EXCLUSIVE | Strikeforce Welterweight Champion, Tarec Saffiedine, Talks UFC Debut and Title Shot | BJPENN.COM RADIO
Tarec Saffiedine, the last man to hold the Strikeforce welterweight belt before the organization’s earlier this year, spoke with BJPenn.com Radio Wednesday night to talk about his upcoming UFC debut against fellow Strikeforce alumn, Robbie Lawler.
For Saffiedine (14-3), who won the Strikeforce belt with a unanimous decision victory over Nate Marquardt in January, this upcoming fight provides an opportunity to validate himself, both as a fighter entering the UFC and a world champion.
“You know, I believed coming up in Strikeforce,” Saffiedine explained, “we had something to prove. You know, a lot of people look at us like the division II of MMA, with the UFC being division I. I believe we go into the UFC proving that we belong there, and that we are hungry for the win. I’m really proud, I would say, of being a part of Strikeforce and going into the UFC.”
With the perceived need to validate his fighting, despite his strong record against top opponents, Saffiedine now walks a treacherous line of fighting to win vs. fighting for the excitement of the crowd. The welterweight champ explained that he will continue what has brought him to this point, and that is to aim for both.
“The fact that you’re going to the UFC, and being a UFC fighter it’s really important to win and keep winning. At the same time, you want to be exciting, as exciting as you can. I believe great fighters, they win and they are exciting at the same time… I believe a fight can be exciting for three rounds, you know, get the fans on their feet for all three rounds, it’s exciting as well. Obviously if you knock somebody out in great fashion, that’s the best way also, or submit him. I believe a mix of both. That’s what the fans look [for], a fighter that wins but in great fashion, who [gets] them their money’s worth and puts them at the edge of their seat. I’m trying to do both, and I believe the time’s right to watch me fight and enjoy watching my style.”
In July, he will be putting this style against “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler (20-9). Given the two recent high-profile fights featuring Strikeforce champions Daniel Cormier and Gilbert Melendez both taking on top UFC fighters (Melendez for the title against Ben Henderson), Tarec Saffiedine seems to have received the short-end of the stick in a fight against another Strikeforce prospect rather than a top UFC guy. Even still, Saffiedine is approaching this fight with the same drive and determination that fed his rise among the Strikeforce ranks over the last couple years.
“I don’t really choose my opponent. You know, I never did in the past, and the UFC is going to choose my opponent. They said, ‘You’re going to fight next Robbie,’ so I said, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ He’s a top-ten fighter, he’s a dangerous fighter. I believe a win over anybody in the top ten [contenders] gets you closer to a title shot. I’m happy with the match-up, it will be an exciting match-up as well, so everything together is great… I believe that, if Nate Marquardt would have won against me, he would have probably got a title shot or a fight against a number 2 contender… The other thing is, you know, I don’t have as many title defenses as Gilbert or Luke, or any other champion in the Strikeforce. You know, coming from Strikeforce winning the belt, it would have been really nice to get the title shot, I wouldn’t say no. But I believe I have a chance to prove a little bit to the UFC fans, and I don’t mind getting one or two fights before to get to the title shot. I believe that, when I deserve the title, then I’ll go for it… Right now, I’m really just focused on Robbie. What’s after will come. I don’t really think about the title shot. Even though it’s everybody’s dream to go for the title- it’s obviously something that I think about- but right now all I’m really thinking about is Robbie, get[ting] the win July 27.
Against Robbie Lawler he will have his work cut out. Lawler is coming off a stunning TKO victory over Josh Koscheck in February. The heavy-handed Lawler has won 17 of 20 fights via T/KO. For Saffiedine, who is thought of predominantly as a stand-up fighter, this will not change his game plan in the slightest.
“He’s known for his power, even when he fought at 170 before he was heavy-handed. His wrestling is not bad, his ground [game] is not bad, he’s going to try- I believe he’s going to try to stand on his feet and try to look for the knockout. I’m going to do what I’m used to doing, you know, work on my striking. I believe technically on the feet I’m better, you know, and I’m going to keep it the way I want to keep the fight, you know, standing if I need to. Just do what I have to, I believe in my skills, so it will go my way… He brings other things on the table, he’s southpaw, I think he hits a little bit harder; but on his feet, he’s not, maybe not as technical as Nate [Marquardt], but he definitely hits harder. I have been watching a lot his fights recently, so I’ll check, sit down with my coach and watch some of his tapes.”
One of the tapes Saffiedine has certainly watched is Lawler’s KO of Melvin Manhoef from a Strikeforce event a few years ago. Manhoef was controlling the fight with his more technical kickboxing, but Lawler was able to counter with punches and ultimately score the knockout. To avoid this, Saffiedine said he won’t get carried away with the fight and always be aware of his opponent’s power.
“Yeah, you know, the thing with Manhoef, when he felt that [Lawler] wasn’t checking the kick, he kept going. Manhoef is so solid, so powerful with his kickboxing, but once he sees that you are on the defense he keeps attacking you. I guess he just totally forgot about that he could get countered. You know, when I fought Marquardt, I was kicking him, but I was still aware of his counter from his left or from his right. I was aware of what was going on while I was kicking. I think Manhoef didn’t do that. He wasn’t setting up his kicks… So I got to keep my fight the way I want it and keep it technical. If you get into a heavy exchange with [Lawler], that’s when he’s dangerous, and I’m going to do it my way and try to avoid that.”
Despite his abilities on the feet, Saffiedine has a well-versed ground game that is somewhat overlooked. Boasting 5 submission victories, he is certainly capable of winning a fight if it goes to the ground.
“I’ve been fighting for a while now,” Saffiedine said, “I’ve competed in a lot of styles, and I think that when I went to MMA as a pro, most of my fights- my first few fights, I submitted guys. You know, I like to keep it standing because I feel good… I can tell you that every day I work on my wrestling, every day I work on my gi and no-gi. I work with world champions here in California. I work with NCAA Division 1 wrestlers. So I’m not just working on my striking all the time, even though it’s my background, I train on each and every discipline… That’s what makes me a complete MMA fighter… People know me as a striker, but… I’m working every day on my wrestling. [Here in the] USA, most of the guys are real good at wrestling. That’s the reason I came into the US, to improve my wrestling and improve my ground game. Here there are the best. I’m working every day to, you know, kind of keep the fight standing up and be able to stuff the takedowns and put on good fights for the fans, keep it stand-up as much as I can.”
Upon entering the UFC, a couple hypothetical fights lie ahead for Saffiedine. The first is a rematch with Tryon Woodley, the last man to defeat Tarec. If Woodley fights his way into the top ten at welterweight, we could certainly be seeing the two fight in the Octagon.
“Yeah, why not?” said Saffiedine. “It’s a fight that I would love to- a loss that I would love to erase very much one day. Obviously he has fights, he has a fight set up and everything; I have my fight. Honestly, I don’t really about it right now, I’m just focused on Robbie; but down the road, why not?”
The other fight that must be on Saffiedine’s mind is a shot at welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre. Saffiedine would love the opportunity for this fight, explaining that the two have very similar backgrounds with martial arts.
“The common point I have with Georges is that we both come from a karate, full-contact style. We both started the same kyokushin style, I kind of have the similar style of him. That would be awesome to see who has the best karate style in an MMA match. I would love to test myself against him. I believe Georges needs somebody who can bring difficulties on the feet and have a good takedown defense. I believe I can give him trouble, because those are two areas [I have]. You know, down the road, if I’m a contender, I’ll be happy to fight him and see who has the best karate.”
Be sure to watch Tarec Saffiedine take on Robbie Lawler on UFC on FOX 8 live from KeyArena in Seattle on July 27.
You can listen to the entire episode of BJPenn.com Radio featuring the UFC’s Burt Watson, UFC lightweight Pat Healy and The Ultimate Fighter 17 winner, Kelvin Gastelum in the player below: