In the “anything can happen and often does” world of mixed martial arts, fighters do their best to prepare for whatever comes their way. Preparation in the gym and developing a game plan are crucial elements that factor into success on fight night, just as much as the ability to adapt mid-fight when said game plan has gone off the rails.
Surprises can come from any angle - and as it is so often said in combat sports - the strike a fighter never saw coming is the one which inflicts the most damage.
Nevertheless, there are some twists and turns that are completely beyond a competitor’s control, and Cody Donovan is dealing with this scenario heading into UFC 167.
The Colorado-based light heavyweight was originally slated to welcome highly touted jiu-jitsu ace Robert Drysdale to the biggest stage in MMA in their bout to kick off the preliminary card action on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas. Since putting his gold medal grappling prowess on hold, Drysdale has been successful trading punches, kicks and chokes inside the cage. The Las Vegas native parlayed a six-fight unbeaten stint on the regional circuit into a UFC contract, but his launch with the promotion has come with some difficulty - and those troubles have taken a different turn as of late.
After a staph infection knocked him out of his debut at UFC 163, the BJJ guru drew Donovan for his next scheduled bout at UFC 167. Yet, when Drysdale applied for his license for the fight with the Nevada State Athletic commission, he was withdrawn from the bout due to concerns with the results of his pre-fight drug test.
With Drysdale being denied a license, he was promptly pushed aside, and the UFC sought out a replacement to face Donovan on the card. While Gian Villante accepted the bout a couple days after the news broke, it doesn’t change the fact Donovan was forced to handle a curveball with very little time to make the adjustment.
“I was in L.A. when I found about it,” Donovan recalled about the Drysdale situation. “I saw it online and it hadn’t even been confirmed yet. My original thought was that it was just a bummer and I hoped to get a replacement because I’ve been working so hard to prepare for this fight. We built a great game plan that I believed was going to beat Robert Drysdale.
“Everyone knows he has a great ground game but I was very confident with the way we were going to approach this fight. I was looking forward to the challenge, but now the challenge is getting over that, not being hurt about it, and locking my focus on Gian Villante. That’s what it is now. It shouldn’t matter who they put in there with us. We are fighters. We are professionals and a couple of tweaks to the game plan and we are right back on track.”
That said, Donovan is as game as they come, with nary a complaint to come from his lips. In his mind, “Donnybrook” knows it is entirely on his own shoulders to go out and claim victory on Saturday, and it doesn’t matter who is standing across the cage from him.
“The opponent changes but my sports psychologist always says the real opponent is yourself,” he said. “The person who is going to beat me is me. I focus on my performance and I don’t care who they put in there with me. Over the years they are going to keep sticking new guys in that cage with me and I’m going to keep going in there and doing my thing. It doesn’t matter to me who I face.”
When Donovan steps in to face Villante at UFC 167, it will mark his third appearance under the UFC banner. At 32 years old, the Denver resident got out to somewhat of a late start in the fight game, but his arrival to the UFC has been nothing short of a dream come true.
With that in mind, he’s eager to prove he belongs inside the Octagon, slinging leather with the best fighters in the world. That notion received some validation when he defeated Nick Penner at UFC on FX 6 in late 2012, in a fight Donovan took on just nine days notice. Despite the scrap not making it past the opening frame, the two combatants teed off on one another with the worst of intentions until Donovan scored the knockout near the end of the round.
In addition to a successful debut, he picked up Fight of the Night honors, which further bolstered his impressive introduction to the UFC fan base. He would look to keep the momentum rolling in his next bout against Strikeforce transplant Ovince St. Preux at UFC Fight Night in August, but this time around, he was unfortunately on the receiving end of the knockout.
The fight with “OSP” left a bad taste in his mouth, one he is eager to get out at UFC 167. Donovan knows his scrappy nature and love for the ruckus is precisely what the fans tune in to see, but those elements don’t matter much unless a “W” accompanies the performance.
In facing Villante, he will encounter an opponent on similar ground, as the New Yorker has also traveled a rugged path to reach the sport’s biggest stage. After some initial adversity, the 28-year-old began to find traction under the Strikeforce banner as he collected three consecutive victories in the now-defunct promotion’s light heavyweight division.
When the promotion’s door closed for good in January, Villante was brought over to compete under the UFC banner. He was put to work in quick fashion as he squared off with St. Preux in his promotional debut at UFC 159, in a lackluster fight where the only thing that made it memorable was the strange nature in which it ended.
After two sluggish rounds, the former University of Tennessee football player planted an unintentional eye poke deep into Villante’s orbital socket. When the cageside doctor came in to assess the situation, Villante said he couldn’t see, and the fight was brought to an end. With two rounds already in the books, it was up to the judges to decide the outcome and St. Preux took the majority technical decision.
While Donovan was aces in his first time out, he understands the feeling of disappointment and hunger for retribution pulsing through Villante. Nevertheless, he also believes his urge for redemption and hunger for victory is greater than what Villante will bring to the cage, and Donovan feels that will show on Saturday night in Las Vegas.
“There are several things I see that Villante does better than Drysdale and those things need to be taken into consideration,” Donovan said. “But as a whole, I don’t like to game plan around my opponent’s strengths as much as I like to find ways to use my own strengths. I think the Villante fight is a better fight for me stylistically because I don’t have to fight as cautiously. That’s not saying I’m sleeping on his skills in any one area.
“I know he’s a super-talented guy and I’m expecting the best from him, but obviously the threat of Drysdale’s superior ground game was going to change the way I was going to fight whether I wanted it to or not. This matchup allows me to be me a little bit more and I’m definitely excited about that.”
With the hard work and time he’s invested into making a career in MMA, Donovan has no plans to exit stage left any time soon. The road to a UFC contract was one of the most difficult routes he’s navigated and he’ll be damned if all that effort was for nothing. But in order to keep his place on a roster UFC President Dana White is quick to say is overloaded, Donovan knows a victory over Villante is key.
Despite having only spent five years in the fight game, his staggered start creates a hovering sense of urgency. Donovan knows he needs to get traction and make inroads in the quickest possible fashion under the UFC banner. And if things go as planned - retooled, rebooted and otherwise - he’ll take a big step toward that accomplishment at UFC 167.
“I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason and that last fight was exactly what I needed,” Donovan explained. “I made some mistakes in there, got impatient, and paid for it. I learned from that fight and it really lit a fire inside of me. There has always been a fire in me, but that fire has never burned hotter than it is right now. I’m more motivated than I’ve ever been and I’m appreciating every second of this.
“You are only as good as your last fight and the pressure is always on for me to go out and scrap. I like having that pressure. I want to produce the type of fight I can look back on and be proud of…win or lose. I want to know I went out there to scrap and gave it everything I had. They can always count on me to bring a fight. That’s the only way I know how to do it.”
Cody Donovan: The Goal Remains the Same
"You are only as good as your last fight and the pressure is always on for me to go out and scrap. I like having that pressure." - Cody Donovan