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Marquardt a new man for UFC 128

NEWARK, N.J. -- A strange thing seems to be happening on fight week here. Nate Marquardt, the stone-faced middleweight, is walking around smiling just days before his battle with Dan Miller at UFC 128.

You see him in the hotel lobby, or late at night in the hotel conference room that turns into a makeshift gym when the UFC swoops into town, and he's got that same relaxed grin. It's to the point where, during a sponsor photo shoot, it even becomes a bit of a problem.

The plan was to take "just a couple more shots." Then a couple more became a couple more until the photographer stops and complains, "He keeps smiling!"

Even with a black eye, it's hard to look terrifying with a toothy smile on your face. And coming from Marquardt, a stoic fighter who seemed to recede further and further inside himself the worse things got for him in 2010, it's almost a little bit creepy.

So what gives?

"I kind of realized that after my last fight, I needed to make a change," Marquardt said. "I needed to make some mental changes, and I did."

It was the decision loss to Yushin Okami at UFC 122 last November that helped him reach that conclusion, he explained. Depending on how and when you ask, he might still say he thinks he deserved to win that fight. But that defeat was more the symptom than the disease.

After a year in which he went 1-2 and lost two consecutive No. 1 contender fights, Marquardt (30-10-2) had to admit that something wasn't working. For one thing, he said, he wasn't having any fun.

"Mentally, I feel like I'm in a really good place right now," Marquardt said. "I feel really excited, like I did when I was younger. I haven't felt that way for a while."

The difference it's made in his training has been profound, said coach Trevor Wittman, who admitted that he was worried about Marquardt's mental state when this fight camp first ramped up in January.

"I told him, 'You have to get all these people out of your mind,' " Wittman said. "'Get the press out of your mind. If you lose, deal with the loss. You're only as good as your last fight, so get to your next fight and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.' "

Marquardt took the message to heart. Part of what made this training camp so much more fun, and part of the reason he's smiling now, he said, is because he made a conscious choice to do less media and fewer interviews. And as much as a reporter might hate to admit it, it seems to have helped his mental state.

"It's not that I dislike doing it," he explained. "Part of it is just the time it takes. If I have four interviews after practice and each one is 15 minutes, with five minutes in between each one, that's over an hour where I could have been eating and resting and relaxing. Instead, my mind is not relaxing because I'm thinking about the fight the whole time I have to talk about it."

What's more, he said, when every reporter wants to know how you feel about choking in two straight chances to fight your way to a title shot, it's hard not to start thinking of yourself as a person who chokes.

"Journalists, they tend to ask the same questions, a lot of yes or no questions, and they kind of infer something when they ask the question," Marquardt said. "That's like someone telling you something over and over, and that can affect you mentally."

As Wittman explained, "It's kind of like visualizing. If you keep visualizing the same thing, you keep hearing the same thing, you keep feeling the same thing. The whole key is, you have to repeat to yourself every day why you do this, why you're involved in this, and who you want to be."

The mental change has made him more relaxed in every regard, Marquardt said, which might be part of the reason why he seems so unfazed by the late opponent switch. After the disaster in Japan forced Yoshihiro Akiyama out of the fight, the UFC reshuffled the deck to get Miller (13-4, 1 no contest) in against Marquardt.

In the past, that kind of late change might have prompted some mental anguish for Marquardt. This time the news was met with little more than a shrug.

"I was excited to fight Akiyama, and it's a tragedy what happened over in Japan," he said. "I totally understand him having to pull out. I'm just real excited that I'm still getting to fight. Honestly, we're not really changing that much for [Miller]. There may be one small thing that we're going to change. As far as I'm concerned, we're going to use more or less the same game plan and just tweak it as the fight goes on."

The key for Marquardt will be less what happens at the end of his fists on Saturday night, and more what happens between his ears.

As Wittman put it, "His thing is, man, he's so talented. If he goes out there and does his thing and ignores all the other stuff, Nate is a great fighter."

It's just that "if" that has held him back lately. At least this time around he appears to be enjoying the journey a little more. Now we wait to see whether that will still be the case by the time the cage door locks behind him on Saturday night.

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