The Real Efrain Escudero
Before the twelfth season of The Ultimate Fighter debuts on Wednesday night, Season 8 lightweight winner Efrain Escudero will step into the cage in the co-main event of Ultimate Fight Night 22. After a rash of injuries reshuffled the line-up for the event, the 24-year-old will face another hungry, young lightweight lion, Charles Oliveira.
Despite only five fights between them inside the Octagon, this is a pivotal battle for both fighters. Oliveira burst onto the scene with a quick submission win over Darren Elkins at the start of August, and has been compared (perhaps prematurely) to Jon Jones, while the burden of being an Ultimate Fighter season winner follows Escudero each time he takes to the cage.
“We get thrown out there with the best guys in the world,” said Escudero of coming off the hit Reality TV show and into the Octagon. “There are no more babies out there in the UFC; you’re in the biggest organization in the world with the best fighters in the world. The Ultimate Fighter is just cutting your teeth, and then you’re introduced to the real world in the UFC. People really don’t know what it’s like to be in the UFC until you’re there.”
While there are obvious benefits of emerging from the Spike TV staple as a household name and eventually the title of The Ultimate Fighter, the immediate impact previous cast members had on their divisions ups the ante for fighters like Escudero.
After early winners Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans earned titles – and contestants like Kenny Florian, Diego Sanchez and now Josh Koscheck have earned title shots – the expectations are for later winners are raised, and the Tempe, Arizona-based fighter admitted that he feels some of the pressure.
“It impacts you, for sure,” responded Escudero when asked if the ever-shifting opinions of the fans and media influence registers with him. “One day you’re on top of the world – you’re winning fights and the media is all over you, then one day you lose and all of a sudden no one wants to interview you anymore.
“In all reality though, we don’t fight for the media – we fight for the sport and we fight for ourselves,” continued the 13-1 lightweight. “Yeah it’s good to be out there and to be recognized, but you’re doing it because you love it. You can’t let any of [the outside opinions and expectations] put you down.”
Heading into his second post-TUF appearance against Evan Dunham, Escudero was held in high regard as a future contender in the lightweight division. After a strong first round, the MMA Lab trainee strayed from his gameplan and chased a finish, wasting valuable energy and providing Dunham with an opportunity to get back into the fight.
By the time the third round hit, Escudero was visibly tired and Dunham pressed on, eventually catching the former member of Team Nogueira in a nasty armbar that many thought would leave Escudero with a serious injury. Just like that, the two talented fighters switched places, with Dunham beginning his climb up the lightweight ladder and Escudero taking a step backwards in his progression.
As gnarly as his arm looked locked at a strange angle for longer than many would endure, Escudero emerged relatively unscathed and quickly returned to the gym in preparation for his bout with Dan Lauzon at UFC 114. Unbeknownst to many, it was the first time the TUF 8 talent was able to focus on training full-time.
Previous to his bout with Lauzon, Escudero was a student at Grand Canyon University, and geared his training camps to focusing on specific skills his opponent would be bringing to the cage. After graduating in May, fighting became his lone pursuit and Escudero is ready to show what being in the gym full-time has done for him.
“It’s done a lot. I devote myself as a full-time MMA fighter now. That’s what I do; I live fighting, I breathe fighting, I do everything now around my fighting. It’s my number one priority.”
Garnering quick celebrity status and the title of The Ultimate Fighter could create inflated expectations in a lot of young fighters, with the thoughts and opinions of the media potentially adding to the pressure. So far, Escudero has been able to remain grounded and knows that his journey to becoming a champion is a marathon, not a sprint.
“I’m actually excited with where I’m at. I’m looking forward to this fight. In my own perspective of where I’m on the timeline, I’m doing well; I’m learning every fight. This is a learning process; you can’t just go to the top overnight.”
That understanding and perspective will serve Escudero well as he moves forward as a fighter.
Starting against Charles Oliveira, the former TUF winner is ready to show that his transition to being a full-time fighter will serve him well too.
“We’re going to have to show the world who the real Efrain Escudero is later this week.”
Introductions will be made on Wednesday night.