The pandemic wasn't kind to Unified MMA heavyweight champion Chris Larsen (7-2), but as he approaches his Friday title defense against Jamelle Jones (12-8), the big man from Edmonton has his fingers crossed that everything is going to work out just fine.
"Yes, always," Larsen laughs. "I take time off work to train – a month or two months off from work, and then a fight falls through. That's the nature of our sport, but I'm always hoping it happens."
There are no worries from the 35-year-old about what happens when the cage door shuts at the River Cree Resort and Casino in a card aired on UFC Fight Pass, just that someone shows up for the fight and that the someone is the man he signed up to face. Yes, that's how life goes post-COVID when you're a heavyweight prizefighter in Canada.
"I've got the belt and I've been wanting to take a jump up in the level of competition," Larsen said. "The last couple fights, I've been trying to look outside Canada and find some real tough guys to fight, and it hasn't always happened that way with pull-outs and stuff like that. But I'm looking forward to fighting people that I can be proud to fight and overcoming that challenge."
Delaware's Jones is a step in the right direction for Larsen. A veteran who has competed in the CFFC, Bellator, CES and PFL promotions, as well as fought Mike Rodriguez on season one on Dana White's Contender Series, Jones' 12-8 record isn't spectacular, but he's fought world-class competition and when he's on, like he was when he knocked out UFC vet Klidson Abreu in June of 2021, he can give anyone trouble. And that's the kind of trouble Larsen is looking for, especially after not fighting at all in 2020, losing his first fight of 2021, and then beating the same opponent – Canadian vet Grayson Wells – twice, winning in a combined one minute and 45 seconds.
"It's crazy times right now," said Larsen. "A lot of people are having problems traveling and with restrictions and stuff like that. I'm sure there's some competition left in Canada, but people here certainly aren't lining up to fight, other than the guys that are just willing to fight anybody, like Grayson Wells and Lee Mein."
Yes, Lee Mein, father of UFC vet Jordan Mein, who, at 55, is still willing to strap the gloves on and fight.
"We contacted his gym when Rashad Coulter pulled out," recalls Larsen of the May fight with the UFC vet which Wells ended up taking on short notice. "We said, ‘Do you guys know anybody that would fight.' Lee said, ‘I'll fight him.'"
If Mein did get the bout, it would have been his second with Larsen who halted "The Grampinator" in two rounds back in 2018.
"He's a legend, he's a warrior," Larsen said of Mein. "But there's not a lot of guys in Canada, and with everything that's going on, it's been tough to find people to come in. A couple guys couldn't get their passports lined up in time for the fights and stuff like that. But Jamelle Jones, he's a gamer, he's ready to go, and I think this is the level of competition I've been hoping for."
And with COVID travel restrictions easing up in Canada, Larsen's wish might be coming true sooner rather than later. Could that mean a UFC show in the Great White North in 2023? That would be the dream for Larsen and his peers on the MMA scene.
"There's a lot of opportunities, especially next year, but that's predicated on me continuing to win," he said. "Obviously I'd love the opportunity to fight for the UFC if they came to Canada - I think that's everybody's end game - but I'm pretty confident that the trajectory of restrictions and stuff like that are going in the right direction now, and fingers crossed that nothing happens to delay that."
In the meantime, yes, Larsen has to fight, make statements, and defend his title against anyone willing – and able – to face him. And that's what it's all about for him at this point.
Just fight. No matter where or against whom.
"When I first started fighting, I thought it would be cool to take a couple fights and get paid a little bit of money to punch some people in the head in front of friends and family, but I haven't had my fingers crossed for anything," he said. "If an opportunity comes up, that's sweet, but I'm definitely taking things as they come. I'm not gonna be crushed if I don't get the call from the UFC, I'm not gonna be crushed if I don't get a fight. I've got a job, I've got everything else. If an opportunity comes up, I'll jump at it, but it's not like I've got my heart set on anything."
So what is it about this game that makes him do it after all these years? A self-admitted "troubled youth," Larsen battled through the loss of his father to cancer in 2008, and then found his way in life, eventually finding a home in a sport where he now owns a championship belt, a 7-2 record, and the power and potential to one day make it to the big show.
"My main motivator is working towards a goal of this caliber," he said. "My life is better and I'm a better person when I've got a fight in the cards. I'm in the gym, I'm training, I'm focused, I'm working towards something. It changes my entire lifestyle and my day-to-day to be working towards something like this. With other things, I don't really have that passion and that motivation. I work on an oil rig; I'm not trying to save the world by digging up dinosaurs. I don't get behind anything the way I get behind fighting, and I think the benefits of that has in my life make all the sacrifice worth it."
Doesn't want to save the world by working on an oil rig? Didn't he ever see Armageddon?
"I never want to be in charge of my own oxygen supply," he laughs.
This story first published at UFC.com.