Mind over matter: Matthew Semelsberger in better head space for his next UFC fight against Sano

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  • Matthew Semelsberger
    American mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter
  • Khaos Williams
    American mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter

Sep. 23—Matthew Semelsberger drives most of the way up Sugarloaf Mountain — to the final, steepest segment — and parks. Making his own path, he runs to the top, then comes back down. He traverses this route three times before finding a spot with a nice view of the surrounding farmland in southern Frederick County.

And he sits down.

"I'll close my eyes and drift off for a bit," he said.

Having essentially just climbed a mountain, he'll spend time meditating, decluttering his brain, getting his mind ready for another sort of mountain — one that comes in the form of his next professional mixed martial arts opponent.

This solitary exercise — the meditation as much as the running — has become crucial for Semelsberger, a 28-year-old Urbana High alum and UFC welterweight who will fight Saturday for the fourth time in the promotion's octagon and his first time since a June 20 loss to Khaos Williams.

"Semi the Jedi" is still getting a handle on this whole UFC stardom thing. Just 13 months ago, he was a mostly anonymous regional-level fighter who was substitute teaching, working part time at a liquor store and otherwise trying to find time to train for bouts.

Five months and two nationally televised wins later, he was a UFC record-holder, having walloped Jason Witt in a crisp 16 seconds. Almost as quickly, the highlight made the rounds.

Like, 'round the world.

The UFC is an multi-billion dollar juggernaut, throbbing with athletes from countries that span the globe. Fanatics, too. The win brought Semelsberger a measure of fame. And, he says, "baggage." His perfect right hand had thrashed Witt and also thrust Semi somewhere he wasn't necessarily prepared to go yet — under the brightest of spotlights.

"He starches Witt in [16] seconds, it was some sort of a record, he gets paid great money when he did that, got a bunch of fans," said Michael Semelsberger, Matthew's older brother and frequent training partner. "He's riding a very big high coming back from that, and everybody knows when you have that high in life, you have that big crash. ... It happens to everybody."

For Matthew, it wasn't so much a big crash, but a fender-bender with reality: Against Williams, he lost a unanimous decision, getting clearly outworked by a fellow 170-pound prospect in 15 minutes of action that Semelsberger defined as unfocused. Off his instant knockout, against a heavy hitter, he was perhaps too influenced by it being billed as a slugfest, too willing stand and trade with Williams. Damn the strategic alternatives.

"I didn't even think about trying to get a takedown," Semelsberger said, "and in a normal scenario, I'm going to use all my tools and all my weapons."

That brawler mindset may have taken hold in the encounter's early going, when Williams caught Semelsberger during an exchange. The shot hardly stunned him, but something stunning resulted: In all of Semelsberger's years as a fighter, here was his first bloody nose. Against the cage, in a clinch with Williams, Semelsberger saw red dripping down his opponent's back and thought, "Huh. That's a lot of blood."

From there, he never fully hit his rhythm, with Williams' wild counters being a dangerous deterrent. By the time the third round arrived, Semelsberger was behind on the judges' cards, needing a finish in the final five minutes. But he was mentally off-kilter.

"It's obviously not a good idea to let your mind wander, especially during a fight, because that would get you knocked out," he said. "But I felt like I was a little bit asleep in that fight, especially in that third round. Asleep like I couldn't focus on what I needed to focus on."

He knew he'd lost. He knew he'd erred. He knew, before his next appearance, his head was what needed work, maybe more than his body. That night, he'd been fighting Williams, but the Witt result was still on his brain.

"After the Jason Witt fight, I knew that I wanted to step everything up," said Semelsberger (8-3, 2-1 UFC), whose loss to Williams halted a five-fight winning streak. "But, it's like, the task ahead, you look at this giant mountain in front of you, and the climb that's ahead of you, you have to get yourself ready for that in every way. I felt my plate was very full, and it was always in my head, the expectations and this and that.

"I kinda let that stuff get a little too much attention in my mind, I think, and that's what kind of drew me away from things."

His injured nose resulted in a 180-day medical suspension, but that was waived after a couple of weeks once an MRI showed a deviated septum rather than a break. He was soon healthy enough to take another fight. In mid-August, Semelsberger was officially pitted against Martin Sano (4-2-1) and placed in Saturday's UFC 266 lineup.

Concentrating on concentration

By the time he was medically cleared, Semelsberger had gotten over his loss. But he had been "bitterly reminded" — after three years since his last defeat — how much it stings.

"It was a decent fight. I didn't get posterized or embarrassed or just straight-up slept," he said. "Some people might walk away from that fight and not be as sour or as bitter about the loss, but I'll tell you what ... if anything, I was more disappointed about the way I lost the fight because of the fact that I had some blockage going on, or some things I didn't hold up on my end of the bargain that wound up affecting me."

In his prep for Sano, Semelsberger has concentrated more on concentration. He goes on those noise-cancelling sessions at Sugarloaf. For six weeks, he stayed at a hotel across the street from his home base, Crazy 88 MMA in Elkridge, to remove the commute he dislikes so much from Ijamsville.

"[He] got away from his usual living quarters and really put himself in the heart of the training camp, and that will help him out a lot mentally," Michael Semelsberger said of his brother.

Matthew might consider consulting with a sports psychologist to further strengthen that part of his game, a practice that, for instance, UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya has openly discussed.

More support for Semelsberger will come this weekend from a gaggle of friends and family that will be in Las Vegas to witness Semelsberger's first appearance on a UFC numbered card (his previous three fights were part of Fight Night events in a mostly empty UFC Apex). For the first time, Semi will get to walk out before a crowd at T-Mobile Arena for his early preliminary bout on ESPN+.

It will be closer, finally, to the authentic UFC scenario that always played out in his head as an up-and-comer: Numbered card. Live show. Huge, packed house. His chosen song pumping through the venue.

"I've been dreaming about this day for I don't even know how long," he said. "I remember being outside in the middle of the night, shadow-boxing with the porch light on. And I'm closing my eyes pretending I'm about to walk out of the tunnel into the arena for my entrance."

The early prelims start at 6 p.m., and the Semelsberger-Sano matchup is second on the docket. Sano is somewhat of an oddity in the UFC stable. He hasn't fought since a February 2017 draw on a Bellator card, though he has continued training under MMA legend Nick Diaz — who happens to be making his long-awaited return to the octagon Saturday night for a rematch against Robbie Lawler.

In an interview with Just Scrap Radio on BJPenn.com, Sano said he's gotten "immensely better" since 2017, that he won't be nervous in his first time on the sport's biggest stage.

"I train all the time with killers," he said to host Cole Shelton. "Doesn't matter where I fight. Just gotta go in there and beat someone's ass."

Given that Sano, 30, has worked for so long with the brash Diaz brothers (the younger Nate Diaz is also a UFC star), it would be easy to deduce that his style might mirror theirs: Technical boxing and outstanding jiu-jitsu, not to mention supreme confidence.

Semelsberger admitted Sano is a bit of a mystery, and the press packet emailed out Monday by the UFC didn't even include a photo of the California native.

Regardless, Semelsberger believes he's in a better place than he was in June, and his plan is to unleash his arsenal on Sano.

"I'm taking everything I've learned as an athlete and a fighter ... and I'm putting it all to use this fight, man," said Semelsberger, who is a -520 betting favorite, according to FanDuel.

Michael Semelsberger, who will be in Matthew's corner Saturday, said there's a calmer feel surrounding his brother during this fight camp, perhaps a reflection of the steps Semi has taken to clear his head better this time around. He seems to be enjoying the process more, even though a second straight loss might put him on tenuous footing with, perhaps, his contract nearing its end.

Said Michael, "I truly believe he's one of the best fighters the world, and I believe he'll level up in this fight and they're gonna see a whole different version."

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