Saad Awad enters Bellator 249 with his back to the wall. There’s little question about that, really. The promotional mainstay has been with the organization since 2009 and fought exclusively for Bellator since 2013. But after a four-fight win streak in 2017-18 put him close to a title shot, Awad has hit a four-fight slump.
Now, he returns to action for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic against a younger, motivated up-and-comer looking to live up to expectations in Mandel Nallo.
Awad was originally scheduled to return to action in September, but that fell through. Instead, it’s Nallo he’s been paired up with — a highly touted teammate of Georges St. Pierre at Montreal’s TriStar.
“He uses his reach well, I think that’s where he gives people problems,” Awad observed of his opponent, speaking to Cageside Press ahead of Thursday’s Bellator 249. “Because he’s kind of long, he stays in that pocket where he can hit you but you can’t hit him. He comes from a great gym.”
“But he’s fighting me now. So we’ll see how good he is,” the California native added. Awad believes he matches up well with Nallo. “I’m excited to see what approach he takes to fighting me. Firas [Zahabi, TriStar coach] down there puts together a pretty good game plan, and I don’t see him putting that kid right in front of me to stand and bang. And if he does, we’ll see what happens.”
While this fight feels like Awad being used to test whether a prospect is ready for bigger things, the veteran isn’t about to meekly accept any sort of gatekeeper status.
“To be honest, I think that kind of downplays my abilities and where I’m at,” said Awad. “I think the guys that did beat me, kind of got away with winning a decision they shouldn’t have won.”
In his mind, Awad remains the best in the world, he added. “I don’t think I’m a stepping stone for anybody.” The lightweight noted that no one’s walked through him, even outside of his weight class. And inside the lightweight division, he’s had great fights with all his opponents.
The circumstances around the fight provide a bit of added motivation. But, Awad added, “I’ll take any fight they can give me right now. Had it been when I was on a four-fight win streak and I was knocking on a title door, it’s probably a fight I wouldn’t have bothered taking because it would have done nothing for me.” But in a pandemic and on a skid is another matter.
Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Awad found himself in a vastly different set of circumstances, paired up with Benson Henderson for what was essentially a title eliminator. And since that time, Awad has accepted nothing but tough fights, against Brandon Girtz, Goiti Yamauchi, and Paul Daley.
The Daley fight, Awad’s most recent loss, taught him at least one key lesson. “I shouldn’t take a fight last minute up a weight class, five pounds above that weight class,” suggested Awad. “Then again I say that, but if they offered it to me, I’d probably f*cking do it again. Why? Because I like to fight. I don’t really steer away from fights, and I like guys that come to fight. Paul Daley’s a guy that comes to fight.”
It was simply too great an opportunity to turn down. “It’s something that, at the end of my career, had I not taken that fight, I would have looked back at it for the rest of my life and it would have bothered me.”
Of course, more time to train for one of the best strikers in the world, and to pack on a bit more weight, would have been nice. Then there’s the Goiti Yamauchi fight, where Awad admits he was “overconfident on the ground.”
“I think if I had fought a little bit smarter, I could have taken him out. He pulled off a slick arm-bar, I’m not taking anything from him, but I’m better than that,” Awad sad. “I know I’m better than that. He caught me, I can’t complain. I just want to get back in the win column, and go from there.”
After losing a handful of fights in a row, some fighters might be tempted to make drastic changes. In their training, their mental preparation, perhaps even switching camps. Awad, for his part, is staying the course.
“I always adjust my camps to the guys I’m fighting, but I always stick to what I like to do, and what my weaknesses are. I’m always trying to work on my weaknesses,” he explained. “I’m trying to stick to the course, I’m not trying to adjust anything based on that [Daley] fight.”
If you get dropped, “you got hit and that’s it,” Awad added. And beyond that, he didn’t even have a game plan going into the Daley fight. While he would normally study an opponent and look for tendencies, “I didn’t have enough time to prepare for that, to break those things down so I could be able to attack them in different ways like I would other fighters.”
Awad’s return at Bellator 249 will mark his first fight of the pandemic, and therefore his first experience fighting without the crowd present. “For me, personally, I think it’s going to be an advantage,” opined Awad. He does feed off the crowd, he stated, which can lead to trying to do too much. “I’ll try to push to get a knockout when I don’t need to push to get a knockout, and it’ll kind of gas me out a little bit, because I’m a little bit tense, I’m trying to force a knockout when everybody knows you should never try to force a knockout, because it comes when it comes.”
“I think not having the crowd, I won’t go out there and try to force things. And if I don’t force things, I’ll get in my flow. And when I’m flowing, I’m pretty comfortable with where ever I’m at,” he finished.
Saad Awad returns to the Bellator MMA cage this Thursday, October 15 at Bellator 249 in Uncasville, CT. The main card airs on CBS Sports Network following online prelims.