It’s been a long time since a prospect joined the UFC roster with as much hype swirling around them as Bo Nickal.
The three-time NCAA champion wrestler from Penn State has an athletic pedigree that already sets him apart from just about any athlete looking to get attention with only three fights on his résumé. There’s so much expectation built around Nickal’s debut that he’ll have his UFC debut as the opening bout of the main card at UFC 285, which is a coveted spot for veterans, much less a rookie with two of his three wins coming on Contender Series.
Nickal, 27, seems to be embracing the moment, and his head coach, Mike Brown from American Top Team, agrees he has all the tools necessary to make a real impact in the UFC.
“He’s obviously very young in his MMA career,” Brown told MMA Fighting. “He has like three minutes of professional MMA experience. He’s very young in his career, but if you look at his wrestling résumé, I mean, he’s one of the greatest college wrestlers ever. He’s close to the greatest wrestler ever. You’d obviously have to say Cael Sanderson is the No. 1 college wrestler ever, but Bo was up there.
“He’s one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of the sport. He’s very focused and driven. Things are obviously moving really, really quickly. I think we’re all excited to see how this development unfolds, but who knows where it’s going to go. He conquered the sport of wrestling like only one or two men ever have and it seems to be moving in that direction in the sport of mixed martial arts.”
Immediately after he was signed to the UFC roster, Nickal was already eyeing future fights with former middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and highly touted two-weight wrecking machine Khamzat Chimaev.
He ultimately got Jamie Pickett as his first opponent, but Nickal appears ready to win his debut and make a rapid rise up the middleweight ranks.
For his part, Brown understands the enthusiasm built around Nickal but he also understands that slow and steady always wins the race, especially in a sport as difficult as MMA. That’s why Brown and the rest of the coaches and fighters at American Top Team are putting Nickal through a trial by fire in the gym to ensure he’s ready for the UFC.
“We want to test him in the gym,” Brown explained. “Push him hard in the gym, test him in the gym, but no need to test him so quickly in the fights. Take your time like you’re supposed to, step-by-step incrementally, build your way up and keep doing what you’re doing. We want one-sided fights for a while. We want to keep raising the competition step-by-step, inch-by-inch as we move. There’s no need to go too fast. We’ll test ourselves heavy in the gym, no problem, and develop there.
“But in the fight world, step-by-step as it should be. Minimize risk and keep climbing the ladder. We don’t want to move too fast. We want to make sure we’re always the A-side, and for good reason. You want to feel different scenarios under the bright lights, be in different scenarios under the bright lights. That way you’re comfortable, and that’s just how it should be done.”
The UFC doesn’t exactly have a road map regarding prospects. Some fighters are thrown in the deep end of the pool very early, while others take more time to gain experience before earning matchups against ranked opposition.
Considering Nickal is already eyeing future fights with the best of the best at 185 pounds, it doesn’t appear that he’s interested in taking his time. But Brown promises that’s the best course of action for long-term success.
“Obviously, he’s moving quickly,” Brown said. “He literally has three minutes of professional fighting experience. I think he’s had five fights [total], they’ve all been pretty quick if you count his amateur career. I don’t even need to say it. This guy is not a normal guy.
“Of course he has the ability to be a UFC champion and that’s the direction he’s headed. That’s where we’re going. He has everything he needs to make that happen and I think he’s on that path.”