Diego Nunes doesn’t mind being the underdog.
In fact, he relishes the role, using his place in the background of his own fights as motivation once he steps into the cage.
Saturday night, the 16-1 Brazilian welcomes long-time UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian to the featherweight division. While Nunes is the one with the proven track record in the 145 pound ranks, Florian has been garnering most of the attention. It’s a situation similar to the last time Nunes stepped into the Octagon.
“This is exactly the same case as the Mike Brown fight,” Nunes said at Wednesday’s media workouts through translator Derek Lee. “We’ll see how it works out.
“I’m the underdog, people aren’t talking about me, but I always come in and put on a great fight. I feel like any time I go through hardships, it just motivates me do what I want to do even more.”
What he’s done to date is win five of six fights competing in the WEC and UFC. In addition to former featherweight champion Brown, Nunes has earned victories over Cole Province and Raphael Assuncao, with his lone loss coming to wrestler LC Davis at WEC 44.
If there has been one knock on the relatively unknown Nunes since transitioning to the bigger stage from fighting in Brazil, it has been his lack of finishes. He rattled off 11 wins to start his career, all by way of stoppage, and while the wins have kept piling up, all five of his North American victories have been by decision.
It is a question posed to many fighters in his position, and seemingly one Nunes has heard before, as he was quick to answer when asked about it on Wednesday.
“(My lack of finishes) has a lot to do with the level of fighters in the UFC. Brazil has some of the best fighters in the world, but sometimes they’re not at the top level as the guys are here in the UFC.
“It says a lot about the guys I’ve fought and a lot about me. If you’re going to fight me, you have to be ready to go all three rounds and be ready for a war.”
Saturday’s meeting with Florian could indeed by another war of attrition. Regardless of how the fight turns out, Nunes is pleased to have been given this opportunity.
“I was actually online looking at some news about Kenny dropping to 145, and I thought this would be a great fight for me. In my heart, I really felt like I wanted to fight him. About a week later, I got the call, and I was grateful to get the news.”
The rash of injuries and replacements to hit the UFC 131 lineup has shuffled this bout into the co-main event slot. Though Florian is getting the lion’s share of the spotlight heading into Saturday’s second last contest, Nunes sees new positives in his placement opposite his well-known opponent.
“This is a blessing and a gift from the UFC to be here. My parents have never watched me fight on TV, so for them to be in Brazil watching my fight live is a great gift. Everything is coming together.”
Most people believe that a win for Florian would secure him the chance to face featherweight champ Jose Aldo next. While fighting for the title is every competitor’s ultimate goal, Nunes says he’s focused on the task at hand, though he doesn’t rule out squaring off with his Nova Uniao teammate in the future.
“One step at a time. This is a great opportunity; people are going to be talking about me more after this fight, and I’m definitely going to be in the mix for the 145 pound title. It’s a big step in my career and I definitely want to take it slowly.
“I work for the UFC. I’m training hard every day to get to the top. I’m not going to be calling out Jose; he’s like my brother. But if the UFC asks, I’m going to be fighting Jose and we’ll see what happens when we get there.”
While some fighters may crumble under the added pressure that comes with welcoming an established fighter into a new division or being the underdog in a high profile fight, the opposite applies to Nunes.
“I’m more at ease with every fight. I feel more at peace fighting in the co-main event than I did the last fight or the fight before that.”
Considering how impressive he’s looked in each of his last three outings, that could spell trouble for Florian on Saturday night.