Fighting without love for the craft becomes a chore, instead of a sport or an art. MMA is one of the few sports that takes a mental toll even more than a physical one, as the sacrifice is high and the monetary payoff is mediocre for 99 percent of the athletes.

If a person wants to be a good golfer, for example, he needs to spend a disproportionate amount of his life swinging at balls, working hand-eye coordination and becoming a master of mental focus. However, a golfer can still do that and go to sleep at night fairly injury-free, with a full belly and little additional exercise above and beyond the craft itself. This is not the case for MMA fighters.

In addition to honing a multi-faceted craft that comes with the risk of moderate to severe physical injury, a fighter must also be disciplined and focused enough to add to that training a strict diet and a draining conditioning regime. The fighter must do so while trying to maintain some sense of normalcy, as all of their friends and family are drinking and eating whatever they want and exercising for fun, not because their job depends on it.

When it does become a chore, the fun goes away and the motivation goes with it. For former UFC fighter Nick Pace, that’s exactly what happened.

At only 21 years old, Pace began his career in stellar fashion. His first pro fight was in 2008, and he won by unanimous decision. Over the next year and a half, he picked up five more wins, including two first-round submissions and an amazing first-round knockout during his only appearance in Bellator. All of this momentum earned him a shot with Zuffa LLC, parent company of the UFC, on the WEC stage against now-UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.

Johnson got the better of Pace, handing him his first loss, but it was by unanimous decision, which was still a huge step for the young fighter. With only two more WEC cards left before the merger with the UFC, Pace patiently waited to perform on the big stage. However, his first win was both awesome and slightly disheartening at the same time.

In his UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale, Pace missed weight, but Will Campuzano, another WEC crossover, agreed to a catchweight match at 138 pounds. Pace went on to beat Campuzano by the never-before-seen-in-MMA pillory choke to earn his first Octagon win. Seeming to be back on track following his first loss, things actually went off the tracks again.

In his next fight, against Ivan Menjivar, Pace made weight, even though his opponent did not, but Pace dropped that one by unanimous decision. He followed his second loss with a third unanimous decision loss to Miguel Torres after missing weight even worse than last time. Pace was in a dark place and he needed to rekindle his love of his craft before getting into a cage again.

“What I needed to do first and foremost is take a step back,” said Pace in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I needed to take a step back and reassess the whole situation. At one point, it just wasn’t fun for me. I needed it to be fun. I needed to enjoy doing strength training and cardio. I needed to enjoy getting up every morning and eating oatmeal and not mind it. I needed to enjoy getting in great shape. For some reason, I wasn’t in it 100 percent.”

Unfortunately for Pace, this wasn’t just a quick fix. He was damaged mentally in a bad way, and all things MMA just weren’t what they used to be for him.

“I didn’t want to learn things the hard way, and I wish I could go back in time and turn the clock back, but that’s not reality,” admitted the 26-year-old New Yorker. “I needed to take a little time for myself and get hungry again. That’s what I did. I started training again, and I was getting pumped up and was able to watch fights again. I wasn’t able to watch fights after my last one. I wasn’t able to watch UFC, because I was upset and depressed.”

The depression Pace was feeling is not unusual among fighters. Unlike golf, MMA is a grind. One training camp can be 10 weeks, 24-7, nothing but training and eating rabbit food. One camp takes a toll, but three camps per year is over 60 percent of the entire year spent preparing for 45 minutes worth of actual fighting. For Pace, it became more about the grind than loving that craft, so he had to flip a switch or move on to something else.

Pace found that flip in two places. He found two motivators that were simple and required no magic potions.

“For one, I started teaching,” he explained. “When I’m telling my students, ‘You can’t give up. You’ve got to train hard. You’ve got to work. You’ve got to do it. You’ve got to have a strong mind and your body’s going to be strong, too.’ Then I started thinking to myself, ‘You know what? I’ve got to start doing that, too. What the hell?’

“At the time, I was in the UFC, I wasn’t teaching. I was just a full-time fighter with no job, living off the UFC and sponsors. It took me away from my roots. It took me away from the idea that if I practiced what I preached, I’d be okay. I wasn’t preaching anything to any students.”

As the unconscious competent, what Pace didn’t realize is that it was the teaching itself that got him back to loving his craft again. It was the fact that this constant reflection and wanting to be a good role model got his focus back on track. He understood again what his career is all about and why he was such a good fighter when he was still new to the sport.

Back on track mentally, it was the second motivator that really created a fire in his belly. A year and a half after dropping one to Menjivar, Pace saw something that didn’t sit well with him. In February, Menjivar suffered a first-round submission loss to Urijah Faber.

“Another thing, a small thing, made me want to fight Urijah Faber,” Pace explained. “Not for nothing, I know I could beat Ivan Menjivar. And some people told me that I won that fight, and then I go out and watch the UFC and see Urijah Faber beating him. I know that I should be up there with them. Just for myself, I know that I’m not going to go out as a quitter. My mom and my dad didn’t raise me to be a quitter.”

This motivation couldn’t have come at a better time. Pace was back on track, where he needed to be mentally, and then he saw Faber choke out Menjivar. That, if nothing else, proved to be the magic potion.

Pace trains out of Tiger Schulmann’s in New York. He’s been there for quite some time, and that is truly where his fighting life began.

“I have a school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,” Pace elaborated. “I’m head instructor over at Bay Ridge, Tiger Schulmann’s, and I got back to my roots, what I love to do, teach. It inspired me so much. I got the itch again, you know?”

Tiger Schulmann’s is a large conglomerate of martial arts schools with a broad-spectrum training program. Feeling that fire again, Pace was ready to get back to fighting and his coach provided some valuable input.

“I wanted to jump right into MMA, but my coach was like, ‘You know what? Why don’t you try kickboxing?’” Pace recalled. “At first, I was a little [resistant]. But then he said, ‘You could do MMA if you want, but kickboxing would be good for you, get you confident.’ You know what? He was right. I felt a little [apprehensive] about the whole thing, but now I feel really confident about kickboxing, and I feel super confident about this upcoming weekend. I really can’t wait to get out there and fight.”

On Saturday night, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, Pace will make his first appearance in a fighting ring since his last MMA fight in 2011. He will be facing off against Levan Makashvili at Glory 9. Makashvili is undefeated as a pro MMA fighter and a fellow Ring of Combat veteran. However, Pace is very confident going into his pro kickboxing debut, and he wants MMA fans to know that this is just the first step toward getting back into MMA action.

“This is a one-fight thing, and I want to get back in the cage,” explained Pace. “I just wanted to showcase my hands and my legs a little bit. I wanted to work on my stand-up a little more and just really focus on that, because that’s where I felt my weaknesses were. I want to get back in the cage, in the ring. I just want to fight and I’m really hungry. I’m very determined to be past where I was.

“I’m still doing MMA training. I’m still doing that, plus more. It’s not like I’m kickboxing more and I’m grappling and wrestling less. I’m grappling just as much as I did, but kickboxing a little bit more than I would normally. If I was doing an hour of kickboxing and an hour of grappling, now I’m doing an hour and a half of kickboxing and an hour of grappling.”

The Tiger Schulmann camp is a great place for Pace to be. Not only does he have a great set of coaches, but his training partners are a mix of veterans and newcomers, and everyone is really hungry.

“Danny Schulmann, Ron Schulmann and Ray Velez are my boxing coach, MMA coach and jiu-jitsu coach,” Pace mentioned. “I also have Jimmie Rivera from King of the Cage and Bellator. Louis Gaudinot—he’s pretty famous since The Ultimate Fighter, he’s a wildman, he’s actually my best friend. When I spar him, it feels weird for me to punch him in the face, but he does the same thing. We get the job done. Julio Arce—he’s a huge up-and-comer. Mike Trizano and Craig Alexander.”

Those individuals and more are constantly helping and pushing each other to be the best at their craft. For his next fight, kickboxing-only or not, Pace will be ready to go. However, he does want the promoters to know he’s coming back with a vengeance.

“I kind of fell off,” admitted Pace. Although he has yet to hear from a big promoter, he knows the demand will build if he gives it time.

“Ring of Combat, on the east coast, they contacted me,” Pace revealed. “I think I’m going to fight for them in September. I don’t know. I’m just taking it one step at a time. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t call me up. I kind of fell off the face of the planet as far as MMA goes, for a little while, but now I’m back.”

Pace is back, and he’s ready to prove that fact at Glory 9. He’s ready to show that he’s worked through that depressive state he was in, renewed his love for his craft, and wants to make another run on the big stage, one step at a time.

Nick would like to thank Tiger Schulmann’s, the organization, for always being there for him and always being loyal. He would also like to thank Tigear Fight Gear, his mom, his dad, his loyal girlfriend Brittany, his little brother, his two sisters and all of his training partners. Follow Pace on Twitter: @NickPaceMMA

Photo: Nick Pace (R) (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)