It’s been a long road to the octagon for Calgary, Alta’s Chad Anheliger (11-5), who finally debuts with the biggest MMA promotion in the world when he meets American Jesse Strader (5-2) in the opening early preliminary bout of UFC Fight Night 202 in Las Vegas, Nev.
Despite having taken the scenic route to reach MMA’s most sacred stomping ground, Anheliger, 35, is calm, centered, and dialed-in to the mission at hand.
“It is my UFC debut, but you know, that Contender Series fight was as real as it gets,” Anheliger said in an interview with MMA Empire.
“There’s not a lot of differences. I’ve been at UFC events cornering my teammate Hakeem (Dawodu), and then I had my fight in the Contender. There’s very little difference except for the name on your shorts, and I do feel like I showed a lot and got a lot of that mental baggage out of the way. There was a lot of nerves and I felt it, but in a way there was more pressure for that than even this fight because that was the difference between getting into the UFC and signing a contract—I mean, I was able to sign a four-fight contract because of that fight—and now that I’m there I feel like it’s all about performing. I just want to go out there and put on a great fight that people will talk about. You know, the pressure to win during my win streak, and in my Contender Series fight, outweighed what I feel right now. I feel like I’m free.”
Anheliger has obsessed over martial arts, and fantasized about fighting, since his childhood days watching Jean-Claude Van Damme films with his father in the small village-town of Consort, Alta.
As hockey was the only athletic outlet on offer, it wasn’t until a move to Calgary after graduating high school that Anheliger was able to begin training martial arts in any capacity whatsoever.
“I couldn’t really play hockey anymore, nothing competitive anyway, but I still just had this burning competitiveness in me,” said Anheliger.
“I always had a passion for martial arts, but no ability to practice or participate in it, so I finally kind of just bit the bullet. It was tough, I was young and didn’t really know anything or anybody, but I went into my first MMA gym here (in Calgary), and you know, the rest is history.”
In contrast with most 35 year-olds in the sport, Anheliger did not have to spend his formative years stitching together experience from disparate combat disciplines in order to pursue his dream and was instead immersed in mixed martial arts from the outset of his training.
“The gym was called Canuckles MMA. It’s not around anymore, but that was what they did: it was just an MMA gym, one of the only gyms doing that at the time. There were jiu-jitsu gyms and muay thai gyms, but this was specifically MMA, so I went in with that mentality, like ‘yeah, I want to do this, I want to fight (in MMA)’,” he said.
A ten year stint on the regional circuit would follow, in which time Anheliger would capture the Rise FC flyweight and bantamweight championships, culminating in a successful appearance on Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) in September of last year, where he bested Muin Gafurov via split decision.
However, as Anheliger explains, said bullet-points hardly paint an accurate picture of the past two years in his journey, as he was sidelined for all of 2020 and most of 2021.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate because I’m one of the few people who was able to make the most out of some of the COVID restrictions,” said Anheliger.
“Not competing, it sucked mainly because I wanted to keep my momentum and I wanted to get to the UFC, on the big show. When COVID hit I was on a real hot streak; at that point I’d won eight in a row, defended my local title, and I was ready to get signed somewhere. But then I couldn’t compete and, you know, people just forget about you, forget what you’ve done. That time went by and my stock was going down, in my mind anyway, so I was really frustrated, still training really hard, and we were just scrambling trying to find fights. I knew I just needed one more to stay relevant, keep eyes on me, and get signed. I knew I was right there.”
Despite these setbacks, Anheliger says he was able to use the time away from the public purview to hone his craft and shore up any areas of his game that needed work.
These efforts ostensibly bore fruit in his Contender Series victory, which, five months later, has punched his ticket into the UFC.
“It’s going to be a tricky fight because, watching him, it’s hard to tell what he’s really good at and what he’s not. He’s looked really good against some people that I don’t think are that good and he’s had tough fights against tough competition too, so it’s hard to tell where he really lies,” he said.
“What I do know is that he’s very athletic, strong, and explosive, so those are very real skills you have to be aware of in a fight. He went in there, took a short-notice fight in the UFC and lost it, and it’s been about a year I think, since then, and you know, nothing’s more motivating than wanting to get one back and show you belong in the UFC, so I’m expecting to see a very motivated, very dangerous fighter in there, and I’m coming in as prepared as I can.”