Whether it’s a sudden event or a loss in the making, losing a family member is never an easy thing. Unfortunately, even when the writing is on the wall, there’s never a good time to deal with a tragedy like that.

On Aug. 28, Zak Cummings was at the highest point in his career. After competing with Team Sonnen on season 17 of The Ultimate Fighter, he was supposed to make his UFC debut at the finale, but suffered a torn hamstring, the first injury to put him on the sidelines, so he had to wait. After healing, he was finally set to make his UFC debut at UFC Fight Night 27.

Cummings’ first opponent was Ben Alloway, a fellow TUF alum who was making his third appearance in the Octagon. Cummings had a nice, long camp to make his welterweight debut and was feeling great going into the fight. He submitted Alloway by D’arce choke at 4:19 of round one.

Cummings (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Cummings (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

“Everything lined up, and I got out and performed like I should, and, basically, it’s a dream come true,” said Cummings in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “My career goal has always been to get in the UFC and to win a fight there. I accomplished that, and I’m really happy.”

After the fight, Cummings was peaking with excitement. He made weight, showed up and won decisively, knowing his family was watching him and supporting him all the way. However, about an hour later, things changed dramatically.

“The day before the Alloway fight, my dad went to the hospital and was being kept alive on a ventilator,” explained Cummings. “Everybody kept it from me until after my fight. As soon as my fight was done, I had that dropped on me, and had to go back home and everything.”

Cummings’ father, Michael, was a Vietnam veteran and avid outdoorsman who was battling lung cancer. Things had taken a turn for the worse. After the 29-year-old fighter was given the news, he had to get back to Springfield, Mo., where he stayed with his dad in hospice.

“My dad actually came out of it for a little bit and I was his caregiver for several weeks, right after the fight,” said Cummings. “Basically, I never went back to a gym and just took care of him until he passed away.”

On Sept. 21, Michael passed away at home. It was a very difficult time for Zak, especially since his world came to a screeching halt after the biggest fight of his career. Naturally, fighting was not the first thing on his mind.

“After that happened, I had a couple fights offered, and I just wasn’t in any position to take them,” Cummings admitted. “Then, I had another fight offered with Sergio Moraes. I jumped right into training hardcore after that, and I ended up messing up my neck. It was kind of a weird thing, so I had to back out of that fight.”

Coincidentally, Moraes was injured too, and two new opponents stepped in to replace that match-up. For the second time in the same year, Cummings was on the bench, waiting to heal before he could get back in the cage. Now, however, the wait is finally over.

A little over four weeks ago, just as he was finally getting back in the swing of things, the UFC’s matchmaker Joe Silva called up Cummings and offered him a spot on the TUF China Finale card in Cotai, Macau. His opponent is Alberto Mina, an undefeated Brazilian fighter who trains and instructs at Epic MMA in Hong Kong.

“After the personal stuff with my dad and that stupid injury, it set me back a little bit further, and I hate going this long without fighting,” Cummings declared. “I’m relieved to finally get back in there.

“I was starting to heal up a little bit and feeling a lot better, so we basically told Joe Silva that I was back in the gym and started training again. I was just about to tell him, ‘Maybe here in a couple months I’ll be ready,’ and right before we did that, Joe got a hold of me and asked me if I wanted to fight in five weeks. I liked the match-up and I was excited for the fight. It wasn’t the ideal time for a camp, but I’m normally taking short-notice fights anyway, and five weeks is far from short notice.”

It had been a crazy five months for Cummings. In addition to the injuries and a family tragedy, he also became a world traveler, spending some time with U.S. troops throughout Asia. It was just a crazy coincidence that his fight was set to take place in Macau, which is in the region he just visited.

“I went to Singapore, Diego Garcia and Bahrain,” explained Cummings. “Armed Forces Entertainment brought me and a few other people over there to entertain the troops and do some demos and meet all the troops. I was happy, because I got to go to Asia and see how my body is going to react while I was training over there. I kind of got a trial run of how my body’s going to react to the jet lag thing. I feel fine about it now. I was a little worried about it at first, but after doing that, I’m completely fine.”

Cummings’ next opponent is a decorated second-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Mina has trained with some of the best BJJ practitioners in the world, including Carlos Gracie Jr., Andre Galvao and Ricardo Almeida. Due to his high level of competition and instruction in BJJ around the world, the Brazilian has had a spotty MMA career, fighting only 10 times in almost nine years. Yet, he did win the UCMMA (Cage Rage) welterweight title in 2009. His record remains spot-free.

“He’s one of those guys where I’m not really sure how good he is,” Cummings said. “He’s 10-0. He’s finished every opponent. He’s a jiu-jitsu black belt. He’s a judo black belt. But, from what I’ve seen, he hasn’t really fought anybody very tough. He hasn’t fought any names or anyone worth really mentioning. I watched some videos, and he’s been put in some bad spots, but he’s found a way to finish the fights. I think I’m going to be a massive step up in competition for him in MMA. I know he’s competed a lot in jiu-jitsu against some high-level guys, but the fight game’s completely different. I think I’m a terrible match-up for him—my skill set and my style compared to his.”

Cummings locks on a D'arce choke (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Cummings locks on a D’arce choke (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Cummings has a background in wrestling and was a junior college standout before sustaining an injury that ended his amateur wrestling career. He is an extremely well-rounded fighter with four wins by knockout, nine by submission and three by decision, which is a very comparable record to Mina, who has four wins by knockout and six by submission. The battle will be a classic wrestling versus BJJ match-up, but both men like to stand and bang.

Epic MMA has outstanding Muay Thai instructors working with Mina, and Cummings’ camp at Grindhouse MMA in Kansas City, Mo., has a great stable of fighters and instructors. Although grappling might seem inevitable in this fight, both fighters will be looking to showcase their stand-up.

“I don’t really know what to expect from him, but I’m going out there expecting an all-out war,” stated the Missourian. “I’m thinking that this guy’s going to be very hard for me to put away. He’s trying to make his dream come true, making his UFC debut. I see a stand-up battle, and I feel my hands have a lot more power than he does. I see him trying to get the clinch and trying to get me down, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t think his judo is going to be able to offset my wrestling.”

Both men will be looking for a big statement win. Cummings definitely holds the upper hand, having fought guys like Alloway, Tim Kennedy and Elvis Mutapcic, all of whom are much higher-level MMA fighters than Mina has ever faced. Cummings will be looking for a win to kick off a much better year than he had in 2013, and his goals are very clear.

“Hopefully, no more injuries.” Cummings elaborated. “We always go into fights a little beat-up and stuff, but I’ve never had bad injuries that have kept me from fighting. But last year, I had two. It was really hard for me knowing that I couldn’t train, and I really wanted to get in there. After last year, with the injuries and grieving my dad, I can’t wait to have a really solid year—no injuries and get multiple fights in. I really want to make a run and see how I can do in the welterweight division now.”

The term welterweight is something that wasn’t associated with Cummings until less than a year ago. During his stint on TUF, he was a middleweight, which is where he has resided for most of his career. For his last fight, he needed to make 170 pounds for the first time, but he had plenty of time to prepare.

“The last fight, I had a 10-week camp, and I was so nervous that I wasn’t actually going to be able to make 170, that I just killed it, and it was an amazing weight cut,” said Cummings. “I got it back up to like 200 pounds the next day. Dealing with my dad, not training, and getting hurt, I allowed myself to get quite a bit heavier than I wanted to. Actually, when [Silva] called me, I got on the scale and I was 217. So, I had five weeks to lose 47 pounds. Plus, I had the 10-day trip overseas. But I got a lot of training in. I cleaned everything up. I’m dieting off everything. I’m at about 200 pounds now, but I feel good about it. I know it’s probably going to be a little harder than the last cut, but that was, by far, the easiest cut I’ve ever had in my life. I expect every cut after that to be harder.”

Against Alloway, Cummings looked like a beast. Welterweight is definitely where he belongs in the sport, and he will be a huge 170 compared to Mina, who isn’t the biggest welterweight. Both men are about 6-foot tall, so the Brazilian is going to have his hands full. Based on prior engagements, fans are surely in for a treat as these two fighters clash in Macau.

“I really like people to watch my fights, because I’m a finisher,” explained Cummings. “ I hate going to decisions. I hate playing the point game. I’m either trying to knock you out on my feet, or take you down and knock you out or submit you on the ground. I fight for the fans. I hate boring fights. I hate fighting opponents that make me look boring. I’ve had a couple of those in the past and it just drives me insane.”

Nobody can doubt the skills and drive of Cummings, especially after what he went through last year. Between injuries and the tragic loss of his father immediately after the high point of his career, Cummings needs a solid start to 2014. It all starts Saturday night, live from the Cotai Arena, as he looks to string together another UFC win against a very game opponent. His father will certainly be with him as he enters the Octagon on the other side of the world.

Cummings would like to thank all of his coaches and training partners at Grindhouse MMA, especially fellow UFC fighter James Krause, who helped him train as they traveled Asia together. He would like to thank his family, friends and fans who have always supported him, his manager, Joe Wooster, his chiropractor, Dr. Renny Russell, and his strength and conditioning coach, Brian Wilkerson, with River Market Crossfit. Lastly, he wants to thank his sponsors, Revgear, Venum, Booster, Fulmer Helmets, Cummings American Bulldogs, Gateway Auto Plaza and Dynamic Fastener. Follow Zak on Twitter: @ZakCummings
  • Muscles

    Might wanna update and perhaps even re-title this article after this piece of shit came in 8 pounds overweight.