Finland’s top featherweight star Tom Niinimäki is not facing great expectations for the first time. After getting a promising start to his international career he headed abroad with high hopes roughly five years ago. But devastating submission defeats to Hatsu Hioki and Tristan Yunker destroyed those hopes – most of all, the ones that the fighter himself had held.
He withdrew from fighting and stayed away for more than two years. In the end, long months doing soul searching and hard training paid off. After Niinimäki returned as a featherweight, he has gone 6-0-0 in the past two years.
Hi Tom, it has been almost two years since you returned to pro fighting. If you take a look back, how has it been?
Niinimäki –Everything has been better than I believed. And it has gotten better all the time, since I had no expectations. MMA is a sport where so many things can go either right or wrong. I am mentally stronger now, but not having too many expectations is a good thing, because then it is easier to avoid mental collapses.
You have been fighting mainly for the Cage promotion. It seems to have been a good choice?
Niinimäki – Cage is a good organization, and they have given me some room. I have been able to have a little influence on choosing the opponents that I have fought. For example, for my last fight, I was given a few choices, and I picked Johnny Frachey.
That worked out pretty well, you knock him out cold in a minute…
Niinimäki – Yeah, I guess that was a right choice. But I have faced good fighters, and the opponents keep getting better.
Next up, it will be Paul Reed, and the Cage main event in your home town Turku in March. Your thoughts on that?
Niinimäki – Fighting in front of the home crowd brings its own pressures, but it is also awesome. You can’t beat that feeling, though I will probably be nervous before the fight.
Paul Reed is an experienced fighter. He might not be top ranked, but he has a solid record and some good wins, for example Hamid Corassani last year. Maybe he is not that fast anymore, but he sure is tough. Not an easy guy to knock out.
You had only one fight last year. Was that because you were waiting for bigger offers?
Niinimäki – There was some maneuvering. We thought that some bigger promotion could have offered a contract, but that didn’t happen, of course. That is why I didn’t fight, and the break was a little bit too long in the end. I won’t have a second year like that anymore. If there are no new offers, I will have my next match quickly after March.
Besides your own team, others have expected you to get that big chance as well. Are you frustrated because nothing has happened?
Niinimäki – Fighting is not the only thing my life at the moment, I can live without having a big contract somewhere else. But there has been so much talk of it, maybe I kind brainwashed myself, too, and started believing I really should be somewhere else. But no, I am not frustrated, that just gives me proper aggression for training even harder.
I heard you had an offer from Bellator on the table after Frachey win. What happened?
Niinimäki – I have not seen any papers myself, but my manager asked, if I would like to go try my luck in Bellator. That would have been a single fight outside the actual tournament, the winner would have gotten a reserve spot for the featherweight tournament. It was tempting, for sure, hopefully it was not a wrong choice to decline from it. To tell you the truth, succeeding in Bellator is almost as hard as in the UFC, so why not wait for a bigger chance.
Talking about the UFC, have there been any talks?
Niinimäki – No real negotiations, as far as I know. We have been waiting for something, but unfortunately they have not been willing to sign new contracts earlier. I have not been in contact with the UFC matchmakers myself, so I do not really know what is going on.
The UFC still does not have a single Finnish fighter on their roster. Do you think they know the Finnish MMA scene well enough?
Niinimäki – I would imagine that they do. If they come over here and check out Sweden, I am sure they will scout other Nordic countries at the same time. We will have a Finnish UFC fighter sooner or later.
If you are not on the card, will you attend the Stockholm event in April?
Niinimäki – Probably not. Around that time I will be preparing for my next fight unless something else comes along. Although, if someone arranges everything and I will have a chance to show my face to the right people, I will be happy to go.
So, you are preparing for the Cage 18 fight now. You have the luxury of training at the Finnfighters’ Gym with top-level guys, but do you have anything special on your schedule?
Niinimäki – I have at least a couple of camps coming ahead. Me and FFG pal Juho Valamaa will travel to Oslo, Norway. We will get to spar at the Frontline Academy with my old friend Joachim Hansen, Thomas Hytten and Mohsen Bahar, for example. It is a great place to train. After that I will have another short camp in Helsinki or Espoo with local fighters, such as Joni Salovaara.
How do you prepare for a fight?
Niinimäki – In general, my schedule is pretty flexible. Try to train twice a day, sparring and some gym. I also take a day off every week. Last two training weeks include tough sparring, and getting thoughts on the particular fight ahead. Then on the last week I won’t do anything, apart from stretching. That way I will be supercharged by the fight night. Of course, I will have to lose about 6-7 kilos of weight before the weigh-in, but that has not been a problem. Have to knock on wood.
How much do you pay attention to the particular fighter you are facing?
Niinimäki – I do not actually ever train specifically according to my opponent’s style or something like that. I concentrate on that my own skills will be enough, no matter who I am facing. You just have to be able to adjust your game during the fight.
You are a respected professional fighter, but you are actually not a full-time pro. Working as a night club door man is not exactly the optimal counterbalance to top-level training, is it?
Niinimäki – Working night shift has its price on the mental and physical recovery, of course. But the good part is, I get to sleep enough during the days.
It is what it is. In Finland it is almost impossible to find enough sponsors or financing for more marginal type of sport, such as MMA. There are still many negative preconceptions, and Finns do not value sports in general as much people do in many other countries.
How do you see the Finnish MMA scene in general?
Niinimäki – Compared to European level, we are doing pretty well. The overall level of fighters is good, we are just missing those brightest stars, for now.
What is in your crystal ball for 2012?
Niinimäki – Maybe one or two us will make the final breakthrough in the bigger promotions. After that the media will get interested, and the whole sport will benefit. If a Finn gets to fight on the UFC card, the whole thing will explode. Just look at Sweden, they have had top fighters for a while, they have big events, financing, and the audience.
I would compare current Finnish scene to the situation in which Finnish pro boxing was a few years ago. Before Amin Asikainen and now Robert Helenius become successful, they had nothing. Now there is a lot of hype and interest in the sport. That’s what it takes.
Jani Mesikämmen is a freelance writer. Visit www.karhunpalvelus.fi for more information, and follow on Twitter at @Karhuherra.