Back in June, Shane Campbell bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, leaving the familiar, comfortable surroundings of life in Edmonton, Alberta for an extended stretch living a Spartan existence while logging hours working with the collection of high-level coaches and training partners at Xtreme Couture.
“My gym was shut down here in Edmonton and there were so many restrictions that we could barely move around or be able to train,” Campbell said, explaining his reasoning for heading south earlier this year ahead of his return to action Friday night at Unified MMA 41, which airs exclusively on UFC FIGHT PASS. “There are some fairly good training partners here in Edmonton and some phenomenal coaches, but a place like Xtreme Couture has access to dozens and dozens of phenomenal coaches and training partners, including people in the Top 10 or champions in different promotions.
“I got over 150 rounds of sparring in at Xtreme Couture when I was there, and a few of those rounds were more than just competitive where egos are at play,” laughed Campbell, who faces fellow Canadian regional stalwart Mike Hill in his first appearance since December 9, 2019. “I’ve been fighting a long time, and even though this has been the longest break of my career, I feel very good.
— Unified MMA (@unifiedmma) September 7, 2021
“I definitely had some rounds that were closer to fights, so I got some of the ring rust out there.”
Undefeated in the Unified MMA cage with a 7-0 record and title victories at both welterweight and lightweight over the course of his career, Campbell, 34, looks to add a third different belt to his collection on Friday, as he and Hill will do battle for the vacant 165-pound title.
While the main event combatants have been two of the more active and recognizable names on the Canadian regional scene for the better part of a decade, they’ve yet to cross paths, even missing each other during stints training at Toshido MMA in Kelowna, British Columbia.
Their paths never crossing in the cage was always because they’ve traditionally fought in different weight classes — Campbell mostly fighting at lightweight; Hill steadily competing at 170 pounds, as he did on Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter — but now they’re meeting in the middle, and more than anything, Campbell is simply happy to get a chance to compete after going nearly two years without a fight.
“He is a weight division above me and he has been for a long time,” he said of Hill, who fought twice in 2020, suffering losses to Bobby Lee and Ryan Dickson. “There was talk of us fighting once or twice before and it didn’t work out because of the weight differences.
“There are very few options in terms of people that are willing to step up and fight me, and I’m grateful that he’s taken the fight because I might not have had an opponent,” added Campbell, who went 1-4 during his five-fight run in the UFC, but has gone 7-2 since, including winning the Unified lightweight title with a third-round submission win over current UFC fighter Tristan Connelly.
— Shane Shaolin Campbell (@shaolinstylemma) July 29, 2021
In addition to getting quality looks against more experienced, high-level competition, another reason for the 34-year-old Campbell to head down to Las Vegas this summer was to be in shape and on-point should a short-notice opportunity arise.
With the UFC primarily running fights out of the APEX and athletes sometimes encountering COVID-19 and visa issues, along with the usual litany of injuries and obstacles that can sideline them in the run-up to an event, “Shaolin” was hoping find his way back into the Octagon and onto the UFC roster once again.
“Absolutely,” he said enthusiastically when asked about looking to return to the UFC. “I’ve worked very hard. Since being cut, I’ve gone 7-2 and both of those losses where losses where I never got touched; they were short-notice decision losses in Russia.”
Along with registering seven wins in nine appearances since his 16-month run on the UFC roster ended following a first-round stoppage loss to Felipe Silva in August 2016, Campbell has shown increased diversity in his game.
While he scored a couple submission wins during his initial run that led to getting signed by the UFC, Campbell was primarily a striker, utilizing the Muay Thai and kickboxing skills that produced world titles in each discipline before he transitioned to the cage.
But in his last seven victories, the majority of those wins have come by submission, including his title win over Connelly and a pair of subsequent successful defenses of the Unified lightweight strap against Mike Scarcello and Stephan Beaumant.
“I am a world Muay Thai champion and a world kickboxing champion, and that has always been my bread and butter,” began Campbell, who went viral in the MMA world when he folded over Derek Boyle with a front kick to the midsection and then hit him with a hadouken at WSOF 18. “But my wins are a wide range of wins, in terms of TKOs and submissions.
— Shane Shaolin Campbell (@shaolinstylemma) July 19, 2021
“I’m always, always growing, and whenever you’re working on one thing and you spend so much time on it, you often veer away from other things you may have been very good at, and I’ve done that. My striking has been the focal point for so long that spending so much time in grappling, some of my fights became more about grappling.”
Having navigated the longest layoff of his career and not gotten the call he was hoping for during his three-month stay in Las Vegas, the admittedly emotional Campbell is aiming to use Friday’s clash with Hill as a showcase opportunity to deliver the kind of performance that finally secures him a second chance to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.
“My emotions are all over the place and it’s so uncertain about what’s to come, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to get in there,” began the veteran. “This is a large part of who I am, so it’s a waterfall of a lot of different emotions with the relief, and the graciousness, for the opportunity; it’s hard to explain.
“But I feel confident and I’m very happy,” he added. “And I think a huge win here with a big performance can get me that call up, and that’s really what I’m fighting hard for.”