The three-fight journey that got Steve Erceg to a flyweight title shot

“Who is this guy?”

When it was announced that Steve Erceg (12-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) would challenge Alexandre Pantoja for the men’s flyweight championship at UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro, the overwhelming number of comments on social media were similar to the aforementioned one. One Instagram commenter asked why actor Steve Carell is fighting for a UFC championship. Several others simply asked: “Why?”

And who can blame them? In just three fights, the UFC’s No. 10 ranked Erceg — unranked in ESPN’s flyweight rankings — will be the lowest-ranked fighter in a division to challenge for a title since Dan Henderson faced Michael Bisping for the middleweight title while being ranked No. 13 in the UFC’s rankings. Erceg’s current win streak, unanimous decisions over David Dvorak (UFC 289) and Alessandro Costa (UFC 295) along with a brutal knockout of Matt Schnell (UFN 238), is lacking a fighter ranked in the top five.

Normally, a fighter of Erceg’s tenure would slide into this opportunity on short notice due to a higher-ranked opponent suffering an injury rather than being booked straight away — especially considering that Erceg’s last outing saw him defeat an opponent outside the top five who had lost two of his past three fights.

“I 100% agree that, yeah, I’m not the guy who is supposed to be first in line to get a title shot being ranked No. 10,” Erceg, 28, told ESPN.

He’s completely self-aware and understands why he is in this position, getting a title opportunity less than a year after his debut with the promotion. The UFC secured a pay-per-view date in Brazil, and the flyweight champion made it clear that he wanted to compete on the card, no matter who it was against. The UFC was in a dilemma as many of the worthy contenders were sidelined with an injury or had recently lost to Pantoja. That left two fighters: Erceg and the unbeaten Muhammad Mokaev. Both had competed on the same Fight Night card in March, but Erceg wowed everyone with a blistering knockout of Matt Schnell. Mokaev took a solid but unspectacular decision victory over Alex Perez.

Based on the performance, the UFC bypassed Mokaev and awarded the title opportunity to Erceg, who had less than eight weeks to prepare for the biggest fight of his career.

It’s not ideal, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t think anybody deserves anything,” Erceg said. “I think everyone is awarded opportunities in life. Some people take those opportunities and some people don’t. I decided to seize the opportunity.”

“This is crazy,” Erceg’s longtime trainer David Wilkes told ESPN. “I’ve said that a lot in this conversation, haven’t I?”

Yes, he did.

Throughout the conversation, Wilkes had used “crazy” no less than ten times to describe his charge’s journey to a UFC flyweight title opportunity. It’s “crazy” that Erceg came to Wilkes MMA in 2008 — which was then just a martial arts gym — and was just another 13-year-old kid learning techniques. Nothing athletic about Erceg immediately stood out to Wilkes, aside from his tenacity and dedication to get better. It was “crazy” that Erceg made it clear that he would be in the UFC when nobody in the Perth area had come remotely close to appearing in the world’s premiere MMA promotion. It was “crazy” when the UFC offered him to step in on less than two weeks’ notice to face the then-No. 10 ranked David Dvorak for his UFC debut. And it was “crazy” that he won pretty handily.

Well, maybe not the last part.

“I’ve seen it before when people say, ‘Who is this guy?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ and then he wins,” Wilkes said with a laugh.

Erceg is easy to overlook at first. He doesn’t look like a fighter, as the nickname “Astro Boy” comes from his striking resemblance to the Japanese manga character who is more innocent than intimidating. He doesn’t come from a well-known gym, as most MMA fans associate Australian fighters with the popular City Kickboxing gym rather than the small martial arts gym run by a young husband and wife tandem that provided “fun and fitness for the whole family” before Erceg’s emergence.

“If they want to underestimate us on that front, that’s fine,” Wilkes said. “Seizing the opportunity is something that he’s grown up around, and he has done very well with it.”

Following the stunning knockout of Schnell, which earned Erceg his second performance of the night bonus in just three UFC fights, the idea of challenging for a world title wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

It took Steve’s father and co-trainer Matthew Erceg to prepare the team for what might happen.

“Matt noticed that a third of the division was hurt or had already fought, so he had an idea that we could get the call,” Wilkes said. “If they called us, of course, we’re going to say yes, but we didn’t think it would happen because Mokaev was ranked ahead of him. But then they called, and it was like ‘Oh, damn, this is real.’

“Let’s go!”

Matthew Erceg heard his “pretty annoying” 12-year-old son tell him he wanted to try his hand at MMA after watching Brock Lesnar lose to Frank Mir at UFC 81. His son was dumbfounded by how one of his favorite professional wrestlers was submitted by a knee bar, but Steve knew he needed to learn those techniques. Matthew took his son to Wilkes’ gym and watched him dedicate himself to all of the disciplines of MMA. By the time Steve turned 18, he told his dad that he wanted to fight.

“It was never, ‘Dad, I want to become a fighter,'” Matthew said of his son’s interest. The father never saw his son as a spectacular athlete, but knew how hard Steve worked to get better. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, let’s find out.'”

Matthew saw how quickly Steve made exponential leaps in grappling and wrestling. The only real question was his striking. He held the pads for his son and was surprised at his technique and power. Much to the chagrin of his wife, who had absolutely no interest in their baby boy getting punched in the face for a living, Matthew went to Coach Wilkes and the two decided to craft the gym around Steve and turn it into an MMA gym with the hopes of seeing Steve fulfill his dream of becoming a UFC fighter. Steve won his pro debut in 2016 and then lost a decision in his second fight. The loss was all Steve needed to re-dedicate himself in hopes of never tasting the agony of defeat again.

“The thing that got him here is that he works extremely hard,” Matthew said. “He turns up when other people don’t and he works even harder when other people look for a rest.”

Steve hasn’t lost since then, which is no surprise to his father. What would be more surprising than his son capturing championship gold is his mother, Loretta Erceg, accepting that their son is a professional fighter.

“Definitely not,” Matthew said. “She’ll probably talk about retirement and how he’s done everything he can do so we can move on.”

Team Erceg is now over 8,000 miles away from Perth, Australia two weeks before UFC 301.

Erceg knows what he’s in for Saturday as the deafening chants of “Uh Vai Morrer” (Portuguese for “You’re going to die”) from a rowdy crowd of over 12,000 Brazilian fans will rattle off the walls of the Farmasi Arena. His father and head coach, who have never trained anyone remotely close to this level, will be in his corner while his mother will be in the crowd and is expected to be a ball of nerves as the rabid fans remind Loretta that her son is theoretically about to die.

There is no precedence or expectation for Team Erceg. It’s another scenario where he will compete under less-than-ideal circumstances. But as he’s done since he set his mind to becoming a mixed martial artist, he’s trying to prove everyone wrong — that he deserves to be here.

“I don’t know why, but I always did believe that I could make it to the UFC,” Erceg said. “I don’t know if I’m delusional or an idiot. But I knew I could do it from my gym in Perth even though people told me I couldn’t.

“I’m ready to make the most of what is given to me. What have we been saying? ‘Seizing the opportunity?’ I like how that sounds.”

Should he win, he’s already targeting a return to the Octagon at UFC 305 in August, which happens to be taking place at the RAC Arena in Perth, Australia, just 20 minutes from where Erceg lives.

Regarding the possibility of Erceg entering a fight in his hometown as a UFC champion, Wilkes paused and said the one word he couldn’t help avoid throughout the conversation.

“Seizing the opportunity? Yeah, that’s crazy.”

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