Long before Bo Nickal was winning NCAA championships in wrestling or contemplating a future in MMA, he was a UFC fan. In those days, the future top prospect and two-time Contender Series winner looked at Jon Jones as the kind of fighter he hoped to be one day.
Now, as Nickal makes his octagon debut, he and Jones will share the same card at UFC 285. With a perfect 3-0 record in his career, Nickal was happy when he learned he’d be fighting alongside Jones, who faces Ciryl Gane in the main event.
“Super motivating for me,” Nickal said during UFC 285 media day. “I remember probably being in the fifth, sixth grade, watching UFC events and seeing Jon Jones dismantle people.
“So to be on the same card as him is a big honor. I’m very grateful for that opportunity. I think it’s pretty cool.”
It turns out Nickal had the opportunity to not only meet Jones during fight week, but also wrestle the ex-champ briefly during their final training sessions ahead of Saturday’s card. While Jones did compete in collegiate wrestling at Iowa Central Community College, his accolades in the sport pale in comparison to Nickal, who is a three-time NCAA Division I champion from Penn State.
According to Nickal, he got a taste of grappling with Jones as a heavyweight, but said he still got the better of him on the wrestling mats.
“I was able to meet him yesterday at the [UFC Performance Institute],” Nickal said. “He tried to take me down, but I obviously stuffed that and ran around and got behind him and stuff. Again, very grateful to be on the card, and he’s definitely a guy that, his fighting style, I’d like to emulate.
“He had a pretty strong grip, but overall, it was just straight wrestling, so I had a big advantage.”
Nickal opens the main card on pay-per-view against Jamie Pickett in a middleweight bout, while Jones closes the show against Gane to crown a new UFC heavyweight champion.
For his part, Nickal expects Jones to do great at heavyweight and anticipates “Bones” will leave the T-Mobile Arena with a title around his waist, just like he did for so much of his career at 205 pounds.
“I got Jones, 100 percent,” Nickal said. “No doubt in my mind that he’s going to [win]. Obviously he’s had a long layoff, hasn’t fought in a while, but I think that he’s going to go out there and perform really well. He’s a guy, again, when the pressure’s on, he performs the best, and he just knows how to fight and knows how to win. I think that is even bigger than being a great fighter, is he knows how to win. I predict him getting the win and doing it in spectacular fashion.
“He’s going to be fine this weekend, I’m sure. I’m really excited to see him fight. A lot of anticipation with him coming up to heavyweight, and I think that he’ll probably put on his best performance ever, just because there’s more pressure and more eyes and he’s a guy that performs when the spotlight’s on him better than anyone.”
Despite UFC 285 serving as his debut with the promotion, Nickal is the biggest favorite on the entire card. In fact, he has ballooned as high as a 22-to-1 favorite over Pickett at some sportsbooks.
That definitely sets high expectations for his performance, but Nickal wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Regardless of what people think of me, I want to be the best,” he said. “That just comes from me and my heart, and what I’m passionate about, so I feel pressure every single day when I go in the training room. I’m obviously training at American Top Team, sparring with really high-level guys, and I just feel like I want to get better and better and better, and keep improving, keep improving. So I’m nervous not only for a real fight, but I’m nervous in training because I just care about it so much and I put everything into this.
“Now, I get the opportunity to show what I’ve been working on and continue to get better.”