Ask any fighter about their dreams and the UFC is sure to come up in the conversation. Like any athlete, fighters want to reach the pinnacle of their sport. Sometimes, though, the path to that goal is littered with detours, and sometimes it’s the long road that eventually leads a man to where he always longed to go.

Tom Niinimäki’s road has certainly been a long one. The Finnish fighter entered the professional ranks in 2002 and amassed a 9-2 mark by the end of 2004. In 2005, though, he hit a rough patch in which he fought to a draw with Bendy Casimir and then dropped three straight fights, including a pair of submission losses to Hatsu Hioki and Tristan Yunker.

“Every fight teaches you something,” Niinimäki explained in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “[The] fight against Hioki played as an eye opener on what level your ground game must be.”

Although he rebounded in 2007 with a win, Niinimäki opted to take more than two and a half years away from active competition to focus on improving all aspects of his game, including his ground game.

Niinimäki (R) (Ikka Nikkinen/MMA Viking)

Niinimäki (R) (Ikka Nikkinen/MMA Viking)

In 2010, he returned. The first fight of his comeback took place under the banner of the Finnish Cage promotion, and Niinimäki emerged with a second-round submission victory. Seven more wins would follow, including four more with Cage.

“Cage promotion plays a huge part in my comeback,” Niinimäki admitted. “Who knows, without Cage I might not be here today. It’s a great promotion with high-level fighters.”

High-level fighters were exactly what Niinimäki needed in order to prove that his time away from competition had paid off. It also wouldn’t hurt his chances in drawing the attention of the UFC. However, many things, not just the level of competition, can make any fight into a struggle. In a way, Niinimäki had already overcome a much larger hurdle than his next couple of opponents, former WEC champion Chase Beebe and UFC veteran Walel Watson, could provide.

“I think the toughest fights in my career were the ones when I decided to return [to] fighting,” the 31-year-old confessed. “Not necessarily the toughest opponents, but mentally those were the hardest. My mindset and goal were clear when fighting Beebe and Watson, so I would say those were easy fights, even though they both are great fighters.”

The featherweight met Beebe in May in the headlining bout of Cage 22. Beebe may have a strong wrestling base, but it was Niinimäki who consistently found the takedown throughout the fight en route to a unanimous decision. That marked 10 consecutive wins for the Finn. What more would it take for the UFC to come calling?

The answer turned out to be one more win, and it came against Watson by second-round kimura submission. Did Niinimäki know he was making his last audition for the big show?

“No, I did not know. I was contacted two to three weeks after the fight,” he revealed.

Nearly 11 years after his pro debut and following a lengthy time away from action, Niinimäki had finally realized his ultimate dream. He was headed to the UFC.

First on the docket for the Finnish fighter is a debut bout against Rani Yahya at The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale on Nov. 29 in Las Vegas. Yahya is a longtime WEC and UFC veteran, and he’s also a dangerous grappler who holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a gold medal from the 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships. That doesn’t dissuade Niinimäki, however. The Finnish fighter might not possess an ADCC gold, but he has competed at ADCC European events and has captured a FILA Combat Grappling European championship.

“He might be surprised if he expects that I will do anything to prevent this fight [from] going to ground,” said Niinimäki, though he also acknowledged that his ground game may be his biggest weakness against someone of Yahya’s caliber. “Even though I am confident on the ground, I think I need to control my urge to try to out-grapple him during the fight.”

Preparation is a must for any fight, including his upcoming bout with Yahya. In his native Finland, “Stoneface” prepares for his fights with his teammates at the Finnfighter’s Gym. He has supplemented that training lately with trips to the U.S.-based Blackzilians camp.

Niinimäki (Ikka Nikkinen/MMA Viking)

Niinimäki (Ikka Nikkinen/MMA Viking)

“My first trip there was in January 2012, and I spent about three weeks there,” Niinimäki explained. “I was preparing for my next fight in Cage promotion, but the bout was canceled because my opponent got injured. Next time, I went there on May 2012 when I had the fight coming up in Titan FC [in] June.

“Training with Blackzilians has definitely had positive affect how I train while in home. Now, for my UFC debut, I was in Boca Raton less than a week finishing my camp. I couldn’t go any earlier because I had to apply for the visa, and that process took a while. But I had good camp in Finnfighter’s Gym. I trained there with Timo-Juhani Hirvikangas, Juho Valamaa, Joni Salovaara and Anton Kuivanen and many other good fighters.”

The Blackzilians camp has done more than just to give Niinimäki the skills needed to compete at a high level. It has also instilled a sense of confidence for the UFC newcomer in his own Finnish training camp.

“It is a privilege to be able to train with Blackzilians, and the atmosphere is [built] for getting better. But on the other hand, it also confirmed that we are doing right things in our gym as well,” Niinimäki said.

Those right things have led to a fighter who has a well-rounded skill set. Niinimäki may be a skilled grappler, but he’s capable of acknowledging that area as his biggest weakness against Yahya,. He also feels he has several strengths that will help him to overcome the Brazilian grappler.

“I have watched his fights, and I feel I have a better stand-up,” Niinimäki said. “I don’t think that I am going to lose in strength nor speed to him either. [The] combination of those three attributes will be my advantage.”

Expectations come with any fight. They are only intensified in a UFC debut. The nerves, the excitement, the thrill. It will all be there. The object is to capture those emotions, to harness them and put them to use inside the cage. Niinimäki is a veteran, though. The long road has led him here, and now he knows that in order to live his dream, he must continue to win.

“I don’t believe that it’s going to be dull fight. Yahya is a great fighter who has his strengths, and we’ll both try to impose our will in the Octagon. I’m sure it will be fast-paced and crowd-pleasing fight.”

Top Photo: Tom Niinimäki (R) (Ikka Nikkinen/MMA Viking)