Carlos Ulberg is playing the game.
The Kiwi light heavyweight has made a statement in his short UFC career, bouncing back from a second-round knockout (KO) loss in his debut to win four in a row, including three first-round KOs in his last three appearances.
Even in his loss, Ulberg’s stocks rose in a bout that saw both he and opponent Kennedy Nzechukwu bag a US$50,000 ($84,000) fight of the night bonus.
When Ulberg made his UFC debut, he was still relatively new to mixed martial arts (MMA). Despite a decorated kickboxing career, he had only had three MMA bouts when he got his opportunity to join the UFC via Dana White’s Contender Series - where he earned his contract with a first-round KO.
He has readily admitted that he has been learning on the job throughout his UFC career, but now with five bouts under his belt with the promotion, Ulberg has learned one important piece of the puzzle is that the proverbial chess match isn’t limited to simply the in-cage competition.
Following his emphatic win over Ihor Potieria in March, Ulberg hinted at his desire for a top-15 opponent soon, but told the Herald he didn’t necessarily expect that in his next bout.
“I was just putting it in the air for the UFC. I knew where I was standing and where I was at,” Ulberg explained. “I just wanted to put it in the air right now because that’s where we look at for the next fight.”
Ulberg won’t be getting a shot at the rankings in his next fight, but he will face a test of another kind when he meets South Korea’s Da Woon Jung at UFC 293 in Sydney next weekend.
While Jung is on a two-fight skid, he boasts a 15-4-1 record and has previously had an opportunity of his own to crack the rankings when he fought No 15 Dustin Jacoby, ultimately coming up short.
“He’s a smart fighter,” Ulberg said of Jung. “He’s got a high fight IQ. I know him and his team have great strategies, if you’ve seen his backlog and his fights in the past, he knows how to nullify any other fighter, so I think this fight could go either way.”
“I’m a realist, man,” Ulberg added when asked about being open to the fact he could lose.
“I’m not going to talk shit on camera. I can sit here and tell you how good I am and how confident I am - I know how confident I am; I know that I can get over the line - I’m just telling you how it is. This fighter is no one to mess around with.
“He’s the real deal, so it’s about how I can find my strategy to beat this fighter. I know we’ll go in there, we’ll do the best that we can... when it comes down to it, it’s really fight week when you’ll be in those confidence stages.”
Ulberg has plenty of reason to hold that confidence, given his recent showings inside the UFC octagon, and will no doubt be lifted by a huge team presence on the card, with five of his teammates from Auckland’s City Kickboxing gym also fighting, while others are competing in the city at the regional level for Eternal MMA the Friday beforehand.
And while he admits it’s a sport where you can be the hammer one day and the nail the next, his confidence comes through when asked if he has thought about what comes next.
“This fight means that I break into that top 15, for sure. This fight means that I can call out someone in that top 15. In my last fight I gave the idea, this time I’m solidifying that call, and I’ll call someone out after this fight.
“I’m going to give them something they cannot refuse.”
City Kickboxing fighters confirmed on UFC 293 card in Sydney
Middleweight title fight: Israel Adesanya v Sean Strickland
Light heavyweight: Carlos Ulberg v Da Woon Jung
Light heavyweight: Tyson Pedro v Anton Turkalj
Featherweight: Shane Young v Gabriel Miranda
Welterweight: Blood Diamond v Charles Radtke
Welterweight: Kevin Jousset v Kiefer Crosbie (both fighters on UFC debut)
Christopher Reive joined the Herald sports team in 2017, bringing the same versatility to his coverage as he does to his sports viewing habits.