Most children in the UK dream of scoring a goal in the FA Cup Final at Wembley. Or scoring a hundred in an Ashes test at Lords. Even sinking a putt on the 18th at St Andrews to win The Open. Very few have ambitions to step foot in a cage with some of the most highly skilled athletes on earth to determine who is the number one fighter in the world.
As Ross Houston unties his hand wraps at the end of one of his final training sessions of camp, he embarks on his first title fight of his career, and strives to get one step closer to an illustrious contract with the UFC.
On Saturday evening, Houston will fight Stefano Paterno in the Cage Warriors 98 main event for the Welterweight title. The champion is currently on a seven-fight win streak and it will be the first defence of his title at the Genting Arena in Birmingham. It’s a night where the top welterweight in Europe will be decided.
Houston, the 28-year old from Inverness, is 7-0 in professional MMA and has his sights set on a golden ticket to the UFC, whenever it may arrive.
“I’ll get the belt and hopefully I’ll get the call up straightaway. But if they want me to beat up a few more people, then I’ll take a few of them out before I get signed up, no bother,” Houston told the Sports Gazette.
The unbeaten fighter is no stranger to hard graft. He previously worked 84-hour weeks on offshore oil rigs following the oil boom on the North of Scotland. Although the money was a great benefit, Houston grew frustrated when looking around and seeing people in their thirties and forties who were consistently away from their family and friends.
“I was like, this isn’t for me. My passion lies with MMA. An opportunity opened up for a unit that we train in now and I opened up the MMA club and one thing has led to another.”
The importance of a good camp is vital to any fighter. British fighters have often been considered less fortunate than those stateside as they are unable to train at world-class gyms such as American Top Team, American Kickboxing Academy and Jackson’s MMA.
However, due to the success of British and European fighters in the UFC and Bellator, more competing and retired fighters now have established gyms in the UK. Houston has similar ambitions for his gym — SBG Inverness — and hopes he can develop it even further in his post-fight career.
“We’ve got some big plans for the club. We don’t do any kids, teen or women’s stuff right now so we can always hit that avenue up. I always thought we are doing well, but I haven’t even scratched the surface on the business side of things so that’s definitely going to be a no-brainer.”
He also added that fighters will find choosing to stay and train in the UK more beneficial than moving to the United States.
“I’ve heard from people who have gone over to big clubs stateside. You think you are training with Tyron Woodley and all the best guys in the world, but if you are training with all these good guys, obviously it’s hard to get that one-on-one attention.”
The issue, Houston believes, is that newcomers struggle to spar with these elite fighters, which ultimately leads to negative patterns both mentally and physically. This immediately puts them at a disadvantage compared to their opponent when the fight arrives.
This doesn’t mean that fighters should pick one gym and one only, however. Houston himself regularly travels to Team Renegade in Birmingham to prepare for fights, where the likes of UFC fighters Tom Breese and Leon Edwards train.
“What I do is travel to big gyms for a week or two, do some sparring and learn some stuff, but then tweak little things and come back up to my team who I’ve been working with for a few years now. We tweak things and then we go in there and get it done.”
Nonetheless, the bulk of Houston’s training is done with his current team. He’s having great success with them and you simply don’t change a winning formula. As such, he’s very passionate about the opportunities his gym is offering those in the North of Scotland, particularly because places to train Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and other variants of MMA are in short supply outside of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
“There were a few clubs that came and went over the years that were only open two days per week. It just wasn’t sufficient to compete with these big city clubs who are open all the time. So I opened this club seven days per week, with 24-hour access to all the members. That’s what you have to do to compete.”
On Saturday, the focus switches back to Houston, where he will hope to get another finish. He beat three of his previous opponents by rear-naked choke, guillotine choke and armbar, but this isn’t necessarily something he’s incorporated into a game plan for Paterno.
“I’ll start the fight, put the pressure on and beat him wherever it goes. No real game plan. I don’t really initiate takedowns too much. If the clinch is there and I can use trips then I will. If I get taken down, my first instinct is to scramble and get straight back up. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve on my back.”
One thing he does hope to capitalise on, though, is the disparity in height.
“I walked past him at the last show and he’s stocky but small for the weight class. He doesn’t believe in weight-cutting and that’s going to be a massive mistake when he starts exchanging with me.”
Houston certainly doesn’t lack the confidence, credentials or creativity required of a champion. And he will be hoping to emulate his previous performances in the organisation and follow the likes of Conor McGregor from Cage Warriors to the UFC.
You can watch Ross Houston v Stefano Paterno on BT Sport 2 and UFC Fight Pass from 9pm on Saturday 20th October.
Featured photograph/Ross Houston