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Heading into his trilogy fight with Charles Oliveira, Nik Lentz is far more comfortable in his own skin

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Nik Lentz
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

For reasons that remain mysterious to everyone including those involved, Charles Oliveira and Nik Lentz are fighting a third time on Saturday night in Rochester, New York. The first fight between the two happened nearly nine years ago, ending in a “no contest” due to an illegal knee landed by the Brazilian, Oliveira, thus rendering his submission that night moot. They ran it back four years later at featherweight and Oliveira — for all intents and purposes — squared any lingering debt by tapping Lentz out in the third round.

Series over, right? Wrong.

“A lot of people don’t understand the fight, and I don’t actually understand the matchmaking all that well myself,” Lentz told MMA Fighting this week. “But after the fight happens a lot of people will understand it was a great fight to make. I’m going to get him.”

If anything, it’s two reinvigorated fighters colliding in upstate New York, regardless of the backstory. Oliveira — who has long since become the all-time submission leader in UFC history — has won four straight fights, all coming via finishes. Lentz, too, has been riding a recent surge. He is coming off of back-to-back victories over Gray Maynard (TKO) and Scott Holtzman (decision), the latter of which got him some recognition after airing on ESPN.

Strictly speaking, they are the exact same players, and Lentz is expecting a very similar version of Oliveira that he’s encountered at four-year intervals.

“He’s a little less chaotic, but as far as technique he’s basically the same fighter he’s always been,” Lentz says. “One of the things that throws people off about Charles and threw me off originally, is he’s a tall, skinny-looking guy. But really he’s extremely athletic, and super strong, and he hits really hard, and it throws you off a little bit.

“That’s how he ends up getting so many submissions. It’s because you can see a guy fighting him thinking, ‘oh, I’m going to get him,’ and he grabs them, and it’s like, holy shit, the guy doesn’t have a muscle in his body but he’s super strong!”

Non-strictly speaking, the subtext is this fight is happening at lightweight, a significant detail when tracing back the rivalry to its origins. The last time Oliveira and Lentz fought was in 2015 at a show in Goiânia, Brazil, which ended with Oliveira sinking a guillotine. It was contested at 145 pounds. Oliveira has had a very well documented struggle with making the weight as a feather, but it was equally brutal for Lentz.

“The Carny” says it was actually that second Oliveira fight — the last he ever had at 145 — that became an eye-opener for him in the moment, and ultimately played out as career-saving revelation.

“The last fight was the fight that woke me up to being like, oh my God, this is miserable,” Lentz says. “I cut so much weight. Anybody could have beat me that night. My wife could have kicked my ass that night. I was tired just walking to the cage because I’d cut so much weight. I don’t really put too much on the loss. I learned a lot from it, but as far as a rivalry with Charles? I’ve lost to a lot of people in my career. The person means nothing to me.”

The memory of the last encounter reads like an existential dialogue a fighter might have with himself during a sleepless night.

“I thought about actually not going to Brazil, but during the fight [Oliveira] kneed me in the stomach — he caught me with a big knee — and I was looking up at the lights, and he was raining down elbows on me and the thought kept coming through my head, ‘is this really worth it?’” he says. “And then an elbow hit me in the face, and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ Then another elbow, and I thought, ‘I can quit right now and be done with fighting altogether.’

“And then he hit me again, and I thought, ‘no Nik, you’ve got to keep it together,’ and I kept fighting from there.”

Through 22 UFC fights on three different continents, Lentz has never had to dig deeper than he did that night. Though he lost to Oliveira, he ended up turning the bout into a Fight of the Night, which was a hell of a turnaround for a guy who barely had enough energy just to show up. Still, the misery of that situation became a meaningful epiphany.

Lentz decided to move back to lightweight, where he’s since gone 5-2 and is on the verge of his first three-fight winning streak since 2013. Along the way he has become a father — now with a three-year-old, and an 11-month old — and far more comfortable in his own skin. His marriage, which suffered through the misery of him cutting weight and maintaining a strict disciplinary diet, is now happier than it’s ever been.

And he says, understanding how cliché it might sound, that he’s in the best shape of his life. When he says it he means from a perspective of mental health, as much as physical.

“I’m much more confident, I’m much more relaxed,” he says. “Originally when I got into this shit, I was a tough kid but I wasn’t ready for the cameras. I wasn’t ready for that kind of life, I wasn’t ready for people judging me all the time. I wasn’t ready for any of that. That used to weigh on me, but that’s gone.”

“I worked so hard, and I trained so hard, and the thing that was missing was…that I made it the No. 1 priority in my life. Everything revolved around fighting, my diet, what I did, it just engulfed my life. When I had the kids it kind of put things in perspective. I was like, what am I doing?

“Now everything feels right, physically, mentally. I train less, I do less, but my athleticism, my conditioning, my technique, it all went through the roof. It’s crazy. It’s like I stopped and chilled, I saw the world for what it was and realized I was missing out. The only thing is I have to get used to is that I’m significantly less nervous, which feels a little weird during fight week and stuff.”

The older, wiser Lentz — the sturdy veteran, who at 34 years old knows he has more fights in the rear-view mirror than in front of him — has also shed some delusions in the last few years.

“I learned on my path to ‘45 that being a good fighter isn’t enough to get you a title,” he says. “I learned that early in my career, and that was kind of a devastating thing for me. I had done a lot of the things that I thought were right, and it got me nowhere. I started to learn that the champs aren’t always the best fighters, and that if you’re ranked No. 5, you’re probably not better than whoever is ranked No. 10. A lot of those things threw me for a loop when I was younger.”

So maybe a trilogy fight with Oliveira doesn’t make the most sense in the world, but for Lentz it’s all good. He’s enjoying the ride more than he ever has before, and he’s not holding his fists as tight as he did when he debuted at UFC 103 a decade ago. Is he motivated by title shots? That wouldn’t hurt, but the journey is the key thing.

“Now it’s just putting together the wins and seeing where it takes me,” he says. “I’m definitely capable of beating anybody in the world. I have many more years of fighting left, even if there are obviously more behind me that in front of me. But I’ve got a long way to go and I’ve never felt better.

“I know a lot of fighters say that, saying at 34 you can’t feel better. But clearly if you look at how I’ve been fighting, and how I react, and how I am on camera, and how I am on fight night, you can see it. I am a better athlete, I am a better person. Everything is better.”