Loyalty is a term that gets tossed around rather loosely. Loyalty, like religious faith, is something that people expect a blind adherence to, regardless of rational thought. In any business, when a professional has his or her job and future on the line, rational thought is far more important than an arbitrary guilt-driven expectation from others. Business is business, and if that were not the case, the world would never evolve and humans would still be living in the Stone Age.

In the world of professional sports, change is necessary to create champions. As convoluted as the whole “decision” was, had LeBron James not left Cleveland for Miami, he wouldn’t finally have multiple NBA championship rings. Peyton Manning left Indianapolis for Denver and started setting new NFL all-time records. And, as painful or joyful as some might find it, the Boston Red Sox went from an eight-and-a-half decade drought to three MLB World Series titles in nine years, because the franchise instituted the change it needed to become the best. The sport of mixed martial arts is no different.

Fighters, almost more than any other type of athlete, have an unmatched loyalty to the masters that brought them up in the sport. However, when training becomes too routine and growth slows, sometimes change is needed. It doesn’t mean the fighter is no longer loyal to the people who helped shape him into what he is today. It’s a personal business decision to churn the waters and keep training fresh and constantly improving.

Lyoto Machida, Jake Ellenberger, Donald Cerrone and countless other fighters throughout the 20 years of the sport decided at some point in their careers to either cross-train between their home gym and another camp or completely switch camps altogether. Ramsey Nijem, a finalist from season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter and a current UFC lightweight, had to do some soul searching near the end of last year, and he decided he needed to do something different.

After a tough loss in the TUF 13 Finale back in June 2011, Nijem, a California native who trains out of The Pit Elevated in Orem, Utah, strung together three wins over the next year and a half, cementing his position as a potential contender in the UFC lightweight division. Then, in April 2013, he dropped a second-round knockout loss to the highly touted, and still undefeated, TUF alum Myles Jury to bring his streak to an end. Down, but not out, Nijem entered the Octagon for the sixth time to face another TUF alum in James Vick, only to lose again, this time by submission only 58 seconds into the fight.

Nijem (R) scores with an uppercut (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Nijem (R) scores with an uppercut (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

In the past, Nijem had suffered a loss here and there, but this was the first time in his young career that he lost twice in a row. Something had to give.

“I’ve actually made some big changes,” said Nijem in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I was obviously a little caught in a rut. I’ve actually been training out of Empower Gym with Tareq Azim and Jake Shields and spending my time out there with them. One down side is that I had to make a change and go train with different people a little bit, but I’ve gotten to train with Jake Shields. He’s one of the best grapplers in the world, one of the best jiu-jitsu guys in the world. I’ve been sparring with the best and grappling with the best, and it’s been fun again.

“The last couple fights it wasn’t fun, and it was just my job, and I was stressed out, like, ‘Oh, I have to win or I could lose my job,’ and all these ridiculous thoughts that weren’t making me better. But, now, I feel like I’m back to having fun, and this is where I want to be. I choose to be a fighter. I can easily make more money doing other stuff, but this is my choice, and it’s really been refreshing.”

Nijem is now training for his seventh bout in the UFC’s patented Octagon. Next Wednesday, he is set to face former TUF teammate Justin Edwards at UFC Fight Night 35 in Duluth, Ga., at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. He knows that he needs this win, and therefore the change was imminent. In no way did the decision reflect any negative feelings toward The Pit Elevated. Nijem credits his coaches and training partners in Utah with getting him to where he is today and has no plans to abandon his team.

“I’m actually at The Pit Elevated right now, training for these couple weeks, but I’ve spent the majority of my camp at Empower Gym, and I’m going to have them corner me,” explained Nijem. “It’s not been about changing gyms. This is more of a cross-training thing. I needed to mix up my routine. I needed to make a big change in my life, because it obviously wasn’t working. Tareq is good friends with all of us, and we’ve trained together a bunch of times, so I decided to take him up on his offer to train me, and I’m loving it. Everything comes back full circle. I was born in Concord, Calif., so I’ve been coming back out, staying in Concord and training with Tareq.”

Azim’s Empower Gym is located in the heart of San Francisco, only about a mile and a half from Fisherman’s Wharf and 30 miles from Concord. The training under Azim stretches far beyond mixed martial arts. Azim also conducts off-season training for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals football teams, as well as training of law enforcement and military special operations personnel.

Azim himself is no stranger to competition. He was a NCAA Division I linebacker at Fresno State University, a boxer under Freddie Roach and a gold medal-winning jiu-jitsu player. His resume speaks for itself, and, as Nijem pointed out, Azim has been the longtime head coach of former Strikeforce champ Shields. Loyalty is not the issue here, but rather it is about improvement. Furthermore, it’s not just training that Nijem was looking to improve.

“I’m on a pretty specific diet,” said the former TUF contestant. “I work with Perfecting Athletes, my nutritionist. I’ve been working with them a bit on what my body responds to best. Every person responds to different diets differently. We’ve really figured out what I’m good at, you know? What leans me out and keeps me strong so I can still train hard. My body’s responding well to it. I’m having lot less pain and injuries than in the past. I feel a lot stronger, and I’m five or six pounds lighter than I normally am at this point.”

Nijem, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American, has made a lot of changes to get back to his winning ways. Expanding his training and improving his diet are the first steps toward becoming a better fighter. His loss to Jury was eye-opening, but his loss to Vick was more shocking than anything else.

Vick was only 4-0 coming into the bout and was making his UFC debut after making it to the semifinals on season 15 of TUF. A lot of folks felt that Vick, being so young in the sport, was just a flash in the pan. Nijem found out the hard way that Vick had three previous first-round stoppages for a reason, but there was still that back-of-mind idea that he is fairly unproven, which piled on to the stress from Nijem’s previous knockout loss

“In my last fight, I wasn’t in the right state of mind,” admitted the California native. “I felt a little mentally beat up from that knockout and just not in the right state of mind. I went out and was scared to fight. I didn’t fight my fight and tried to force my takedowns. I basically put myself in that submission. I mean, hats off to Vick. He’s a tough guy, but I feel that 20 million times out of 20 million and one, I would win that fight. It was just the one time I slipped on the banana peel.”

Nijem (top) drops a left hand (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Nijem (top) drops a left hand (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

With two losses in a row, Nijem has no room for any more banana peels, which helps paint a clearer picture of why he chose to change things up. In 2013, the UFC was handing out pink slips like they were Halloween candy, and 2014 doesn’t look much different. Between the Strikeforce merger and the overall expansion of the sport on a global scale, winning is everything and a three-loss run could cost anyone in this business their job.

Nijem knows that he represents more than just the “Stripper Ramsey” moniker that he earned during his stint on TUF. He represents one of the top camps in the world, as well as a Middle Eastern culture that has gone through a lot of strife in recent decades.

“I really understand what I’m doing and I found my purpose,” Nijem stated. “I’ve always been scared to kind of step up. I’m the only Arab, the only Palestinian, fighter in the UFC, and that’s my unique thing. And I want to be able to represent those people and show that there’s a chance. Anyone can do anything. My family’s from a refugee camp, and now I’m fighting in the best organization in the world. Obviously, I need to represent them, and that’s why I needed this change.”

Changing up his training and diet were essential, and both of these changes only complement the other advantages that he has in this fight. Nijem and Edwards spent a lot of time together on TUF, living in the same house and training on the same team for approximately six weeks. They sparred together, grappled together, hit pads together and even ate together. Although they have been away from each other since the show, Nijem feels very confident going into this fight.

“I feel it’s a really good fight for me,” Nijem said. “I think he can get a little emotional, swinging really heavy, and, as far as size, I’m a big [155-pound fighter]. I’m not worried about him moving down from 170. I’m not worried about being the small guy, because I trained with him a bunch on the show, and I know that, size-wise, I’m right there with him, and I feel like I’ve got the speed advantage and the youth.

“I see both of us coming out, and me keeping my range. You know, him getting frustrated and coming in, and me catching him and knocking him out. And that’s the end of the night for me. Or, if it goes longer than that, me getting my takedowns, obviously my top game, and stopping his wrestling and his grappling.”

Edwards has had mixed results in his 2-3 UFC run. Prior to the big stage, the BJJ brown belt was a submission-heavy fighter, earning five first-round submissions and one first-round TKO before entering the promotion, but he has since only scored one submission win over veteran Josh Neer in October 2012. His other UFC fights ended in three decisions and a nasty TKO loss to surging welterweight prospect Brandon Thatch in his last fight in August.

Edwards trains under longtime MMA veteran and third-degree BJJ black belt Jorge Gurgel in his native Ohio, and he also needs a win badly. Guys with his type of record have already been bounced by the UFC, and a loss to Nijem will most certainly earn him some walking papers. The difference is that Nijem has made strides to cross-train and improve his overall game, whereas Edwards is still training with his same camp, remaining “loyal” to his team.

At 25, Nijem is already a veteran of the Octagon, and the changes he has made show maturity and professionalism at the highest level, a long stride from the old “Stripper Ramsey” days. He is entering the Octagon for the seventh time with a renewed focus. He still trains with guys like Steven Siler, Brock Jardine, his brother Adam, and all of the other guys at The Pit Elevated, but the addition of guys like Shields and, occasionally Gilbert Melendez, as well as Coach Azim, will bring out a new Nijem the world has yet to see.

“2014 is going to start off with a big win, and I’ll keep on changing. I’ve been making a lot of changes in my life, and it’s time to grow up. It’s time to stop being the young child. I don’t want to be the potential kid, the guy that was good on TUF and could’ve been really good. I want to be great, and I feel that I really can be. This is going to be a great year, because I’m going to be cross-training and just getting the best, getting ready in the best way for each fight and expecting to win.”

Nijem would like to thank his team at The Pit Elevated, the guys at Empower Gym, including Tareq Azim, and all of his family and friends. He would also like to thank his primary sponsor, VA Mortgage, for always standing behind him. Follow Ramsey on Twitter: @RamseyNijem

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator