Years ago during filming of an episode of "The Ultimate Fighter," UFC president Dana White angrily asked the assembled group of athletes, “Do you want to be a f***ing fighter?”
The answer to that question would be a quick and immediate “No,” from most if any of them knew what featherweight Josh Emmett has been through on his way to the top.
Emmett has been through incredibly significant, serious injuries, but remains one of the elites in perhaps the UFC’s best and deepest divisions. And for only the second time in his UFC career, he’ll get a chance to fight someone ranked higher than he is when he faces No. 4 Calvin Kattar in the five-round main event of UFC Fight Night on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Austin, Texas.
Emmett, ranked seventh in the division, is finally back on somewhat of a normal schedule. He had the side of his face crushed in during a 2018 fight with Jeremy Stephens, and had vertigo for a while after that.
He was off for 13 months before returning with a win over Michael Johnson. But less than 20 seconds into his June 20, 2020, Fight of the Night bout with Shane Burgos in Las Vegas, he tore his left leg apart. Among the many injuries was a torn ACL.
He was out for 18 months after that, but the most incredible thing was that he defeated Burgos despite the severity of the injury he suffered. And in his return, he scored a unanimous decision over always-tough Dan Ige at UFC 269 on Dec. 11, 2021.
That leads him into the fight with Kattar still laser focused on not just getting to a title shot, but winning it.
To do that, he’s willing to do just about anything in pursuit of a victory. He doesn’t allow the thoughts of himself as an older man with all the aches and pains a lengthy fight career brings to enter his head and deter him.
“I’m willing to put my body, and myself, through the fire and through hell in order to achieve greatness,” he said. “And I’m so close to doing so.”
Because of the toll his offensive style has put on his body, he has only fought once in 2018, 2020 and 2021. But looking at his record, it’s clear that he’s right in the mix. A win over Kattar will move Emmett closer to a title shot.
Champion Alexander Volkanovski will meet No. 1 Max Holloway at UFC 276 next month, while No. 2 Brian Ortega will face No. 3 Yair Rodriguez two weeks later.
The loser of Ortega-Rodriguez will have two consecutive losses, so if Emmett beats Kattar, he’ll have a much simpler path to the top than it may seem for someone ranked seventh.
It puts him close to his dream of winning the belt.
“My ultimate goal when I got to the UFC was to be a UFC champion and I’m so close right now,” Emmett said. “I’m right there. I just have to go out and beat a tough, dangerous Calvin Kattar and it will come. Everything has led me to this moment and things happen for a reason.
“I truly believe I’m the best fighter on the planet and in this division. I have to go out there and perform and if the best me shows up, nobody can beat me.”
He has a single-mindedness of purpose few fighters have. It would have been easy to tap early in the Burgos fight after he tore his leg apart and opted to get it fixed. That way, he would not have risked an even more severe injury, but that’s not Emmett.
And though fighters will often say their adrenaline is going so much that they don’t feel injuries in a fight, Emmett’s pain was considerable from the moment he injured it. He had more than 24 minutes still to go against an elite opponent like Burgos and fought as courageously as one could ever ask an athlete.
“It hurt like hell,” Emmett said. “You can see it if you watch the fight back, when it first happened, it was so painful. It was excruciating. I had so many things going. I had no stability at all, but then again, I had one job. Why am I here? To win.
“So no matter what, every strike I throw still has bad intentions on them and I’m going out there to finish the fight and be entertaining, be exciting and get my hand raised.”
Spoken like a guy, Dana White, who really wants to be a f***ing fighter.