ago, but it might as well be a lifetime for Marvin Vettori. On April 14, 2018, the Italian middleweight walked to the cage at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, for a bout against Israel Adesanya.
Adesanya was a well-known kickboxer, but he had only one UFC fight to his credit. Vettori was headed into his fifth UFC but, but was 1-1-1 in the previous three and his fight with Adesanya got scant attention despite being on the main card.
That’s because the main event that night, between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, was so highly anticipated.
Adesanya is now the UFC’s middleweight champion and one of the promotion’s biggest stars. Vettori hasn’t lost since dropping a split decision to Adesanya that night, racking up five consecutive wins, and his intensity and determination have helped him grow a large fanbase.
He has been desperately calling out highly ranked fighters for more than a year now, and had largely been frustrated with his inability to get the fights he wanted. In this case, though, he got something of a break.
Despite his five consecutive wins, the UFC planned to offer the June 12 fight at UFC 263 against Adesanya to former champion Robert Whittaker, who was coming off an impressive victory over Kelvin Gastelum.
But Whittaker wanted to spend more time with his young family and preferred to wait until the fall to fight, so the UFC turned to Vettori.
Though it was a happy day, the call didn’t shock him.
“Man, I knew it,” Vettori told Yahoo Sports. “Somehow, I knew it. I felt it. I wanted a little more time, but [it’s OK]. Everything has prepared me for this moment. I just had to reset my mind and get back into training. For sure, I wasn’t going to let a moment like that slide.”
Vettori is one of those guys whose self-belief is absolute and it’s carried him just about to the summit. He’s a grinder, a guy who doesn’t quit, a guy who keeps trying until something goes his way.
He had some success against Adesanya in the first fight, and believes he did enough to earn the decision. Despite that, he feels like he had much more to give than he did.
The good news is, nobody will remember that fight if he raises his game enough on Saturday to win the fight and become the UFC champion. It will be a long and somewhat unlikely rise, given that his native Italy is far from a hotbed for fighting.
But he’s optimistic that the best is yet to come in his career.
“I’ve watched the fight multiple times and I was the aggressor in that fight and I was the one pushing the action all the time,” he said. “Whatever. Judges screw up a lot of times. Here I am … ready for the rematch and ready to settle the score once and for all. I want to show who really is the best middleweight in the world.
“I feel like back then, when he won, it was a little [victory], let’s call it. But now, when everybody’s eyes are going to be on us, I’m going to win it.”
He watched Adesanya’s loss in a light heavyweight title fight against Jan Blachowicz and thinks there are things Blachowicz did to Adesanya that he can replicate.
There are areas he can improve upon. On the two takedowns he managed against Adesanya, Adesanya struggled to get up, but Vettori didn’t do a lot of damage.
Had he taken advantage and dropped some elbows, he might be the last one making the ring walk on Saturday instead of Adesanya, who is a -250 favorite.
But he’s not living in the past, only trying to learn from it.
“There’s a number of reasons [I didn’t do damage when he was on the ground],” Vettori said. “He was super sweaty and I didn’t want to lose position. But they’re still mistakes in the sense that it was some lack of technical stuff, too.
“Back then, I was 22 years old. I had an overall knowledge of a lot of things, but at the end of the day, I felt like I was a kid with big [courage]. I didn’t have a lot of knowledge, but I had a lot of pride and I wanted it bad. I wasn’t as refined or as polished as I am now. Now, I’m a whole different animal. I can read things and I have a deeper knowledge of whatever it is.”
Whether that’s enough to get him the title is open to debate. The one thing that there is no debate about, though, is Vettori’s self-belief. And in sports, believing you can do something is often more than half the battle.
Marvin Vettori believes.
On Saturday, he vows he’ll prove his words aren’t just hype to sell a fight.
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