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Having fun is Kennedy Nzechukwu's key to success at UFC Fight Night 215

UFC light heavyweight Nzechukwu aims to finish 2022 with a win over Ion Cutelaba on Saturday in Las Vegas.
kennedy-nzechukwu

Skill and experience – those are two things you need to succeed in any venture.

Doesn't matter if we're talking about an athletic pursuit, vocational effort, or taking up a hobby, without skill and experience, there is a strong likelihood that your initial attempts to do whatever it is you're doing are not going to go all that great. They won't necessarily be terrible, but they probably aren't going to represent your best work either.

Now imagine if the venture you're undertaking is mixed martial arts, and that after less than two years of honing your craft on the developmental circuit, you got the opportunity to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

The skills have clearly reached a high enough level to graduate from the regional ranks, but the experience isn't there, and so neither are the kind of consistent results everyone wants, but few actually achieve.

"In life, there are always going to be ups and downs, you know?" Kennedy Nzechukwu (10-3 MMA, 4-3 UFC) asked rhetorically, reflecting on his first three-plus years competing on the UFC roster just a few days ahead of his clash with Ion Cutelaba (16-8-1 MMA, 5-7-1 UFC). "In my victories and my defeats, I'm always trying to stay humble so I can understand what God is trying to reveal to me in that moment.

"I got the wins, suffered the losses, but I always went back to my drawing board to work with my coach, breaking down different opponents. We were gaining experience at that time, and the more experience, the more confidence we get in that cage."

Ahead of this weekend's fight with Cutelaba, which serves as the co-main event for Saturday's return to the UFC Apex, Nzechukwu has reached a point where he's starting to have the kind of experience needed to translate his obvious and abundant skills into positive results.

The 30-year-old has more fights in the UFC than he did prior to graduating to the octagon via the second season of Dana White's Contender Series, and last time out, he turned in arguably the best performance of his career.

Entering on a two-fight skid and paired off with Karl Roberson, the Fortis MMA product took his time to settle into the fight, but seemingly reached a point where he realized he was able to fully dictate the terms of engagement and impose his will on Roberson. Once that lightbulb switched on, Nzechukwu started to dominate, and eventually collected a third-round stoppage win.

Recognizing that he could use his considerable natural gifts and the weapons he's honed under the watchful eye of Sayif Saud over the last half-dozen years is one of those "it's about damn time" moments for fight fans, as the quiet fighter is a physically-imposing 6-foot-5 with a go-go-gadget 83-inch reach.

"As we're learning, sometimes we don't see what our coach sees, which is why Michael Jordan had a shooting coach and Tiger Woods had a swing coach," Nzechukwu said astutely. "From the outside looking in, they can say stuff, but you can't really see it that way.

"But as that experience adds up, and you get that cage time, the more my comfort level increases and the more my cage awareness increases. When you go in there, you just want to be equipped with a full arsenal of tools to display in order to perform on that night.

"I feel like at this point right now, I'm gaining experience," continued the promising light heavyweight, whose record stands at 10-3 overall heading into the weekend. "The losses never deter me; I just keep racking up experience.

"I know who I am. I know what I'm capable of doing, so I just have to go out there, have fun, and perform."

In addition to learning from his own experience, Nzechukwu has benefitted from working with an outstanding team of coaches and training partners, including a pair of teammates that recently turned in impressive showings.

"It's amazing, but I don't expect anything less from those two, man," he said when asked about seeing Tresean Gore and Ryan Spann collect stoppage victories over the past couple weeks. "It's amazing seeing Ryan get his win last week at Madison Square Garden and Tresean getting his win on the 29th of October, but I'm not surprised.

"I know what we have at Fortis. We work so hard, we grind hard, but we're very strategic in our approach to martial arts. I expect dominance every time a Fortis MMA member steps into the cage."

Spann's effort is particularly noteworthy because Nzechukwu really does feel like the little brother in that particular light heavyweight set of siblings. He's the same height as his top 10-ranked teammate, with a longer reach, while similarly carrying nasty power in both hands.

While he doesn't have Spann's arsenal of chokes, the Nigerian-born emerging talent has shown impressive resiliency, and continues to make strides in all areas of his game with each subsequent appearance.

In discussing Spann's performance, I asked Nzechukwu if Saud came into the gym on Monday and told him that he's more than capable of turning in a similar effort this weekend and every time he steps into the octagon.

"He always says that!" he said with a laugh. "I don't think he said it Monday, but he always says we're destined for greatness and we're capable doing great things if we just lock in and pay attention."

For the longest time, Nzechukwu wasn't quite sure what his coach was talking about, but over the last couple of fights, things have really started to click, and he expects to show that on Saturday.

"I never understood what he meant about paying attention, but now I can see it with the experience that I'm racking up," he said. "I can see what he meant because sometimes we get into our own heads, feel like we can do this on our own, but nothing ever works out good that way.

"This fight with Ion Cutelaba, I'm going to perform even better because of all the experience that I've racked up," he added. "I've learned. I don't just win or suffer losses and forget about it – I watch the tape, I learn from it, and I'm going to be a different animal on Saturday night."

And what exactly does that look like this weekend?

"I just have to have fun," said Nzechukwu. "If I have fun, I win, every single time.

"Go there, have fun, win, and then fly back and take these kids to bible study on Sunday morning; give God all the glory."

This story first published at UFC.com.