MMA: 'I'll be a big name very, very soon' - NZ's Brad Riddell out to stamp mark at UFC Auckland

Just a mere matter of months ago, Kiwi UFC lightweight Brad Riddell was grinding his way up the ranks, across continents and countless regional shows - both kickboxing and mixed martial arts - in his myopic pursuit of a call-up to the biggest show in combat sports.

Now, with that milestone multi-fight UFC deal to his name, on the back of a show-stopping debut, Riddell admits everything remains business as usual, at least at his second home at Auckland's City Kickboxing.

Still wiping down mats, still trading verbal barbs with the regulars.

"Nah, not much has changed," Riddell told Newshub. "Not in the way of the gym or anything like that.

"I get treated the same and I'm acting the same."

That said, life as a professional fighter has become substantially easier, now that Riddell is afforded some of the fringe benefits that come with being a UFC fighter, as he prepares for his return to the Octagon against Magomed Mustafaev at UFC Auckland on Sunday.

"There are obviously perks, like sponsorships and more financial liberties to train more - there are always perks to winning.

"It's made training more manageable, and allowed me to get more and more professional attention - psychologists and regular massages and… be like a real professional athlete at the highest level, not just in training, but outside as well."

The Christchurch native received his long-awaited shot in the bright lights of the UFC in October, as part of the record-breaking UFC 243, headlined by gymmate Israel Adesanya's title-clinching knockout of Robert Whittaker.

As far as debuts go, fighting in front of a historically large crowd of almost 60,000 in a near sold-out stadium show seems a daunting proposition.

On the other hand, it's the ideal opportunity to make a lasting first impression, which was precisely what Riddell did in his show-stealing strike-fest with local Jamie Mullarkey.

The two threw down in a breathless three-round melee that later earned them both a 'Performance of the Night' bonus, and instant respect and recognition from fight fans.

But with the benefit of hindsight, Riddell confessed he wasn't as satisfied with his efforts as you might imagine.

"That was definitely not my best, even though I got a bonus. That was more for it being a war than anything else.

"I think I went in there more focused on impressing, instead of just doing my thing and letting it happen naturally.

"The occasion was so big, I wanted to step up. I had Dan [Hooker] and [Adesanya] after me, and I just wanted to set the bar."

Riddell has his hand raised in victory in his UFC debut against Jamie Mullarkey last year.
Riddell has his hand raised in victory in his UFC debut against Jamie Mullarkey last year. Photo credit: Getty

With the unique pressures that accompany a UFC debut now out of the way and an emphatic tick in the win column to his name, Riddell believes he'll be more at ease in his sophomore showing at Spark Arena.

"Now, I'm comfortable. Now, the UFC just feels like what all the other promotions felt like.

"I can be more clinical and this fight will have to be that way. I can definitely fight a lot better and I will fight a lot better."

Of course, there are no easy fights in the UFC, but that's especially true at lightweight - the promotion's deepest, most talent-laden and least forgiving division - and the difficulty level is about to be set up a notch for the 28-year-old against Mustafaev. 

The 31-year-old Russian isn't a grappling as most of his compatriots are cast. By contrast, the 14-2 American Top Team fighter has a penchant for highlight-reel knockouts, no better demonstrated than with his spectacular first-round spinning back-kick finish of Rafael Fiziev in the first round of their clash last April.

Incidentally, that was his first fight in almost three years, due to an arm injury. Comebacks don't come much more emphatic.

Never one to shy from violence, all Riddell sees is an opportunity to springboard his way to bigger and even better things.

"I have a few friends that have fought him, so that always helps," Riddell said. "He's not highly ranked, but he's very, very high level and in a short amount of time, he could be.

"So I'm planning on capping that, stopping that early and taking his place. He likes to strike and I'm sure he can wrestle, but I can wrestle, so I don't really mind.

"I think if one of us proves we're better than the other in a certain area, we're going to have to change tack. It's going to be exciting."

But the uber-experienced Riddell - who has almost 60 kickboxing bouts to his name, alongside his 7-1 MMA tenure - realises he'll need to be at his best against the "tricky" Mustafaev and has been training in typically tireless fashion to ensure just that, 

In line with his step up to the big league, Riddell has shifted his focus to putting together the smaller pieces of the puzzle that make up the complete fighter.

"I've just been fine tuning, being really picky on myself... comparing myself to a lot of great fighters and watching them fight, watching their training habits and just trying to be a professional to a higher standard.

"I call it the 'one-percenters', doing all the little tiny things that add up, not just training hard and spending all your time in the gym. It's all the stuff outside as well.

"Mentally, diet - there's a lot that goes into it, a lot of balance that you need.

"I feel spoilt, in this day and age, with training - the facilities and the luxuries that we have with nutrition." 

Riddell has set the bar high for 2020. He's looking to complete the remaining three fights on his contract before October, with his sights set on cracking the UFC's official top 15 divisional rankings before the year is out.

"I'm just trying to separate myself from the rest… I'll be a big name very, very soon."

And with the rare luxury of being able to sleep in his own bed during fight week and the prospect of a raucous partisan crowd in his corner, expect 'Quake' to send seismic shockwaves through Spark Arena come Sunday.

"It's going to be super exciting," Riddell says, with a grin. "I can't wait to fight in there.

"It's small and very intimate, everyone's really close to you and everyone close is going to be my fan - from the front row to the back."

Join us for live updates of UFC Auckland from 10am Sunday.