Vicente Luque’s first shot at a ranked foe will have to wait.
The owner of one of the most violent runs in the UFC today, Luque saw his opportunity for a much-deserved step up in competition slip through his fingers earlier this week when his opponent for UFC Rochester, Neil Magny, announced that he had been removed from Saturday’s card due to a failed USADA drug test. With Magny out and UFC matchmakers left scrambling to find a replacement, the promotion called upon newcomer Derrick Krantz to make his Octagon debut against Luque at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena.
Ever the company man, Luque accepted the last-second bout without much hesitation. And now, although the switch from a top-15 welterweight like Magny to an unheralded name like Krantz was disappointing, the mission at UFC Rochester stays the same.
“I’ve watched Krantz’s fights and, strategically speaking, I think he’s similar to what I imagine Neil would have done,” Luque told MMA Fighting. “He has heavy hands, something Neil doesn’t have, even though they are [both] good strikers, and they both have good wrestling. I imagine him trying to score takedowns if he sees an opening, so it doesn’t change much in the fight. Speaking of their body types though, it does change a lot.
“Neil is taller and longer and knows how to use his reach, while Krantz is shorter, more similar to my body type. It could be better for me because of the distance, but I expect a tough fight. Krantz is a tough guy, has shown his aggressiveness and qualities before, so I expect a good fight for the fans.”
A 27-year-old veteran of The Ultimate Fighter 21, Luque has quietly emerged as one of the leading candidates to be 2019’s breakthrough fighter of the year. His combination of one-punch knockout power, hellacious toughness, and a sneaky submission game has carried him to a sensational 8-1 record in his last nine Octagon fights. All eight of those victories have ended in stoppages, but perhaps none more memorable than his last outing: A third-round knockout of Bryan Barberena with six seconds left on the clock at UFC Phoenix.
The contest was an eye-opener for many fight fans, a breakout performance that featured the second-most combined strikes ever landed in a three-round UFC fight (332) and undoubtedly will be a lock on Fight of the Year lists worldwide by 2019’s end. And for Luque, the back-and-forth affair against Barberena is a night he’ll never forget.
“That was the first [fight like that] for me, and I’ve got tell you, it’s something special,” Luque said. “It’s not the kind of fight I want to have all the time, but definitely I’m happy I had that fight and I had it the way it was. It’s something that when you’re in there, I didn’t feel a thing. It was going to war. I got 160-something punches, he got 160-something punches — I wasn’t feeling anything. I just had the mindset of, ‘keep going, keep going, keep pushing and looking for that win,’ and I could hear the crowd, the crowd was going nuts.
“It’s a crazy thing, because at the same time that I was hitting him and I could see that he would keep coming and keep coming and keep coming no matter how hard I hit him, I had something in my mind that told me, ‘if you keep hitting him, eventually he’s not going to take it.’ So I had this thing pushing me forward. I felt it inside me. I wanted, so much, that victory — and I knew it was going to come.
“After the fight it wasn’t that much fun, because I was really sore, but during the fight it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Luque said he felt like he was run over by a truck the morning after UFC Phoenix. It took him a good five days before the soreness in his jaw faded enough to be able to open his mouth for any sort of worthwhile celebratory post-fight meal, but apart from that, he escaped from his war of attrition against Barberena injury-free.
And more importantly, he escaped with the knowledge that his ceiling as a prizefighter may even be higher than he’d previously believed.
“The biggest thing is I just learned that I have no idea what my limits are,” Luque said, “and I have to always keep pushing for that next level. Because that’s the truth — you never know until you get there. Before that fight, I couldn’t say I could go through a fight like that and come out with the win, and go through all that adversity. But at that moment, I found out that I was able to do that. So the thing is, there are no limits now. You can always keep pushing more and you’re going to surprise yourself with where you get.
“I think when you realize that, you have confidence that you can go and push yourself even more — and not only in a fight, but in training and in everything in life.”
That’s part of the reason why Magny’s withdrawal was so unfortunate. At long last, Luque stood in front of the chance he had been waiting for, a ranked foe against whom he could prove that he belongs among the elite in the welterweight division.
While Luque doesn’t blame Magny for the way things turned out, and actually noted that he hopes Magny is exonerated by USADA, the fact still stands that the New Jersey native now has very little to gain and everything to lose against a tough but unknown rookie like Krantz.
But even still, Luque isn’t viewing UFC Rochester as a lose-lose situation.
“Realistically speaking, that’s a point of view that makes sense,” Luque said, “but I’d rather [approach UFC Rochester] from a different angle. I’m getting to go out there and showcase my work, show what I’ve been working on. I took this fight because I had a great camp and I feel prepared, so being active will bring more eyeballs as well. Maybe not as many as if I had beat Magny, but it’s important to fight. I didn’t think twice before taking this fight.”
The goal now for Luque is to simply keep his momentum alive and continue to show the MMA world that a powerful new force is emerging in the UFC’s 170-pound division. And although he knows the best way to do that would be to push his ridiculous streak of stoppages to new heights, he refuses to overlook a game opponent who will almost certainly be approaching UFC Rochester as an opportunity of a lifetime.
“My fights tend to go that way, I manage to find an opening and get a submission or a knockout, but I’m going there ready for a long fight,” Luque said. “Magny has great cardio, so I prepared for three high-paced rounds. I always imagine a finish, but I’m ready for a long fight.”
MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz contributed to this story.