From Tynecastle to the Ultimate Fighting Championship for Paul Craig

Paul Craig
Paul Craig is unbeaten in eight fights

On Saturday, Scotland's Paul Craig will complete a remarkable journey from the Hearts youth team to the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

The Craigneuk-based mixed martial arts fighter will take on Brazilian Luis Henrique Da Silva at the 18,000 capacity Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, just the fourth Scot to make the step up to the UFC.

The 29-year-old has signed a four-fight deal with what he calls the "Champions League of MMA", a far cry from his days at Tynecastle. It is a stage he didn't even aspire to until he found he was reducing opponents to tears.

"The truth was I wasn't good enough," Craig said of his attempts to forge a career in football. "I knew that myself so I went into the role of coaching football.

"I was OK, it was enjoyable, but I really missed the competitive side, I missed having some sort of competition. I started messing about with martial arts and found that I was really good at it.

"It was never a case of 'I'm going to be in the UFC one day'. I was driving up and down the length and breadth of Britain fighting in various competitions in regards to jiu-jitsu. My coach said to me 'there's an opportunity, do you fancy it?' and it was down on a show in Sunderland.

"I always remember the guy I fought was Gary Sivills, and he was the top guy down that way. He had a really good record, he then wanted to fight for a British title, and he was using me as some cannon fodder, a stepping stone. He was expected just to walk through me. I had no pressure at all, I was going in as underdog.

Paul Craig (left)
Paul Craig (left) fights out of the Scottish Hit Squad gym in Coatbridge

"I took four or five friends down with me, and I beat him in like a minute and 37 seconds. I went to speak to him afterwards and he was sobbing his eyes out and I couldn't work out why.

"It wasn't until I then beat a guy called Karl Moore as a pro in my first fight in BAMMA (British Association of Mixed Martial Arts). He was touted as being the next big thing, and it went two rounds. I remember the same thing, him crying.

"I thought about all the guys I've fought and they'd all been trying to get to this one point. All these guys are trying to make it to the UFC, and I've stopped them. I understand the pressure they were under."

By day Craig teaches with Skillforce, an educational charity that helps pupils engage with school and make the most of their lives.

Now, after eight wins from eight fights, all within the distance, he has been noticed by the UFC and is set to fight on the same stage that has has turned Irishman Conor McGregor into a global superstar.

Craig will not get an easy introduction to life in the UFC against the kickboxing skills of Da Silva, but after sparring with Scottish boxers Stephen Simmons and Jay McFarlane, Craig is confident he can end the Brazilian's 12-fight unbeaten run.

"The UFC is the pinnacle, everyone wants to fight there," Craig told BBC Scotland. "It's going to be a good, tough opponent and I wanted that. I wanted to show people that I deserve to be in the UFC and I deserve to fight a top 20 opponent.

Paul Craig (left), Urijah Faber (centre) and Brian Gallagher
Paul Craig (left), with his coach Brian Gallagher (right), will fight on the same card as UFC legend Urijah Faber (centre)

"As you can imagine, me as an MMA fighter going into a boxing gym, I'm always going in as an underdog, but I'm holding my own. I'm sparring with the best pro guys in Scotland. It's moving me beyond because the stand up was where I had the holes and I do believe the stand up is where I'm strong now, the strongest part of my game.

"I believe I can knock him out in the first round. If not the first round, definitely I'm going to put him down in the second round and it's going to be over.

"I'm always tipped as the submission fighter, but this is the time I get to show my stand up, and because he's a stand up guy it's going to be a good fight."