Julius Anglickas and the Allure of the Alternate

By: Josh Gross
Oct 15, 2021

Julius Anglickas has heard Daniel Cormier’s name mentioned enough times over the past month to find something prophetic about the way people, mostly the media, have approached him.

Anglickas, like Cormier in 2011, is a tournament alternate with the chance to go from “who?” to “wow!” by making the most of his moment and becoming a major promotional champion, in this case by beating Bellator MMA light heavyweight titleholder Vadim Nemkov in the Bellator 268 main event on Saturday in Phoenix. The 30-year-old Lithuanian is on a nine-fight winning streak and replaced Anthony Johnson last month after the popular veteran was forced to bow out of Bellator’s current million-dollar light heavyweight grand prix.

“Any time you lose a fighter like ‘Rumble,’ there’s going to be an impact,” said Bellator President Scott Coker. “I was really looking forward to that fight between ‘Rumble’ and Nemkov, but listen, this can be the Rocky story. No one is giving Julius a chance to beat Nemkov, and if he goes out and does his thing, what a statement that would be. It would be a launch point for his career moving forward.”

Replacing stars like Johnson with unknowns like Anglickas can either sideswipe win-or-go-home competitions like this one or crack open doors of opportunity for fighters who could use a break.

With Coker involved as the promoter for both events, the simple comparison between Cormier—who defeated Josh Barnett in a war to win the Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix—and Anglickas has been an easy one to make. When things broke Cormier’s way in 2011 after Alistair Overeem’s injured toe (and uncertain contract status) prompted the Dutch fighter’s removal from the classic Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix, the opportunity to hop in as an alternate created a launchpad for Cormier’s impressive MMA career and post-retirement success with ESPN. “DC,” a two-time Olympic wrestler for the United States, had less than 10 fights on his resume when he replaced Overeem, but he had the backing of American Kickboxing Academy, where he trained alongside a dominant Cain Velasquez.

With Anglickas, the potential for greatness is less clear, but that does not mean it is nonexistent when he stands opposite Nemkov at the Footprint Center.

“People talk about the whole ‘DC’ thing so it almost feels like—and I get this vibe from everybody—that I will win this fight. It’s almost like it’s meant to be,” Anglickas said, “and if it’s not, OK, whatever, but it does feel a little bit like a movie and everything has been aligning for this moment.”

A former Legacy Fighting Alliance champion, Anglickas expected to take part in the tournament before Bellator signed Johnson and Yoel Romero. His likeness appeared on a poster of potential participants that made the rounds, but he said it was completely understandable when the veterans swooped in.

“I have big respect for legends of the game,” Anglickas said, “for people who have been there so long that I feel that I need to wait for my time.”

Anglickas had two fights in Bellator at the time, has since had a third and was preparing for a fourth against Karl Albrektsson on the same card as the light heavyweight semifinals this weekend. He was comfortable playing the hand he was dealt, which meant not rushing or pretending to be “somebody who I’m not and trying to fit in with all these people who earned the name and earned the spot to be there.”

“When I got my alternate position, I thought it was super cool,” Anglickas continued. “I was like, ‘You’re not in the tournament, but I’m being recognized as one of the possibilities.’ ... I thought that was a perfect scenario. I knew they would probably put me in the tournament. People get hurt. COVID happens. They’ll need some kind of replacement.”

As it happened, Bellator needed his services twice. When Romero fell out against “Rumble” for their quarterfinal fight in early May, Anglickas was asked to replace the Cuban. A fighter who once obsessed about being perfectly prepared decided to pass—he was on vacation—and, in turn, risked his alternate designation coming and going with nothing to show for it.

Brazilian Jose Augusto Azevedo Barros stepped in and would have snatched Anglickas’ position had he defeated Johnson and the tournament bracket remained intact. That did not happen. “Rumble” rolled through Barros to set up a title shot against Nemkov, but when that fell apart, Anglickas assumed the role he was given.

“He made sure he was ready this time,” Coker said. “Now is your time to shine. If you get that alternate spot, that doesn’t happen every day, so it’s an opportunity to really take the limelight and show your skills. If this guy beats Nemkov, what’s that going to mean for his marketability and his ability to prove himself as an athlete, as a fighter?”

Every weekend, fighters take bouts they had not trained for simply because of the perceived opportunity it presents. Nate Diaz’s fame exploded after he beat Conor McGregor on 11 days’ notice. With only a few hours to prepare, Seth Petruzelli famously derailed Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson. For mixed martial artists, the concept of stepping up as an alternate or taking short-notice bouts has been normal since Dave Beneteau entered the semifinals of UFC 5 as a reserve before losing to Dan Severn in the final. While the modern-day Ultimate Fighting Championship no longer hosts tournaments, this ethos—you better go for it when you’re called on—is enmeshed down into the roots of the sport.

Just this month, the Professional Fighters League will see an alternate, Raush Manfio, vie for its $1-million-dollar prize in the promotion’s lightweight final on Oct. 27. Six more fighters are waiting in the wings if a finalist misses weight or is forced to withdraw. The One Championship atomweight tournament semifinals on Oct. 29 will see an alternate, Julie Mezabarba, slot in and get her opportunity because Seo Hee Hamm was injured.

“There’s something to be said about being the alternate, a certain mindset you’re bringing,” said Coker, who has been involved in the promotion of numerous tournaments in MMA and kickboxing, including several year-long K-1 events. “To me, that’s a good thing. You’re training, staying ready, then kicking into gear. You’re an underdog, and people don’t know you. You can get underestimated in these situations, the unknown underdog people aren’t expecting much from. Sometimes there’s a shocker, right? In tournaments you never know.”

There is nothing surprising about Anglickas being overlooked against the 29-year-old Nemkov, who has matured into a full-bodied light heavyweight during an undefeated four-year run with Bellator.

“He has everything that a champion needs to have to be a champion,” Anglickas said about the Russian. “You need to have stamina. His striking is amazing. He mixes things up really, really well. Where do I line up with that? I guess we’ll find out. I also try to keep things simple, just like how he does.”

Anglickas said his five-week training camp will not allow him to be at his best on Saturday, but he made peace with the circumstances by telling himself that things are never perfect when you prepare for a fight. Anglickas limited weight lifting, focused on fitness and worked on actual movements that might help him in a fight.

“I always feel like I could have done something more, something extra,” Anglickas said. “Maybe a little more time would have caused me to overtrain, just because of the idea of, ‘Oh my god, I’m fighting for a title—I need to do everything.’ I think it was a reasonable amount of time. Sure, it could have been more, but I’m glad it was not less.

“I’m just focusing on what I can control,” he added. “I try not to focus on everything outside and the ‘DC’ effect, but everyone is talking to me about it. I got the alternate spot and, boom, now I am in the tournament against the champion. I have dreams about winning the title. Other people had dreams about winning the title. Even though this fight might be too soon and some people might say that, I think this is a perfect moment, a perfect fight for me to develop my skills for later on, as well.”

Portraying himself as mild-mannered and thoughtful outside the cage, Anglickas explained that he learned how to lock in a fighter’s mindset the day of the bout. Since joining Bellator, the Missouri-based fighter went the distance in three straight fights. He had not done that in his career before taking a step up in competition. The three bouts offered lessons that could serve Anglickas well against Nemkov.

Against highly touted Jordan Young, Anglickas learned to stay relaxed throughout a three-round fight. Alex Polizzi then pushed him into deep waters by wrestling like crazy and taking the Lithuanian fighter’s best punches. “That was probably one of my better performances because it was so tiring,” he said. Perhaps the most important lesson was that some people will not get taken out and will instead keep coming after you. Anglickas then took a fight against Gregory Milliard—a fight that was supposed to make him look good. He felt a significant strength advantage but disappointed himself by not grounding-and-pounding during a pedestrian route to victory.

“I tried to take that with me and next time don’t be so soft in that position and do more damage,” he said.

Still, MMA sometimes resembles sports, most often in the unforgiving competitive nature of a tournament, and the million-dollar prize along with the Bellator belt will go to any fighter who has his hand raised. That type of performance on Saturday makes Anglickas the Bellator champion, the man to be challenged by Ryan Bader or Corey Anderson and comes with recognition as one of the best light heavyweights on the planet. Bellator has sold the winner as holding the rightful claim to No. 1 in the world. Whether or not people buy Anglickas as that guy, these kinds of stakes align with what Cormier did when he ran through Jeff Monson, Antonio Silva and, finally, Barnett.

“People thought Barnett would kill him,” Coker said. “You cannot say ‘DC’ was not tested at the highest level. You talk about hyper driving your career, go win one of these tournaments. Tournaments build stars. Here’s the good news, Julius: You’re in the tournament. Here’s the bad news: You’ve got to fight Nemkov in your first fight.”
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