He is one of the most exciting MMA fighters to come out of Australia in recent memory and he is only 19 years old. But he has a skill set and maturity beyond those years. He is one of the new breed of MMA fighters who has grown up with the UFC and so specialises in not one discipline, but MMA as a whole. That fact and his impressive UFC debut had many drawing comparisons with one of the top welterweights in the world (Rory MacDonald) and had UFC president Dana White tweeting that he was “Nasty” — an attitude Matthews has only recently added to his game.
“You have to be tough in this sport,” says Jake Matthews. “My mindset has changed completely, I saw it as a sport where you go in there and have fun with it, but now I understand that you have to be mean and nasty.
“I take my fights personally now. Your opponent is in there and he’s trying to take everything you’ve worked for away. My reputation is on the line and he’s trying to take that away, he’s trying to take my career away, so I think about those kinds of things and that gets me fired up for the fight.”
It was a needed attitude adjustment that Matthews learned the hard way on the recent Ultimate Fighter Nations, when he failed to deliver against his Canadian opponent Olivier Aubin-Mercier and almost lost a golden opportunity to prove he could compete at the UFC level.
“That fight changed my whole mindset towards my training and my fighting,” says Matthews. “All my previous fights I’ve been able to play the jiu-jitsu game and be on my back, but when you’re fighting a guy who’s a Black-belt in jiu-jitsu you can’t do that. The biggest thing I took away from the fight is that it’s MMA, not jiu-jitsu; you’ve always got to try and be on top in the dominant position. I’ve also started working with a sports psychologist, just to get my mind right, so that I’m in the correct mindset during the fight, because with the fight in Canada I didn’t really get out of first gear and I didn’t really take notice that I’d lost the first round.”
Despite the loss, Matthews still impressed a lot of important people on the show, with Team Australia coach Kyle Noke and Izzy Martinez — head wrestling coach to UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones — seeing a lot of potential in the raw Aussie teenager.
“Me and Kyle sort of hit it off on the show as well as Izzy and Tussa,” says Matthews. “I was home about five weeks after the show and I was in talks with Kyle, Izzy and Tussa and Kyle just said ‘come out to Albuquerque as soon as you can to Jackson’s’, so I organised to go over to Jackson’s for nine weeks. I spent a week in Chicago with Kyle and we stayed with Izzy and during that time we ended up going to Jamaica for a couple of days with Jon Jones, his brothers, Clay Guida and some other fighters. Then we headed down to Jackson’s and Kyle started his training camp for Cote in the finale. Kyle took good care of me over there and put me up in his house, so he’s just a great guy.”
Matthew’s hard work in that period paid off, as he was soon offered his first official UFC fight at UFC Fight Night 43 in New Zealand, an opportunity Jake himself thought was still a while away.
“I wasn’t really expecting it,” says Matthews. “After seeing my performance on the show I thought I was going to have to work pretty hard to get back there. The fight I had in Melbourne after the show, I just wanted to show that I’m not simply a grappler and a wrestler. The fight was a majority stand-up and I fought a tough guy who had about 10kg on me — I just wanted to show that I can put on exciting fights and push the pace and I guess it was enough to get the call-up.”
Despite only having five weeks to prepare for the fight, Matthews worked relentlessly to get in the best condition he possibly could, a task made a little easier by the time and space fighting for UFC provides.
“It was good because I had nothing else to focus on besides the fight, no work or school to think about, so I could just solely focus on the fight and we started immediately. I was doing three sessions a day seven days a week and whenever I was getting tired I’d take a day off, or a session off, just really focusing on conditioning. I wanted to be as fit as possible. My sports psych said, ‘you want to be relentless and you want to push the pace and be aggressive. You want to be confident, but in order to do that you have to be confident in your conditioning and your cardio’. So that was one of the big things we focused on and just getting in as many sessions as I could. It was pretty full on and pretty intense for the five weeks before the fight.”
Jake wasn’t given the easiest of opponents on paper in his UFC debut, but that didn’t stop him entering the Octagon with a massive sense of self-belief in his own abilities and the hard work he’d put in.
“I knew he had good wrestling; he had about 48 boxing fights and 33 of those were professional and he was 9–0 with eight first-round finishes in MMA, but I watched his MMA fights and I knew I could mix it together better than he could,” says Matthews. “Normally I walk out to the ring just calm and without much of an expression on my face, but this fight I was pumped up, I was dancing around, high-fiving the crowd and I think that’s the mindset that works best for me before the fight. I was just so confident, it was like I could see into the future and I knew I was going to win that fight, that’s how confident I was. I didn’t suffer from any nerve it was just pure confidence.”
Jake’s experiences on The Ultimate Fighter meant he was somewhat desensitised to the grandeur that the UFC brings to their productions, but when you’re standing in the middle of the Octagon about to be interview by a UFC legend, it’s hard not to get a little excited.
“I’ve been through the Ultimate Fighter, so I’ve had all the camera crew on me and I’ve fought in the big Octagon, so I had that experience,” explains Matthews. “But afterwards when I saw Kenny Florian coming in to interview me, it sort of sunk in that I’d just won my first UFC fight — it was one of the best feelings in the world.”
As we have already seen with Matthews’ fellow Australian teammate Chris Indich — who was recently cut from the UFC after just one fight – it’s one thing to make it to the UFC, but it’s another thing entirely to perform on the big stage and continue to be offered fights — but the sometimes unpredictable landscape of the UFC isn’t something that concerns Matthews all that much.
“It’s not something that I think about and worry about, because I know the way I’m working now that I’m always going to give 100 per cent in my fights — win, lose or draw I’m going to put on an exciting fight,” says Matthews. “The UFC want you to win fights, but they want exciting fights as well and as long as you put on a show and try your best to win fights and look in the mirror afterwards and say you gave 100 per cent, you never really lose.
“You want to stay in the UFC as long as you can and I’m not there just to say I fought in the UFC and had a couple of fights, I’m there to take it all the way and work my way up to the top 10, get a title shot, become the champion, get in the hall of fame and be the first Australian champion in UFC history — I want it all.”
Matthews obviously has some big dreams and goals he wants to achieve in the UFC and if there is one thing on his side, it’s time. In the past, the 19-year-old has often been frustrated by the focus others put on his young age, but it is clearly one of the greatest assets he has.
“It did bother me beforehand, because every fight, no matter how many fights I’d won, how many times I’d proved myself, the next fight I was always the underdog, even if I had more experience than my opponent, due to my age,” says Matthews. “I think people now realise that there is no accident that a 19-year-old is in the UFC; there are obviously some things that have been done right to get me there.
“Especially with the new breed of MMA fighters coming up like Rory MacDonald, who have started with MMA, they haven’t started with a single discipline and people are starting to understand that that’s the evolution and I consider myself to be a part of that. I hope people now realise that age isn’t a limitation, it’s how you train and how you fight and I think guys like myself and Rory MacDonald have proven that.”
Jake’s age is exciting because of how far he is from what we consider to be a fighter’s peak age and watching his journey as he attempts to grow and reach his potential will be an interesting one — especially when he sees himself as just one quarter of the fighter he could be.
“I think I’m at 25 per cent of what my potential is,” says Matthews. “People say you don’t truly hit your peak in this sport till you’re about 30 and I hope that I’m still competing at that age. I honestly believe I’ve reached a quarter of the potential that I have inside me.”
We will likely see Jake back in the Octagon later this year, with a few cards that he would be interested in getting on, but no more so than on Australian soil in front of a big Aussie crowd.
“The UFC are pretty lenient with how you go about your fights,” says Matthews. “I would have loved to fight in Japan, but with my gym opening up and a few little injuries after the fight, I’d rather just wait it out. I just want to get two fights in this year, so whether I fight in September in Japan or later on, I’ll still be getting the second fight. There is talk of an event in Sydney and to fight in front of an Australian crowd in the UFC has always been a dream of mine as well, so that would be my first choice.”