If anyone is going to be prepared to make his UFC debut on a week’s notice, it’s going to be a Marine Corps sergeant who did three combat tours of Afghanistan.
Kyle Stewart was starting to get frustrated as he waited for the UFC to call. He had scored a TKO win over Jason Jackson on Contender Series in 2017, but fell victim of a numbers game in a stacked welterweight division.
But just as the Tempe, Ariz. native was starting to wonder if his phone was ever going to ring, he find himself in the opening match of UFC on ESPN+ — and thus in the first fight of the ESPN era — on Saturday night in Brooklyn.
Stewart will meet Chance Rencountre on the early prelims, ending a chain of events in which Randy Brown was pulled from the fight, and chosen replacement Dwight Grant wasn’t approved by the New York State Athletic Commission.
“It’s been crazy, man,” Stewart told MMA Fighting as he was on his way to Phoenix airport for his flight to New York. “I went from being in training for my LFA fight to all of a sudden my dream is here. And you’re doing all these things you hadn’t thought about before like medicals and travel arrangements and now you gotta make weight in a hurry. I didn’t think I’d be getting on a plane to New York City on short notice to do this, but I’m ready to answer the bell whenever and wherever to make this work.”
Stewart, who practiced karate as a kid, found himself stationed in the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center out in the desert in Twentynine Palms, Calif. MMA and the Marines have a deep connection, as demonstrated by the success of everyone from Brian Stann to Liz Carmouche to Tim Kennedy.
Stewart began informal training in a fight club on the base, found out he was pretty good at it, and began seriously pursuing a pro MMA career.
Stewart was 7-0 with five finishes when he got his chance on Contender Series during the third episode of the debut season, where he defeated Jackson on a second-round injury TKO. But while fighters with finishes have a decent chance of a quick call from the UFC, Stewart waited. And he understood, to a degree.
“Look, if I had been in a division where there aren’t as many fighters, if I had been a heavyweight or a women’s featherweight, I probably would have been in, right? But you look at welterweight and you see how deep the division is and I mean, it doesn’t help me at all but you can see where they’re coming from.”
This put Stewart in what he called “MMA purgatory”: Good enough to have proven he belongs in the big leagues, but stuck in the feeder leagues taking on one tough opponent after another, whether it’s a fighter in a similar career position or an upstart who wants to make his own name.
“I just got stuck in MMA purgatory,” Stewart said. “Where you either take fights against easy opponents or you get another super tough dude, but you’re not doing it for any type of money and you’re wondering if you’re ever going to get that opportunity.”
Ironically, Stewart’s only career loss led to him wrapping his brain back around getting to the big show. Last July, Stewart lost a decision to James Nakashima in a welterweight title fight at LFA 46. Nakashima belongs to MMA Lab, and after the bout, his team invited Stewart to come join the gym, which he accepted.
“I can’t tell you what that’s meant for my career,” Stewart said. “You have to understand, there are no egos in that gym, and it comes from the top down. [Coach] John Crouch sets the tone and you walk in there, and there’s Benson Henderson, a world champion and a legend of the sport, and he acts just as humble as the guy who’s cleaning the mats and sweeping the floor at the end of the day. When you see everyone buy in the way the do, that just motivates you to get your head right.”
Stewart got back in the win column at LFA 53, earning a decision over Braden Smith to go to 3-1 post-Contender Series. He was preparing to headline LFA 59 on Feb. 1 when the call came. And while he admits he doesn’t know a ton about Rencountre, he doesn’t seem all that concerned.
“I’ve looked at some video and I’ll be ready,” Stewart said. “But look, I’ve never taken the easy road. I’ve literally been to war. And after that, in my MMA career, I have not taken an easy road. I’ve had some hard fights, some tough opponents, and there are people in the UFC who in my opinion had an easier road than I did to get here. So whoever’s on the other side of the cage, after everything I’ve been through, nothing against them personally but I do feel bad for them.”