Matt Schnell has done just about everything in his power to please the UFC, but to him, it still sometimes feels like he’s not doing enough.
He washed away his 0-2 UFC start by putting together a three-fight winning streak. He has bounced between 125 and 135 pounds largely due to the instability of the flyweight division’s future.
Schnell survived the UFC’s purge of the flyweight division late last year, but survival wasn’t the standard he set for himself.
When the division had just 12 fighters in the rankings, three short of the usual 15, Schnell’s name was at the bottom of the list.
“I think people know,” Schnell said in an interview with John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock. “The hardcore fans, they understand that I’m a threat, but these guys are still writing me off and it’s apparent.”
For Schnell, the lack of respect came as less of a shock and more of a given.
“This has been my entire career. I’ve always been overlooked. I’ve always been underappreciated, and that’s just how it goes,” Schnell said. “Some guys like me, they just have to pave their own way. Some guys like me, they just have to earn it. So when it’s all said and done, I’ll be thankful. But as of right now, I’m kind of pissed off.”
Matt Schnell on overcoming mental hurdles
The recurring feeling of not being good enough extends beyond Schnell’s UFC career and beyond fighting in general. He experienced it in high school, where he said he was a middle-of-the-pack student, often taking home report cards littered with C’s.
Though he’s a professional now, sports didn’t come easy to him either. He was a self-described “very average athlete” throughout his formative years.
Not excelling in any particular field led Schnell to want more out of himself. Even when he showed elite talent in MMA by making it to the sport’s biggest promotion, he still didn’t get the satisfaction he desired.
“It was tough,” Schnell said. “When you get to the UFC and you wanted to be there so long and I’ve wanted to excel my entire life, and I got there and I felt like I was just reaching and trying to make things happen.”
Schnell’s internal struggle affected him outwardly. He could feel that his mental health was hindering his career, whether it was in training or inside the Octagon.
It wasn’t until Schnell made a change in camps to Kirian Fitzgibbons’ Combat Sports Academy in 2017 that the course of his career was altered.
“Once I moved over to Combat Sports Academy and started working with Kirian, he had a discussion with me that I’ll never forget,” Schnell said. “He told me that I was good enough and that the only person who thought he wasn’t good enough to be in there was me, and that there was no need to go out there and reach. I got myself there by being Matt Schnell.”
Seeing a change
The change and conversation gave Schnell a newfound perspective. Getting the validation he craved from someone important pushed him forward. Then, positive results came flooding in.
“Danger” won his first UFC fight over Marco Beltran in October of 2017, the first time he competed as a CSA fighter. He followed it up with a split-decision win over Naoki Inoue.
With uncertainty surrounding the flyweight division, Schnell moved up to bantamweight to face veteran Louis Smolka. Plenty of fighters can make a seamless transition when they move up in weight, but Schnell had to make sure he did it right to maintain his place on the UFC roster.
Schnell had the benefit of competing at bantamweight once before as well as observing others in his weight class that made the same trip up to 135 pounds.
“I watched Sergio Pettis fight Rob Font, a former opponent of mine, and I just thought to myself, this kid just looks like he ate himself into the next weight class,” Schnell said. “He looked kind of pudgy and a little bit slow and didn’t look himself, and I wasn’t gonna make that mistake.”
Schnell took some time to fill out his 5-foot-8 frame for the fight with Smolka, and it paid dividends. He earned his first stoppage win in the UFC, submitting Smolka by triangle choke in the opening round of the fight.
“To go out there and get a win against a guy with such a resume, it means something to me,” Schnell said. “I’ve been watching him for a long time and it’s just further proof that I’m the real deal. I’m part of this thing and I’m in there.”
Pushing forward at flyweight
Schnell was rewarded for his turnaround with a new four-fight UFC contract.
Though he impressed in his bantamweight fight, Schnell isn’t interested in finding a home at 135 pounds at this point, which means he now has another challenging task ahead of him. Schnell is dropping back down to 125 pounds for his bout on August 3 at UFC Newark. He will face ninth-ranked flyweight, Jordan Espinosa.
“Danger” will be utilizing a similar strategic approach to drop the extra ten pounds.
“I’m actually eating more, and I feel good. I don’t look good. I look like a bag of bones, but I feel good,” Schnell said. “Not much has changed. And even in the fight with Smolka, I think I showed up fight day maybe three or four pounds heavier than I will as a flyweight.”
Tackling the weight cut is half of the battle. Afterward, he will square off with a highly-regarded product of Dana White’s Contender Series who is looking to get his second UFC win in his second appearance.
Schnell is aware of Espinosa’s athleticism, but he and his team have a plan in place to nullify those advantages.
“Where I think I make up the distance is I’m polished and smooth, whereas he’s still a little green,” Schnell said. “People might even think that he might have a little more upside because he is so athletic, but there’s something to clean technique and being crisp, and I am every bit of that.”
A win over Espinosa would help Schnell validate his spot as one of the best flyweights in the UFC. It would set him up for a shot at the upper echelon in the division, and with a spot on December’s card in Busan, South Korea in mind, “Danger” could propel himself into the title picture before the year comes to a close.
“I’d like to get in there with all of them,” Schnell said. “Right now I got Jordan Espinosa. Afterwards, I’m gonna be saying some names, so y’all tune in. Of course, I’ve got places I want to go. I want to keep this division relevant, and the only way I can do that is by going and whipping this kid and moving on to whoever’s next.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.