Chas Skelly once sat on the sidelines for more than two years. But it may have been the best thing that ever happened to his fighting career.
'I had been fighting for about a year or so, and then I got hurt in a Bellator fight against Daniel Pineda,' Skelly told USA TODAY Sports. 'He got me in a toehold and actually broke my foot and tore some tendons. I opted not to have surgery. I should have, most likely, but I didn't have surgery and I did rehab. It took a long time to get better. It's better now, but it took a long time.'
That bout took place in May 2010, and for the record, Skelly still won, but it would be a little more than 24 months before Skelly would be back in action. But things changed in the span between those two fights. The gym where he had been training began to dissolve, and Skelly knew he needed to make a change. He knew Pantego's Team Takedown was making big strides in the sport, and he decided to pursue a spot on the roster.
'The injury put me out for a while, about a year-and-a-half or so,' Skelly said. 'When I came back to training, a lot of the guys that I had trained with were either not around anymore or were hurt. I didn't have anybody to train with, really. I heard that Team Takedown was about 45 minutes from where I lived, so I just started showing up. I just went out there one day and showed up for a workout. They said I could keep coming back for a workout, so I did. I started showing up for every workout, and they eventually asked me to be on the team.'
Skelly, who was a state champion wrestler at Azle High School and would go on to earn NAIA All-American honors at Oklahoma City University, was a natural fit with the wrestling-based squad that also includes UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks and heavyweight contender Jared Rosholt.
Becoming a member of Team Takedown can provide a prospective fighter a real jolt to their career, as team execs pay athletes a salary that allows them to focus solely on training rather than working another job to make ends meet. Team Takedown banks on the investment providing results in terms of percentages gathered from a fighter's future earnings.
'It was a huge moment for me,' Skelly said. 'I could focus just completely on training and not on having to work and train at the same time. It's pretty important for me to be able to focus on nothing but training and to have actual coaches coaching me in every aspect.'
Once he was fully recovered, Skelly rattled off four-straight wins, earning himself an invitation to compete at April's 'UFC on FOX: Werdum vs. Browne' event. Unfortunately for Skelly, things didn't go his way. He wounded opponent Mirsad Bektic in the second round of their preliminary card fight, but he delivered a few illegal knees in the process of hunting for the finish, losing a point when referee Jorge Ortiz halted the bout due to the infraction.
The final round was razor-thin, but Bektic was awarded a majority decision with scores of 29-27, 29-27, 28-28.
'It was tough,' Skelly said of the loss. 'It is what it is. You just have to take it in a positive aspect. I feel like it's a fight I definitely should have won. It's an opponent I definitely should have beat. It's tough to lose in that way.
'It was tough to lose to somebody I thought I was better than, and it was definitely tough to lose when I thought I had the fight won. I thought I was going to knock him out in the second, so that made it that much worse, but you just have to take the positive things from it. It was my first loss, but you've got to grow from it, and that's what I did.'
Perhaps most surprisingly, Bektic was able to utilize several takedowns to score points in the fight, an option Skelly never even considered, as he admitted he didn't even really work on his takedown defense in preparation for the bout.
It's a mistake he says he'll never make again.
'I really didn't play to my strengths, I think, and that cost me, but that's something I'll have to do in the next go round,' Skelly said. 'I didn't press the action like I should have. I didn't move forward enough until the third round, really. I think there are a lot of things I could've done. I probably should have put him on his back more and beat him up from the top. That's what I'm good at, but I didn't do it.
'I should have taken him down, but I wanted to get the knockout. I felt like I was the better striker and that I was going to get the knockout in the fight. I did good things in the fight, but there's a lot of things I did that I wouldn't normally do. But I can fix those things in training.'
Skelly (11-1 mixed martial arts, 0-1 UFC) gets a second chance at a first UFC win this Saturday night, as he faces fellow featherweight Tom Niinimaki (21-6-1, 1-1) at 'UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. dos Anjos,' which takes place at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. The bout kicks off the evening's FOX Sports 1-televised main card (9 p.m. CT), which follows preliminary bouts on FOX Sports 2 (7 p.m. CT) and UFC Fight Pass (6:30 p.m. CT).
Skelly, who like his head coach Marc Laimon loves to study tapes of his upcoming opponents, believes stylistically it's a favorable matchup.
'I definitely like to watch film,' Skelly said. 'I've studied his fights and I've watched what he did, but also as opposed to concentrating on what he does and what he doesn't do, I think I'm just going to concentrate on what I'm going to do him, like imposing my will and really forcing the action on him.
'This guy, he likes to take people down. He doesn't do much. He strikes some. He looks for takedowns pretty quickly. He looks for a lot of takedowns, and on top, he doesn't really throw any kind of ground-and-pound. He really just looks for positions and holds and maybe looks for some submissions in there, but I don't want that type of fight. I'm going to have to go out there and implement my gameplan and impose my will.'
Niinimaki hails from Finland and recently enjoyed a 12-fight winning streak before he was submitted in May by Niklas Backstrom. A professional fighter since 2002, Niinimaki owns an edge in experience, but Skelly believes the aggression he'll bring to the table will trump any competitive edge his opponent may enjoy.
'I don't want to be in a fight where it's just two people holding each other down,' Skelly said. 'I want it to be a fight where I have a chance to win a bonus. I'm out there trying to make money and make people like watching me fight. I'd rather get knocked out looking for a knockout than hold somebody down to a boring win. I think I've learned that throughout my career. I've done that before, and I don't like the negative feedback I get from it, so I've worked hard on becoming a completely different fighter when it comes to just looking for finishes the whole time.'
And so Skelly will look to right the wrongs of his UFC debut. It's not out of the ordinary to see nerves and uncertainties wreak havoc on a fighter in his first octagon appearance. But with his first professional loss out of the way, Skelly is now ready to prove to the world what the move to Team Takedown did for him as fighter.
'I had some jitters last time, obviously,' Skelly said. 'But to be honest, it's a fight. It's a sport, and I'm going out there to win, either way. I just look at it a competition. My mindset hasn't changed. I feel like I'm better than this guy. I felt like I was better than the last guy, but I just need to go out there and perform.'