By Dwight Wakabayashi
UFC featherweight Pablo (The Scarecrow) Garza fights out of Fargo (yes, that Fargo), which is the largest city in North Dakota, but still a small one, relatively speaking, compared to many of the mixed martial arts hubs in the U.S. His home gym, the Academy of Combat Arts run by Dylan Spicers, doesn’t quite have the pedigree of some of the more renowned MMA facilities.
So, as Garza looks for a two-fight winning streak this weekend when he faces The Ultimate Fighter 14 winner Diego Brandao at the UFC’s event in Sweden, he ventured south to Florida to add some elite-level help at American Top Team to try to get the job done.
“I come from a small gym, and down at American Top Team, they just have so many more professional fighters than my gym does. They have a lot of fighters, so I got a lot of different looks. I got to spar and wrestle with a lot of different guys, a lot of different talented people at different parts of the game, different aspects of the game. So it was really beneficial to me to go down there and see that and get that,” Garza told John Morgan of MMAJunkie.com earlier this week.
ATT is one of the most respected fight academies in the entire sport and is based in Coconut Creek, Fla. The camp is led by former Brazilian Top Team member Ricardo Liborio, and is home to some of the best fighters and biggest names competing in the sport today such as Brad Pickett, Mark Hunt and Tyron Woodley.
Following a two-fight losing streak to start 2012, Garza got himself back on the winning track in November with a dominating win over Canadian Mark Hominick at UFC 154 in Montreal. At 6-foot-1, Garza is an extremely long featherweight and a tough matchup for anyone in that weight class with his reach and dangerous all-around game. The 29-year-old has three wins and two losses since moving down to featherweight at the end of 2010, and a win over Brandao would stabilize his standing and move him closer to contention and away from the crowded UFC bubble.
Garza admits that having his back up against the wall prior to the Hominick fight brought out the desperation in him.
"I definitely felt like I was on the chopping block," Garza said. "If I would have lost, I think I would have been cut -- at least that's the way I felt.
"It affects you. It made me fight harder, fight stronger. I felt like my back was against the wall, and if I didn't perform I was going to get cut, so I felt like I was just going to go out there and just fight and put on a good fight. If I did lose, I was just going to make sure it was a good fight, and it just turned out my way. I ended up winning."
Prior to his two losses to Dustin Poirier and Dennis Bermudez, Garza burst onto the featherweight scene with a stunning flying knee, Knockout of the Night over Fredson Paixao followed by a beautiful flying triangle choke win over Canadian Yves Jabouin at UFC 129 in Toronto. The finish earned him the Submission of the Night for his second post-fight bonus in a row in his first two Octagon appearances.
But Garza (12-3) then dropped the back-to-back contests, by d’arce choke to Poirier and then unanimous decision to Bermudez, to stem his early momentum. While he regained it with the Hominick win, Garza could be facing his toughest test to date when he takes on the tough, brawling Brazilian. Brandao is a little fire ball of speed and power, who likes to go for the finish as boldly and quickly as possible when he steps in the cage.
Garza is well aware of what he is up against.
"Diego Brandao is very tough," Garza said. "He definitely goes in there to knock people's heads off. He goes in there to hurt people and to win by knockout. He's definitely a dangerous guy.
"We've been studying him a lot, and I still feel like this is a fight I can win. He's a very dangerous fighter, but I feel like I can definitely pull this one off."
Garza is facing the biggest fight of his career, and the addition of American Top Team to his training camp will go a long way in helping Garza reach that goal and come out on top.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca's UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.