Making a statement in the UFC can be a tough accomplishment for a young fighter. This task becomes all the more difficult when the quest to make progress comes in one of the organization's most talent-rich divisions. It is a weight class where an easy fight is nowhere to be found, and Illinois native James Head is prepared to do whatever it takes to reach the next step of his journey.
Head has won back-to-back outings since dropping down to welterweight. Solid victories over Papy Abedi and crafty veteran Brian Ebersole have set the wheels of momentum turning for the 28-year old, and he's looking to pick up steam as he readies for the next test. The obstacle standing in his path comes in the form of another savvy and well experienced fighter Mike Pyle, and the two will square-off this weekend at the TUF 16 Finale, from The Joint in Las Vegas, NV.
"Making the drop to welterweight was a great decision for my mixed martial arts career," Head told Bleacher Report. "I wasn't really an undersized middleweight, but I was never the biggest guy going into the cage. Now when I step into the Octagon, I'm still roughly the same weight I competed at previously, but I feel great and everything is on track.
"I really like this matchup. Pyle is really slick on the ground. He has something like 16 submission wins and is good with his triangles and guillotines. He has a lot of finishes from the ground. That being said, I'm very confident in my stand-up game and would like to keep things on the feet and beat him up. If he wants to go to the ground and play jiu-jitsu, we can do that too, but I plan on keeping the fight standing and knocking him out.
"I think imposing my will is going to be a deciding factor in this fight. He is a good fighter, really technical, but he doesn't like to get hit. I'm not opposed to getting into a dogfight where I have to take one to give one. He likes to use distance to pick his shots and positions. The guys who have really taken it to him and put it on him, Pyle has wilted under that pressure. That is the same kind of pressure I plan on applying."
Following a successful run on the regional circuit, which included a victory over former UFC fighter Gerald Harris, Head earned the opportunity to compete on MMA's biggest stage. He suffered a setback in his promotional debut against Nick Ring, but bounced back in his next outing by submitting Papy Abedi in the first round of their bout in Stockholm, Sweden.
His next assignment came against Brian Ebersole at UFC 149. Facing a fighter with far more experience and an unpredictable style presented interesting challenges for Head, but he was able to edge out the Indiana native with a split-decision victory.
While going to the judge's cards isn't something Head wants to make a habit of, getting time inside the Octagon is helping him adjust to the pressures of competing under the brightest lights in the sport.
"Fighting in the Octagon, on the sport's biggest stage, is just like anything else where the more you do it, the more comfortable you are going to feel," Head said. "My last fight with Ebersole went the distance and any amount of rounds or time spent on the big stage is going to pay dividends for my career.
"Ebersole is a very awkward fighter. He's a guy who is really tough to look good against. At the same time, I'm the type of guy who is very critical of my own performances and wasn't happy with the fight going to a decision. It is always my goal to go out there and finish fights. That is what I've been working on for this fight with Pyle and that is what I'm looking to do."
Training alongside fellow UFC fighter Matt Grice in Oklahoma, Head has prepared for everything Pyle will bring into the cage. In addition to the Xtreme Couture product's slick ground skills, he is also ready to deal with Pyle's signature mullet. After going the distance with Ebersole's "hairrow," Head is starting to wonder if there is a trend forming.
"You prepare for the mullet the same way you prepare for the 'hairrow,'" Head laughed. "I think I'm going to have to start bringing clippers down to the cage with me and start trimming these guys up. I don't know what the deal is. I might have to change my name to 'The Barber.'"
Last year, Pyle was surging his way towards the division's upper tier, before suffering a defeat at the hands of Rory MacDonald. Since that time, the 37-year-old has collected back to back victories and is looking to make another run towards the top of the weight class.
Head sees Pyle's previous success and established name as the perfect step to get him into the position he wants to be in. If he can defeat Pyle this Saturday night, it will move him deeper into the pack, and bring him closer to his ultimate goal.
"This weight class is so competitive," Head said. "The division is so stacked and I'm just trying to work my way up. I'm trying to beat game opponents who are positioned higher up the ladder than I am. I'm looking to fight my way into the Top 10 and then we'll go from there.
"I'm looking forward to getting in there and really putting the pressure on this guy. If I've said it once I've said it one hundred times—they don't pay you overtime in the cage. I plan on getting in there and finishing the job as soon as I can."
Duane Finley is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.