As a kid, Darren Elkins got a lot of attention he didn't want. As an adult, he can't seem to gain the attention he deserves. After five straight victories in the UFC's featherweight class, Elkins still searches the division's rankings with no luck. His name is nowhere to be found, despite being the only one in the class beside champion Jose Aldo that can boast of such a lengthy streak while fighting under the Zuffa banner.
While he's been busy working over the division, he's seen others like Clay Guida and Nik Lentz waltz in and immediately vault him on the strength of one and two wins, respectively. He's not invisible, but he certainly appears to be easy to overlook.
"I’m a little bit low-key, I'm from Indiana, and I don't fight with a huge camp," he told MMA Fighting. "I guess those kinds of things play a factor."
Those are things he doesn't necessarily want to change, but while they remain relatively static, Elkins (16-2) does want his respect, his platform and his opportunity. On Saturday, he finally gets the visibility necessary to change perception when he faces his highest-profile opponent, the former title challenger Chad Mendes at UFC on FOX 7. It is in some ways, a make-or-break moment for his fight career.
The fight offer came out of the ether. Elkins had just finished up his first stoppage in the division, beating Antonio Carvalho by first-round TKO at UFC 158 when his camp was approached about the bout. And when we say he had just finished, that's no exaggeration. It was just minutes after his fight and Elkins had barely had any time at all to celebrate before hearing of the UFC's offer.
His immediate thought was to say yes, but because he had never been in that position before, he felt he was still on an adrenaline high and decided to wait a couple of days to assess his physical condition. As it turns out, the 3-minute, 6-second fight left him no worse for the wear. In the end, the opportunity to face a highly ranked fighter trumped any concerns.
"In this sport, the way I look at it, going off one fight and straight into another one, you have to make quick assessments," he said. "I'm in great condition, I don't have any injuries. Taking a short-notice fight, it's the strategy you don't get to work as much on. Obviously, Carvalho and Mendes are two different styles of fighters. My last strategy isn't the same as this one. So I don't have as much time to get into a game plan, but I feel like I'm great shape, so I can mostly focus on my game plan."
When Elkins was a kid, he didn't have the time to consider all the variables of whether or not a fight was worth it. Elkins suffered from a speech disorder in which he struggled to pronounce certain letters and words. Because of it, he was an easy target for bullies who picked on him relentlessly and often drove him to action. Because he started wrestling at four years old, he often had a better idea of how to end a fight than they did, and so he often won, which in effect, stopped that particular antagonist.
The fighting, though? That continued on, at least in some form. First, there was wrestling, where Elkins was an Indiana high school state champion at 140 pounds, and then, when wrestling ended prematurely after two years of college, mixed martial arts wasn't far behind.
Those days of making snap judgments on fighting were supposed to be far behind, too, at least after reaching the sport's top level, but the potential rewards of beating Mendes (13-1) are just too great.
"If I beat Mendes, I should be next in line or one fight away from a title shot. No doubt," he said. "I'm taking the fight on short notice. This would be six in a row and I'd beat the guy who had a shot at the title whose only loss is to Aldo."
With just over one month from his last fight to this one, Elkins didn't have the luxury of time to work on anything specific, but he sees improvements coming in practice, with an emphasis over the last two years on his hands.
That work manifested itself in his bout with Carvalho. Though the stoppage itself was contested, there is no debating that Elkins had him in big trouble resulting from an overhand right behind the ear that wobbled Carvalho, and a right cross on the chin that dropped him. Elkins said that's the result of sparring work and focus pads, and it's an element that he believes has changed his game for the better. Given Mendes' career wrestling success, that will be a key factor on Saturday. According to FightMetric, during the nine fights Mendes has competed in during his WEC and UFC days, he has completed 27 takedowns while none of his opponents have ever been able to put him on the mat.
Mendes also has one other built-in advantage, in that he is coached by Duane "Bang" Ludwig, the same man who opposed Elkins in his UFC debut. While that matchup took place in 2010 and ended quickly after a fluke Ludwig injury, he still has the knowledge of his preparation work. But Elkins says that all this time later, he's a different fighter.
"I'm pretty well-rounded everywhere," he said. "I'm getting better everywhere. I’m definitely looking for finishes. Each fight I'm improving. Each fight I want to be better than I was the last fight. Every time I'm doing that, so I must be doing something right."
Not bad for a second-choice career. Elkins is also a Local 597 pipe-fitter, a trade he chased after dropping out of college to support his pregnant girlfriend Connie. The two were high school sweethearts and are now married with two children. His union job allows him to take off all the time he needs as long as he pays his dues, making it the perfect complementary position for his more demanding role as a professional mixed martial artist. The hope now is that his union job is something to fall back on when he's done with the fight game, a long time from now. After years of being overlooked and under-appreciated, Saturday night could be a life-changer for the quiet Midwest kid who has always been wanting for the right kind of attention.