When Affliction Entertainment shuttered its doors for good, there was only one place Paul Buentello wanted to go: the UFC. The veteran heavyweight longed for the stability that MMA's biggest organization provided. Luckily for him, the UFC was also interested in the reunion, and the sides came to terms.
At UFC 107 on Dec. 12, Buentello (24-10) will return to the octagon for the first time in over three years. Originally scheduled to take on top prospect Todd Duffee, he was thrown a changeup when Duffee had to back out due to injury. Instead, "The Headhunter" will have to quite literally aim higher, facing the intriguing 6-foot-11 Dutch fighter Stefan Struve (18-3).
Just a few days before the bout, Buentello took some time to talk to FanHouse about his reasons for returning to the UFC, facing a giant, longing for a rematch with Alistair Overeem, and putting his past difficulties in the rearview mirror.
Mike Chiappetta: You were originally scheduled to face Todd Duffee, who opened a lot of eyes with his 7-second KO debut. How disappointed were you when he had to pull out of that fight given he was a higher-profile opponent than Struve?
Paul Buentello: I'm just excited to get to fight and back in the UFC. That's my whole motivation. It doesn't matter who I'm going to fight or what kind of hype they bring behind them. I'm just happy to fight again in the UFC and to be able to work.
So how did your deal with UFC come about? Most people were under the impression that when Affliction died, you were also under a Strikeforce deal and would return there.
The whole thing is they had a right to implode the contract. My relationship with Strikfeforce was pretty much an open book, and there was nothing really hidden. I just chose to go with UFC.
Why did you choose UFC?
The whole thing was the stability. I can get more fights in. If I stay healthy I can fight 3-4 times a year. Just the whole stability thing, and the name. What sounds better? Being an MMA fighter or a UFC fighter?
I guess the devil's advocate would say Strikeforce has a lot of forward momentum and the exposure of the CBS and Showtime deals.
It's just one of those things. I need to know that I'm going to be stable and have enough fights. If you pour everything into a funnel, it all comes out of one little hole. So you have to funnel all these fighters and fights into certain cards. They just don't put enough shows on. With UFC, they have a lot more shows. It seems like they have a show every week, so it's more room to move and work.
I know you've had issues with other promoters around scheduling, so did you simply reach the end of your line on that?
It's been rough. You'll get the call, "Hey, you're fighting in March." Then you get a call two weeks later saying, "Hey, your opponent got hurt, you're not fighting until July." It goes back and forth like that. I need some stability in my career. It makes sense for me to go somewhere with stability. The UFC knows what they're doing. People complain about them controlling this and that, but at least they lay all their cards on the table instead of having to guess what's going to happen next.
Is Duffee a fight you'd still like to do after facing Struve?
Most definitely. He has some name value now. If you want to take a fight with hype behind him and make an interesting matchup, I think fans are interested in seeing this and how he'd be, his power and stuff. It's a matchup people want to see, and if they want to see it, I'm happy to do it. I want to see it as well.
Do you think Duffee's the real deal?
It's hard to tell. He's only had a few fights. We've got to put him in situations to have tough fights. The thing is, he's on an up scale. How does he handle his first losss? His second loss? Getting knocked out on pay-per-view fighting for title? How do you handle those bumps that are going to come in your career? That's one thing you can judge someone's character on, if they can handle a loss, because everyone is going to lose eventually.
Struve is a young guy, only 21 but already over 20 pro fights. How much did you know about him when you accepted the fight and what are your thoughts on his skills?
I knew he's from Holland and Bobby Schrijber's school. And the thing is: he's a standup guy. I don't want to go out there in my first match back and fight a straight grappler. It's a good matchup. I think fans want to see a good standup match.
The size is what the hard part is. Do you want to fight someone 8, 9 inches taller than you? It's something I considered back and forth, but you know what? He's a standup fighter even though most of his wins are on ground. He likes to stand and bang and push the pace, and that's where I want to go.
Amazingly, in 21 pro fights, he's never gone to a decision, and in 34 pro bouts, you've only gone to two. Are you guys going to shock us and go three rounds?
I don't think so. He pushes the pace and he's long. If I'm on point and stick to our gameplan, and make sure I'm in the right positions, the right angles and pushing the right pace, it'll make it a really good fight. But if I get the jitters and I'm at the wrong place at the wrong time, and get caught, he can catch you. He can catch you in a submission really quick or get a sneaky takedown. And he takes a beating, too. That's another thing I know in the back of my head, that it's going to be a long, drawn-out war. But I don't think it's going to a decision.
Even though you characterize him as a striker, 14 of his 18 wins are by submission, and you probably have the edge in power. Do you feel like if you stay on your feet, he's got no chance of winning?
It's not that. I wish I could say that, but it's being on point and making sure every punch counts. Everything he does, counteract and make him pay for it. I have to be really focused and stay on our gameplan and it should work my way. If I just fully stick on my striking, I'll get caught because I'll overlead with one hand or another. I've got to make sure that everything is together for this fight.
He fought less than two months ago. Your last fight was in January. Who does that favor?
I think it's going to be more of an advantage on his part because he's staying busy and constantly in shape. One thing I have the advantage on is time to focus on conditioning with a conditioning coach and personal trainer. I've been able to work on things I have a problem with, like flexibility in my hips and getting up from different positions, overall body strength. I think it's going to match up, but the thing is, he's not going to have the jitters. I'll probably have more of the jitters than he will.
That's surprising to hear since you've been around the sport so long.
Well, you know, it's still the UFC. I don't know where on the card we are, but it's still the UFC. I get the jitters when I get ready to spar. This fight will be a little different. I don't know what will happen. I might have none. I might be cold as ice.
You mentioned the size and reach. Was there any way to prepare for it? There aren't too many 6-11 guys with his set of skills in MMA.
It's hard to find that height and adjust that. My personal trainer Jason Maas has helped. I'm lifting heavy, hitting the hands heavy and real high in the air, because that's where I'll be punching. My boxing trainer is holding the mitts higher and I'm hitting higher on the bags just to get that endurance in the shoulders.
Was the long layoff good for your body in terms of resting injuries?
It's good because it allowed me to focus on conditioning. As soon as the Affliction fight was called off, I didn't stop training. I probably took a week off and then hired a personal trainer in my home town of Austin to focus on conditioning. Just body weight. It was good for me to take time off, but it was also nerveracking in the sense of I didn't know where I'd end up, and if the UFC really wanted to do this deal or not.
Is this the first time you've used a personal trainer?
Yes. I invested in one for the Gary Goodridge fight. That performance wasn't too good, but we built our relationship. And then you saw the performance with Kirill [Sidelnikov]. It shows the difference when you have a trainer you respect when you dial in and know what you have to get done. It showed in the Kirill fight.
Is Struve's reach a bigger issue in the striking or on the ground?
I think it's more helpful for him on the ground, because he's long and can wrap those legs around me twice, or the arms around me. He can go for the North-south, he's good on the triangle. For a good D'arce choke, he's real long. But for his striking, he's going to be a couple beats slower than me because he has a lot of reach to stick out there.
What are your long-term goals now in the UFC?
My goals right now are small. I'm not looking for world title contention or anything like that. I'm not worried about belts or anything. I'm just setting small goals. That's how I've always gone through life, setting small goals to move forward. I want to get four wins in a row. I've never been 4-0 in the UFC. I won two, then lost, then won my last one, so I went 3-1 in the UFC. I want to go 4-0. We'll see what happens.
We mentioned your time in Strikeforce. You were the last man to face its heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem, over two years ago. What do you make of the fact he hasn't been back to defend the belt since then?
I don't know. It's just one of those things, politics. People always ask me, 'Do you want to rematch Andrei Arlovski?" Yes, but I would love to fight Alistair again. For that fight my head was so far up my ass, I couldn't even see straight. Everything that could've possibly gone wrong for that training camp did. I wasn't even 50 percent there. If I was 100 percent or even 80 percent, I could beat him.
What exactly went wrong?
Deals with management, putting me on the back burner. Things at home were unstable. I fight for a living and when you don't have any money to pay the bills at home and the people who are supposed to take care of those things for you as managers and agents ... just everything you can possibly think of went wrong.
The main thing was not having the right people. Having all these people saying, "Yes, we can do this and yes, we can do that." But then it comes out they couldn't do a damn thing and you're stuck holding yourself.
To put it plain and simple, I was negative before I walked in that cage to fight Alistair. That's not good that you're walking out there to fight for a world title, and you're already in a negative frame of mind. So I had to win. I had to win to make it positive, and that's just too much pressure for a fighter.
So all that stuff is rectified now? You're in a good mindset leading in to this match?
Oh, definitely. Everything's good. I'm in a real good frame of mind. I have a whole new team behind me on the management side. Everything's a lot better. I can see the difference. I make a phone call and things happen. I don't have to rob Paul to pay Peter anymore.