There is a reason Cub Swanson is smiling these days.
While all fighters travel a path of resistance in order to reach elite-level status in MMA, the severity of the adversity faced along the way differs from athlete to athlete. A variety of elements are constantly in play, and the race to form natural talent into a technically sharp weapon can easily become the factor that weighs heaviest on a fighter's shoulders.
Once the gauges of potential and expectation are dialed in, everything that happens inside the cage has the power to either amplify or tear down everything supporting a fighter's status. Victories bring glory and validation to the cause, while setbacks create damage that is difficult to bounce back from. This is the ebb and flow every fighter must face, and the roller-coaster ride has proven overwhelming for many who have carried promise with them into the cage.
Swanson certainly knows what it feels like to have his resolve tested. In fact, if his recent five-fight winning streak has proven anything, it's that he isn't easily deterred. Granted, there have been losses and low points throughout his career, but weathering the storm has a way of elevating some men and sometimes brings them to a place where the very best they have to give shines through.
It took everything he had—and a lot he had to find along the way—but Swanson is finally closing in on what he's been chasing for the better part of the past decade.
"Finding the right balance is so important, and there was a time I really wondered if it would ever happen," Swanson told Bleacher Report. "When I was going through my ups and downs, I would succeed in some places, then fail in others. I would make adjustments, but I always wondered if there would ever come a time where I fired off on all cylinders and would be the fluid fighter I've always known I could be. That's almost impossible to pull off, but that is what we strive for as fighters.
"I put myself up against that question for years, and it finally feels like it is happening. I've put in so much work, and I'm getting stronger every time I'm out there. It finally feels like the 11 years of sacrifice I've invested is starting to pay off. It's very difficult to always be in the zone, but I've figured out how to flip that switch.
"I've fought on the same card as my teammate Clay Guida a few times, and I've really learned a lot by watching him," Swanson added. "He's been in a lot of big fights, and he just takes it so easy and relaxed, then goes out there and turns it on. No matter what, he enjoys it. And for a really long time I wasn't that way. I was going in there all aggressive and mean and felt like I needed to be the baddest dude out there. Now I know there is a place I can go to turn that "Killer Cub" on at any moment, and it's made all the difference."
After seven years of rising and falling in the featherweight ranks, the 30-year-old SoCal representative now finds himself on the cusp of title contention, on the strength of a run that saw Swanson carve a path of destruction through the 145-pound division. Every opponent he's faced over the last two years has been toppled, with four of the five being dispatched in brutal fashion.
In the process of hammering his way to the top, "Killer Cub" emerged from a place where unmet potential once sat heavy. And that ascension has validated the smile branded across Swanson's face.
"I never gave up hope," Swanson said. "It was very rough at times, and a lot of people gave up on me, but I never gave up on myself. Whether it came from writers, friends, training partners or coaches, I've heard it all. I've heard all their little comments—and whether they really meant them or not—those things just made me stronger. I'm a stubborn person, and when I make up my mind to do something I do it.
"It's a great feeling to be in the position I'm in after everything I've been through. And I keep that chip on my shoulder. I had to fight for every bit of respect I've earned, and to be the man right now and one of the top guys in the division is something I've worked for so long to achieve.
"Talking to the UFC sometimes, I don't know if they realize I've been working for them for seven years. I didn't just get here. I think having that chip on my shoulder is important, but at the same time, I also understand the business. I'm fortunate that I've been able to step up and do my part so I'm able to live up to my own hype and expectation."
His impressive streak has brought him within striking distance of a shot at the featherweight title, with his upcoming bout against Jeremy Stephens at Fight Night 44 shaping up to be the final step before a championship opportunity is realized. He will face the former lightweight-staple-turned-featherweight-contender in the main event when the UFC returns to San Antonio on June 28, in a showcase bout that will feature two of the 145-pound division's heaviest hitters.
There will be a lot on the line going into Fight Night 44, and Swanson couldn't be happier. These are the circumstances he's worked tirelessly to find himself in, and he's fired up to show and prove once again.
"I'm in a great position going into this fight," Swanson said. "I wanted a title fight and that didn't happen, but I'm grateful for this opportunity because it's a step up. It is a five-round fight, a main event, and all eyes are going to be on me. There won't be a title on the line, and there won't be the mystique of trying to dethrone the champion, but the circumstances surrounding this fight is the kind of experience I need.
"This fight will give me the opportunity to fight five five-minute rounds if need be, and getting the W will earn the title shot I've been chasing. I'll be able to gauge some things from this performance and make adjustments if need be going into the title shot to make sure I'm at my very best.
"This is a fight for the fans," he added. "We both go out there to risk it and both carry a 'go big or go home' mentality. We both have that particular style, and it makes for a great main event. I get excited for fights like this, and to get in there with someone who wants it just as bad as I do, that brings out the best in me."
It has been the skills he's displayed inside the Octagon that have made fans start to appreciate his talent, but Swanson knows it was the countless hours of work that went unseen that have made the difference over the past two years. As things started to click and his unorthodox striking sent opponent after opponent crashing to the canvas, the fires of confidence inside of him began to rage.
Suddenly, Swanson was recognized as one of the most dangerous fighters in the featherweight division, a status he has certainly proven worthy of. Yet while the adoration of the passionate MMA fanbase is something he holds in high regard, Swanson is also cautious to let anything seep beneath the skin.
Seven years competing at the highest level of the sport and having to battle through the dark corners of his career taught him to keep things close to the vest. In an unpredictable sport like MMA, change comes in quickly, violently and frequently. And in this regard, Swanson has firsthand experience at being the executioner, the receiver and the witness. Having seen it all and overcome opposition that has lingered long after the arena lights have gone down, Swanson's focus has become unbreakable.
He's at his best when the chaos inside the cage is at its peak, and Fight Night 44 will bring one more opportunity—the biggest opportunity—to prove he's mastered the mystic formula of putting it all together when it matters the most.
"I really do appreciate the support fans have given and that people are starting to appreciate the work I do inside the cage," Swanson said. "On the other hand, I don't feed into it that much. I try not to read too much into people's compliments because I know that can change in a heartbeat. One bad performance can flip everything. The real fans will always keep you in high regard because they know what you are about and what you bring to the table, but others will jump on and try to tear you down.
"I've been around this game a long time. I've been through a lot of ups and downs, and I know how fast things can turn around. That experience helps me keep my focus right where it needs to be, but I appreciate the love I get from the fans very much.
"I turn into a different person out there and thrive when everything gets chaotic around me," he added in conclusion. "I love when the crowd gets rowdy and nuts, and that only makes me want to perform for them that much more. I know this crowd in San Antonio is going to be crazy, and that will bring out the very best in me."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.