For a man two wins away from a title and US$1-million payday, Olivier (The Canadian Gangster) Aubin-Mercier is remarkably calm.
"I'm almost getting stressed because I'm not stressed," he said. "It's a weird feeling. I think I found my groove. I think it's better. But that being said I don't know if it's going to stay like this for the $1 million."
On Friday, the 33-year-old from Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Que., looks to move a step closer to that jackpot when he takes on Paraguay's Alex Martinez (10-2-0 with one no-contest) in the Professional Fighters League's lightweight semifinal in New York.
Aubin-Mercier, the No. 2 seed among lightweights, weighed in at 155 pounds Thursday while Martinez, the third seed, was 156 pounds.
Former UFC champion Anthony (Showtime) Pettis (25-13-0) meets Scotland's Stevie (Braveheart) Ray in the other lightweight semifinal at Madison Square Garden's Hulu Theatre.
"When I tell the story to my grandchildren, I won't talk about the Hulu Theatre. I'm just going to say Madison Square Garden," joked Aubin-Mercier.
The Hulu Theatre seats between 2,000 and 5,600 as opposed to the 20,000-capacity Garden, which has hosted a Who's Who of combat sports over the years in boxers Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and Mike Tyson and, more recently, MMA stars like Canadian Georges St-Pierre, (The Notorious) Conor McGregor and Daniel (DC) Cormier, among others.
Unlike other MMA promotions, the Professional Fighters League features a regular season, playoffs and championship. The four fighters in each division who earn the most regular season points advance to the playoffs with the two semifinal winners meeting for the title and a US$1-million payday.
While the PFL schedule offers certainty in fight dates, it makes for a tight schedule.
Aubin-Mercier (15-5-0) won both his regular-season fights this year, winning a unanimous decision over Brazil's Natan (Russo) Schulte at PFL 1 on April 20 and a split decision over Brazil's Raush Manfio at PFL 4 on June 17. Manfio was the 2021 champion.
Martinez advanced to the playoffs with a unanimous decision over Ray at PFL 1 and a split decision over (Cassius) Clay Collard at PFL 4.
"I like Alex. I consider him a friend," said Aubin-Mercier. "We trained together in the past. "
But that knowledge from three years ago at Montreal's Tristar Gym may not help him.
"I have to be careful not to underestimate him. I think he really evolved the last couple of years," said Aubin-Mercier.
"I'm not that happy that I'm fighting the guy because I like him," he added. "But it is what it is."
Aubin-Mercier recalls all too well his first fight in the UFC, when he faced another acquaintance in fellow Canadian Chad (The Disciple) Laprise in April 2014 in "The Ultimate Fighter Nations" finale.
He underestimated Laprise after having "the better of him in training" and lost a split decision.
"I cannot do the same thing. Last time Chad Laprise kicked my ass in front of thousands of people," Aubin-Mercier said with a laugh. "I really paid for it. I have to be careful this time."
Aubin-Mercier won seven of his next eight UFC fights before losing three straight, all by decision to Arman Tsarukyan, Gilbert Burns and Alexander (The Great Ape) Hernandez. He signed with the PFL in March 2020.
He has made changes to his training camp since leaving the UFC, reducing his sparring while focusing more on technique.
"It really worked," said Aubin-Mercier, who trains at both H2O MMA and Tristar in Montreal. "I think physically and technically I'm a lot better than I was in the UFC. I think I'm smarter, more technical. I'm really happy with what happened the last two, three years."
Aubin-Mercier, who likes to spend time in the kitchen when not fighting, has won all four of his bouts since leaving the UFC.
Canadian welterweight Rory (Red King) MacDonald is also in the PFL playoffs. He is scheduled to meet Russian (Prince) Magomed Umalatov in the 170-pound semifinals on Aug. 13 in Cardiff, Wales.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press