UFC Newark: Matt Schnell Not Surprised by Flyweight’s Stay of Execution

Matt Schnell UFC
Matt Schnell Credit: Mike Straus/Cageside Press

Back at his natural weight class, Matt Schnell is ready to go out and lay it all on the line at UFC Newark on Saturday — and says he has interest in either Deiveson Figueiredo or Alexandre Pantoja down the line.

When Matt Schnell (13–4) faces Jordan Espinosa at UFC Newark this Saturday, it will come at a curious time for the UFC’s flyweight division. Less than a year ago, rumors sparked up that the UFC was set to kill the division. A number of fighters from 125lbs were either cut, or moved up to bantamweight. Schnell himself went up a division for his last fight in the UFC, defeating another former flyweight in Louis Smolka.

Then a curious thing happened on the way to ditching the division: flyweight’s popularity in the UFC seemed to grow. The division that for years had been home to the most dominant champion in UFC history, Demetrious Johnson, was suddenly a hot topic. It helped that Olympian Henry Cejudo dethroned ‘Mighty Mouse,’ then moved to bantamweight and won a second title.

As dominant as Johnson was over the years, he was never much of a draw. Cejudo, at least, has fared slightly better. UFC President Dana White confirmed recently that the weight class will stay. So was Matt Schnell surprised when flyweight received a stay of execution?

“I wasn’t surprised, especially after what Henry [Cejudo] had accomplished,” Schnell told Cageside Press this week. That, of course, is in reference to joining the exclusive dual-champion club. “He did some great things, that I feel like helped bring the division back around. So surprised, no.” Rather, it was the original decision (if it ever was official) to shutter the weight class that came as a shock. “I was surprised in the first place that they were going to get rid of it. Well not surprised but bummed that they were going to get rid of it. Obviously, it’s my weight class.”

When things were looking bleak, Schnell had more or less committed to going to 135. “I was willing to, that’s for sure. I want to fight in the UFC, that’s why I started doing this sport, to be a UFC fighter. If they weren’t going to have my weight class then I would. Also I’d competed before at bantamweight, so it’s something that I knew I could do.” It was not, however, an ideal situation. “Obviously I’m a natural flyweight, and that’s what we’re going to be doing.”

While some might expect moving up and down between weight classes to have a physical toll, “it’s not much of a task at all,” Schnell told us. “Honestly, for the fight at bantamweight, my idea was still to prepare as if I was a flyweight.” Which meant avoiding getting too big ahead of his last bout.

“I didn’t want to go in there bulky, and slow. I think guys make that mistake of eating themselves into the next weight class, and I wasn’t going to be one of those guys,” said Schnell. So when he entered the Smolka fight in March, he was light — about the same size he was checking in at UFC Newark. “I’m big at this weight class, and small at bantamweight.”

“My idea was that I was going to grow into being a bantamweight. Over a four, five year period I was going to gradually grow, rather than just trying to drink beer and eat myself into the next weight class,” he explained. Now, with flyweight active once again, he can focus on his preferred division.

Schnell is a veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 24, the season entitled “Tournament of Champions” which whittled the field down to a single contender for then-camp Johnson. Asked about his experience on the show now that some time has passed, ‘Danger’ said that “it was more difficult than I anticipated. I wouldn’t do it again, that’s for damn sure. They’d have to buy me a house to get me back in that house.”

“It was tough. Looking at it from the outside, I really felt that a guy like me would have been able to do well inside The Ultimate Fighter,” he continued. “After coming off of it, I think different. Maybe that format of competition isn’t for a guy like me.”

The toughest part of it, Schnell said, was “mostly just being away from everybody. For me, because I spend most of my time away from home anyway, I didn’t think it would be much of an issue. And I was wrong. I was wrong. Being disconnected is difficult.”

The Contender Series, in hindsight, would have been a better option, it just wasn’t available at the time, not premiering until shortly after TUF 24. “The reason being is, I can prepare myself for a one night competition. I feel good about going in there and laying it all on the line. It’s difficult for me to go out there and lay it on the line, and then reboot, and have to do it again in a week.”

UFC Newark opponent Espinosa took that path, winning his way in on the Contender Series. “He’s got a full skill set,” Schnell said in regards to his counterpart Saturday. “Me and my coaches, we believe that everybody shoots on us. I think we’ll see much of the same. He’ll fire a shot, he’ll feel some speed, he’ll feel some zip and he’ll shoot. And if that’s the case, then we’re prepared for that as well.” Schnell doesn’t expect wrestling to be an edge for Espinosa. “I’ve been wrestling a lot this camp. I feel good about where I am. I feel good about things. Ready to go in there and showcase my skill set, ready to go in there and earn it.”

Schnell, who wants to stay as busy as possible, also gave his thoughts on last weekend’s Fight of the Night winner, a flyweight battle at UFC 240. “I think there’s a lot of talent in this division. It’s up to the guys who are matched up right now to create standout moments for themselves. I’m trying to focus on the task at hand, but I definitely watched [Alexandre] Pantoja and [Deiveson] Figueiredo’s fight, and it was intriguing.”

As to what he means by intriguing, Schnell expanded on the topic, saying that “it was the fight I expected to see. Figueiredo’s good, Pantoja’s very good too, and talented. I think that I match up well with both of those guys. That’s what I mean by interesting. I’m interested, and I’d fight either one of them.”

A big win this weekend could certainly land him that fight. The timing is right. In the meantime, he plans to entertain this weekend. Create his own standout moment. “Anybody who has ever watched me fight in the past, they know what to expect. I’m going to go out there and lay it on the line,” he said. “Maximum effort. I can’t guarantee the outcome but I can guarantee I’m going to go out there and fight to the death.”

UFC Newark (UFC on ESPN 5) takes place this Saturday, August 3 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. The full card airs live on ESPN.

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