Eryk Anders was once again on the biggest stage of his sport. This time, however, he was alone.
Anders was a linebacker at the University of Alabama when the Crimson Tide knocked off Texas in the 2009 BCS National Championship, leading the way with seven tackles and a forced fumble.
Saturday, Anders delivered again, downing veteran Rafael Natal as he punctuated a head kick with a pulverizing left hand to claim a first-round knockout victory in his middleweight debut in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the pinnacle of mixed martial arts.
The 30-year-old, who ran his professional record to 9-0, said he expected to succeed.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I trained a whole lot and we put together a great game plan on top of the visualization. Everything went according to plan.”
The man who was born on an Air Force base in the Philippines where his mother was stationed also wasn’t surprised to hear “Roll Tide” when he won.
“There’s Alabama fans everywhere so it never really surprises me.”
Anders was an injury replacement in the fight. It was part of UFC on FOX 25 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Just two weeks before, he was in the Legacy Fighting Alliance.
“There is no moment that is too big for him because he’s been in all the biggest moments,” said Chris Conolley, owner and head coach of Spartan Fitness in Homewood, where Anders trains. “There was no nervousness. There was no pre-UFC jitters. There was no, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in the UFC.’ We expected to be there, and we expected to execute exactly the way he executed.”
Anders is a Division I athlete, the coach said. But it’s his work ethic that sets him apart.
“He outworks everybody,” Conolley said. “That’s how he got his starting job at Alabama. That’s how he made it as quickly he did. We just knocked off No. 25 in the world in the 185 division of UFC.”
Anders and his wife, Yasmin, of Vestavia Hills, have two sons, Israel, 8, and Noah, 6. The former linebacker played football from age 7 until he was 25. The only fighting he did came when he wrestled as his youth for four or five years.
That ended when he moved and wound up at a high school that didn’t have wrestling.
“That’s about the most experience I have,” he said, “JV level experience.”
The 2009 National Championship ended Anders’ collegiate football career. He signed a free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League and had stretches in the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League before turning to other jobs.
He worked at Coca-Cola. He was a customer service representative for a car auction company. He worked at Redstone Arsenal. None suited him.
“After I got through playing football, I came home, did the 9 to 5 thing and was just bored, truly unsatisfied with life,” he said. “I looked for a venue to compete in something and took naturally to mixed martial arts.”
MMA is a stark contrast with football, since one trains and competes as a team on the gridiron. There’s a team in MMA, but only one part of that team is in the octagon.
But playing at Alabama did compare in one way.
“It’s great to get out there and compete at the highest level possible,” Anders said. “It’s quite a process to give yourself a chance to win.”
Ahh, the “P” word – process – that has been such a big part of Nick Saban’s run as the Alabama coach.
“You’ve still got to cross the T’s and dot the I’s in order to have a chance to be successful,” the middleweight said.
So, what’s next in his process? First, a vacation with his wife to Croatia and Italy.
“I fought twice in the last 30 days and she works a pretty good bit so we deserve a little vacation,” Anders said. “When we come back, we’ll re-evaluate, looking at the schedule, opponents and what not.”