Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009 | midnight
The number of injured fighters that have pulled out of UFC 108 have led many to dub Saturday's event as “cursed.”
But for Las Vegas' John Gunderson, it was the opportunity he had been waiting for.
“A lot of people say that the Ultimate Fighter is the hard way to get to the UFC, I don’t think so,” Gunderson said. “ I think the way I’ve gone is the hardest way to get there.”
Gunderson (22-6) will make his debut in UFC 108 against Brazilian lightweight Rafaello Oliveira (9-2). The fight is one the 30-year-old International Fight League veteran from Bend, Ore., once doubted he would ever get.
“We actually had a conversation about two weeks before he got the phone call,” said Evan Dunham, Gunderson’s training partner and fellow UFC fighter. “He was saying to me that he was just waiting for his opportunity and wasn’t sure if it was ever going to come.”
But Dunham, who had spent the better part of his career looking up to Gunderson, knew it would happen.
“I grew up watching him, me as an amateur and him as a professional,” Dunham said. “He would just tear people up in Oregon and ever since then I knew he belonged in the UFC.”
The addition of Gunderson to the UFC 108 card was made official Dec. 21, but he was informed ahead of time and given three weeks to prepare for the fight.
“I’ve fought in front of a lot of people and on TV,“ Gunderson said. “Of course not in the UFC, but I don’t think the pressure is going to get to me as much as it would other guys.”
Although that may seem like a short amount of time, it is a lot longer than Gunderson had to prepare for his IFL tryout in the fall of 2006.
A last-minute decision sent Gunderson on an eight-hour road trip from his home in Oregon to a try out for the Ken Shamrock coached Nevada Lions in Reno.
“It was a last minute thing, I wasn’t even going to go and then I got a phone call telling me, ‘You should go, you should go.’” Gunderson said.
Gunderson had so little time to make the early morning tryout he had to drive straight there without food and with very little sleep.
“I drove down there, just me and a buddy, and I wanted to make it there in time and just didn’t have time to stop to eat or do anything,” Gunderson said.
Despite an empty stomach, Gunderson managed to secure a roster spot as the Lions' lightweight fighter, thus becoming teammates with future TUF winner, Roy Nelson.
“Roy is a real smart guy and once in a while I’ll call him for advice.” Gunderson said. “Roy’s not just a real good fighter, but a real good coach too.”
However, when the IFL folded in July 2008, Gunderson found himself watching his peers advance their careers while he was sidelined with a knee injury.
“I got to see a bunch of the guys from the IFL go on to do better things, make good careers and fight in the UFC and other organizations.” Gunderson said. “Basically I thought I was the one guy who didn’t go to the big show yet.”
It would be almost a year until Gunderson landed his first fight outside of the IFL.
He came back with a vengeance.
Since his first post-IFL fight last January, Gunderson has quickly gone on a 5-1 streak. His bout against Oliveira will be his seventh fight in 12 months.
“I was pressuring myself to get this opportunity,” Gunderson said. “That’s why I fought so many times this year, because I wanted to have a chance in the UFC.”
Gunderson’s push to fight in the UFC couldn’t have been better timed as it coincided with one of the most injury-plagued cards in UFC history.
Brock Lesnar, Shane Carwin, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Cain Velasquez, Gabriel Gonzaga, Anderson Silva, Vitor Belfort, Rory Markham, Carlos Condit, Tyson Griffin and Steve Cantwell were all originally scheduled to fight at UFC 108, only to be forced out because of illness or injury.
“He [Oliveira] was actually supposed to fight Sean Sherk, who is a former lightweight champion,” Gunderson said. “So you know he’s coming into the fight serious.”
So is Gunderson.
“This is his big opportunity, this is his chance to go out and prove himself and he has been chomping at the bit to do it,” Dunham said. “Now that it’s here, I think he’s just going to jump on it and do it.”