EXCLUSIVE: ‘I need to ride out the storm… he’ll be flinging monster shots at me’: Paul Craig is relishing UFC 283 battle with Johnny Walker in enemy territory and warns Brazilian that being ‘a hometown hero’ can be a poisoned chalice
- Scotland’s Paul Craig takes on Johnny Walker this weekend at UFC 283
- Submission specialist is the first fight on main card vs unpredictable Brazilian
- He believes he is one or two wins away from a light-heavyweight title shot
- Craig spoke exclusively to Sportsmail about his fight and ambitions for 2023
Around 15,000 Brazilians will serenade Paul Craig with the chorus ‘Uh vai morrer’ or ‘You’re going to die’ on Saturday night but he’ll love every second of it.
Jeunesse Arena in Rio plays host to UFC 283 and the promotion have wisely chosen Craig’s fight with Johnny Walker to open the main card.
The Scot is a long way from home but as a master of jiu-jitsu – an art developed and refined in Brazil – he knows there will be a grudging respect for his skills, especially if he can beat Walker, the home favourite.
Paul Craig (left) is preparing to face Johnny Walker (right) in Brazil at UFC 283 this weekend
Craig will be in enemy territory with 15,000 Brazilians baying for blood in Rio de Janeiro
Fighting in enemy territory on a card that is essentially Brazil vs the world is a prospect the 35-year-old relishes.
He exclusively told Sportsmail: ‘I revel in moments with fans getting behind you in a negative way, I fought in Sao Paulo and the fans were hostile as hell. Shouting “You’re going to die”, they show support and love for Brazilians but if you can show you’re a fighter and put on a show, by the time you step out of the octagon the fans are going to be on your side.
‘That’s what I did in Brazil last time against Shogun Rua. I stepped in as the enemy and stepped out as one of their own. They get behind good fighting and I believe it is going to be the same on Saturday night.’
Craig has felt the weight of expectation a home crowd can bring. There’s no guarantee Walker will be emboldened and inspired by it. He, like Craig in Glasgow back in 2017, could buckle under the adoration.
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‘The crowd can work two ways, being the hometown hero,’ he explained. ‘I fought in Glasgow and the crowd overwhelmed me. All their support, love and cheers were too much for me and I lost that night in Glasgow,’ he says, referring to a shattering KO defeat by Khalil Rountree Jr.
‘I believe it could be the same for him. There could be too much pressure, being the Brazilian guy, on this card with all these Brazilian legends, being up against a guy who’s jiu-jitsu is what sets him apart.’
It is of course the jiu-jitsu wizardry that Craig has become known for. Just when it looks as though he’s being pummeled on the ground, he’ll spring a trap and snap a limb.
Last year saw him do just that against Nikita Krylov in London before Volkan Oezdemir had the better of him at the same venue.
Craig broke Jamahal Hill’s arm with a brutal armbar and thinks they could rematch
And while he has more confidence in his striking now having switched camps, Craig wants to drag Walker into his world on the ground.
He continued: ‘Walker is the type of character who is very explosive, very powerful. His skillset is very good as well but I believe mine trumps his and my jiu-jitsu is the best in the light-heavyweight division.
‘Going up against all these guys who are heavy hitters, they touch you and it is goodnight, whereas I’m more tactical and need to get into wrestling exchanges, drag him to the mat and look for that submission.
‘I believe that’s where this fight is going to go, I need to ride out the storm, he’ll be flinging monster shots to try and get me out early. From that I’ll drag him to the mat and do my thing.
‘That is where I’m going to do my best work, in these jiu-jitsu exchanges, not allowing him to swing these heavy shots, that’s where I’m going to get the victory.’
Walker is dangerous on the ground but Craig feels he will have the advantage there
Craig submitted Nikita Krylov in March last year when he was behind on the scorecards
Glover Teixeira takes on Jamahal Hill in the headliner this Saturday and Craig will be watching with great interest.
He’s the only man to beat Hill, snapping the American’s arm in a brutal submission in 2021, meaning there would be a compelling narrative for a rematch if they both win.
With Jiri Prochazka vacating the belt due to injury and Alexander Rakic also out for months, Craig could swoop in and capitalise on the uncertainty in the division.
‘I believe if my last fight had gone the way I wanted, I’d have been in the frame as a title contender’, he said.
‘Unfortunately I ended up losing and it wasn’t a great performance and that kind of set me back. But I still believe 2023 is going to be a year where I’m able to get that title. The way that happens is me getting a victory on Saturday. It needs to be a performance victory where I showcase my talent. It needs to be stopping him in 15 minutes and not going the distance, not being shy and going out on my shield, it needs to be that kind of victory.
‘As we move forward, Jamahal Hill gets that victory over Glover and I believe he will because he’s the young buck who is going to dethrone the bull. Glover has had his time in the sun, he’s been the champion and been a staple of the division for a long period of time now and I believe it is now time for him to step aside.
‘Jamahal only has one loss on his record, from me. And it’s not just a loss where I took him the distance, it was a submission that led to a break in his arm, so having that over the champion, and I believe Hill will do it, gives me a chance to say “do you fancy running this back?”‘ I believe he would honour that loss on his record.
Craig is looking for a title charge and believes 2023 could be his defining year
Craig suffered a decision defeat by Volkan Oezdemir (right) in a brutal battle last year
He added: ‘I’m hopeful 2023 is the year. There are long term injuries to Prochazka and Rakic, I’m sitting No 8 at the moment having beaten two people in front of me, so I think the next fight after this could be Anthony Smith.
‘That in London (in March) could be a cool showcase fight, being part of that would be cool. The last time we saw a numbered event in the UK was Bisping vs Henderson II and that was a while ago. We’ve got talent, Edwards, Usman, Gaethje and to be part of that it would be an absolute honour. First and foremost, I have to get the business done against Johnny Walker.’
Walker remains an enigma, capable of sensational highlight-reel moments but also the capacity to make critical errors. He’s only won two of his last six but has the kind of concussive power to beat anyone on his day.
Craig is well aware of the heavy artillery coming in way but if the Scot can deliver his deadly, suffocating best on the mat, he might just be within touching distance of UFC gold later this year.
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