For most of his UFC tenure, Sam Silicia could guarantee one thing: He was coming in to do some damage, consequences be damned.
More often than not, that attitude resulted in an exciting fight. What wasn’t guaranteed was whether Silicia or his opponent would be left looking at the lights. Inside the Octagon, he won three fights by knockout, but was finished in five others.
Sicilia went 5-7 in the UFC before being released last May.
He resurfaced in Bellator later in 2017, but his new bosses didn’t give him an easy welcome. Instead, he was matched up with former bantamweight champion Marcos Galvao at Bellator 189, a fighter looking for a fresh start at 145 pounds. In that one, Sicilia showed off a well-rounded game plan, finding success in the standup while stuffing the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt’s takedown and submission attempts.
Sicilia told MMA Fighting that he’s always had the skills to put on a more tactical performance, but his growth in the gym aligned perfectly with a shift in mindset, allowing him to earn the unanimous nod over Galvao.
“I’ll always look to finish, but one of the things I had to change coming over from the UFC to Bellator was focusing on winning first,” Sicilia said. “I was sold as a big knockout guy, which I love doing, but sometimes that would get me behind a round or two and then I’d have to get a little desperate.
“But I’m focused on winning and when I see that opportunity I’ll tear into it. That finish, that’s awesome to add to your resume, especially in a talent-stacked division, so that’s what I’m looking for, but the biggest thing is winning the fight and that’s what I got to focus on right now.”
One of the reasons that this adjustment was made possible is what Silicia describes as a more relaxed atmosphere in Bellator, as opposed to what he perceived to be a pressure-filled environment in the UFC, at least in regards to putting on entertaining fights.
Now, he’s focusing on not looking ahead and not dwelling on factors outside of his control.
“Something I’ve learned in my previous fights is just to look at the one fight in front of you,” Sicilia said. “Whenever I’ve looked ahead and been like, ‘What if I got cut?’ or ‘What if I don’t get re-signed?’ or ‘What’s gonna happen after this fight?’ it takes away from the fight at that time. And that’s something that I really had to learn.
“All I was thinking about going into (the Galvao) fight was the task at hand and with this promotion I can think more competitively and a little clearer, and I was able to go get the win by doing that. It’s a more laid back atmosphere and it worked out for me well.”
Next up, he has a chance to steal Emmanuel Sanchez’s thunder when the two meet in the co-main event of Bellator 198 on Saturday at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. Sanchez has won three straight fights and six of his last seven, putting him on the cusp of a title opportunity.
When Sicilia signed with Bellator last year, he wasn’t thinking about competing for championships, but he knows if he can get past Sanchez (and possibly be the first fighter to finish the durable featherweight), it would put him right near the front of the contenders’ line at 145 pounds. Current champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire is scheduled for a July defense in a rematch against Daniel Weichel, and he’s already faced most of the division’s elite, some of them two or more times.
Sicilia could establish himself as a legitimately fresh challenger with a win Saturday.
“I know how I can compete and that’s why I wanted to throw myself into the fire there,” Sicilia said. “I love the matchup (with Sanchez), being under the lights, and the co-main spot too, so it’s something you just had to jump all over. We didn’t look too far ahead, but (a title fight) is something that we’re planning on doing, for sure.”
Win or lose, it doesn’t sound like Sicilia is planning to go back to his freewheeling ways anytime soon. If Sanchez is going to beat him, he’ll have to beat the most dangerous Sicilia yet: one focused solely on victory.
“It’s all about winning,” said Sicilia. “I felt like the UFC, a little bit, even if I go out and win, but I don’t do it super exciting, then I’m going to get cut. I was worried about stupid shit. Now, all I’m worried about is winning. That’s all I’m focused on for 15 minutes.
“I’m still looking for a knockout, it’s not like I’d pass that up to become a point-sparring guy, but I felt way more competitive than anxiously being like, ‘I’ve got to knock this guy out.’ All I think about now is I’ve got to win and mostly just go out and work my ass off. The result will take care of itself.”