Thursday 22 March 2018

‘Stormin’ Norman Parke living the UFC dream

Norman Parke
Norman Parke
Fergus Ryan

Fergus Ryan

The fantastic ESPN film “30 for 30: Winning Time” documents the battle between the Indiana Pacers’ Reggie Miller and the New York Knicks in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals. Miller scored eight points in 8.9 seconds leading the Pacers to a stunning 107–105 ‘come from behind’ victory. An NBC commentator brilliantly sums up Millers performance - “There is a time to play and there is a time to win. What happens during winning time… that differentiates a regular player from a superstar”.

He goes on to describe how certain types of athlete know how to win. They are the ones you want at the free throw line with 3 seconds left on the clock and the score tied because you know, and they know, they will make the shot.

In the summer of 2012 ‘Stormin’ Norman Parke from Bushmills, Co. Antrim boarded a plane to Australia with a UFC dream and his own version of ‘Winning Time’ on his mind.

Coming Up

Norman’s combat sports career began in a local judo club in the mid 2000’s. MMA was still in its infancy in Ireland but there were a small number of gyms and promotions that catered for martial artists looking to cross over into MMA. After a losing debut at 19 years old against a more experienced opponent, Norman realised how much work was required to make the grade in MMA.

Not discouraged by the loss, he took time away from MMA to broaden his skill set. After 30 amateur boxing fights and wiping the boards at some amateur wrestling competitions ‘Parke 2.0’ returned in May 2008 with a win that launched a 10 fight win streak.

As MMA started to take root in Ireland so did Norman’s reputation moving his role from the ‘the young up and comer’ to the ‘king of the hill’ in the Irish lightweight division. His first loss since his debut was again the catalyst for change. Norman teamed up with Rodney Moore at what now is the Next Generation Northern Ireland gym and things have gone from strength to strength and is currently riding a 9 fight unbeaten streak.

TUF times ahead

Having out grown the local MMA circuit, Norman began to focus on realising his UFC dream. His management, KO Dynasty, arranged a fight in Las Vegas as he was struggling to get opponents to take a fight in Europe. Shortly after arriving in the US unfortunately his fight got cancelled. Norman stayed on in the US and trained at Drysdale Jiu Jitsu. Then, an out of the blue e-mail contained an application for the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). This prompted a quick flight home that landed on a Thursday evening and a flight straight out to London same day to make the Friday auditions.

The auditions for TUF are an assessment of your striking, grappling and how you conduct yourself in an interview. Despite having little or no sleep in the previous 48 hours, Norman impressed the studying eyes of the UFC. With the auditions complete, Norman was told he’d find out in a few weeks whether he’d made the TUF house. The fighters selected for TUF are holed up in a house with no distractions for 12-14 weeks. They train with UFC stars and have to win a number of fights over the weeks to progress to the final.

The weeks went by with no call. Norman began to believe the opportunity had passed and with no fights scheduled he began to enjoy his summer. Just like the e-mail with the application, a phone call came out of the blue on a Friday to say he’d be flying to Australia the following Wednesday. With no real preparation done and carrying a few more kilos on his person than he would have liked, Norman knew he couldn’t pass up a crack at a UFC contract and packed his bag.

The Beginning

Once Norman landed in Australia thoughts turned to ‘Winning Time. He battled nerves, illness, homesickness and the usual reality show boredom from isolation to win his 2 fights in the TUF series and progress to The Ultimate Fighter Finale in Las Vegas. The only thing that stood in his way now was Colin ‘Freakshow’ Fletcher, who ironically had become Norman’s best friend in the TUF house.

Nerves had hit Norman while competing in the TUF house. There was a slight concern that they’d return in Las Vegas. But once in the thick of it, things worked out fine. Norman explained - “I was fine for the build-up but then the nerves came when I walked out into the arena. It was like there was 100 mph wind blowing in my face. There was lots of air about but I felt like I couldn’t breathe. When I got in the Octagon I looked over at Colin and he was giving me his mean mug and I just thought, ‘right f**k everything! I’m doing this’. We touched gloves and that was it for me. I was in there to win.”

Making Moves

Just as he had been on the TUF series, Norman was again the better fighter in the final winning the fight and securing a 6 fight UFC contract. His next fight is on Dublin on July 19th. It will be his 5th fight of the contracted 6 and Norman will be looking to remain undefeated.

His 3 wins have come by judges’ decision as each fight has lasted the full 3 five minute rounds. The one blotch on his ledger was a draw with a Brazilian fighter, in Brazil, where the Brazilian referee deducted a point from Norman in the 2nd round for a pretty innocuous offence… if you catch my drift.

Having built a reputation as a fighter that finished opponents on the local Irish MMA circuit, Norman is keen to get his first UFC win by stoppage. There’s a saying in the UFC that you should ‘never leave it in the hands of the judges’. The UFC brass, the fans and indeed the fighters all prefer to see a fight finished by KO or submission rather than leave 3 judges decide the outcome.

While finishes are important, so is winning. Norman has been winning and winning well. The draw in his last fight has set back his plans to rise through the lightweight division only slightly. Undeterred, he’s been working on adding some new weapons to his arsenal in search of that stoppage win. Norman explained “Me and Rodney have been messing around with some new stuff for a long time, some spinning heel kicks and some pretty funky stuff but its pretty effective. So hopefully I’ll get a chance to use them in this fight.”

That Time Again

Norman faces an experienced Japanese fighter named Naoyuki Kotani on July 19th at the O2 in Dublin. Kotani has 33 wins in a 50 fight career with 25 victories coming via submission. Though Kotani trumps him in experience, Norman believes he holds the aces in the deck – “I feel this guy has only got 1 round in him and then he seems to slow down after that. If I can be wary of him looking for a heel hook or a sneaky knee-bar (submission holds) in the 1st round I’ll be safe. But at the end of the day he’s got to get me down first to do any of that. If I can nullify his takedown threat in the 1st round and put the pressure on in the second, I’ll finish him.”

Norman has begun to visualise the finish and the steps required to ensure victory. There’s a fine line between reckless pursuit of an early victory and the calculated destruction of an opponent. With 21 career fights, 4 of which have been in the UFC, Norman has the maturity to stay on the side of calculated destruction. It served him well so far.

Speaking about the keys to victory Norman has a ‘Plan A’ and a ‘Plan B’ – “I’ll land a nice head kick and if that doesn’t knock him out, it will knock him down. If he’s not out, I’ll follow him to the mat and finish with vicious ground and pound.”

There is a healthy respect for the capabilities of the opponent, but Norman always circles back to how he will get his hand raised – “I’ll be cautious about the few submissions he has in his bag but if I see opportunities to land I’ll cut him wide open and I’ll finish him there and then. If it hits the mat that’s my strong point, I’ll feel comfortable being on top and I’ll land some big blows. He won’t want to eat too many of those. If he takes me down I’ll be straight back up, I won’t just lie there and settle into guard.”

While the respect is there, Norman firmly believes he was too many advantages over Kotani – “I’m stronger than him, I’m faster than him, my striking is better than his and I’m hard to takedown. I feel like I have a lot more to offer in this fight than him.”

Success in the UFC is a double edged sword. Victory leads to the spoils of war but also guarantees a tougher test next time out. For some fighters, regular work and a place on the ‘big show’ is enough. But Norman is one of those athletes that understands “There is a time to play and there is a time to win”.

“If someone pushes you and pushes you and pushes you... that’s when you have to show what you’re really about. That’s when you have to dig deep and maybe go to places you haven’t been. I know in my mind that type of fight brings out a different me; the best of me. They’re the fights I want, they’re the fights the top 10 ranked guys are gonna give me anyway. I’m gonna have to deal with those type of fights at some stage so they’re the fights I want now.”

With a win and a finish on July 19th, I’ve no doubt that those are the fights that Norman is going to get.

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