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UFC newbie, ex-college football player thinks athletes from other sports will 'take over' MMA

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MMA is ripe for the plucking through the eyes of Joe Merritt.

The former college football player believes that it's only a matter of time before other athletes begin to make the transition to MMA. And when they do, Merritt said, they're going to represent a new, better breed of fighter.

"I believe at the end of the day that athletes from other sports are gonna take over," Merritt told MMA Fighting.com. "If you come out of a collegiate sport, a professional sport you will adapt to MMA quick.

"If the pay goes up, like what [other athletes] are already getting, then hell yeah."

There are already former NFL players in the UFC, like Matt Mitrione and Brendan Schaub. Merritt makes his UFC debut against Alex Oliveira at UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Romero on Saturday night in Hollywood, Fla. He's speaking from a place of experience. Merritt has been a pro MMA fighter for just three years and has made the climb from small shows to RFA to the UFC very quickly.

Merritt (6-0) is coming off a third-round TKO of Steven Ciaccio at RFA 21 last December. He's knocked out every single one of his opponents, though many of them have been weak competition on unsanctioned California shows. But his performances were good enough for the UFC to call him on short notice to face Oliveira when the Florida card, originally supposed to be The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3 Finale, fell apart due to visa issues.

Growing up in Louisiana and California, Merritt played every sport imaginable: football, track, soccer, basketball and even did a little ballet. He was a star football player in high school and earned a scholarship at Louisiana-Monroe, where he was a regular wide receiver.

Merritt, now 31, dreamed of playing in the NFL, but self-professed immaturity held him back his junior and senior years of college. Instead, Merritt had a cup of coffee in arena ball.

"Right after football, I just kind of got a little discouraged, because I wasn't able to perform to my full potential," he said. "I started and everything, but when you play on a team and you're fast and agile, you're not able to create and show your skills the way you would like to. It's a team-oriented sport."

MMA is as individual as you're going to get. There's just you and your opponent inside a locked cage. Merritt always thought he'd be a pro athlete, just not doing this. He said he got picked on a lot growing up and always had to fight. He recognized early that he was pretty good at it, because of his natural athletic ability.

Merritt started to apply it for real, first at Westside MMA in Little Rock, Ark., and now Millenia MMA in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Merritt moved back to California three years ago to pursue acting and modeling. Now, he trains with the likes of Lorenz Larkin, Georgi Karakhanyan and Willie Gates. Merritt says he can apply a lot of football techniques to MMA.

"Even in my receiver stance, you're in the boxer stance automatically," he said. "The only difference is that your back foot is turned outward.

"When I'm taking off for a sprint, that's the same as a takedown. When you're spearing people, your foot comes up and you're pushing off. Next thing you know, I'm running an out route."

Joe Merritt

That natural athletic ability has gotten Merritt far, but he's nowhere near where he wants to be. Not in fighting and not in modeling or acting. He's done Calvin Klein ads and an Adidas photo shoot in Europe over the last couple of years, but admits that it hasn't been easy trying to make it in Los Angeles.

"I've been struggling," Merritt said. "It doesn't pay or anything, but it's just my passion and drive and love for it, man. You have to be hungry to stay here and do this."

And training, of course, has to take precedence. He's trying to juggle all three things right now.

"You have to live in the gym, man," Merritt said. "That comes first. People laugh, 'Oh you're a model. You don't do nothing.' I'm like, 'Dude, I train, bro. I know what I'm doing. I train. Trust me.'"

Will it be enough against Oliveira, a far more experienced fighter? Merritt believes so. He's only watched 30 seconds of Oliveira's fights, but trusts his coaches to get him ready.

"I'm real confident, even though it's a week notice," Merritt said. "A fight is a fight. I feel like he'll have more to stress than me. He has much more to lose than me. I'm just getting my feet wet."

Spoken like someone who has played football in front of crowds of more than 100,000.