Roman Dolidze (10-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC) didn't step into the octagon in June against Kyle Daukaus focused on a knockout, but after a pair of tepid performances since moving to middleweight, he certainly was hoping to show his supporters and his detractors exact what he's capable of inside the UFC cage.
"I didn't think it would be so fast," he said with a smile, recalling his 73-second knockout victory over Daukaus ahead of his return to action this weekend opposite Phil Hawes (12-3 MMA, 4-1 UFC). "I'm not saying I was going for a knockout, but I wanted to show that I can use my striking, that I have heavy hands, that I can do way more than what people were thinking.
"This whole year, people were like, 'He can't fight,' and I was like, 'OK, I'll show you what I can do.' I was a little bit – not mad, but after my press conference, I said, 'Now you can shut your mouths!'"
Dolidze's desire to show more inside the octagon and silence his doubters is completely understandable.
After beginning his career with eight straight victories, including wins in each of his first two UFC appearances, the 34-year-old Georgian dropped to middleweight and dropped a unanimous decision to Trevin Giles in an uneventful affair that didn't do either man any favors. Less than three months later, he hustled back into the cage, hoping to get the sour taste of his first professional defeat out of his mouth.
He was successful in doing so, but his win over Laureano Staropoli came in a fight that was quite similar to his loss to Giles – a grimy, clinch-heavy affair with no real explosive moments. While he'd earned a victory, twin 15-minute grinds left Dolidze's stock at an all-time low, with people at home and abroad questioning why he wasn't performing better.
"For them, it's very important – our fights are very important, our wins are very important," Dolidze said of the people in his native Georgia, who have thrown their full support behind a pack of emerging contenders in the UFC that includes Merab Dvalishvili, Giga Chikadze and Ilia Topuria. "These people give us power and energy to perform better and better; they are pushing us.
"We can't step back now because these people are wanting more and more from us. They can't accept that something will go wrong. They are wanting from us higher things now, because they are used to it. That's the Georgian style.
"If they see someone from Georgia, no matter what we are doing, they are with us, and they will be with us 'til the end. But, there are two sides of the coin: one side is big support; the other side is they are waiting for you to win. It's a little difficult."
Dolidze lets out a laugh, clearly having felt the weight of these expectations and the stares coming his way from the legions of loyal supporters at home during his initial foray into the middleweight ranks.
"Before, I was thinking about it, but now, I'm focusing on the fights – I know that anything can happen – and also I understand these people. I'm not judging them. They love us. They want us to win, and that's a normal feeling.
"Now I don't care. Now they can say what they want," he added. "I understand it's part of our sport, they all have their expectations and sometimes things don't go like they want, but that's the UFC – it's the highest level in the world and I'm happy to be here."
But Dolidze isn't just "happy to be here," either.
Like many of his countrymen, the aspiring middleweight has made the shift to training in the United States, settling at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.
While he and many others still return home frequently and get solid work in when they are back in Georgia, his professional ambitions made it clear that he needed to surround himself with higher-level coaching and training partners if he wanted to reach those goals.
"Back home is good training – I love Georgia, I love spending a lot of time there – but there are some things that I don't have there, like training partners and a little bit more high-level coaches," explained Dolidze, who carries a 10-1 record into Saturday's clash with Hawes. "I like the coaches back home, I work with them a lot, but here they have more experience, more experience with fighters competing in the UFC – they have fighters there, they know how it works, everything.
"The most important thing is sparring partners," he added. "They're very important, and I don't have that at home."
That ability to work with multiple big bodies also works to remind Dolidze that if the UFC is ever in a pinch and needs someone to step up on short notice, he's more than capable of answering the call.
"Like I say, if the UFC needs, I can fight at 205 and if they need, I can fight at heavyweight," the middleweight hopeful said, grinning. "Why not? I'm ready!"
For now, however, he's focused on middleweight, and the task at hand.
"I know he's also a very talented fighter – a good wrestler, powerful guy," Dolidze said of Hawes, who also earned an emphatic victory this summer in Austin, Texas, dispatching Deron Winn in the second round. "Everyone in the UFC is a good fighter, and everyone has their tools and weapons, but I'm ready for anyone. No matter how the fight will go – I will be there, and I will show what I can do.
"Sometimes you will knock someone out, sometimes you will wrestle, sometimes you will grapple, and it's good that I can do all of these things. How this fight goes, no one knows, but I will use all the weapons that I have, and I definitely improved, and that's more important for me.
"People may think I have a lot of experience, but I don't – I'm quite new in MMA, and I'm learning from fight-to-fight," added Dolidze, who transitioned from soccer to grappling before making the move to mixed martial arts at age 28. "For me, it's important to learn something new every day.
"This fight camp, I trained well and I learned something new, and I'm better than I was before, and that's important."
And with his focus on improving and a chance to collect a third straight victory this weekend, Dolidze aspires to work his way forward in the middleweight ranks, but knows that only comes with handling business on Saturday.
"My future plans are big and I'm waiting for big things, and I want big fights, but let's concentrate on this fight," he said. "Win this fight first, take this step, and show them that I am ready for that.
"I just want big fights. I just want bigger names. We understand that in this business – if you are fighting big names, you are growing fast, and I want to be ready for that. I want to show to the organization that I'm ready.
"If I show with my fights that I am ready, I will get these fights."
This story first published at UFC.com.