Chris Dempsey: How the UFC Newcomer Paddled a Canoe into the Octagon

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Chris Dempsey: How the UFC Newcomer Paddled a Canoe into the Octagon
Credit: Facebook/Gladiators of the Cage/Scott Betten
Chris Dempsey straps on his middleweight title at a Gladiators of the Cage event.

Chris Dempsey never knew being a Boy Scout would pay offnot like this, at any rate. 

The 26-year-old fighter from Ambridge, Pennsylvania, a small town about a half hour outside of Pittsburgh, received word last week that the UFC needed a fighter to step up to face Ilir Latifi (8-3, 1 NC) on the July 19 UFC Fight Night 46 card in Dublin, Ireland. 

To be considered for the bout, candidates had to meet a number of qualifications. They needed to pass a physical, an eye test, an EKG and a brain scan. 

They needed to fill out paperwork. 

They had to be really good at fighting (that one is especially important). 

They had to fill out more paperwork.

And, since the event will be hosted in Ireland, they needed a passport. 

Check, check, check, check and check. 

"When I was in high school, I was in Boy Scouts, and we went to Canada for canoe trips, and I was 18 when they started the law that you had to have a passport to get into Canada," Dempsey told Bleacher Report. "When I was in Canada paddling around a lake in a canoe, I never really thought that it'd help me get into the UFC." 

But it did, and now the two-time Division II All-American wrestler out of the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown meets Latifi on July 19 in Dublin. Dempsey's Twitter bio now reads "Currently in the UFC," an accomplishment that has been in his sights since he began his professional fighting career in 2012. 

And while his official welcome to the big show was short, it was direct, and it left its mark on the 10-1 fighter. 

"I got an email from (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva, and all it said was 'Welcome to the UFC,'" Dempsey said. "It was...I don't know, man. I can't even really explain it. All this work I've put in, I'm finally taking the next step to get where I want to get."

Four words solidified everything Dempsey had worked for; the struggles, the 20-hour days and the high-risk, low-pay regional fights all suddenly made sense. But his job is not done. He still needs to fight, and more importantly, he needs to win. 

"The contract is just for this fight," Dempsey said. "I would hope that I'll get another one afterwards, but that's up to those guys, and right now I'm just focusing on the fight and trying to prove that I belong there, trying to force their hand to say, 'Hey, we need to sign this guy to a multifight deal.'"

Coming in with just 19 days' notice, Dempsey faces an uphill challenge against the UFC vet Latifi at UFC Fight Night 46. While the former collegiate wrestler previously won back-to-back bouts on January 26 and February 16 in 2013, the stakes are higher now, the opponent is tougher and his travel is considerable.

On top of this, Dempsey just fought Nick Kraus on May 3 at middleweight, and his fight against Latifi will take place at light heavyweight. When Dempsey signed his UFC contract, he said he weighed 199 pounds and actually needed to gain weight to prepare for the showdown.  

Credit: Facebook/Gladiators of the Cage/Scott Betten
Dempsey secures a north-south choke on Tiawan Howard at Glatiators of the Cage 3.

Despite all this, Dempsey remains calm, and he chooses to view the positives of the situation. He's fighting in the UFC, and his opponent has just as much (or little) time to prepare for the clash. 

"At the same time that we've only had 19 days to prepare for him, he's only had 19 days to prepare for me as well," Dempsey said. "He obviously had no clue who I was, and I really didn't know who he was either, so we're completely new opponents to each other." 

Besides the obvious opportunity for himself, Dempsey sees this situation as a grand opportunity to put his entire region on the map. 

Guys like The Ultimate Fighter 19 contestant Josh Stansbury, undefeated Pittsburgh-based featherweight Mark Cherico and Dempsey's teammates Joey Holt, Francis Healy and Dominic Mazzotta are all standout fighters in the greater Pittsburgh region, and Dempsey hopes he can carry them to new heights with an impressive performance inside the UFC Octagon. 

"It's kind of like I got my foot in the door for a lot of the local fighters around here, and there are a lot of good guys in this area," Dempsey said. "Hopefully this area takes a lot more to the UFC."

All this considered, the pressure on Dempsey is huge and he will need to draw on all of his past experiences to relax and to fight his fight once the cage door closes. Thankfully for him, he's wrestled at the national level in high school and college, and he's played football in front of crowds of 7,000 to 8,000 strong. 

If these experiences don't help calm his nerves, however, Dempsey can rely on something else. He's Irish, he sports a Celtic cross on his chest and a Gaelic phrase on his back, so the luck of the Irishmen figures to be with him in Dublin. 

Credit: Facebook/Gladiators of the Cage/Scott Betten
The Celtic cross on Chris Dempsey's chest serves as an homage to his Irish roots.

"Hopefully I'll have them (the crowd) on my side since I am Irish," Dempsey said. "Three weeks ago, I got a new tattoo on my back that says 'built for war,' and it just happened to be in Gaelic...Hopefully they know what that is." 

With Irish superstar Conor McGregor headlining the card, chances are the crowd in attendance will know exactly what that tattoo signifies, and they'll probably rally behind Dempsey as a result. 

From a canoe on a lake in Canada to a steel Octagon in the middle of 8,000 rowdy MMA fans—the world can be a strange place for professional MMA fighters, and Dempsey knows opportunities such as this one do not simply fall into place for fighters every day. 

A precise set of circumstances had to come together in a particular fashion, and they did. Now he needs to take the next step forward, seizing his chance and making the most of it on July 19. 

"I've been working for it for so long, and if I pass up on an opportunity like this, it'd kind of be pointless for me to even train to get there if I'm not going to take the opportunity when it comes," Dempsey said. "But this is what I've been working for, this is what I've been getting ready for, so it's an opportunity to show what I have and see if I'm ready to be at that level."

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