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Scott Holtzman is enjoying the Journey

“It’s been a long time coming,” Scott Holtzman says of his UFC debut, which takes place this weekend in Nashville, less than 200 miles from where he grew up in Fountain City. It’s rare that a fighter gets their first fight on the biggest stage in the sport in their own backyard, but Holtzman’s journey to the Octagon has been anything but normal.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, the unbeaten lightweight didn’t grow up in the martial arts, nor did he spend his time at the University of Tennessee on the wrestling mats – or the gridiron, like Saturday’s headliner, Ovince Saint Preux. Instead, Holtzman played hockey, racking up 102 points over three seasons before having a brief cup of coffee with the Knoxville Ice Bears.

After hanging up his skates, the competitive fires still burned, and the man they call “Hot Sauce” eventually found his way into MMA, posting four straight wins on the amateur circuit before turning pro in February 2012. The 31-year-old has rattled off seven straight without a loss heading into this weekend’s showdown with Anthony Christodoulou, and credits his relatively late start in his current sport as part of the reason he’s been able to have nothing but success inside the cage so far.

“I didn’t make any mistakes,” he begins before pausing to self-edit. “Well, I don’t know if I didn’t make any mistakes, but I was able to have some life experience before I started MMA. I wasn’t a kid and I don’t know if I could have handled this sport and the discipline it takes at a young age.

“The other thing is my body is fresh; I haven’t taken damage from fights,” Holtzman, who has finished four of his seven pro bouts after going four-for-four as an amateur, adds. “I’ve had a couple injuries here lately, but I feel great and I know I have some good years ahead of me, so I’m excited.”

Another big part of what has helped him is being part of the dangerous collection of lightweight competitors that call The MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona their home.

Talk to the gym’s head coach John Crouch about what makes his team so good and a favorite choice for short notice call-ups for UFC matchmakers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby and he’ll tell you about the slew of established and unknown talents that populate the room. When discussing Mitch Clarke’s improvement and development since opting to spend his training camps in the Arizona desert, the Royce Gracie black belt talks about the Murderer’s Row of fighters that walk into the cage trying to steal their opponent’s lunch money on a daily basis, whether they’re going with the Canadian Clarke or anyone else on the team.

“I’m not sure I’ve had an easy round since I’ve been there,” Holtzman laughs in full agreement with his coach’s assessment. “You walk in, you may not know a guy, you go a round and he beats you down worse than one of the UFC guys. We’ve got a lot of bad dudes running around; some of them are unknown, but there’s not an easy round in that place.”

At current count, there are 10 fighters that compete at welterweight or lower from The MMA Lab on the UFC roster, including former lightweight champion Benson Henderson and former TUF winner Efrain Escudero. Talk to anyone in the gym and they’ll tell you there are several more you’ll be hearing from soon.

The mention of his teammate, Drakkar Klose, draws a laugh that is quickly followed by an explanation.

“It’s funny you should mention Drakkar. He’s the No. 1 example,” Holtzman says, identifying the 4-0 lightweight as one of the largely unknown, but undeniably talented members of the team. “We’re doing a lot of sparring rounds together and you know you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to have your boots on, your hard hat and your lunch pail because he brings it. He’ll come after you, beat you up – a big, physical, multi-time state wrestling champ. I think he’ll be there one day too.

“Crouch and Ben, they’ve been instrumental for sure,” the earnest new UFC arrival continues. “They’ve been there and we have Joe Riggs in the room too, so between those guys, there are no questions that don’t have an answer. I think they’ve pretty much seen it all and that helps, having guys that have been there in your corner. It’s a big deal.”

While most fighters in Holtzman’s position are champing at the bit for fight night to arrive and running high on adrenaline even before they touch down in the host city, that little bit of life experience he talked about earlier is helping him ease back and maintain some perspective as his debut draws close.

Yeah, he’s pumped to head home and compete on the highest level in the sport and get that first UFC victory under his belt, but he’s not allowing himself to be so caught up in the moment that it rushes passed him in a blur.

“I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some good people in the sport and it has made the ride a lot more special for me. If it ended today and I never fought, the people I’ve met have been a big deal.

“I’ve really been big on not trying to miss the forest for the trees; trying to stay relaxed, take it all in and stop to smell the roses along the way,” he adds. “I’ve been big on that lately because I don’t want to be so nervous (that I miss anything). I’m taking it all in.

“I want to enjoy this moment and this ride, so to be able to do it in my hometown and get that win will be the most special moment of my life so far.”

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