At 22 years of age, Jim "The Brute" Crute is no shrinking violet. With the biggest moment of his fledgling career just days away, Crute has a message for his opponent, the experienced Sam Alvey.
"Let's get that 50-G fight of the night man," he laughs. "Let's go to war, brother. Nothing but respect, but I'm coming to take your head off."
Bravado isn't the only thing Crute brings to the long list of local talent on the card for UFC 234 in Melbourne. He's bringing some typical 'Aussie Grit' to the world's toughest combat sport. Crute's (9-0-0) next opponent was meant to be fellow up-and-comer Ryan "Superman" Spann. But Crute, who is no stranger to opponent changes in his young career, had an inkling things weren't going to be straightforward. Sitting around the gym with his team, including judo Olympian Dan Kelly, Crute got the call he feared.
"When [striking coach and K1 Kickboxer] Sam [Greco] rang me and said 'do you want the good news or the bad news?' I said "Ryan Spann pulled out." He said 'yeah, how'd you know that?' I said I just had a feeling."
A few options got thrown in front of Crute's camp to pick from but they wanted the biggest scalp possible. As soon as Sam Alvey's name was mentioned - a veteran fighter whose progress Crute has followed closely - the pick was made.
"I've got a lot of respect for him and I think its a bigger and better fight for me. He poses the same risk as anyone else in the light heavyweight division, but the reward for beating him will be far better than beating Ryan Spann."
With less than three weeks to prepare, the choice of 'Smilin' Sam' shows that the 30th ranked Crute is hungry for bigger things. He will enter the fight with momentum after winning his last nine professional MMA fights in an even spread across TKO/KO, submission and decision.
Alvey, on the other hand, is coming off a knockout against Rogerio Nogueira last September. Whatever Alvey is lacking in momentum he regains in a decade of elite cage experience. Of his 44 professional fights, he's won more than he's lost (33-11-0), many in dramatic KO fashion, and is a well respected figure in the division. Although Crute sees the reward in winning, he understands the risk that a battle-hardened opponent like Alvey brings.
"He is very, very dangerous," Crute says. "He'll be the most dangerous bloke I've ever fought. And someone that has nearly double the fights I've had in the UFC then I've had anywhere."
Crute believes Alvey's danger is his patience in a fight, his ability to wait for the mistake and counter with everything he has.
"Sam is very good at playing possum. He'll sit back and get you frustrated till you run in, then he's gonna hit you with a stunning right hand, or a left hook from hell," he says. "He hits so hard, he's got that weird sort of freaky power that can stun you and knock you out cold."
This style will be a hurdle for Crute, whose two previous performances under UFC lights have been a mix of brilliance and over-excitement. He beat Chris Birchler during Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series with a killer left hook that left Birchler out on his feet, but Crute was criticised by commentators for going too hard too early. He ended his second fight against Paul Craig at UFC Fight Night 142 with a Kimura at nine seconds to go. Even though this was one of the latest submissions in three-round UFC history, Crute started slow and admitted he felt "frozen" during the fight.
With all that said, he believes UFC 234 will be the coming-of-age showdown that shows the world what 'The Brute' is all about.
"People don't understand how well I know the fight game and my fight IQ because I haven't really got to show it off," he says. "The last performance I was a bit frozen, and my Chris Bircher fight I just went after him. What people don't realise is that within that chaos is a controlled chaos. There's planning. I'm seeing things, I'm moving a certain way to get them to do a certain thing. People just see the brawl, they don't see the controlled chaos - which is good."
Crute credits his run of success to an "always on" camp. Training against different sparring partners and styles all year round has helped him adapt to change on short notice. It's also a schedule that's become much easier for Crute since joining the UFC, who was previously holding down a full-time job in Bendigo while hitting the pads multiple times a week in Melbourne - a four-hour round trip.
Then came Sam Greco, the brutal heavyweight kickboxing champion who Crute regards as one of the "best strikers in the world." This was a game-changing moment for Crute, who was first inspired by Greco's aggressive style after seeing a video of him dominating the best talent in K1. The bond between the pair is strong and famously shown when Greco had a heart attack before one of Crute's fights and still sat through every round (true story, and in case you're wondering - Jim won the fight).
In the era of trash talk and using controversy to hype a fight, Crute's natural style seems to lean towards something more humble - a dedication to the craft and a default level of respect for other fighters. It's a style that shows at his weigh-ins. While other opponents try the usual huff-and-puff staunch, Crute stays grounded, not taking a step back or biting on the bait. It's a temperament that he credits to his father, a man that has ingrained the work ethic and self-discipline that's taken his son to the UFC.
"I've looked up to my old man more than anyone. Growing up he taught me to work hard and be consistent. When I saw him working towards something, no matter what it was, I used to ask him how he would do it and he would say the job has to be done. I took that on board."
With Crute's youth it'd be easy to ask the obvious: What's the rush? You've made it to the UFC at 22, why not take your time before hunting big names?
It's a question that can be answered in his respect for co-main headliner and childhood hero Anderson Silva (34-8-0). The Brazilian champion is known for his athletic feats and amazing finishes, but it's his willingness to step up for any fight and grab the opportunity with two hands that Crute admires most.
"I always liked how he was willing to prove himself," he says. "Whether that's stepping up on short notice against Stephan Bonnar, or taking fights out of the blue like Daniel Cormier on short notice. The guy isn't just the flashy kicks and the front kicks; he's a guy that steps up when he probably wasn't expected to win the fights and most of the time he still ends up winning."
With only three weeks to prepare, Jim Crute will be following this lead in the biggest test of his career. Just like Silva, he's taking this opportunity head on and aiming to finish Smile'N Sam Alvey to climb one more rung towards the top of the light heavyweight ladder.
Catch UFC 234 on ESPN +, and in Australia and New Zealand on ESPN and Main Event