LAS VEGAS — At some point after he headed to California for a few weeks last year to get a new look for his training camp, a switch may have been thrown in Darren Elkins' brain — or so it might seem looking in from the outside.
This past weekend in Las Vegas, when Elkins, a Portage graduate and former state champion wrestler, walked to the scale for the weigh-ins for UFC 196, he came out with his hair spiked to a Mohawk. When he walked out for his fight on Saturday, his music wasn't the good ol' Midwestern country boy stuff he'd have walked to a couple years ago.
But the biggest change on Saturday was that he was coming out for the first time after spending an entire training camp at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento after having moved his family there full-time.
The Mohawk thing? That was happenstance and had nothing to do with trying to create a new personality for himself now that he's with Team Alpha Male and not training primarily at Duneland Vale Tudo in Hobart. The Mohawk came because of his son.
"Everybody thinks the Alpha Males got me to do the Mohawk," Elkins told The Times on Saturday after dominating Chas Skelly in a featherweight fight at UFC 196 that aired live on Fox Sports 1. "The story goes, my son got a Mohawk and when he saw it, he started crying: 'I don't like my Mohawk!' I go, 'Would it feel better if I got a Mohawk?' 'Yeah, I'll feel better.' So I got a Mohawk, he got a Mohawk and I just kept with it. I like it."
But even though he's left the Region for the the much better winters of California's capital city, the Local 597 union pipefitter doesn't expect to ever be anything but a blue-collar worker when it comes to the fight game.
"I'm still a blue-collar guy," Elkins (20-5, 10-4 UFC) said after stopping Skelly (15-2, 4-2 UFC) and his three-fight winning streak. "I'm still the same guy — I'm never going to change. I wanted to evolve my game. That's the most important thing to me. I'm really enjoying the energy and the atmosphere at Team Alpha Male. I really click with these guys, and they've got the greatest coaches I've ever worked with. It's just getting my game to the next level."
Elkins said the decision to move full-time to Team Alpha Male, which is widely regarded as one of the best teams for lighter-weight fighters in the world, came after a three-week trial with them before an October fight in Dublin. He won that fight against Robert Whiteford to get back in the win column after a stretch that saw him go 2-3 after a five-fight winning streak.
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After the subpar run of things — which started with a 68-second TKO loss to Chad Mendes, one of Team Alpha Male's longest standing members and most successful fighters — he believed it was time for a change.
"If it's not broken, don't fix it — but I was broken," he said. "I started losing these fights, I started not having great fights. So I needed to fix something and I felt like Team Alpha Male was the solution."
But that meant he had to break the news to his longtime friend and Duneland Vale Tudo co-founder Keith Wisniewski, himself a former UFC fighter who nearly always was in Elkins' corner for his fights, both before he made it to the UFC and once he was there.
That, Elkins said, wasn't exactly the best part of the decision to change things up.
"I consider Keith one of my best friends," Elkins said. "It was hard for me. Looking and making that change, I had to talk to him. (Josh) Shockley was retired, we changed gyms, we got low numbers — there'd be days we'd only have two guys, three guys in the room to train with. It's tough when I'm trying to be the best in the world, and it's hard enough to get guys there (to train). That was a lot of it. I talked to him about it. I loved the gym, and I loved those guys. But I need to be the best, and that wasn't really cutting it anymore. I'm always wishing them the best, and I talk to Keith all the time — I'll do anything for those guys. But I just needed to up my game, and that's what had to happen."
So far, so good, in his new environs, and Team Alpha Male coach Justin Buchholz said the team, which was founded by former World Extreme Cagefighting champion and upcoming UFC bantamweight title challenger Urijah Faber, is glad to have Elkins on board.
Buchholz seems to think blue-collar still applies for "The Damage."
"Elkins fits right in with the team," Buchholz said. "His attitude — he's nonstop. Elkins is one of those guys where if (the coaches) told him, 'We want you to run through that cinder block wall,' he'd say, 'Well, all right — it looks like a big wall, but I'll go through it.' And we'd find him with a head wound later, laying there. That (guy) will go through anything. I don't care how old he is, I don't care what his record is — whatever. The potential is limitless."