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Cub Swanson explains how avoiding ‘dark place’ attributed to knockout win at UFC 256

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After 14 months on the sidelines, Cub Swanson returned to the octagon and did something he hadn’t done in over seven years: he picked up a finish.

Swanson delivered one of the best performances of his 38-fight pro career when he knocked out Daniel Pineda in the second-round at UFC 256. The 37-year-old has now won two straight, and it made the long road back from a torn ACL worth the wait.

After a tough start to the fight where Pineda continuously scored with leg kicks, Swanson turned things around when he dropped his opponent and swarmed as he looked for the finish. Pineda, a wily veteran in his own right, proved his toughness and made it to the horn.

The second round saw Pineda look for a single leg and once it was unsuccessful, Swanson began to accurately land shots before finding the perfect opening to land the thunderous right hand that ended the fight.

“I kind of knew when I was sitting between the first and second rounds on the stool [that the fight was nearly over],” Swanson told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “My cornerman was trying to give me advice but I was really just thinking, ‘This is about to be over.’ I was telling myself, ‘Don’t take anymore leg kicks. It’s a little unnecessary.’ But I just knew he couldn’t recover.

“I saw the way he was wobbling after I dropped him in the first. I landed some nice elbows at the end of the round, but I knew he couldn’t recover and that it would just take another shot to really get him wobbling around. I was really confident I would get him out of there in the second round.”

Between April 2016 and April 2017, Swanson was surging up the divisional ranks with four consecutive victories. Unfortunately, that streak would flip to a four-fight skid over the next 17 months, as he was submitted by Brian Ortega and Renatio Moicano, and was on the wrong side of decisions against Frankie Edgar and Shane Burgos.

He would bounce back with a win over blue chip prospect Kron Gracie in October 2019, earning a unanimous decision victory and handing Gracie his first loss in the “Fight of the Night” at UFC Tampa. Snapping a losing streak was one thing, but putting that rough stretch behind him officially is a whole different feeling altogether.

“The four-fight losing streak was just different for my career,” Swanson said. “It felt like it was hard to shake and it got to a point—even in the Kron (Gracie) fight—where I had so much time in between fights and you think about the last time you were in there. You have these little memories, like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what it felt like,’ and all of those memories were attached to losses.

“It was difficult and trying to tell yourself to not have those thoughts, it’s not easy. It’s something that comes with it. But with everything going on in 2020 being so crazy with the injury, and trying to come back and have a great performance, actually going out there and doing it was amazing.”

When pro fighters have their ups and downs—especially in a career that has lasted as long as Swanson’s—it’s not uncommon to lose their love for the sport. It’s taxing, the day-to-day is a grind to say the least, and when that hard work isn’t producing results, it can play with your mind.

Luckily for Swanson, it wasn’t a love thing. It was more of a soul searching expedition to answer a very important question.

“The motivation for me has been the hardest thing,” Swanson explained. “When I was super young, and everybody who has been in fan of mine from the WEC days, I was just tough as nails, fearless and that’s what made me tick. I’m not those things anymore. I’m fearless, but I plan ahead. I’m strategic. I’m smarter, and I’m just a different person than I was.

“Digging down and finding out where your head is at when a fight is about to come, I used to get to a dark place and that’s not really a place I want to go anymore. I got kids, I enjoy my life and I’m having a good time. I don’t feel like I need to go there anymore. This time was the first time I kind of accepted that, ‘Hey, it’s time to evolve,’ and I feel like I was struggling with that over the last four or five years.

“Sometimes you show up, sometimes you don’t, sometimes it’s, ‘What’s my deal?’ But this one it just clicked and I felt like I graduated, in a sense, to a new level.”

After a year-plus away, and having his motivation to win as clear as ever, Swanson isn’t planning on wasting any time delivering an encore.

“I’d like to get right back in,” Swanson stated. “I took a year off and I felt the difference this time. I’m noticing that, little by little, I’m just as fast, just as sharp. It’s just that I need longer rest days. The majority of the camp on the weekends, I would sometimes take Saturday and Sunday off instead of just the one day. And that’s fine. I’m just listening to my body and knowing how to get the best out of myself without pushing it too hard.

“I know I’m not trying to fight past 40 so I’d like to get in as many as I can and keep the train moving.”