Thanks to his pedigree as a three-time NCAA champion wrestler and fighters like Jorge Masvidal praising him as the future of the sport, the 27-year-old Penn State graduate has a higher bar to clear than almost anybody with his level of experience in MMA. Because of those unrealistic expectations, Nickal has learned to embrace that not everybody is rooting for him to succeed, which only makes him work that much harder to prove them wrong.
“It was pretty crazy after my last fight because people were saying, ‘Oh, he had trouble taking Jamie Pickett down, he stuffed his takedown.’ I was like, ‘I took him down in 20 seconds,’” Nickal said with a laugh at UFC 290 media day. “Like, what are we talking about here? Let’s be real.
“But I think there’s just going to be that expectation that’s set. I’m 4-0 with four first-round finishes. People want to see me fail, a lot of people want to see me win, and there’s a lot of expectations for me. I’m going out there to perform to the best of my ability, whether that’s a first-round finish or that’s a decision, it’s not really of concern, the result. I’m just going out there to do my best and everything else will take care of itself.”
Despite his relative naivety in combat sports, Nickal lives under a microscope when it comes to every move he makes, both inside and outside the cage.
He’s already one of the most discussed fighters on the UFC roster, and for the second consecutive time, Nickal opens a pay-per-view broadcast when he competes at UFC 290, which shows just how much the promotion is investing in him.
Because he’s spent so much time in the spotlight during his athletic career, Nickal has learned to just brush off the naysayers and instead stay focused only on himself, which has continued to pay dividends with his remarkable track record in both wrestling and MMA.
“Most people who are saying these things have never fought, never trained, and never performed in any way, and so they really can’t relate,” Nickal said. “For me, there’s no judgment going towards them because there’s no basis or foundation of their ability to relate to that situation, so I want to meet them where they’re at with grace and understand that’s their mindset.
“For me, there’s not much I can do about that besides to be friendly and compete to the best of my ability, and hopefully put on a show and educate a little bit.”
While he was already expected to win at UFC 290, the odds on Nickal are now astronomical, with him sitting as a 25-to-1 favorite. But truth be told, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“He doesn’t have anything to lose,” Nickal said of Woodburn. “This is a great opportunity for him. Even if he loses, he might be in the UFC after this, so it makes sense for him to take the fight. For me, competing against people that have nothing to lose is nothing new. I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid.
“When I was 8, 9, 10 years old, I felt that’s how people competed against me. So I have thousands of competition reps that way. When I was in college, it was the same thing. People felt like they didn’t have anything to lose and they still lost. I like being the favorite and I’m hopefully going to continue to be the favorite for the rest of my career.”