Eyes on the prize

  • By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, June 21, 2011 12:01am
  • Sports

Five years ago, Ramsey Nijem was a typical high school senior. He was looking forward to graduating from Mill Creek’s Jackson High School and then to a few months of summer fun before heading off to college in the fall.

Back then he had no notion of a career in mixed martial arts. Because back then, he admitted, “I didn’t even know what mixed martial arts was.”

He knows now. In just five years Nijem has gone from being a good high school wrestler to a genuine up-and-comer in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which produces mixed martial arts events around the world and promotes many of the sport’s elite athletes.

Follow Ramsey Nijem on Twitter @ramseynijem

The 23-year-old Nijem got his start on “The Ultimate Fighter 13” television show, which aired from late March to early June. He accompanied a friend to the audition, ended up trying out himself, and eventually was chosen to be one of the program’s 14 competitors.

In an elimination-bout format, the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Nijem won three matches to reach the June 4 final at the Palms Resort Casino in Las Vegas. Before a large crowd and a national TV audience, he lost in a first-round knockout to Tony Ferguson.

A disappointment, yes, though not enough to deter Nijem from his dream of someday winning a UFC title.

“I’m back at the gym and I’m getting better,” he said. “This is my job and I have to stay at it.”

His new career, he added, “was never planned. But now that I’m into fighting, I’ve fallen in love with it.”

After graduating from Jackson in 2006, Nijem attended Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, where he continued to wrestle. He was still in college when someone put together some mixed martial arts matches between UVU students and others from nearby Brigham Young University. Nijem agreed to participate and won his bout, although he waited until he was finished with wrestling before getting serious about the new sport.

And then, out of the blue, he got picked for “The Ultimate Fighter.”

“When I was walking through the halls of Jackson High School, I never would’ve thought I’d be on a television show,” Nijem said. “But life is crazy and unpredictable, and all you can ask of yourself is that you continue to work hard and do the best you can.

“And now I’m just enjoying the ride. It’s been amazing.”

Like most mixed martial arts newcomers, Nijem was skilled in some areas, less so in others. He obviously had a good wrestling background, but knew very little about fighting on his feet.

“There’s a big learning curve,” he acknowledged, “and I’m still on it. I’ve actually gotten pretty good, but I just haven’t been doing it for very long. I’m still under two years and there’s so much to learn.”

Some of that inexperience cost Nijem in “The Ultimate Fighter” finale against Ferguson. Nijem fought well early, but near the end of the five-minute first round Ferguson delivered a right-hand, left-hand combination. The right was harmless, but the follow-up left caught Nijem squarely on the chin and dropped him, ending the match.

It was very discouraging “because I felt like I was winning the fight,” Nijem said. “I was dominating standing up. But then I stopped doing my game plan, which was to keep moving forward and throw punches in bunches. And once I stopped doing that, I made a mistake and got caught.”

Put another way, he forgot one of the foremost rules of MMA: Hands up, chin down.

Still, Nijem found the entire experience — the TV show and the culminating trip to Las Vegas — exciting, gratifying and even a bit surreal.

Of the 14 fighters, “I was the smallest, youngest and least experienced guy there,” he said. “There were a lot of things working against me. But I’ve always believed in myself and I really thought I could win the show.

“That was my goal every day when I trained and when I was getting ready for each fight. And every fight I attacked people and tried to break them because I knew they didn’t want it as bad as I did.”

Because the entire series leading up to the Las Vegas finale was filmed before the first episode aired, Nijem returned to his home in Orem for several weeks. “I was living life as I normally do,” he said, “and I was watching the show every week. It was like watching a home video.”

But by the time he got to Las Vegas, he was surprised to find out that he was a celebrity.

“Random people were coming up to me and asking me for pictures,” he said. “Or they’d be screaming at me as I walked through a casino. All that was a little weird. But the moment it really hit me was when I was going to the fight and they had to clear people out of the way. That’s when it really hit me that this was real.”

With the completion of the TV series, Nijem is waiting to see what happens next. He is likely to receive a UFC contract and could get his first UFC bout sometime this fall.

Since the loss in Las Vegas, he said, “I’ve been experiencing one of my lowest lows. But I’m looking forward now. (As a pro) I’m going to have good days and bad days, good fights and bad fights, and that means this is going to be like anything else in life. It’s going to be hard.

“But I’ve decided that this is what I love to do. I’m good at it and I want to chase the dream. There’s no point in training if you don’t want to be the best, and right now I have my eye set on being a champion.”

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