Lukasz Brzeski took an unconventional path to competing on Dana White's Contender Series last summer.
"Since the beginning, I knew that I'd get only one chance to get to the UFC, and that made that fight the most important moment of my life," said the Polish heavyweight. "I wanted to make everything perfect, and be prepared; in the best shape of my life.
"Unfortunately, I got COVID, my opponent changed two times, and my training camp was really bad."
Originally slated to compete on August 31, Brzeski finally stepped into the cage at the UFC Apex opposite Dylan Potter two weeks later, and he looked good from the outset. Standing 6-foot-4 with a solid reach, Brzeski used his length and showcased the full array of skills in his arsenal, out-landing Potter on the feet, flashing some slick takedowns, and controlling things when they hit the deck, dealing with everything the American threw his way in return.
After two solid rounds of work, Brzeski really took over in the third.
He stung Potter with a right hand that made him panic-wrestle less than a minute into the frame and never let off from there. He stayed in Potter's grill, constantly chipping away from range and landing short shots in the clinch before eventually dumping him to the canvas. From there, Brzeski softened Potter up until he could attack a rear-naked choke, cinching up the hold without any hooks and securing the finish with just over a minute remaining in the round.
His effort was enough to impress UFC President Dana White, who awarded Brzeski a contract.
"Finally, everything went OK," Brzeski said of the contest. "I won the fight and got the contract, but the stress and emotions were unimaginable."
But not everything went OK.
The Polish fighter tested positive for a banned substance in his post-fight drug screening, resulting in Brzeski incurring a fine, a nine-month suspension, and his victory being ruled a no contest, but the UFC hopeful was only focused on one thing.
"I was really sad when my win was overturned, but there really was only one concern: do I stay in the UFC?" said Brzeski (8-1-1 MMA, 0-0 UFC), who maintained his place on the roster and makes his promotional debut this weekend against fellow Contender Series alum Martin Buday (10-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC). "Since USADA tested me many times after the fight, the biggest MMA organization in the world didn't fire me."
Given an additional several months to sit on the sidelines before finally getting to make the walk to the octagon for the first time, Brzeski did exactly what you would hope someone with aspirations of breaking into the rankings and beyond would do: he trained like a mad man, supplementing his work at home with trips to various different outposts.
A quick comb through his Instagram not only showcases multiple images from his usual surrounds, but also time spent with recent Contender Series winner Anton Turkalj, former light heavyweight champion Jan Blachowicz, and various other cross training trips, all designed to make Brzeski better as he readies to step in against Buday on Saturday.
"During my suspension, I was training harder than ever because I knew that from now on, I will face the best fighters in the world.
"Usually I train in NKSW Nowy Targ, but to be the best, you have to train with the best; that's why I travel a lot," continued the 30-year-old, who carries an 8-1-1 record with one no contest. "This time, I was in Sweden at GBG in Goteborg, and I'm also very often in Rzeszow and train with Szymon Bajor, who is one of the best heavyweights in Poland."
After a tricky road to the UFC Apex last fall and a longer-than-desired wait to make his promotional debut, Brzeski is finally on the precipice of donning his fight kit and marching out to the octagon for the first time.
It's an opportunity he doesn't take for granted, and it's why the last 11 months have been spent covering the gym floor with blood, sweat, and probably a few tears as well.
"Being in the UFC means to me that I will be fighting best guys in the whole world," said Brzeski. "That's why I need to train harder than ever and be prepared for everything."
In Buday, he's facing someone that has navigated a fairly similar trail to the UFC, as the 30-year-old Slovak also graduated from Season 5 of Dana White's Contender Series, doing so by defeating Brzeski's original DWCS opponent, Lorenzo Hood.
But Buday has also already gotten his debut out of the way, earning a unanimous decision win over Chris Barnett in a fight he dominated until it was waved off midway through the final round when the American veteran was unable to continue following an accidental foul.
The victory pushed Buday's winning streak to nine and set him up as someone to watch going forward in the heavyweight ranks, all of which makes Brzeski happy to share the cage with him this weekend.
"I think that Martin is a great opponent for my debut," he said. "He has a really good record, and we are going to give a great fight."
Given the different challenges the last year has presented, don't be surprised to see the best version of Brzeski cross the threshold into the UFC cage on Saturday night in San Diego.
He's been waiting too long and working too hard for that not to be the case.
This story first published at UFC.com.