Mixed martial arts

Nick Denis trades in laboratory for the octagon

The Globe and Mail

Professional MMA fighter Nick Denis takes time out to read at the Ottawa Public Library in Ottawa. Denis also holds a master's degree in biochemistry. He recently signed a multi-fight deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). (Dave Chan/Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

Nick Denis can tell you what it feels like to knock a man out cold while thousands of fans roar their approval. He can also talk at length about proteomics – the study of proteins – and what it takes to finish a master degree in biochemistry.

Not a lot attention is paid to what goes on between the cauliflower ears of mixed martial arts fighters, but Denis, who walked away from the research lab one year short of getting his PhD from the University of Ottawa to focus on the octagon, is proof there’s a lot more to the sport than power and toughness.

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“To be able to out-think an opponent is a huge advantage in a fight,” Denis said. “You have to understand how to react to situations and be analytical. It looks like just brute force in there, but there’s actually technique and skill.”

The Ottawa native roared into the bantamweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in January, knocking out Joseph Sandoval with a series of elbow strikes just 22 seconds into the first round of his debut bout in Nashville – an effort that earned him a $45,000 bonus cheque for knockout of the night. He’s now aiming to cement his status as an emerging talent when he returns to the octagon to face Johnny Bedford May 5 in East Rutherford, N.J.

After studying karate and tae kwon do in his youth, it was boredom with weightlifting workouts that got Denis started down the path to the UFC. He enrolled in a jiu-jitsu class with a friend as a new way to stay in shape and was hooked immediately. It wasn’t long before he decided to train toward competing as an MMA fighter.

At the same time, Denis enrolled at the University of Ottawa, balancing a busy academic schedule in the world of analytical biochemistry with morning and evening training sessions.

Jeffrey Smith, a professor in the chemistry department at Carleton University who shared an office with Denis for almost three years at the University of Ottawa, calls him a gifted scientist.

“He is really good with his hands, which is a big skill in the lab,” Smith said. “A lot of people have book smarts, but at the end of the day you have to have the manual dexterity to use the equipment and do things accurately. He was good at it, but I’m not sure he enjoyed it all that much. MMA is really what he’s passionate about.”

While Denis showed up to the lab some days with a lumpy face and black eyes from training, Smith said it was his big personality that really made him stand out.

“He always wanted to be different and have a good time,” Smith said. “When you talk to him, he’s so much fun that you might think he’s just a guy coasting through life and not caring about much, but that’s certainly not the case.”

Beginning with an October of 2006 fight in Edmonton for the King of the Cage Canada promotion, Denis built a solid MMA résumé, compiling a 10-2-0 record while competing as close to home as Gatineau, Que., and as far away as Tokyo.

He was also excelling at school, publishing a number of papers on his work on the PCSK9 protein – which helps regulate the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream – and earning a prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) scholarship worth $35,000 a year. While he felt being a researcher and fighter were compatible, he enjoyed the cage far more than the lab. When the UFC announced in October of 2010 that it was adding the bantamweight division, Denis made the choice to chase a contract with the biggest MMA organization in the world.

“I literally saw the story online while I was in the lab, he said. “My coach called me like 30 seconds later and I knew he was calling about it. I made up my mind that day to end grad school and train full time.”

Denis abandoned his PhD plans, graduating with a master degree. While his parents didn’t raise any objections, he knows they didn’t understand his decision.

“As a scientist I was supposed to be rational, and they see fighting as an irrational thing,” he said. “Why would you walk away from something safer for something a lot less certain and secure? But they understand that I’m going to do what makes me happy.”

He’s also doing it his own unique way. In a world dominated by guys with monikers like “Natural Born Killer” and “Hands of Stone,” Denis goes by the gentler “Ninja of Love.”

“If someone would have given me a nickname like “The Destroyer” or “Doomsday” that is supposed to elicit some sort of intimidating response I wouldn’t have accepted it,” Denis said. “That’s sort of silly and overdone. I don’t understand the point of trying to intimidate someone before a fight.”

Tom Wright, director of operations for UFC Canada, estimates he spends more than half of his time trying to dispel myths tied to MMA and its athletes as the sport continues to grow. He points to Denis as the kind of UFC athlete and personality the public needs to become more familiar with.

“Way more of our fighters are more along the Nick Denis line than necessarily the stereotypical UFC athlete,” Wright said. “We’ve got a long, long list of athletes who are university-educated, who have multiple degrees or came up through NCAA wrestling. These guys are not the exception, they’re the rule.”

While he has no desire to return to science, Denis does have a business idea in mind for when his fighting days are over.

“My girlfriend is a pastry chef and I love the idea of having a shop or bakery together,” he said. “She’d be the chef and I’d run the day-to-day things. I like the idea that in business, like fighting, you’re making your own destiny. If you want to work hard and be successful you can. It’s totally up to you.”