With Proteomics Finished, Ninja of Love’s Sights Set on UFC’s Sandoval
To many, the possibility of concurrently thriving as a mixed martial artist and a doctoral student seems remote at best. Nick Denis for years lived this dual life, working in the field of proteomics while developing into one of the most promising Canadian prospects south of Lightweight.
Though frequently advised to choose a single path, he repeatedly demurred until coming across what was to him a landmark piece of news in October 2010. “They were going to introduce the Bantam and Featherweight divisions into the UFC,” he says, recalling the announcement of the WEC’s coming demise.
Never mind that Denis was coming off a loss, or that he was a year away from completing a PhD he’d already sunk thousands of lab hours into – the UFC’s doors were finally open to fighters his size. As he crept into the latter half of his twenties, he decided there was no time to waste.
After a frustrating year, Denis finally stepped back into the cage last October. Clearly losing the opening round, he kept his head. Looking to stamp an exclamation point onto his resumé, he unleashed a ferocious belly-to-back suplex, transforming it into a choke-slam on the way down. The highlight reel knockout emphatically punched Denis’ ticket to the big leagues.
Now 10-2, the former grad student debuts this Friday on the UFC on FX 1 undercard against Joseph Sandoval. For Denis, the opportunity represents the fulfillment of almost ten years of dedicated work. For certain* UFC fans, it represents a first chance to discover the unique blend of laid-back, quirky personality, and vicious power that defines the 28 year-old.
One of the first things you need to know about Nick Denis, is that he fancies himself a ninja. It’s an image he’s enthusiastically embraced since being dubbed the ‘Ninja of Love’ years ago at Ronin MMA in Ottawa. His excitable Boston terrier is named Ninja, and on the day of our interview, his sweatshirt unabashedly proclaims: “I love ninjas with all of my body, including my pee pee.”
Contrasting with this lighter side of his personality is the devastation he delivers in weight classes where fights normally go the distance, somewhere Denis has never been. Handing out heart-shaped boxes of chocolate is not how this Love Ninja rolls. Knockouts are his calling card. Save for a single submission, all his wins have come in that manner, hinting at the focused ferocity below his calm exterior.
“All I need is a moment,” he says. “If I’ve lost 99.9 per cent of the fight and there’s 20 seconds left, I can still win. A fight ends as soon as I get an advantage. It sounds cocky, but I can say that from past experience.”
Hearing Denis’ confidence and the violence that underlies it, as it calmly emerges from his friendly face, is surprising. After all, this is not a young man suffering from anger issues, but rather an intelligent individual happily dedicated to a sport he loves. Looking back at his younger years, hints emerge of the tireless work ethic that has served him both in combat and academia.
“I had golf instruction every day when I was 14,” he recalls. Displaying no inherent talent, Denis doggedly worked his way over three years to an impressive score of +1 on a par-72 course. “I was really good. But when I went to tournaments, I’d shit bricks.” Frustrated, he quit. Golf clubs it turned out were not the key to unleashing his inner animal.
As he begun undergraduate studies years later, he drifted into Ronin MMA. Day in and day out, he split his time between training and school. Experiments were interspersed with jiu-jitsu and striking instruction. His dedication meant no weekday social life, but that was the price to pay. “My training never suffered,” he says. “It was always my top priority.”
Though he was not a natural, long-time trainer Wade Shanley quickly took a liking to Denis. “He was quiet and unassuming, but you could tell he had potential,” says the BJJ brown belt. In time, Denis would emerge as the most successful mixed martial artist the school had ever produced.
Along with his teammates, he’d also come to call his coach ‘Master Splinter,’ recalling childhood ninja tales of another sort. “I’m old and have a fair amount of white in my beard,” Shanley, 34, jokingly explains.
Participating in various competitions, Denis did not always come out on top. His effort however, was second to none. The endless hours put in would soon yield results. After completing his undergraduate studies, the hyper-competitive Denis made his professional debut.
“The instant I started, my goal was to be the best,” he says. “In my mind, there was zero chance of me losing that fight. I was relaxed to the point that one of my coaches got mad at me backstage. ‘Be more serious’ he kept saying. But I had no nervous energy in me.” Things played out as planned, with Denis using his hands to earn a technical knockout. No choking under pressure this time.
His parents, normally supportive of his endeavours, hoped he’d retire undefeated following his first win. It was not to be. In fighting, Denis had found something that appealed to him at a primal level.
“It’s very animal, very raw, very real,” he expounds. “Two people going at it and that’s all. There’s no hiding from anything. No one else can help you once you’re in there. It comes down to your preparation, your skills, and your decision-making. It’s kind of comparable to sex.”
Over the next year and a half, Denis followed up with five straight finishes in the King of the Cage promotion. MMA was this Ninja’s domain and despite a solid jiu-jitsu pedigree, which he renamed cuddle-jitsu to fit his friendly personality, his fists emerged as his weapon of choice.
As 2009 beckoned, the 6-0 Denis ended up in Japan competing under the Sengoku banner. His fight ended in the most violent fashion yet. As his knees repeatedly crashed into the side of his downed opponent’s skull, he earned himself a perfectly legal finish under the rules in place.
His record would finally be blemished six weeks later when future Bellator standout Marlon Sandro floored him with a lead right uppercut-left hook combo in less than 20 seconds. He quickly followed up. “Dribbled my head on the ground like a basketball,” says Denis.
The possibility of suffering serious concussion-related brain damage was then and is to this day, a real concern, possibly the only hint of reluctance in his dedicated embrace of MMA. “I care more about my life,” admits Denis. “Being an MMA fighter isn’t the most important thing in the world. Being able to enjoy my family and friends is. If I do get brutally knocked out once or twice more, I’ll probably retire.”
Worse-case scenarios aside, Denis bounced back quickly as his coach remembers it. “By the next day, he was moving on,” says Shanley. “I almost didn’t believe it at first. I thought maybe he was covering up, but I never saw it really bother him except right after.” This wasn’t golf. Denis would persevere past his failure.
Back in Canada, he moved down to Bantamweight for the first time, finishing yet another hapless opponent.
While the Sandro knockout had happened too quickly for Denis to experience any panic, things got dicey in December 2009 during his next bout against Sean Quinn. Early on, a punch straight to the socket deprived Denis of sight in his right eye. “I felt helpless,” he says. “I thought he was in range and threw a combo, and he was nowhere to be found.” Soon after, Quinn connected, sending Denis briefly to the mat.
“I knew I just had to get in close,” says Denis, who recovered, and charged in with tentative punches, feeling his way in until he located his target. “I threw my right uppercut, and it dropped him.” After a brief follow up, he’d improved to 9-1. His coach was not surprised.
“It’s typical Nick,” says Shanley. “He gets that one chance, and ‘bam’ he finishes it. He just hits so hard.”
Securely back in his groove, Denis headed back to the land of the rising sun in March 2010, taking a short notice Featherweight fight against 30 bout veteran Yuji Hoshino. What he characterizes as a brain fart led to him submitting to a second round guillotine. As before, Denis says he didn’t take it too badly.
As the year dragged on however, his forward momentum began to stall. A fight against Ian Loveland had to be cancelled when Denis injured a nerve in his neck during his final pre-bout sparring session. Later that year, he used the work he’d already published to settle for a Master’s degree, and exit the University of Ottawa.
Determined to dedicate himself fully to training, he discovered his needs had finally outgrown Ronin. He needed a gym where he could train at high levels at all hours of the day. He ended up with Firas Zahabi in Montreal at Tristar, supplementing his training at Grant Brothers boxing and the Montreal Wrestling Club. The latter allowed him to start plugging a grappling hole that dated back to his original Ottawa base.
Potential match-ups with Josh Hill and WEC veteran Kyle Dietz subsequently fell through. For a second time, Denis tried out for The Ultimate Fighter. For a second time, he made it past the initial tryouts, but did not make the final cast. No matter he told himself, the UFC would be reached by other means.
Finally, in October, he faced Nick Mamalis back at Bantamweight. After being outwrestled to open, Denis lived up his reputation, seizing the opening when it presented himself and delivering the slam that earned him his promotion. “I turned into him as he was getting up,” recalls Denis, rising up from the couch he’s been seated on to re-enact the sequence.
“I was holding onto his right leg thinking ‘Should I go for a takedown, or break away and strike,’” he continues. “But then I was like ‘Option C, my move!’ I did it all the time at the gym. My intention wasn’t to knock him out. But as soon as we landed I felt him go limp.”
Sure enough, the good news he’d so long dreamed of soon followed. “I assumed I’d get hired by the UFC,” says Denis, quick to acknowledge the lobbying efforts of his new manager Robin Black. “Sean Shelby was watching that fight and he contacted me the next day to express interest.” Denis and Black finally got the decisive call in the following weeks.
When word broke of his addition to the UFC’s roster, the fact that he was coming off a year-and-a-half of inaction, a loss in his second-to-last bout, and most recently a come from behind win, the impression that this was a deserved shot was not unanimous. Reporter Leland Roling snarkily tweeted “Note to self: KO slams get you signed to the UFC even though there are better prospects out there.”
Denis cites his record when defending the opportunity he’s been given.
“I see guys in the UFC that are lot shittier than me,” he says. “If they can do it, why can’t I? I’m 10-2. All my fights are finishes. I’ve got a very good knockout percentage (90), which isn’t common for a Bantamweight.”
He is not afraid to challenge the division’s upper echelon either, despite the gaps in his wrestling. Years of training, success, and hard work breed a certain unshakable confidence.
“I want to fight the best,” says Denis. “That’s why I’m here. After Brian Bowles lost (to Urijah Faber), I told Robin, put it to the UFC. He’s 10-2 like me, coming off a loss, maybe they’ll want what looks like an easier fight for him.”
Instead, Denis was offered a less accomplished opponent in the form of 6-1 Joseph Sandoval.
“He’s a southpaw fighter so I’m adjusting my training,” says Denis. “I’m working takedowns on the right leg. For striking, the jab becomes less important. You circle the opposite way you’re used to and avoid moving towards his power hand. You also throw more lead crosses and hooks.”
Leading into the biggest fight of his life, Denis will not admit to feeling any more stressed than usual. In person, he certainly appears very calm. Will that change when he steps into the octagon for the first time? Will he be able to hold it together?
“I think so,” he says. “I’ve already fought in high pressure events, like Sengoku. I’ve always heard about UFC jitters. So if I prepare myself knowing and expecting that, then I’m already accounting for it.”
Denis insists that at 28, it’s the right timing for him to be making his debut. His overall game is as good as ever he insists. “It’s perfect,” he says. “I like challenges and the UFC is obviously the biggest.” Is it a challenge Denis can rise to? The Ninja’s fans and detractors will known soon enough.
*Denis’ fight opens Friday’s undercard, which unfortunately won’t be televised or streamed north of the border.
Follow Julian Cymbalista-Clapp on Twitter @ JulianCClapp