Not since rising Australian star, Jack Della Maddalena vacated his title in 2021 in pursuit of a UFC contract has Eternal MMA had a welterweight champion to reign over the division.
Four successful title defences after first capturing the belt in March of 2018 would see the Perth native receive a call up to the heralded proving grounds of Dana White’s Contender Series – a chance he would take with both hands to earn himself the converted roster spot amongst the sport’s elite at 77 kilograms.
With the Eternal MMA welterweight title left vacant for would-be challengers to claim, two candidates would eventually separate themselves from the pack to earn a matchup against each other for the belt at Eternal 67. One of those contenders to emerge would be the highly touted and wildly exciting prospect, Kaleb Rideout.
Coming off a highlight-reel finish over Ben Johnston at Eternal 64, the man known as “Krazy Horse” effectively punched his ticket to a first-ever title shot inside the first round with a spinning back fist knockout.
Speaking with Eternal MMA, Rideout reflected on his recent win as he looks ahead to Eternal 67.
“I didn’t expect it to end so quickly,” said Rideout.
“Obviously, I wanted to finish the fight as quick as possible. I was cruising in (the opening exchanges), I was still feeling it out. He charged me and I just reacted to get out of the way and threw a spinning back fist.
“Ten seconds later and the fight was over.”
Originally a rugby league player as a junior, Rideout found mixed martial arts while training wrestling in the offseason.
Realising that he was destined to make a better fighter than a footballer, Rideout took up training at XXX Fight Academy under Nathan Reddy and Michael Mousalli – a move that would see him find success as an amateur before amassing a 6-2-0 record as a professional.
Prior to being awarded the main event slot at Eternal 67, Rideout admits that he initially had his eyes on a different opponent before happily taking up the offer to fight for a championship.
“I actually busted my knuckles on Ben Johnston’s f**king forehead, so I had a bit of time off,” said Rideout with a laugh.
“I was originally after the Joey Luciano fight. I wanted to fight him because he ducks and weaves all the good fighters. One thing led to another, my coach rang me and said, ‘Eternal has got you for the belt – f**k this Joey fight’
“It’s all just erupted (from there), which has been overwhelmingly good, I can’t believe it.”
With the French judoka coming off a win in a three-round war in his most recent matchup, Rideout is fully prepared to wade into deep waters should the fight go the distance.
“I never underestimate my opponents, I go in there thinking I’m fighting a God,” said Rideout.
“I’m always going in there expecting the unexpected. I don’t analyse my opponents, that’s up to my coaches (but) from what I see, it’s a pretty good matchup. He’s well-rounded with the ground game and with the striking.
“Apparently, he likes to throw people in Judo so, that’s fun, I like to go flying. It’s a match made in heaven if you ask me.”
“I’m really excited for this fight for many reasons. (I want) to show how good my striking is, because I know he’s training at City Kickboxing. If I finish this guy, this will put me at the pinnacle of Australia/New Zealand MMA, in my opinion.”
Kaleb Rideout is the type of fighter that welcomes the scrappy side of MMA. A fierce competitor with a genuine love for combat sports, it is apparent that he is always ready to walk into the fire and put on a show for the fans.
While Rideout is happy to expect an all-out war against his opponent, in the grand scheme of things, it is the prospect of winning the welterweight championship that means the most to him. It has been a journey, however, that has not been without its tribulations for the twenty-five-year-old.
“It would mean everything to me (to win the belt). I have trained my little white arse off to get to this position right now,” said Rideout.
“About a year and a half ago, I was 2-2 as a pro, not knowing what I wanted to do. I had to take some time away from the sport to get my head right, get my training right and level up.
“When I came back, I came back a different beast. I’ve grown twelve inches of hair and just started knocking people out.
“But that’s what I want – I want this belt.”
Now on a four-fight win streak – a run that included three finishes, it is clear that time away from the sport has worked wonders for Rideout’s trajectory. With a renewed focus on his life as well as his career, coaches and training partners alike began to see the growth in his game.
While Rideout is prepared for all outcomes, he believes that the progress made behind closed doors will earn him his first Australian MMA title in spectacular fashion.
“I want my hand raised over a KO,” he said.
“If I can knock this guy out, that would just show the level that I’m at – levels above everyone in Australia/New Zealand MMA.”
“What fans are going to see on July 16th is one of us is going to get knocked out, or we are both going to be standing there bloody, because that’s the way we both fight.”
“I go for the knockout or blood, and he goes for the knockout or blood. So, one of us is going to get what we want.”
– Eternal 67 main card will be streamed June 16th live and exclusive on UFC Fight Pass.
June 16th will see Eternal MMA return to Queensland with a stacked fight card at the GC Sports & Leisure Centre.
Occupying one-half of the co-main event at Eternal 67, Justin Van Heerden will be looking to secure his third victory in a row against undefeated Eternal MMA debutant – Mohammad Alavi.
A fourteen-fight veteran of the game with seven of his professional bouts taking place inside the Eternal MMA cage, Van Heerden has become one of the mainstays of the featherweight division in Australian MMA.
Known for his exceptional grappling and suffocating Jiu-Jitsu, the man they now call “Lockjaw” has been living up to his name with two impressive submission victories to kick off his 2022 season on the right foot.
The most recent of those wins came at Eternal 65 – a triangle choke in the second round against highly talented striker and widely respected UK and Australian MMA stalwart, Alan Philpott, saw Van Heerden’s stock rise considerably amongst fans pundits alike.
Speaking with Eternal MMA, Van Heerden reflected on his success that he feels has been discredited by his most recent opponent.
“He (Philpott) is sitting there on this podcast saying that he was winning the fight, he was outclassing me, he was piecing me up the whole fight, he had me hurt and nearly put away and that’s how he end up getting put in the triangle.”
“I had to respond to that (and say) ‘look man, here’s the facts. You hit air for most of the fight. You hit me cleanly probably two or three times.
“I made the adjustments at the end of the second round when I shot a takedown and got a hold of him. That sequence of me finishing that flight – that’s something that I was able to do in a calculated way because of the preparation and the work that I did leading up to that fight.
“I was in camp for my last fight and Volk (Alexander Volkanovski) was in camp for (Brian) Ortega – obviously Ortega is a very good Jiu-Jitsu guy, so throughout the whole camp I was trying to throw up submissions from all sorts of crazy positions.
“Ultimately that finish on Philpott – that came as a result of that work and the improvements that I made as I was helping my teammate improve for a title fight.”
“I have this chip on my shoulder because people keep putting me as an underdog in these fights, and that’s fine, keep doing that because I’m going to keep proving people wrong,”
2021 saw Van Heerden find a new gym in Freestyle MMA, home to UFC Featherweight champion, Alexander Volkanovski, as well as world renowned MMA coach, Joe Lopez. The duo of Volkanovski and Lopez would form the spearhead of Van Heerden’s coaching, before a longer than expected stay in North America would prevent the team from being in Van Heerden’s corner for his first run of fights under the Freestyle MMA banner.
A disappointing first-round TKO loss to Rod Costa at Eternal 60 would be quickly turned around over his next two outings, a run that Van Heerden attributes to finally having his main coaches back in his corner.
“Every fight, every time you compete, you want to improve, build on things, identify the things you did good, identify the things you did bad,” said Van Heerden
“Post the fight with (Rod) Costa, when I came into the fight after that with Josh Riley and then my last fight with Philpott, it was the first time I could have my coaches in my corner.”
“Joe and Alex were away for my first few fights under Freestyle and that makes a difference. I’m pretty experienced, I’ve been around the game for a bit now, but to not have your coaches with you giving those adjustments (and) identifying the things in the heat of the moment during the fight, that’s a bit of an adjustment you have to make yourself.”
“I look at that fight (with Costa and think) if I was to run that fight back with my coaches by my side, I don’t see it going the same way.
“I think that’s evident if you look at my last two performances. You could see that having Joe and Alex there with me in my corner, you could see the mid-fight adjustments that I made. I was able to capitalise and get the win and also finish the fight in both instances.”
The benefit of having such a high calibre of training partner and coaching team in his corner is clearly not lost on Van Heerden. With Volkanovski in the prime of his career and Lopez continuing to be one of the masters of breaking down situations with his fight IQ, Van Heerden believes it is the perfect melting pot for him to succeed when combined with his own wealth of experience in combat sports.
It is through these combined minds that Van Heerden forecasts an even bigger leap in his performances in the near future.
“I think that’s why people would have seen the leaps I have made from fight to fight, especially so far this year in such quick succession,” said Van Heerden.
“That’s why this fight (against Alavi) I think people are going to see the leaps of improvement again.
“The Justin that’s going to walk into the cage on July 16th would run through the Justin that fought Alan Philpott inside one round.
“It’s not even the same standard or the same sort of level. I’m not the same person, I’m not the same fighter. That’s what you want at the end of the day, and I feel like that’s the real benefit.
“I’m in a place at Freestyle with my training partners, with the team that I have, with the coaching that I have – I’m able to continue to make those improvements because I’m just approaching it the same way.
With four wins from his last five fights that have resulted in three finishes, Van Heerden believes that he is nowhere near his fighting prime or anywhere close to where he potential truly is. Still just twenty-eight years of age, the South African native fully expects to have many more fights ahead of him in his career.
Of course, his immediate future holds a matchup with surging fellow featherweight, Mohammad Alavi. While he was complimentary of Alavi’s skill set, Van Heerden believes that it won’t be nearly enough to prevent him from getting his hand raised.
“I’m a complete mixed martial artist,” said Van Heerden.
“I’m fighting a dangerous guy, he’s undefeated. But I think that this fight is going to be another opportunity for me to showcase the levels of improvement I have made across the board.
“Obviously, the wrestling, the grappling and that side of things is always going to be in my back pocket. That’s always going to be sharp – that’s always going to be something I can rely on. When it comes to my fight IQ, my distance management, my abilities on the feet now and the timing that I have.
“The speed, the power – all that stuff is going to come through.”
While Van Heerden is confident in the evolution of his complete skill set, he admits that he feels no need to reach for style points in the pursuit of victory.
“For my ego, I don’t need to go out there and try to showcase something just for the sake of it or just to impress a few people and show that I can do something, I can capitalise on the opportunity’s as they present themselves.”
“At the end of the day, if I want to take a hold of this dude, put him on his back and smash his face in for fifteen minutes, I can do that.”
It’s no secret that Freestyle MMA has got its bases covered both internationally and locally when it comes to solid representation in combat sports. Of course, Alexander Volkanovski – the crown jewel of the Windang-based gym, recently defended his Featherweight title for the fourth time with a resounding decision win against Max Holloway at UFC 276.
While Volkanovski is holding it down for the team overseas, Van Heerden is looking forward to continuing to make his own waves in his now adopted home country of Australia. A natural featherweight himself, Van Heerden believes a victory at Eternal 67 against Mohammad Alavi should leave no questions as to who the main man is in his weight class.
“It puts me as the clear number one featherweight in the country,” said Van Heerden.
“The only other fight on the regional circuit that would make sense next would be (Eternal Featherweight champion) Jack Jenkins, but as far as I know, he’s off to the races.
“I think a win over Alavi puts me in a clear position of being the number one featherweight in the country and sets me up nicely. I’ll move to 10-5, I’ll be on a three-fight win streak and hopefully another finish.
“I think people forget – I’m 4-1 in my last five with three finishes. I’m 8-3 at featherweight, a couple of my losses were up in weight on short notice.”
“After this fight there can be no excuses. He’s a dangerous dude, he’s on a win streak, 7-0 and hasn’t experienced much adversity up until this point.
“If I go out there and perform, beat him, finish him – which is what I’m aiming to do, that puts me as the best featherweight in the country.”
Questioned as to how he sees himself getting his hand raised, Van Heerden visualises two clear paths to victory, with either outcome seemingly sitting just fine with the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu brown-belt.
“I’m either going to find an opening early and put him away with a submission or TKO, or it’s going to be fifteen minutes of brutal, brutal damage.”
“If you haven’t already, I suggest you sort out your UFC Fight Pass, unless you are going to be at the event itself. Eternal MMA is the biggest promotion in the country for a reason. They are putting these crazy cards together and it’s an absolute privilege for me to be in a co-main slot again.”
“Pay attention, stay tuned. I’m going to go out there and put another cracking performance on, get another finish and make my friends, family and all those supporting me a whole lot of money in the process.”
– Eternal 67 main card will be streamed July 16th live and exclusive on UFC Fight Pass.
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.
There is often a time during a mixed martial artist’s career where they truly find out who they are as an athlete, who they are as a competitor, and maybe more importantly – who they are as a warrior.
A moment in time that can be retrospectively looked upon as vital growth experience for a fighter when they need to remind themselves exactly what they are capable of. You know you have the skills, the training, the courage to lock yourself in the cage with another human being and go to war. But what happens when you face adversity at the highest level in one of the toughest fights of your life?
It can be said that it is the measure of a combat sports athlete when he can dig down into his soul and will himself to a place, he maybe didn’t realise he could take himself to. After all, until the fibre of your very being is tested to its limits – how do you truly know?
For Eternal MMA’s Flyweight king – Stephen ‘AstroBoy’ Erceg, that moment in time may very well have been in the proceeding minutes after his most recent fight – a three round war with a highly touted prospect and potential star of Australian MMA in Cody Haddon.
A fight that came to pass after the originally scheduled rematch with Paul Loga unfortunately fell through due to injury, there was something of a common feeling amongst fight fans when the bout with Haddon was first announced – was the risk-reward factor truly worth it? What was there to gain for Erceg in taking a late notice fight against a dangerous and hungry young talent with nothing to lose?
But herein lies the answer…
“If I’m going to be the best in the world, I have to be able to beat people like this, young and up-and-coming guys. And if I can’t beat him, I shouldn’t be where I think I’m going to be so, nothing to lose, everything to gain”
These were the sentiments shared by Erceg on ‘Eternal Insiders’ prior to the main event showdown at Eternal 60. Words that speak to mindset of a true champion, who’s confidence in his abilities allow him to take on challenges that some may view as too much of a risk. This wasn’t a risk in the mind of one Stephen Erceg. This was an opportunity to show who the man is. A martial artist that can win in multiple weight classes. A competitor always ready to stand and face whoever is put in front of him.
By Erceg’s own admission, Cody Haddon was a much tougher out than he had given him credit for.
Victorious by the way of unanimous decision, a clearly spent Erceg took stock of the fight in the centre of the cage with Eternal MMA announcer Daniel Maudsley. As he ruminated on his thoughts, he shared with the crowd that he “thought he had him in the first round”- referring to a rear naked choke he seemingly had locked in tight against his bullish young opponent. Surely this was it? Surely a quick night at the office and on to the next we go…
It wasn’t to be, as Haddon hand-fought with all his might to break the submission attempt and earn himself a trip into round 2. This was going to take something extra. This was going to take a 3-round effort at a fast and furious pace.
With Erceg eventually getting his hand raised at the final bell in one of the most exciting fights we have ever seen in Eternal MMA history, it would see his current win streak move to 6, with the previous 5 all being at his true home at Flyweight.
Now with a professional record of 7-1-0, it’s an impressive run that has seen him dominate his opponents at almost every juncture, with five of his seven wins coming by way of finish.
A well-rounded fighter whose strength is in his ground game, now boasts 4 submission wins on his pro record. But what makes him so dangerous is that his stand-up game is arguably just as sharp as his grappling skills. It’s quickly become a matter of ‘pick your poison’ for many of his opponents, Erceg already claims a win via knockout against his next opponent in title challenger, Paul Loga.
Perhaps the biggest statement win to date was the submission win against then champion, Shannon Ross at Eternal 52, the crowning moment in his surging run to his first title shot. A win via rear naked choke by Erceg was something he predicted in the lead up to their title fight. But what made it even more impressive was the calibre of his opponent. At the time, Ross was undefeated at Flyweight with 5 wins in that weight class. A streak that would culminate in a round 3 knockout victory over mutual opponent Paul Loga.
That run would be brought to a sudden halt, as the Jiu-Jitsu brown-belt did what he does best and picked up the submission win in the very first round. Showcasing his vast skillset, Erceg mixed up his strikes to the head and body, softening the legs of Ross with sharp kicks, all the while utilising his combinations to good effect.
A dangerous and powerful striker, Ross gave Erceg plenty to think about early even while spending most of the fight on the back foot. But it was Erceg who would get the better of the exchanges with a perfectly timed right-hand counter to the side of the head of Ross, dropping him to the canvas.
The fight would never leave the mat and it would never make it out of the first round.
Deadly, calculated, ruthless.
Fast forward to October, with another hard-earned victory under his belt and a rematch with Paul Loga on the horizon, Stephen Erceg’s attention is now firmly back on his weight class that he calls home. It is clear to Erceg that the battle with Cody Haddon was an experience that levelled him up in all the ways that truly matter.
Speaking with Eternal MMA, Erceg gave his thoughts on how the fight with Haddon elevated him as a mixed martial artist.
“You always learn something from every fight. There was a lot of things in that fight, mostly from a heart perspective. You know you’ve got the skills and everything. But you watch something Volkanovski vs Ortega last weekend, you see those guys get put in the positions you’re like, could I even do that?
“I was that tired after the third (round), could I go to the fourth like Ortega did or get out of the triangle? When you get put in those moments and you get to look back and you’re like oh man, yeah, I am that tough too. I can dig deep when I’m absolutely f*****.”
After speaking with Erceg, it became apparent that his qualities not only as a competitor, but as a human being, could be in-part attributed to a close unit and support system within his camp. The relationship shared with his coach (Wilkes Martial Arts and Fitness Academy head coach, David Wilkes) and his father Matthew, is something that has been voiced by Stephen after past fights. It is his belief that the guidance provided from the pair have been the biggest contributing factors to his success.
“After watching one of the UFC events where Brock Lesnar fought, I just told Dad I really want to do MMA. So, he found an MMA gym and took me to (that) gym.”
“I quickly realised that at that gym it wasn’t a ‘fight’ gym, it was a martial arts gym. It was ‘Mixed Martial Arts’, but it wasn’t (necessarily) for competition. So, my dad and I both did that together for a long time. And then eventually, one of the guys from that gym got booked to do a sparring day. I didn’t realise that you could fight from our gym at the time, so I was obviously very excited.
“I told my dad that I wanted to fight, and I’d just turned 18 at that stage. Obviously, I told my mum and everything as well… Mum was obviously against me fighting.
“Dad was the first one to say, ‘look, he’s 18 he can do what he wants’, and so he supported me in that decision. Obviously, my mum’s there to support me but, she’s obviously worried about her little boy getting beat up and all that sort of stuff. So, she was just trying to protect me in a different way.”
“(Dad) obviously held pads for me, he was there in my corner. He’s been there, always. He helps coach at the gym now. He’s been doing it as long as I have, so he coaches the MMA class at the gym now as well. Which is obviously very helpful for me because it means I can spend more time training.
“I go to my parents house once a week or so. I can talk to him about different things, we have a very close relationship in that way.”
Of course, every athlete needs a symbiotic relationship with a coach in order to reach the upper echelons of their respective crafts. For Stephen Erceg, David Wilkes figures as the man behind the pads on a weekly basis and has been vital in Erceg’s meteoric rise to flyweight champion. Though the coach himself was also initially taken by surprise when it came to his attention that Erceg had plans to fight inside the cage.
“He had fought competitively for a long time.” – said Erceg on his coach.
“When I said I wanted to fight, I think it sort of took him by surprise too. And he goes ‘look, if you’re going to fight, you need somebody to hold pads and coach you. Do you want me to do that for you’? And I said, ‘I’d love it if you held pads for me’. So, twice a week, every week he’d hold pads and all that sort of stuff in the lead up to the sparring day. I had my sparring day; it went well and then we kept doing the same thing (going forward).”
The coach-student relationship for Wilkes and Erceg would eventually lead to a job offer being tabled to the man they call ‘AstroBoy’ at the same gym where he trains. Another piece of the puzzle falling into place that would help solidify a solid base of work and training to support a burgeoning career in mixed martial arts.
“He’s been very good.” said Erceg.
“I work at the gym. He gave me a job at the gym. He’s helped me build my life around martial arts and fighting. So, without those two (Erceg’s father and Coach Wilkes) I couldn’t even dream of doing what I’m doing right now.”
It’s this support network that will continue to play a key role in the lead up to Erceg’s upcoming rematch against Paul Loga. Only this time, there is silverware on the line as Erceg will be looking to make his first title defence since he first won the flyweight belt from Shannon Ross.
A highly touted matchup prior to their first meeting would end in quick fashion, with Erceg winning by knockout in the very first round on the main card at Eternal 47. While the fight may have ended early, it was not without its early challenges for Erceg, as Loga pushed a heavy pace from the opening bell – pumping his jab to good effect and landing some seemingly heavy right hands-on Erceg’s chin. Of course, it wouldn’t be the story of the night, as Erceg literally punched his ticket for a future title shot with a swift left hook to the chin of Loga, leaving the referee no choice but to step in.
Since then, Loga has gone on a two-fight win streak of his own, and earning himself a rematch with the now champion, Erceg. A prospect that has the champ eager to prove once again, just who the king of the hill is at 57 kilograms.
“It’s something I wanted to do, fight him again.” – said Erceg.
“I know to start with he was landing good shots, and it was just all of a sudden I landed this one shot and put him out. It’s not like it was super dominant and clear to everybody that I was a level above. So, I want to make sure this time that, not only that everybody knows – but he knows that it’s my title, I’m the better guy and I’m coming to take him out.”
It’s this type of attitude that embodies what it means to be a true champion. Erceg is cognisant of the fact that – while there were certainly no question marks surrounding his first victory over Loga, there may still be a question as to who the true best fighter in the Flyweight division is.
In his mind, he already knows the answer to that question. But this time, Erceg wants to leave no doubt.
“I want to finish him on the feet. That’s where his strength is, and I think I’m better than him there.”
The desire is clear for anyone to see. This is a man who wants to put on a show and take his stature amongst fight fans to another level, while also gaining the respect he deserves from his peers. Another notion that should have fans salivating is the idea that Stephen Erceg’s recent foray into a higher weight class may not be his last. With no issues competing at either weight, a game Erceg has one eye set on a potential matchup with the cream of the crop in the Bantamweight division.
“The home for now is at Flyweight. The only reason I’d go (back) up to Bantamweight is to fight Shaun Etchell.” remarked Erceg, regarding his fighting future.
Etchell of course is the current reigning champion in the Bantamweight division.
But for now, Erceg’s focus is firmly squared on the upcoming rematch against Paul Loga for the undisputed Eternal Flyweight Championship at Eternal 62 in his home city of Perth.
With an unwavering confidence, a loyal team and a healthy run of momentum on his side, we still don’t know just how high the ceiling is for one Stephen ‘AstroBoy’ Erceg.
On October 30th within the confines of the cage inside HBF Stadium, we may just get another piece the answer.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend Eternal MMA 61 at Southport Sharks, an eventful night marked by excellent fights and capped off with a title change.
For those who haven’t been to an Eternal MMA show, the experience is vastly different to what you see on television. There is an energy inside the building which can’t be replicated at home – the brisk sound of the mat; the sound of leather hitting flesh; the intensity of the crowd.
My only other live MMA experience was watching UFC 243 at Marvel Stadium in 2019. Though it had all the bells and whistles that come with a UFC show, particularly a stadium show, the scale of the stadium meant good seats were few and far between, (and ridiculously expensive too boot) and for most of the night I was stuck watching a screen.
And though there were screens at this event, I didn’t use them much. Why would I have to? The intimate atmosphere of the venue, the Southport Sharks Event Centre, meant regardless of where you sat, you were close to the action – good seats all around.
When I first entered the venue, I happened to find the then-lightweight champion and one half of the main event, Dan Hill, relaxing at the back of the room, relaxing watching the preliminary fights unfold. It was an unusual sight.
Then I grabbed my seat and found Dimp Gillies, one half of the co-main event, sitting with his family watching the fight.
A reminder that these fighters are fans just like the rest of us, and a visual reminder of who these men fight for.
On a regional show, one might think that the quality of fighters might be lacking. I can assuredly tell you that this is not the case.
Top to bottom the fights were competitive and compelling encounters, especially the fight between Diego Pereira and Abdalla Eltigani, where Eltigani appeared to be coasting before falling into Pereira’s heel hook in the second round which ultimately stopped the fight.
In the week leading up to the fight, I had a chance to sit down with Pereira and discuss his bout with Eltigani. He told me it was the perfect fight to showcase his ground game, something he hadn’t had the chance to do in previous fights.
The card wasn’t without controversy either, which occurred in the main event when Jack Becker finished then-Eternal lightweight champion, Dan Hill, in the first round with a barrage of punches, followed up by an unfortunate knee to the head which appeared to land after Hill collapsed into the cage.
Though Becker is returning to defend his new lightweight championship in November against Brentin Mumford at Eternal 63, it would be fantastic to see a rematch.
Of course, being stopped in the first round never bodes well for a rematch claim, but there were variables which support Hill’s case. For one, it was his first loss – a controversial one at that. And secondly, the late replacement Becker was arguably a tougher opponent than the previously scheduled, Mumford. That’s certainly a fight I’d like to see again.
The highlight of the night was Dom Mar Fan’s – who also won Performance of the Night – performance against Tasar Malone on the preliminary card. It was a smooth and dominant performance capped off by an excellent triangle choke submission in the second round. Certainly someone to keep an eye on.
Eternal MMA is Australia’s premier MMA promotion for a reason. The matchmaking is excellent, the events are well-organised (kudos to Cam, Ben & co. for persevering through the setbacks) and the production is top notch too.
And for MMA fans living in South-East Queensland who haven’t attended an Eternal show, I have to ask: what on earth are you waiting for?
It hasn’t been without its challenges, but Eternal 61 is finally upon us. And with that comes a slew of tantalising matchups that promise to have the mouths of fight fans watering.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen some unfortunate cancelations and postponements to several fights, including the push back to a later date for the upcoming event itself.
But with the card now firmly locked into place, one matchup that is sure to produce fireworks is Nick Kepu vs Jack James.
The two exciting middleweight prospects have been tasked with kicking off the main card this Saturday, and both are looking to make a big impression in front of a packed crowd at Southport Sharks.
With Kepu having already made his pro debut against Sam Dobb at Eternal 57 – an absolute showstopper in which he emerged victorious by way of split decision, the hard hitting Muay Thai Mulisha stalwart will be looking to capitalise on his momentum with a big win against Jack James.
“I just don’t see enough power in his striking to take me out” – Kepu told Eternal MMA when questioned about his upcoming opponent. “I just feel like I’m going to walk him down, stalk him, and pretty much take him out in either the first or the second (round). That’s just my honest opinion.”
On his goals with Eternal MMA, Kepu was measured in his approach to the future.
“The goal with Eternal is obviously to fight the champ whenever Cam (Eternal MMA promotor – Cam O’Neill) gives me that opportunity. But I don’t look past my next opponent. My job this weekend is Jack James. I just need to get the job done and then after that we can start talking from there. But until then, I don’t really look too far.”
Making his pro debut on the other side of the cage, Jack James is looking at making his own waves within the Eternal MMA organisation. The young up and comer is ready for the challenge that lies ahead.
When asked of his impressions on his upcoming opponent, James had the following to say, “We’ve got a game plan sorted for him.”
“I just think once I start picking up the volume and (implement) heaps of movement and get a takedown or two, he won’t be able to keep up.”
When asked if he had a prediction on how he see’s his hand being raised, James gave a confident, matter of fact answer,
“Ground and pound.”
James has lofty goals of his own when it comes to his Eternal MMA career, mirroring the sentiments of his Eternal 61 adversary,
“I want to keep fighting pro, I want to win the belt.” Said James.
“Middleweight 84 kilo champion.”
With both athletes full of confidence and their sights firmly set on each other, as well as a successful run against Eternal MMA’s middleweight elites, this is a fight that simply cannot be missed.
Stream the Eternal 61 main card live on UFC Fight Pass – Saturday Sep 11.
It’s a new opponent, but the same goal for Eternal lightweight champion Dan Hill (5-0).
Due to COVID-19 interstate travel restrictions, Hill will now defend his Eternal MMA lightweight title against Jack Becker (8-2) at Eternal MMA 61.
Originally scheduled to fight veteran lightweight Brentin Mumford, Hill will test his skills against another of Australia’s top lightweights when he steps in the cage with the internationally recognised Becker.
It’s a huge opportunity for Becker who told Eternal MMA,
“I believe I’m the toughest test of his career so far. He’s been tested before by Josh Togo who’s solid but not as solid everywhere as I am.”
On how he sees the fight playing out, Becker expects to finish the undefeated champion.
“I think the fight’s going to be a mixture of everything: grappling, striking. I don’t think it needs to stay anywhere for anyone but I do think there’ll be a finish.”
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Hill accepted the late replacement without hesitation, telling Eternal MMA,
“I accepted the fight straight away. I told them I’d fight anyone.”
The challenge of fighting Becker also excites Hill.
“I think this is a better fight for me. I think it’s a fight that will progress my career a lot more than the fight with Brentin [Mumford] would and it’s something that makes me a lot more excited to get up and train for.”
It’s a huge blow for Mumford whose opportunity will have to wait for now, but promoter Cam O’Neill is hopeful about rescheduling a fight as soon as possible.
“Eternal MMA is committed to ensuring that our athletes get every opportunity to perform as we continue to adapt to the constantly challenging travel restrictions in Australia.”
“Unfortunately for Brentin, these restrictions have ruled him out of this fight but he will get the chance to challenge the winner for the title later this year.”
When asked about the replacement, O’Neill couldn’t be happier.
“We were lucky to be able to secure such an exciting replacement that is definitely worthy of the challenge.
“The Eternal lightweight division is the most exciting division in Australia and Dan Hill sits at the very top. His opponent, Jack Becker, comes into this fight hungry with a huge pedigree and is coming off an exciting win himself. What an exciting fight.”
Buy tickets to Eternal MMA 61 at Southport Sharks RSL club on September 11th (5pm start) OR stream the main card live on UFC Fight Pass.
It’ll be grappler versus striker when former Eternal lightweight champion David Martinez (6-3) meets Dimps Gillies (4-3) at Eternal MMA 61.
Both men will be looking to get back into the lightweight title picture and Eternal MMA co-promoter, Cam O’Neill, believes a victory would do just that.
“The Eternal lightweight division is on fire. It’s the best division in Australia right now and this fight features two of the very top lightweights with very contrasting styles.
“One thing’s for sure: this fight is going to be fun, and the winner will most likely move forward to fight for that number one contender spot in their next fight.” said O’Neill.
With both fighters desperately chasing a victory, this has the potential to be fight of the night. The key to victory for each fighter will be to impose their skillset by keeping the fight in their domain.
As an accomplished striker, the key to victory for Gillies will be to keep the fight standing. Throughout his career, Gillies has shown the ability to make any fight a dog fight by coming forward and throwing strikes indiscriminately.
Former Eternal MMA lightweight champion Martinez will hope to get back into the win column using his patented wrestling skills. Martinez’s wrestling has laid the foundations for the victories in his career thus far, and he’ll hope to mitigate Gillies advantages on the feet by keeping him on the ground.
Eternal MMA co-promoter Ben Vickers expects the fight to be fireworks.
“This is the archetypal grappler versus striker matchup. Dimps is one of the most complete strikers in Australian MMA and David is one of the premiere grapplers.
“It’s one of those fights where each man has a clear route to victory, so the excitement is who can impose their game. I love these old school MMA fights; I can’t wait for this scrap!” said Vickers.
With Australia’s COVID-19 situation under tight policies and travel control, Eternal MMA proves that it is Australia’s number one MMA organisation by delivering eight events to live audiences in the 2020-2021 Financial Year.
Eternal director Cam O’Neill says, “It’s very exciting to see the growth that Eternal MMA has made as a company in the last financial year, a year that saw a pandemic decimate sports leagues worldwide. Eternal again delivered eight nationwide shows to live audiences as well provided opportunities in a difficult time for athletes.”
The last twelve months were unprecedented for the company with challenges to overcome, but with these challenges, Eternal has gone from strength to strength. With eight events over three major cities, fight fans in Perth, Melbourne and Gold Coast (Brisbane) were able to attend and watch live the best Australia MMA fights to date.
“We are still in uncertain times with travel and attendance at events uncertain as Australia slips back into a series of lockdowns and increased travel restrictions. The company will continue to deliver, as we’re constantly working to react, adapt and overcome” stated Cam.
Along with record attending audiences nationwide, new records were set from financial payouts to the athletes, numbers on worldwide audiences viewership and a numerous athletes on the Eternal roster making it to the international fight scene.
“One of our goals when establishing Eternal MMA was to build Oceania’s number one MMA promotion and provide a pathway to the world’s number one organisation, the UFC. It’s been satisfying to sit here, nine years later after setting these goals to see more athletes that have plied their trade and carried out their apprenticeship on Eternal graduate to UFC and debut in the last financial year.” – Cam O’Neill, Eternal MMA Director
“It has been a great year for the Eternal team; actions speak louder than words. These numbers to me are a testament to the work we put in, raising the bar for Australian MMA. Personally all I’m concerned about is rolling my sleeves up, getting back in the trenches and making these numbers look silly in twelve months time. None of this is possible without the support of fighters, coaches, family, fans and the Eternal team. I cant wait to put on some amazing fights for our fans in the 21/22 FY.” – Ben Vickers, Eternal MMA Director
With that goal checked, Eternal MMA also set a new one for the books with “King” Casey O’Neill (2-0 UFC) being the first fighter to go through the pathway from debuting as an amateur on Eternal, progress through to as a professional and win an Eternal MMA championship title and now begin the journey to define her legacy on the world’s biggest stage.