HBF Stadium in Perth, Western Australia was not only the scene of an incredibly entertaining fight card featuring both up and coming as well as established talent, but also ground zero for a statement made by one of the hottest prospects in Australian mixed martial arts today.
Eternal 62 saw defending flyweight champion and Perth native – Stephen Erceg simultaneously retain his crown as the best 57 kilo combatant in the country, as well as establish himself as one of, if not the premier mixed martial artist fighting within Australian shores, regardless of weight class.
With a capacity crowd eager to see another high-level performance from their local hero, the stage was tailor-made for a champion like Erceg to shine.
And shine he did. If there were any questions as to who the better man was after Erceg had already beaten his once again opponent in Paul Loga back at Eternal 47, they were no longer by nights end this time around. Make no mistake, Paul Loga is a high level mixed martial artist who on his day can mix it up with the best Australia has to offer and come out on top. Unfortunately for him, Stephen Erceg has his number. He has now stopped Loga twice in the first round in two fights. It’s no accident nor is it a fluke. This is a man who is on top of his game with an elite set of skills that are a class above his competition.
It wasn’t just Erceg’s ability to once again negate the fleet footed Loga’s high octane style, but also his obvious pedigree in the fundamental facets of MMA offence that lead to his first successful title defence; the foot work, the cage control, the ability to physically wear on his opponent combined with the utilisation of knees within the clinch were all keys to slowing down his lively adversary.
Speaking to Eternal MMA while on a well-deserved getaway, Erceg himself alluded to the fact that these were areas in which he and his team identified in preparation for the fight that would lead to victory.
“His most dangerous time of the fight is the first three minutes and after that you can see his technique start to go away a little bit because he’s a bit tired. After he hit me, and sort of forced the clinch himself I thought ‘we’ll just use this opportunity to sap his arms a little bit and we’ll come out of it in a much better spot’.”
“He was heavier (at the time of fighting) than me, I think. I was taller than him. It didn’t matter if he was stronger than me. I was just trying to make him use his arms. If he has to use his arms, he has a little less power which takes his percentage of winning from 30 percent to 20 percent.”
“As soon as we exited the clinch, he stopped, put his arms down and went (exhales deeply).” “We’ve got five rounds – he’s getting tired and doing that…It’s going to be a long night forhim.”
It would take Erceg little more than a minute longer than their previous match to once again finish his rival in their second fight, this time with a ruthless mounted guillotine that gave Loga no choice but to tap out and further confirm the defending champion as the number one flyweight competitor in Australia. A glancing counter right hook seemingly caught Loga behind the ear and briefly dropped him to his knees. The split second it took for him to get back to his feet was all Erceg needed to close the show. With Loga’s neck briefly exposed on the way back up, Erceg latched onto it with deadly precision, dragged him back to the canvas and called the game with a mounted guillotine at two minutes and thirty-one seconds in the very first round.
An accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner with a brown belt ranking, the guillotine choke is a weapon that Erceg is more than capable of pulling out given the smallest of opportunities to do so.
“He got up so fast, he obviously wasn’t dazed or rocked or anything like that. It (right hook) off balanced him to some degree. I’ve been known as a guillotine guy for a long time so, if you let me on your neck it’s definitely danger.”
The choke itself was very reminiscent of an instance in the recent UFC featherweight title match between fellow Australian, Alexander Volkanovski and Jiu-Jitsu black belt, Brian Ortega. Volkanovski of course somehow survived a very tight mounted guillotine attempt from Ortega to go on and win the match; a memory that flashed through the mind of Erceg in the seconds he found himself delivering the very same submission to Paul Loga.
“When I had the choke, all I could think about was Volkanovski getting out. – Erceg said with a laugh. “I was like ‘I’ve got to make sure that I do everything possible so that he can’t slip his head’.”
At just 26 years of age, Erceg is arguably years away from his prime as a combat sports athlete. What’s remarkable about his achievements up until this point is it seems the champ himself is still trying to figure out in his own mind just how good he truly is. With a healthy respect for his opponents and a humble approach when talking about his own abilities, it seems Erceg’s results and impression of himself are starting to align more and more with each fight.
Feeling fresh after a title fight in which he was able to reflect upon his win with a clean bill of health, Erceg cut a pensive figure regarding the leadup to first successful title defence and what his performance means in terms of his stature among the elites of Australian MMA.
“A few days before that (the fight) I was s*****g myself. I was ‘scared’, is probably the best word; worried ‘blah blah’, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“And then on the day of the weigh-in, all the nerves went away, it was really odd. I saw him (and) it didn’t feel like I was fighting, almost. I just saw some guy who I knew I was about to fight but I wasn’t nervous at all. Most of the actual day of the fight I wasn’t nervous and then obviously when I rocked up to the building, I started feeling those anxious butterflies in my stomach.”
“But as it got closer, I was nervous that I wasn’t nervous enough. It was an interesting feeling. I knew that if I didn’t take him seriously enough, he’s good enough that he can definitely end my night. So, I had to be aware that it wasn’t an easy fight, and if it was, that’s great but, I had to mind my P’s and Q’s.”
“Originally, I was over-hyping him in my head, and then I was worried that I went too far the other way and thought too much of myself.”
“I definitely didn’t expect it (the fight) to go that fast again. I don’t know what it means, whether I’m better than I thought or I got lucky again, I don’t know what to make of it completely yet. It is nice to sort of put out there that this stuff isn’t necessarily just luck – it’s happening for a reason.”
“I’m always weary of those fighters that sort of get too full of themselves and get too big for their britches, if you will. And I don’t want to be that guy, so I’m trying to compartmentalise everything and make sure that I have a healthy regard of my skill set and not a fabricated one.”
One factor that certainly helped put a smile on Erceg’s face was the ability to fight at home. A huge crowd packed into HBF Stadium west of Perth and the majority made their voices heard in support of their hometown hero; something Erceg does not take for granted.
“It seemed like the most support I’ve ever had in the building before. My supporters are always really loyal. I don’t know if it’s because a lot of them are FIFO workers too and stuff like that, so I don’t know if maybe it just worked out on a swing where everybody was back or maybe I won a lot of fans in the last fight. But it seemed like the whole stadium was packed with people that wanted to see me do well.”
“Of course, it means heaps to me. I love talking to people and helping people when I can. To have people support me back – it’s very special.”
With a professional career still in relative infancy, it seems Erceg is at a point in his life where his performances are starting to make a believer out of himself. Having now notched six finishes from eight wins and four of those in the first round – it is a record worthy of admiration, but Erceg is not one to rest on his laurels. Always eager to improve himself, Erceg admits that he is likely his own biggest critic when it comes to post-fight analysis, even when he manages to exit the cage virtually unscathed and a win in the bag.
“Every time I have a fight, I’ll go backstage and almost always the first thing I do is say ‘oh this s**t happened’ or ‘oh I did this when I should have done that’. There’s always something in my mind straight after the fight that I thought I didn’t do very well. So, I’m always trying to improve on my technique.”
“First thing I said after this fight was ‘I can’t believe that right hand landed.’ (Loga’s first successful strike to Erceg’s eye). I was trying to figure out exactly what I was thinking and what I was doing as to why that happened.
“It shouldn’t have happened that early. If that’s all I was worried about (Loga’s hands) I should have at least been out of the way for the first minute, right? So, I’m trying to figure out what I was doing wrong there. I think I was just trying too heavily to counter it with my kick, and I got a little too high.”
It’s exactly that kind of critical mindset that has yielded the success that it has up until this point in his career for AstroBoy. With the Australian MMA scene very much on the rise, there is plenty of competition when it comes to who has the right to call themselves the best, regardless of weight class. As it stands, Erceg feels he now belongs in the conversation.
“I honestly can’t think of another guy that could be number one, just because I feel like I’ve fought more than the other guys that are in the conversation.” Erceg said, thoughtfully.
“Obviously Jack Della was the other guy (number one) deservedly. And he’s made the UFC now.”
“He was unquestionably the best guy, I thought. When I looked at Eternal MMA it was Jack Della for sure. And now that he’s gone, hopefully, I’m that guy.”
“Out of the other Eternal guys, maybe (current Eternal MMA lightweight champion) Jack Becker. He’s fought for a long time, but I couldn’t really name another one that I thought was above me, so to say.”
Of course, with Erceg’s current run of success, talk of an international MMA career is inevitable. With a host of local fighters making their way overseas in recent times, Eternal MMA is quickly proving to be a breeding ground for the best home-grown talent looking to take the next big step in their combat sports journey.
We have seen the likes of the aforementioned Jack Della – a former Eternal MMA welterweight champion, earn himself a contract with the UFC on Dana Whites contender series. Other names like Casey O’Neill, Jacob Malkoun, Chelsea Hackett, Carlos Ulberg and more have all fought under the Eternal MMA banner and gone on to find varying rates of success internationally. Stephen Erceg is no different when it comes to similar aspirations.
The current Eternal landscape still holds plenty of challenges for Erceg, though. During a conversation prior to his recent title win, Erceg himself went on record suggesting that he has interest in fighting current Eternal bantamweight – Shaun Etchell. Erceg has found recent success at bantamweight – fans will remember well his three-round war with rising star Cody Haddon. With Etchell now slated to defend his title at Eternal 63 against livewire contender – Diego Pereira, Erceg is more than happy to face the winner of that fight should he be given the chance.
“One hundred percent.” Erceg remarked, when asked if he would want to face the winner.
“I don’t really think there’s many people at flyweight at the moment. The only other guy – that’s sort of inactive – is Shannon Ross, and he hasn’t fought in a while. I think he’s injured to be honest. So, the one that makes most sense is the winner of that fight.”
When questioned about who he views as the better fighter between Etchell and Pereira right now, Erceg was complimentary in his assessment about both of his potential future opponents but is still unsure as to who presents the bigger challenge.
“I had a really high opinion of Diego before he fought (current Eternal featherweight champion) Jack Jenkins. And then I thought Abdalla (Eltigani) looked really good against him until he got caught. So, I don’t know what to make of Diego at the moment. And I thought Shaun Etchell didn’t look that good until he fought his last opponent and then I thought he looked phenomenal. So, I want to see that fight.”
Always keen to learn more about his competition’s skill set as well as improve on his own, Erceg has been keeping a close eye on both Etchell and Pereira.
“I’ve studied Shaun Etchell a whole heap. I’ve watched every single one of his fights. I’m very familiar with his fighting style and what I think he does well. I just didn’t think he was as good as he was until he fought his last opponent. And Diego Pereira – I watch a lot of his fights but less intently. He, I thought, was better than maybe I suspect he is now, but we’ll see.”
There is a lot to like when it comes to the prospects in Stephen Erceg’s future and the challenges that will inevitably present themselves to him. For now, he is enjoying his first successful title fight with a short holiday before getting right back on the horse. Not one to stay away from the mix for too long, Erceg sees himself back in the gym sooner rather than later.
“We are here for a week so, I get back on Tuesday, and I’ll be back in the gym on Tuesday. I don’t like taking too much time off, if any. Usually, I’d be in on Monday but I couldn’t do that this time.”
“So many things to work on – so little time.”
With Eternal 63 less than two weeks away, and with that a title fight that may produce the next opponent for Stephen ‘AstroBoy’ Erceg, it may not be long before we get to see exactly what tools he has added to his already impressive arsenal, as he continues in search of further glory with Eternal.