Aaron Simpson can look forward to the toughest fight of his professional life on Saturday night. UFC 123 will feature Simpson's first appearance inside the octagon since his frustrating TKO loss at the hands of Chris Leben — the first of his career. The world hasn't exactly made a return easy for Aaron. Shortly after his fight with Leben back in June, Simpson was stricken with a staph infection severe enough to hospitalize him. A PICC line running from his bicep to his heart was inserted to intravenously introduce hard core antibiotics. The daily session lasted about an hour as his system battled the infection for nearly two weeks.
Hearing things like that really marginalize personal discomforts. It was hard to hear Aaron talk about it months ago while he was living it, but you couldn't help feeling his overwhelming drive to get back in there. He was dying for a fight with Jorge Rivera, a fight that would go to Alessio Sakara. I was actually the person who told Simpson that Rivera wasn't happening, as I cringed for a response from my text.
With UFC 122 in Germany no longer an option, Simpson was added to the UFC 123 card in Detroit for Nov. 20. He took the first opponent offered to him — long time friend and training partner Mark Munoz.
As if fighting a close friend wasn't enough of a mental hurdle, Mark Munoz is a hell of a fighter. Aside from a 'welcome to the UFC' head kick from Matt Hamill and a split decision loss to top contender Yushin Okami, Munoz has looked very impressive in his young professional career. Add that opponent to an already less than ideal situation and it could be a rough night for Simpson. I say less than ideal because each fighter is coming off a loss, fighting for redemption and to stay employed. Do bad circumstances add pressure to an already tense situation?
"I wouldn't say I'm feeling any added pressure. There's always pressure on you when you fight. I'm just looking forward to performing again, it's been a while and I just want to get back out there and put it all on the line again. I'm completely healed and training at 100%. I'm healthy and in shape, a great thing to be going into a fight."
Simpson became a full bore vegetarian in February after years of only eating meat semi regularly. His fight with Chris Leben was his first while adhering to his new, more rigid diet and I wondered if he wavered following the loss.
"I'm still a vegetarian. I just can't even see myself eating meat anymore. The thought of it just grosses me out. I don't know if I could ever go back and actually put a dead carcass in my mouth — as I tease the others. I stick with the regular supplements and make sure that I'm getting the proper protein, beans and eggs mostly."
"I'm definitely leaner, but just as strong as I've ever been. I went and had all my blood work done to make sure everything was right where it should be. Everything looks great. That's a great knowledge to have going into this fight. I hadn't had that done in the past. Now it's all just a matter of being technical and out-smarting Mark, putting him in uncomfortable situations."
The Munoz vs. Okami fight really made some things apparent to me. Chief among them being that Munoz can be frustrated into standing exchanges if he can't get the takedown. Simpson and Okami have very different fighting styles, but was there anything he saw in that fight that gives him an edge?
"If you look at a lot of Marks fights — not just with Okami — you can find some weaknesses. I'm sure he's doing the same and looking at some of my footage — especially the Leben fight — to expose some things."
Even though Aaron has the better wrestling pedigree, Munoz seems to think he has the edge with his wrestling.
"I feel that I'm equal if not better than Mark in every aspect. its an interesting matchup. He and I are good friends so I don't think there's going to be much shit talking between the two of us. If anything it's just the confidence in ourselves to get the job done."
I had heard Munoz had brought in fellow Filipino and WBA World Super Flyweight Interim Champion — Nonito Donaire Jr. — to help work on his boxing. Have the two wrestlers decided this fight is all about the striking?
"I haven't really changed what I've been doing in the past. It's just a matter of getting in shape and being better than him on the 20th. I feel like everything I'm doing is just getting better. There's no secret to our training. I haven't brought anyone in specifically, but I went out to train with Josh Koscheck out at AKA which was a nice change.
With Simpson and his teammates in the final stages of opening their new gym he needed a place he felt comfortable. Aside from his ASU connection in UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez, Aaron said it was more about Josh Koscheck, Justin Wilcox and Josh Thomson.
"I was strictly there to train. I didn't have to worry about anything. It was all right there. Obviously with Cain because we're pretty tight but also with Josh. He and I have trained together and are pretty good friends. He's not exactly the most well liked guy in MMA but he's a good friend of mine."
Saying Josh Koscheck isn't well liked may be the understatement of the year. Aside from being one of the most polarizing figures in MMA, Koscheck has managed to piss off an entire country. I'm looking at you, Canada.
Has Koscheck been made into a villain? Or is this all some kind of misunderstanding? Is he just a jerk?
Aaron took a minute to choose his words but didn't lead me to much of a conclusion to the contrary.
"Josh can be a handful at times. He's done it to himself. He says things that really get under peoples' skin but he's a great guy. He's been a great friend to me. Josh has been very loyal and helped me a lot with my training. I appreciate everything he's done for me with letting me workout up at AKA, but he's not very well liked."
"I don't think he's misunderstood, he can be an asshole. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I don't think any of his friends would say otherwise. At the same time, when he's your friend he's good to you."
On the topic of fighting a friend in Mark Munoz, Simpson chuckled before saying, "Well, I fight Erik Larkin, Ryan Bader, and Jesse Forbes all the time and they're close friends." After which he immediately injected some choice words for his friends, all of whom were standing around him.
But seriously, isn't it at all comforting to know you might not be looking forward to quite as many inside groin shots or foot stomps as you normally would?
"I don't know that he's not going to do any of that," Simpson laughs. "No real comfort. The comfort comes from knowing hes my friend. I'm not going out there with any animosity. I'm just going to go out there and try to beat him up."
I can only imagine trying to prepare for a tough fight with a friend, coming off a loss, while opening a new business. Did opening POWER MMA take its toll?
"I've removed myself from the whole process. Dave Martin — our manager — doesn't involve me in it which I'm completely fine with. Aside from little things here or there, I haven't gone out to it. They're still putting it together. I'm 100% solely focused on this fight. I've removed any distractions."
"We're looking for a January opening. Mike Miller will be doing a soft opening around Dec. 23 when the Miami Heat play the Phoenix Suns. He wont be able to make it to the grand opening."
NBA point guard Mike Miller is one of the partners in Simpson's new venture, along with Ryan Bader and CB Dollaway.
I couldn't pass up a chance to dig a little about Lebron.
"I think Mike loves Lebron. Lebron's getting a bad rap right now but they all really get along. Mike hasn't been able to play because he broke his thumb guarding Lebron in practice, he wont be back until December. I think once Mike can play again he brings a whole new dimension to that team. He can sit there and bust three's all night and open things up for Lebron, Bosh and Wade.:
Enough about Lebron. I wanted to hear about Ryan Bader and Jon Jones. Was Bader using his wedding as a chance to duck Jones?
"None of that stuff is true. Ryan trained with me today. He's very excited about fighting Jon Jones. He's going to beat him. It's already in his head. He knows it. People betting on that fight need to take note, he's going to beat Jon Jones."
"He is 100% committed to beat his ass."
And what about his other former ASU teammate, Cain Velasquez?
"Junior Dos Santos is definitely going to be his toughest test being such a well rounded fighter, but I don't see anyone in that division being able to beat Cain. He's way too good. He's mentally tougher than anyone in that weight class and just a better fighter across the board. His striking is great because he uses it with his wrestling, you never know where he's coming from."
Catch Aaron Simpson vs Mark Munoz Saturday night at UFC 123. His fight will be shown as one of the aired preliminary bouts live on Spike TV at 9PM ET.