Justin Sumter knows he has a rare opportunity on his hands.
Over the past three seasons of Dana White’s Contender Series, 178 fighters have stepped in the cage with a shot at impressing the UFC president and earning a contract with MMA’s premier promotion. Half of those fighters walked away with losses.
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Of the 89 athletes who were defeated in their first shot on the show, just five got a second opportunity. Those five have gone a combined 2-3 in their second appearances. Only Fortis MMA light heavyweight Ryan Spann earned a UFC deal after losing in his first fight.
On July 9, Sumter hopes to accomplish what Spann did last season.
Sumter will face Maki Pitolo in the third week of Contender Series. Prior to the bout, he spoke to John Hyon Ko of The Body Lock about how he earned his second shot at a UFC contract.
Justin Sumter bounces back in Bellator
In his first go-around on Contender Series, Sumter ran into a surging prospect in Ian Heinisch.
Sumter had some early success with his grappling, but once Heinisch was able to gain top control, he knocked Sumter out with brutal elbows.
Dejected, Sumter took time off before making his return to the cage for Bellator in February of 2019. He faced Reginaldo Felix on the preliminary portion of Bellator 216.
Sumter quickly found himself in another tough scrap. Felix dropped him twice with punches, but Sumter managed to survive the first round and even mounted some offense of his own after Felix backed off a bit.
In the second round, Sumter’s superior grappling was on display. He controlled the fight on the mat, eventually taking Felix’s back and cranking the neck to force a quick tap.
The exciting, back-and-forth bout brought attention back to the 29-year-old middleweight.
“Literally like weeks and weeks after that fight, people were like, ‘Man, your fight should have been on the main card. Your fight was by far the best fight of the night,'” Sumter said.
The fight is currently ranked No. 52 on Tapology’s Best MMA Fight of the Year list.
“I like to put on a show, and especially being a top  fight of the year, it’s pretty awesome,” Sumter said. “That’s one of the check marks I can check off.”
Working with Nick Newell
Sumter’s win wasn’t the only thing Fighting Arts Academy has had to celebrate this year. Fellow Contender Series veteran Nick Newell made his return to the cage in May at CES MMA 56.
Like Sumter, Newell rebounded from his loss on the show. He earned the 10th submission victory of his career after locking in a rear naked choke in round one.
“He did good,” Sumter said of his head coach Newell. “He went in there and did what he had to do to get it done, did it real quick, you know, didn’t take really any damage. It’s always good when you have a hard training camp, you go in and fight and you barely even get touched.”
Now that Newell’s return is out of the way, all the attention in training is on Sumter. The impact of Newell’s win remains prevalent in the gym though.
“Just having his win and then just like that momentum, you kind of feel it, especially in training,” Sumter said. “He did his thing, now I have to do my thing.”
Training in Connecticut
Sumter pledges his loyalty to Fighting Arts Academy, but he has been broadening his horizons in training recently. Connecticut provides a number of different gyms that, when utilized, help fighters like Sumter round out their skill sets.
Sumter spent some time at Teixeira MMA & Fitness in Danbury, Connecticut. There, he got the chance to put work in with the legendary Glover Teixeira himself, an experience he “put a feather in [his] cap” for.
He also took a trip to Chad Dawson’s Champion Breed Boxing Gym, where he worked with the professional boxer’s pad holder Eric Crespo.
“I always think that I can improve on every facet of MMA from striking to the wrestling,” Sumter said. “I think my striking in this fight is definitely going to be the key. For my grappling, it is kind of where it needs to be, but I’m getting my hands right.”
With so many resources at his disposal, Sumter has used a little bit of everything in his training camp in order to continue moving forward. Luckily, the different coaches are not only close in proximity, but they also share Sumter’s mindset of diversifying training to enhance development.
“There might be a coach that knows what he’s talking about and is real good, but if you don’t match them with them, I think you’re kind of doing yourself a disservice,” Sumter said. “You want to surround your people with people that are like-minded and can get on that same wavelength.”
Justin Sumter returns to Contender Series
Sumter is familiar with his opponent on Contender Series. When he traveled to Hawaii for a vacation, he got some work in at a nearby gym. In that time, he trained with Maki Pitolo.
Familiarity will be key for Sumter in this fight. The first time he fought for a UFC contract, the lack of it overwhelmed him.
“In my head, I kind of made it bigger than it was,” Sumter said of his first Contender Series trip. “Going in The Ultimate Fighter [gym], like you’ve seen countless, countless, countless fighters open those doors and make that walk in, and in your head you kind of make a bigger picture than it actually is, and then when you go out there it’s like, ‘Ah, I’m doing that.'”
Sumter said he felt “shell shocked” when he got into the cage. Before he knew it, he was leaving the fabled Ultimate Fighter gym, thanking Dana White, Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard and apologizing for his performance on the way out.
This time around, he believes it will be different. He knows the ins and outs of his opponent, from his heavy hands to his “underrated” ground game. Though this fight will take place in the new UFC Apex, he has the experience of fighting in front of the UFC president and a small crowd of fans.
Sumter is prepared to redeem himself, get the finish and earn a spot in the UFC.
“This time around, it’s like I belong, I’ve been there, I’ve done that,” Sumter said. “It’s just another day, another opponent, another 15 minutes in a cage, and all I have to do is perform like I know how and get the job done.”
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.