When the fighter known as "The Caveman," David Rickels, sizes up his Thursday night opponent, Saad Awad, he's left scratching his head.
Rickels has been grinding his way through his battles in the Bellator cage, going all 12 possible rounds over his last four fights in the past 10 months.
Meanwhile, Awad, who Rickels faces in the Bellator season eight tourney finals at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, has torn through his opponents. The San Bernadino, Calif. native has won his past four fights via first-round finish, including opening-minute knockouts in both his Bellator tourney fights leading to the finale.
So what gives?
"You know, I've been trying to figure out why he's been finishing everyone so quickly," said Rickels (13-1). "If you look at his competition before Bellator, it wasn't very tough competition, but knocking out Guillame DeLorenzi and Will Brooks ... those are some really tough guys. They wouldn't be in Bellator if they weren't tough guys and good fighters. So Awad has definitely done well and I hope to end his magic first-round streak."
If anything, "The Caveman" feels his experiences in the cage over the past year give him the edge against Awad (14-4).
"I would lean towards myself having the advantage for going through six grueling rounds in the tournament. Saad Awad hasn't had a whole lot of experience. I mean, what ... his last five or six fights have ended in the first round? So I think if I can drag him into deep waters, let him bang on my head a little bit and let him wear himself down in the first round, it'll be a good fight for me.
"If anything, I've kind of sent the message that I can fight just about anybody," the Kansas native said. "I adapt well to whatever weight or style of fighting is across the cage from me. I feel like I've made a good name for myself in Bellator and in MMA as a whole."
The winner of Thursday night's Rickels-Awad fight gets the next shot at the man many consider Bellator's top pound-for-pound fighter, unbeaten lightweight titleholder Michael Chandler. Although Rickels respects Chandler's game, he's not afraid to say he thinks he can bring the action to the Bellator champ, should he get the opportunity.
"Michael Chandler is really tough and looked amazing in his last fight," Rickels said. "He's getting better all the time. But I feel like I could definitely give him a hell of a fight. If I catch him, I could probably put him down. I feel like my jiu-jitsu is up there if not better than his. I mean, he's got me in the wrestling game ... probably. Most likely. But I'm comfortable off my back and I'm comfortable standing, so I think it'd be a fun fight for sure."
Chandler was an All-American wrestler at the University of Missouri and made a smooth transition to MMA-style wrestling. But Rickels is convinced he's the guy who can put Chandler on his back and keep him there.
"Michael Chandler on his back, if anyone could put him there, might be a position he's not comfortable with," Rickels said. "I doubt he's used to ever being on his back because he uses his wrestling very well to get on top and control fighters. So, if you could get him there, especially with elbows ... if I got on top with him with elbows, it'd be a fun night for me."
But that fun won't happen if he becomes Awad's next knockout victim. So even with a title shot looming, Rickels is keeping focused on the task at hand.
"Man ... it's funny," Rickels said. "All the fights I think I'm going to finish end up going to a decision. And I hate decisions because I like to seal the deal, just like any other fighter would. You never know if it's going to a decision, but the way he comes out and the way that I finish strong ... I just don't see it happening. But who knows? If we come out trading punches and it goes bell to bell and it's an exciting war, I'll take that too."