“You ever heard of Jimmy Crute?” That was Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White’s retort to a reporter at the UFC 234 pre-fight press conference, who committed the unforgivable sin of characterizing the Melbourne pay-per-view event as top heavy. With a full half of the 24 fighters on the card possessing two fights or fewer under the UFC banner, it was undoubtedly an appropriate call to make. But that doesn’t negate the kernel of truth in White’s statement, which is that Melbourne’s own Jim Crute is making a name for himself in the promotion’s talent-starved light heavyweight division.
Currently riding a perfect record of 10-0 with seven stoppages to his name, Crute exploded onto MMA’s mainstream radar last July with a first-round TKO over Chris Birchier on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series, which earned him a UFC contract. Five months later, the 22-year-old submitted Scotland’s Paul Craig with nine seconds left of his octagon debut, which he was winning on the scorecards. Chasing a spot on Melbourne’s pay-per-view event on February 10th, Crute was originally matched opposite Ryan Spann -- a fellow Contender Series alumni with one UFC fight and one win -- but after Spann pulled out, he accepted a late-replacement opponent in Sam Alvey.
Sitting down with Sherdog.com a few days before Crute marched into battle opposite “Smile’n Sam,” a 44-fight veteran with 10 UFC wins on his résumé, “The Brute” was calm and collected, exuding an energy that screamed “been here, done that’” despite this being just his second fight under the UFC banner. Asked whether he was surprised to be on a pay-per-view main card in just his second bout with the promotion -- something that took his opponent, Alvey, 16 fights to earn -- Crute made it clear that making waves quickly was always part of the plan.
“When I left my job at the time [to pursue MMA professionally] I said ‘give me two years and I’ll become Australian champ, give me three years and I’ll be in the UFC,’” he said. “That’s just the way it was. I knew it was going to be a really hard and challenging road, and that’s what excited me. Leaving behind a life of comfort and easygoingness, to chase a dream.
“Yeah, it’s crazy” he continued. “But you make your own luck. I’ve done all the right things. No one can say that I’ve taken the short road. I’ve gone through the ringer, on the regional scene. My first fight was against a guy with a 12-7 record who I wasn’t supposed to beat. No one can take that away from me. Yeah, I’m lucky and I’m blessed but I make my own luck, I’ve done the right things to get here.”
Crute represents a new generation of athletes emerging from the Oceanic region, joining the likes of Robert Whittaker, Israel Adesanya, Tai Tuivasa and Alexander Volkanovski as forces to be reckoned with in their respective weight classes. As he is quick to remind people though, when Crute began pursuing his dream of MMA stardom ten years ago when he started jiu-jitsu, the UFC was barely on the mainstream’s radar.
“I always joke around and say that I was [training in MMA] before it was cool,” Crute said, with a laugh. “Because I was literally the only one of my mates that trained. I used to try and get all my mates into it, and they’d come for one or two sessions and it would be too hard for them.
“I think it’s growing, not just in kids and schools but everywhere” he continued. “People didn’t know what UFC was a few years ago, now if you don’t know what UFC is you’re living under a rock, which is awesome. It’s better for the athletes, better for promotions. It’s grown so much in the last two, three years. I can’t imagine where it’ll be in another two, three years.”
Crute may be one of the youngest fighters on the roster, but with two 25-minute battles under his belt -- both defences of his HEX Fight Series 205-pound title -- and MMA and kickboxing icon Sam Greco in his corner, the boy from Bendigo possesses a maturity and discipline more characteristic of an older man. He talks thoughtfully about being an ambassador for MMA “Down Under” and staying grounded if his career follows the lofty trajectory he and his team have mapped out for him.
“I think it’s important to try and act as a professional and be a good role model,” he said. “When you’re out there and you’re acting in your day-to-day life, you’re not just representing your team; your representing your family, where you come from, and the sport of MMA. It already has a bad enough name as it is, it’s important to put out a good image.
“I’ve got a really tight circle,” he added. He claims that he intends to eschew the tumultuous path of the likes of Jon Jones or Conor McGregor, should his star power rise to those levels. “I don’t let many people into my inner group, which. I feel like, I don’t know, when I look at those guys coming up, I feel like they’ve become something that they’re not. That makes my stomach sick. I might act a fool or something here or there, but I genuinely try and be who I am 24/7. A lot of those guys are just putting on a persona, and it sort of becomes them. I think that if you just be yourself, as long as you’re not, in general, a bad person, if you just be yourself you’re on the right track.”
Crute’s determined to stay the path and reach the apex of the sport, but is equally resolute about fighting the best of the best right out of the gate, even if he gets thrown in the deep too early. When asked to assess whether the experiences of his Australian counterparts like Tai Tuivasa and Tyson Pedro -- two prospects who went 3-0 before stumbling against top-10 opposition -- might be a reason to slow his roll and give him time to develop, Crute emphatically rejected the proposition.
“There’s nothing good about padding your record” he said. “Those boys might have lost in Adelaide, but look at who they were fighting. They’re going to take more away from any win over a bum’s going to get them. I see a lot of disrespect thrown to those guys, and all the guys that lost in Adelaide. But man, they fought much better guys than I’ve fought.”
“If you’re not getting tested, you’re not fighting the right guys” he added. “If you’re just blazing through everyone, you’re not getting good experience. I’d rather go in there against a top-10 guy and get my arse kicked and come back stronger than pad my record out and have some amazing number next to my name, and never really test myself. Win, lose or draw, I don’t care. As long as I go out there and learn something, and perform at my best, it’s good.”
Crute impressed fans in his debut opposite Craig, but walked away unhappy with his performance, which saw him get taken down a number of times before he got into his groove and earned the late submission. It’s a showing he attributes to the pressure he put on himself performing in his own backyard, and a few days out from his Alvey fight, Crute spoken determinedly about not making the same mistakes.
“Coming into Adelaide I had this dark pressure coming over me” he said. “I’ve got to block out the crowd. I can’t let my emotions get the better of me. It froze me a little bit. I did not perform to my ability. I really feel like this time I’ve gone back to my roots. I’ve gone back to the way I used to fight. Even with my training, I’ve grabbed a lot of my original [training partners]. I think for the first time, the international fans are going to see what Jimmy Crute’s all about. Not the guy who got sucked into a brawl on the Contender Series. Not the guy who had slow takedown defence in Adelaide. They’re going to see a different beast.”
Crute’s prediction for his pay-per-view opener turned out to be accurate, with the hometown fighter taking zero damage en route to a first round TKO over the infamously durable Alvey. Whilst Crute had designs on nabbing a $50,000 “Performance of the Night” bonus and buying a house in Melbourne -- those awards ultimately went to Montana De La Rosa and Devonte Smith -- he nevertheless earned an “A” on his personal scorecard.
“It was a good win” Crute said, speaking to Sherdog.com in a follow-up interview a few days removed from UFC 234. “I was extremely happy with my performance. I knocked him out with the gameplan. What Sam [Greco] told me to do, I did and I knocked him out with it. Sam said if he fakes and goes to throw his left, just beat him to it with the right hand, and I did. It put him straight down.”
Crute’s contentment with his showing has one asterisk, and it involves his hesitation to follow Alvey to the floor when he knocked him down with a flush right hook, giving him time to recover. Moments later, Crute got into a dominant position and was landing heavy ground-and-pound, but the replay showed many of these shots to be hitting Alvey’s arms, and when referee Marc Goddard intervened, “Smile’n Sam” protested vigorously.
In Crute’s mind, Goddard made the right decision stopping the fight, but admits to feeling frustrated that so much attention -- including comments by Dana White criticising the stoppage and an interview with Goddard where he admitted the stoppage may have been premature -- has been placed on the referee’s call at the expense of his performance.
“I tell you what’s really annoying”, Crute said. “People are talking about the way that Sam acted rather than the fight. I’ve got nothing but respect for Sam, but that was being a sore loser. He got absolutely smashed, just get over it. Marc Goddard gave him every opportunity. Some people might have stopped it after I dropped him the first time. People don’t realise that he went down, tried to get up and literally face-planted… I’ve learned from that that the next time in a fight I’ll just keep going until the guy’s dead, or the ref stops it.”
“People were saying that [Sam’s] thumb was up,” he continued “but putting your thumb up isn’t an intelligent way to defend yourself. Next time someone’s getting their head punched off and they just sit there with their thumb up, surely the ref’s going to stop it? He was literally faceplanted on the ground. His face was touching the ground, he had his arm up with his thumb up -- what does that mean? You’re not defending yourself intelligently. You’re not trying to get a better position.”
With two wins in the space of nine weeks, Crute surprised himself by keeping his celebration tame, indulging in some quiet beers with his nearest and dearest before taking a short trip with his girlfriend and dog. As for his plans in 2019, he’s pencilled in some much-needed time off.
“I already told the UFC that I wanted some time off” he said. “I’ve made that pretty clear. I didn’t take any damage in my fight [with Alvey] but it’s been a long, long year for me. Inside and outside the cage, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on that people don’t realise. I just want a bit of breathing room, some time to enjoy what I’ve accomplished in and outside of the cage.
“If they offer me something amazing I’ll come back” Crute continued. “It needs to be a good opponent. I’m not here to play games or pad my record out. We want to fight the best off the bat, and that’s what we’ve done. I know my worth, I’m not going to sit here and make out that I’m any better or any worse than I am. I just want to get in there and fight the best guys.“
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.