Before UFC Fight Night 91 took place, there weren't many people inside mixed martial arts who knew JacksonWink-product Lando Vannata. By the event was over, however, it'd be hard to argue his performance against Tony Ferguson on incredibly short notice wasn't memorable.
Originally slated to face Michael Chiesa, Ferguson instead ran into the largely unknown Vannata, a then-undefeated fighter making the rounds in regional MMA circuits. Chiesa, however, withdrew due to injury roughly two weeks before the bout. That's when Vannata got the call to step in.
"I wasn't surprised," Vannata told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "[Darrell] Horchar got Khabib [Nurmagomedov] on the same notice, but what I was thinking was, 'Yeah, f--k yeah. Let's go. Let's do it. 100 percent in.'
"My manager called me. He said, 'Hey, you want to fight Ferguson in two weeks?'," Vannata recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, let's go.'"
Vannata ended putting on one of the best performances a debuting UFC fighter can hope. That's especially true considering he lost.
The debuting lightweight badly rocked top contender Ferguson a number of times in the first round and survived his own brushes with heavy strikes and near submissions. Some within the MMA media called the Ferguson-Vannata first round an arguably Round of the Year contender.
"I've got a lot of congratulations. It's definitely a moral victory," Vannata said. "I'm still disappointed in myself for the way I acted during certain parts of that fight and let myself down during it, but nonetheless, it's still a small victory. I think there's a lot of pressure off my shoulders. If I'd have beaten Tony Ferguson, there'd be a lot more pressure.
"Not that I'm not ready," he said assuringly. "I definitely feel like I'd be ready for it. Just now, it's not there."
According to Vannata, he had just completed day one of a camp for another fight when he got the call to make his UFC debut. He argued he "wasn't in great shape, but, you know, I was in decent shape." He also claimed Ferguson had many of the physical and fighting characteristics he normally has trouble facing, but was undaunted come fight time.
"Actually, I didn't know much about him," he confessed. "I knew he had chokes and he had long arms, big reach. At first, I was like, 'Great. These are all the things I hate. Guys with long reach, guys with good chokes and pressure fighters'. It was three things that I hate, but then we sat down and watched tape, it built my confidence up a lot."
Vannata said he was scheduled to make his UFC debut a number of times previously, but for one reason or another, plans fell through. None of that appeared to bother him, however. By his own admission, he didn't treat the experience like it was different from much else.
"Cowboy [Donald Cerrone] sat me down Saturday and was like, 'Hey man, don't let the big lights get to you. Don't let that stuff get to you. It's just another fight.' Just the normal things. They know physically and mentally I'm prepared for it. They were just like, 'Hey, it's going to be big lights, it's going to be these famous people around you, these famous referees and announcers' and all this other stuff....'Just don't be distracted by it.'
"I'm actually extremely calm when it comes to fight," he noted. "Sometimes I'm so calm that I go, 'Just be a little more excited right now'. I'm very very calm going into a fight. Backstage I'll be joking around, having a good time. We're cracking jokes. I'll walk out smiling, dancing. I feel good. I just take everything in."
To that end, MMA seems like a calling for Vannata. He visited JacksonWink as a 16-year-old looking for a wrestling camp and ended up spending a summer there on visit from Florida in 2008. He ended up at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and wrestled for a semester before dropping out to pursue MMA full time.
Before even all of that, Vannata said, he loved MMA. His aunt provided him with old UFC tapes, which he'd watch ad infinitum. "I was like 10, 11 years old. I saw UFC 30, UFC 31. My aunt got me those VHS [tapes]. I'd come home from school and I'd watch them every day, especially the Pedro Rizzo-Josh Barnett, the first fight. I love that fight," he said.
"Took me a couple of years to find my first gym," he continued. "This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a world champ one day."
So ready was Vannata that while he remained calm during the fight as he normally does, something else happened inside the Octagon that's never happened before: he felt like, in a manner of speaking, history was repeating itself.
"I approach the fight blank. I'm on autopilot. There's no thoughts, really," Vannata explained. "The only thought that came to me during that fight is I remember it just the other day. It was very weird. We were circling around each other, moving and I look at him. I think to myself, 'Either I'm having deja vu right now or I've dreamed about this before'. Then I just went right back to getting punched in the face."
Despite the comfort and calm, Vannata did lose, something he calls "sad". But while he might be a touch forlorn about the experience, he remains undeterred.
"It's very sad because every time I watch I go, 'Why did I do that? Why did I follow him to the ground?' If I'd have just given an extra inch of space when I let that uppercut go when he was back against the cage, it would've been a good night," he argued, "It's just small mistakes. It's kinda sad to watch, but at the same time, I sit down analytically and watch it and see the things I did wrong. I know what to work on in the future."
Perhaps even undeterred isn't the right word. Optimistic? Ready? Excited? Whatever the word, there isn't a doubt in Vannata's mind he's not prepared for this level and about to make another impact the MMA world won't soon forget.
"I've always been having great rounds with everybody in the gym. I knew my skill set was there, my mindset was there. It's just one of those things where you have to take it a day at a time," Vannata said about the UFC call up. "One step after the next. I know it's a long, arduous process. Some people never get that shot. I just happen to be lucky enough to get that chance. I always knew it would come."