In Finland, there’s a proverb that goes, “Tyvestä puuhun noustaan.” The literal English translation is, “A tree is climbed from its base,” but what it boils down to is that one must learn to walk before they can run.

It is perhaps the most fitting saying to apply to mixed martial arts. Any fighter must learn the basics before they progress to more advanced techniques and master their discipline. That evolution doesn’t come quickly. It can often take years. In the case of some fighters, such as Finland’s own Tom Niinimäki, it can require a step away from active competition.

Niinimäki’s journey began in 2002, when he turned pro and ran up a 9-2 mark by the close of 2004. In 2005, though, he hit a wall. First, there was a draw against Bendy Casimir. Then, there were three losses in a row, including two first-round submission defeats. In the two years that followed his last win of 2004, Niinimäki failed to capture a single victory.

Niinimäki (top) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Niinimäki (top) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

In 2007, he rebounded with a unanimous decision win over Bogdan Cristea, but the struggles had taken a psychological toll. Niinimäki stepped away from the sport, citing a lack of desire to compete. He never stopped training, though, and, in 2010, he returned with not only a renewed drive to succeed, but also an improved skill set with which to do so. He picked up 10 wins in a row, including a decision victory over former WEC bantamweight champion Chase Beebe and a submission win over UFC veteran Walel Watson. The Niinimäki of 2014 was a far different beast than the Finnish fighter who had hung up his gloves in 2007.

“Biggest change is that nowadays I train a lot more, and more professionally,” Niinimäki told The MMA Corner. “That has an impact to my self-confidence. It strengthens you both mentally and physically.”

Niinimäki had spent those years away from active competition learning not just to walk, but to run. The striker had worked hard to develop his grappling skills to be just as dangerous as his fists. It paid off. The 10 wins following his 2010 return brought his winning streak to 11 fights and earned him a call from the UFC.

His first task inside the Octagon seemed like a daunting one. The Finnfighters product and recent addition to the Blackzilians camp was set to meet world-class grappler Rani Yahya at The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale. As if Octagon jitters weren’t enough, the striker had to contend with a man who held a second-degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and had claimed numerous grappling championships, including a gold at the 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships. Of course, Yahya was viewed as the favorite going into their fight.

That’s where Niinimäki’s attention to his overall game came into play. Yahya might have been viewed as a far superior grappler, but the Finnish fighter was able to hang with the Brazilian on the mat and even emerged with the split decision verdict.

“It was a close fight and I wasn’t sure how the judges saw it,” he admitted. “Yahya had his moments, but I think it was the overall control that secured me the win.”

Prior to the fight, Niinimäki had suggested that he wouldn’t avoid a ground battle with Yahya. It seemed like an odd strategy, but it turned out that Niinimäki could back up his words.

“I was a bit excited and my striking just wasn’t there,” he explained. “During the fight, I noticed that I was comfortable and able to control him on the ground. And, in general, I trust a lot in my ground game.”

Niinimäki’s confidence led him to the victory, but he will concede that his performance was not without its faults.

“I can see a lot of things I could have done better,” he confessed. “When taking into account that it was my first fight in the UFC against a tough opponent, I am happy about the fight. I was a bit surprised about his aggressiveness right from the starting bell, but then again that way he was able to shoot for takedowns easier. I’m glad I was able to reverse the situations [on the] ground, though.”

The ability to evolve is essential for any fighter, and Niinimäki was able to identify a couple of areas to focus on as he moves forward in his UFC career.

“My striking and movement in the Octagon,” he said.

Niinimäki’s win against Yahya came in November 2013, after he had already started training with the Blackzilians in Florida. In 2014, the Finnish fighter moved to Florida to continue his work with the camp. Now, he’s just days away from putting his training to use at UFC Fight Night 41 in Berlin, Germany. It’s a fight far closer to his native Finland than his UFC debut bout, which took place in Las Vegas.

“It’s always nice to travel and to experience new places,” Niinimäki admitted, while also noting that the travel and the location of the fight won’t affect his preparation.

Niinimäki (L) lands a kick (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Niinimäki (L) lands a kick (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

When Niinimäki steps inside the Octagon at the O2 World arena on Saturday, he’ll face a completely different scenario than he experienced in his UFC debut. This time, he’s the established veteran and his opponent is the newcomer. That opponent is Niklas Backstrom, an undefeated Swedish striker who trains out of the Allstars Training Center.

“Niklas is a dangerous fighter,” Niinimäki said. “He has a good eye for fighting, and that, combined with a long reach, will definitely bring some sort of challenges.”

Niinimäki hasn’t had much time to prepare for those specific challenges. He was originally slated to fight UFC veteran Thiago Tavares, who had gone 5-2-1 through his last eight outings. Tavares was forced to withdraw with an injury, and Backstrom was announced as his replacement just a couple weeks out from the fight.

“I hope Tavares has a speedy recovery. It would have been good fight, but unfortunately injuries are common in sports. Most important for me is that I got the fight,” Niinimäki said. “There’s not so much time to do things differently training-wise. I’m just mentally preparing for a different fighter than I was expecting first.”

Niinimäki’s fight with the 24-year-old Backstrom provides the 31-year-old with a chance to add another mark in the win column on a long, successful career. He hasn’t tasted defeat in more than seven years, and now he’s realizing his dream of competing at the highest level possible. So, what’s Niinimäki’s plan for 2014?

“Climbing the ladder up, staying in good shape and fighting tough and entertaining fights,” declared the former Cage featherweight champion.

In terms of his skill set, Niinimäki learned to do more than just walk. In fact, he’s now running with the sport’s elite. After years of hard work and some time away from the sport, he is now competing against the very best the sport has to offer. Perhaps it’s time to learn a new proverb. Maybe he’ll even pick one up during his trip to Germany…

“Anfangen ist leicht, beharren eine Kunst.”

“To begin is easy, to persist is art.”

Tom would like to thank his sponsors: Unibet, Booster Fight Gear, Vilperi, Macaco Branco, Jankon Betoni, tiilikatto.fi and Voimakatu 6. He would also like to thank his coaches and training partners at Blackzilians, as well as in Finnfighters’ gym in Finland. And he would like to give a big thanks to all his fans, adding, “I’ll see you in Berlin!” Visit Niinimäki’s website, check out his Facebook page and follow him on Twitter: @StonefaceMMA