Few fighters have experienced the feeling of “two steps forward, one step back” like Zak Cummings since he joined the UFC.
A cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 17 back in 2013, Cummings made his official Octagon debut in August of that year with a first-round submission of Ben Alloway. That performance earned Cummings his first (and to date, only) $50,000 fight night bonus and came during an emotional tempest in his life that saw him achieve his dream of fighting for the UFC while also dealing with the news that his father had potentially fallen fatally ill.
Cummings was celebrating his first UFC win when he received the call that his father was diagnosed with lung cancer and had fallen into a coma. He flew back to Springfield, Missouri, to be with his family and to sign off on the hospital pulling the plug, only for his father to actually wake up with no recollection of what had happened. Cummings’s father would pass away six weeks later, but not before the two were able to spend valuable time together. The 35-year-old fighter chuckles as he recalled the absurdity of the situation, describing that period of his life as “the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.”
Little did he know that his UFC career would also be one of peaks and valleys. Initially competing as a welterweight, Cummings fell into a familiar pattern of winning two fights and losing one, with those losses always occurring as he was on the verge of contending. He beat who he was supposed to beat, but fell to higher ranked opponents like Gunnar Nelson, Santiago Ponzinibbio, and Michel Prazeres.
He moved up to 185 pounds after the loss to Prazeres and, yet again, strung together back-to-back wins to improve his UFC record to 8-3 with finishes in more than half of those victories. Though that’s a quality record on the surface, Cummings knows he has a lot of work to do to someday earn a title shot and he’s looking to the recent success of Factory X teammate Anthony Smith as a rough guideline for how to become a contender overnight.
“That’s one reason why I still continue to do this run,” Cummings told MMA Fighting. “One of my friends and teammates kind of gave me a little inspiration in Anthony Smith. He was one of those midwest guys who was fighting at middleweight, he was doing okay, winning some, losing some, the UFC wasn’t putting a whole lot of marketing dollars behind him and everything. Then he went up to 205, took a fight on short notice, had the right fight and the right opponent and the right win and the next thing you know he had a couple of those and he skyrocketed and he’s fighting for a title. So, seeing that that could happen to someone like him gave me a little more hope that I could still make a little run at this and see how it goes.
“I thought I could have got a ranked opponent for this fight, a lot of them are matched up and still kind of injured or banged up or whatever it was, so getting a fight with Omari, I know he’s right outside of the rankings, and I think the winner of this will continue to move on and probably get a ranked opponent next or even pull a ranking since you’ve got some of these guys going to 205 and are giving up those numbers next to their names.”
The middleweight division is in flux, with former champions Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman moving up to light heavyweight and older contenders like Yoel Romero, Ronaldo Souza, and Anderson Silva possibly winding down their careers. But if Cummings is going to follow a similar path to Smith, he’ll need to have some more luck with the matchmaking.
Upon moving to 205 pounds, Smith defeated former world champions Rashad Evans and Mauricio Rua before earning a No. 1 contender’s bout against Volkan Oezdemir, a run with considerably more cachet than Cummings’s middleweight wins over Trevin Giles and Trevor Smith.
Still, Cummings isn’t ruling anything out, especially since fighting has already taken him further than he ever expected. This Saturday, he competes in Abu Dhabi against fellow former welterweight Omari Akhmedov at UFC 242. That’s a long way to go for the lifelong Midwesterner.
“I thought it was cool to go to Iowa and fight,” Cummings said of how much he’s enjoyed traveling while fighting. “Just going to different places in the midwest was exciting for me and then I got to go to Canada, Florida, some of that stuff was fun.
“I signed with the UFC and right after my UFC debut I went on a military trip with a few other fighters and we went over to some different military bases and just kind of hung out with the troops and taught some seminars and stuff. I went to Singapore, I went to Bahrain, which is somewhat close, just a few hours west of Abu Dhabi. So I’ve kind of been over there in that area before.”
One thing Cummings isn’t planning to do to accelerate his climb up the ranks is develop an over-the-top persona a la Colby Covington or Conor McGregor. While Covington’s antics have drawn more attention to the welterweight’s stellar performances inside the cage, Cummings is hoping that just winning will do the trick for him.
After all, it’s taken him this far.
“It’s kind of nice not to have to worry about all the political BS and deal with stuff and everything and just go in and do what I love to do,” Cummings said. “I can enjoy my life and I can step up, compete, and enjoy it and really have fun. I get recognized by the true fans and stuff. But there’s also part of me that’s like, ‘I’ve spent years doing this. I’ve won a lot of fights, I’ve had a lot of finishes, what do I gotta do to get extra respect and stuff?’”
“Some of it’s on me. I don’t do all the extra building a character for my stuff and just being fake and everything, it’s not in me. I’m not that person. I’ve been in that locker room with Conor McGregor, and Conor’s chilling, having fun, just cracking jokes, just being a really cool person, and then the camera walks in and you just see this switch flip. A whole other person, a persona. I’m like, ‘Dude, what just happened?’ You realize the camera’s in the room and it’s like, ‘Never mind, I see it.’ I don’t have it in me, I can’t do it. I figure if I just keep winning fights then it’s going to be hard to deny me forever, so that’s the game plan. It’s an entertainment sport, but it’s a fighting sport and I can fight my ass off. So that’s where I’ll try to impress people.”