BERLIN (AFP) - Having sparred with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) legend Conor McGregor earlier in his career, Germany's Niklas Stolze now wants to step up and make his own mark in mixed martial arts.
The 27-year-old welterweight from Magdeburg fights Russia's Ramazan Emeev in the United Arab Emirates on Saturday (July 25), when Australia's Robert Whittaker and England's Darren Till headline UFC Fight Night 174.
After Emmev's original opponent pulled out with injury, Stolze seized the chance of a UFC debut when the call came in early July.
"I've always had the goal of fighting in the UFC and wanted to prove myself," he told AFP from London before flying to the Middle East.
"I rang my girlfriend and we celebrated, but I wanted to sleep early so I could train the next morning."
After the coronavirus pandemic caused a global shutdown in March, UFC boss Dana White decamped the event to Abu Dhabi's locked-down Yas Island in the UAE.
Strict hygiene protocols mean athletes and staff are tested twice before leaving for the UAE, and twice again on arrival.
Stolze, whose record is 12 wins and three losses, now has a chance to make the grade.
His nickname "Green Mask" was born when his coach Sascha Poppendieck said he needed to attract attention on his way into the ring.
"I got a KO in the first fight I wore the mask, so I stuck to it."
After his MMA debut in 2014, Stolze travelled to Dublin from Germany the following year to try his luck at McGregor's Straight Blast gym.
After impressing the Irishman's coach John Kavanagh, Stolze was asked to spar with the former double world champion, who retired last month.
Stolze helped McGregor prepare for his 2015 win against Jose Aldo and two bouts against Nate Diaz in 2016, which launched the Irishman to superstardom.
"He's my role model and I am a huge fan, because of what he has achieved," said Stolze.
"I wouldn't say we're friends, but we talked around training sessions."
He has had no contact with McGregor since the latter's 2017 boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather but wants to seal his own place in UFC history.
"I want to be a household name and be a fighter people get excited about watching."
This will be the German's first fight since his third-round win over Spain's Omar Jesus Santana in April 2019 on a card promoted by Germany's Nova Fighting Championship.
A broken finger ruled him out of a bout last November, then he nearly quit the sport after the pandemic resulted in his next fight in March cancelled.
"I had invested €4,000 (S$6,400) in preparing for that fight and the coronavirus put me in a big hole," he said. "Things fell through and I was really unhappy.
"I said I didn't want this any more," added Stolze, a qualified welder, who had to find work.
With the gym where he trains closed until June, he wondered if his dream was over.
"But I came back strong and I have a chance now - MMA is my living," he said.
He admits that finances are tight, but gets by with sponsorship and "a very understanding girlfriend".
"She pretty much pays for everything."
UFC fight nights draw huge audiences and having earned €1,500 for his win over Santana in April 2019, he stands to make 10 times that for fighting Emeev (18-4).
However, his victory last year cost Stolze a broken nose and cheekbone after Santana landed a right hook.
"You don't feel it during the fight and I didn't know I had broken anything until I went to hospital," he added.
After weeks of hard training, Stolze says he is ready.
"When I am sparring, everyone in my gym wants to test me and goes hard, so I am used to it," he said.
"I am always excited before a fight, but when the cage door closes, I am calm."