There are no mulligans in mixed martial arts, no “breakfast ball” when an early swing leads to an errant tee shot and a quick look around your group, searching for confirmation that everyone gets one do-over and you don’t have to play the ball that just took a hard left into the woods.
Each result counts, no matter the circumstances, and you can’t fudge the numbers on your win-loss record the way you can get creative with a scorecard on the back nine.
If there were mulligans, however, Devin Clark deserves one for his last fight.
“I think it’s safe to say I wasn’t all that focused when it came to the actual fight,” he said, reflecting on his November clash with Anthony Smith that took place just days after the passing of his mother-in-law, Judy, as he readies to return to action this weekend opposite Ion Cutelaba.
He thought about withdrawing from the fight — about returning home to South Dakota from Albuquerque, where he trains with the team at Jackson Wink MMA — but his mother-in-law and his wife both told him to follow through and make the walk. Try as he might to set the emotions aside and lock in on the task at hand, doing so in the wake of losing someone close is near impossible, and doubly challenging when it becomes the one thing everyone wants to ask you about during Fight Week.
“I had one thing in mind and that was hitting Anthony in the face, and when that didn’t happen, I was like, ‘Oh!’ and it became a weird moment for me,” said Clark, who shot across the Octagon and hit Smith with a flush right hand right out of the chute, only to get taken down seconds later. “I didn’t think about anything else besides ‘I’m gonna hurt him,’ but I didn’t think about how I was going to do that — set-ups or anything like that; it was ‘Let’s go out there and brawl.’”
Smith had other plans, putting Clark on the deck early, controlling things from back mount before setting up and completing a triangle choke midway through the round.
Now, nearly a year removed from that contest, the 31-year-old South Dakota native is finally set to make the walk for the first time this year, and he does so with a clear head, focused on taking the lessons he’s learned over his first 11 appearances inside the Octagon and using them to continue building towards something bigger as he descends upon the UFC cage again this weekend.
“That little layoff was really good for me,” said Clark, who parlayed consistency while juggling family, training, and his handyman business at home into consistency when he decamped for Albuquerque. “It’s been a good time of growth and time that I didn’t know I needed. I feel so much better now, and I’ve definitely grown as a fighter and as a person.”
Part of that growth has been learning to put his career to this point in better perspective.
After winning his light heavyweight debut at the end of 2016, Clark spent the next seven fights alternating wins and losses, failing to build momentum and put together consecutive victories until last year when he followed up his February win over Dequan Townsend with a gutsy effort opposite Alonzo Menifield.
While the loss to Smith halted his tidy two-fight run of success, that one remains a bit of a throwaway fight, and the positives from the Menifield fight and reframing his previous three setbacks have Clark in a good headspace heading into this weekend’s clash with Cutelaba.
“I look back at that fight all the time and it proved to me that I can do this,” he said regarding his victory over Menifield last June, where he weathered an early storm and rallied to defeat the powerful Fortis MMA product. “I can take anybody’s best punch and keep going, deal with adversities in a fight, and in life too. It was great experience and a good victory.
“When Jan won the title, I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself yet; I’m still learning,’” continued Clark, whose first light heavyweight defeat came against current champion Jan Blachowicz. “I came into the UFC super-green — I was 6-0 and got thrown to the wolves. I fought Jan in my fourth fight in the UFC and he started climbing after that.
“I’m still learning, still trying to be more well-rounded, a little more focused when I’m in the cage, and just living up to my full capabilities,” added the 12-5 fighter, whose other two defeats prior to his last outing came against top contender Aleksandar Rakic and Ryan Spann, who faces Smith in this weekend’s main event. “I have to remember that it is a process.
“This is one of the hardest careers you can have — there is a lot of right and a lot of wrong, and you have to go through it all.”
This weekend in Las Vegas, Clark finally gets to make the walk for the first time this year and put everything he’s been working on into practice when he steps in opposite Cutelaba.
Known for painting himself green for ceremonial weigh-ins and getting into his opponent’s personal space every chance he gets, the 27-year-old from Moldova is a fiery, aggressive competitor, though Clark describes him in much simpler terms.
“He’s a bully, and he wants to intimidate you, but I see that as weakness,” he said of his opponent this weekend. “I’ve been waiting for a fight like this. I grew up with a crazy older brother, and I think a lot of people know my dad — he’s a little bit on the crazy side; in your face and loud.
“My brother bullied the s*** out of me, so that’s my life; it’s nothing new to me,” he added with the kind of laugh every younger sibling that has sparred with their older brother instinctively understands. “I’m a laid back, quiet guy, but I have that in me; I just hide it very well.
“I hide my crazy very well, but if he wants to go there — which he will — I’m looking forward to it.”
While he welcomes the inevitable chaos and Cutelaba’s efforts to get under his skin in the preamble to Saturday’s contest, Clark is also focused on simply handling business, heading into this weekend’s co-main event driven to do his job and start moving forward again.
“It’s just another day on the job,” he offered when asked how finally getting his hand raised again would feel. “This is what we do, and winning shouldn’t be an exception to that; you’re supposed to win if you’re doing your job right.
“That’s my mindset going into this fight — it’s another day on the job. It’s almost like a sparring session — you’re trying to win, you’re trying to learn — so I’m going to go into this fight, win this fight, and learn from this fight; get my rank up, get my stock up.
“There is a reason why I’m still here,” Clark added. “I’ve been with the UFC over five years now, and I’ve had my ups and downs, but I’m still here, and a lot of people can’t say that. This is my 12th fight in the UFC, but it’s another day on the job, and we’re going to get that victory.”