For Pat Schilling, life was going pretty well.
The 23-year-old from West St. Paul, Minn., had a job in Best Buy's gaming department (a perfect fit given his passion for video games) and he had just been promoted to operations supervisor. In his spare time, he got to keep his competitive fires burning by training mixed martial arts and fighting for a few regional promotions.
Yeah, life was good. Good job, big family, a girlfriend, all his MMA wins had ended in the first round — how do you get better than that?
Schilling found out how thanks to three letters: UFC.
The featherweight will make his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut Friday at Bridgestone Arena against Daniel Pineda, another UFC newcomer. And he still can barely believe it.
"This whole thing is crazy," Schilling told The City Paper. "Two weeks ago, if you told me I was fighting in the UFC on Friday, I'd say you're nuts. It was a great seven days, though. I got promoted at Best Buy, and then two days later got the call [from the UFC]. I'm a lucky guy."
Schilling (5-0) said the call was unexpected.
His unbeaten record, all by first-round submission or knockout, is impressive. But he's had just one fight in the last year, a June win in Minnesota in which he broke his hand, keeping him on the shelf until now.
"Getting the call was pretty surreal," Schilling said. "I missed a call from one of my managers because I was actually on the sales floor at work. He followed it immediately with a [text]: 'Call me ASAP, very urgent.' So I jumped off the floor and called to find out that I was about to receive a contract from the UFC.
“This came as a huge surprise – I got a message from that manager about five days prior saying that he spoke to the UFC and they wanted me to have a couple more high-profile fights first."
But as happens so often in sports, especially mixed martial arts, someone else's loss was Schilling's gain. Training injuries have plagued Friday's card, forcing quite a few bout changes in the weeks leading up to the card. And when former featherweight champion Mike Brown dropped off with an injury, his opponent was moved to a February card in Omaha and a slot opened in Nashville.
When Schilling's life instantly got better, so, too, did those of his customers at Best Buy.
"I couldn't stop smiling, and I definitely couldn't focus on my job," Schilling said. "But I gave the best customer service ever."
Pineda (15-7) enters the fight with Schilling on a five-fight winning streak, all by submission or knockout. And he's won seven of his last eight. He has experience beyond just the regional circuits, too, with fights for Bellator Fighting Championships and the now-defunct EliteXC — making him Schilling's most accomplished opponent yet.
But Schilling said on Friday, he's allowing himself a few moments to pinch himself before getting ready for the task at hand, which is to relax and let the chips fall where they may.
A win would double his paycheck, and a great fight, a knockout or a submission would put him in contention for one of the UFC's lucrative fight night bonus awards, which for non-pay-per-view cards like Friday's typically range between $40,000 and $65,000. One of those checks would buy a few video games — or open the door to train full time if he wanted to.
"The plan for the fight is to have fun," Schilling said. "When I'm having fun, I'm the most dangerous. I would love to get that win bonus and would definitely love that 'Of The Night' bonus. That would be a major game changer."
Schilling and Pineda fight on the preliminary card of UFC on FX: Guillard vs. Miller. The main card airs live on the FX cable channel at 8 p.m. (CST). The preliminary card will be broadcast on Fuel TV starting at 5 p.m.
UFC on FX: Guillard vs. Miller
When: Jan. 20; doors at 4 p.m., prelims at 5 p.m., main card at 8 p.m.
Where: Bridgestone Arena
Tickets: $25, $40, $65, $90, $125, $175, Bridgestone box office and Ticketmaster
TV: Prelims on Fuel TV; main card on FX
155: Melvin Guillard vs. Jim Miller
170: Duane Ludwig vs. Josh Neer
135: Mike Easton vs. Jared Papazian
Hwt.: Pat Barry vs. Christian Morecraft
185: Jorge Rivera vs. Eric Schafer
155: Kamal Shalorus vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov
170: Charlie Brenneman vs. Daniel Roberts
155: Fabrício Camões vs. Tommy Hayden
145: Daniel Pineda vs. Pat Schilling
135: Joseph Sandoval vs. Nick Denis
• Fighter workouts: 12 p.m. Wednesday, Nashville MMA Gym. Open to the public, featuring main-card fighters, plus a guest appearance by Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan.
• UFC Fight Club Q&A: 2 p.m. Thursday, Bridgestone Arena. Three-time UFC title challenger Kenny Florian hosts a question-and-answer session with Fight Club members prior to the official weigh-ins.
• Weigh-ins: 4 p.m. Thursday, Bridgestone Arena. Open to the public.
• UFC “Knockout” Hunger program: The UFC teams with the Second Harvest Food Bank for a charity event in conjunction with the weigh-ins. Fans can bring a canned food item to the arena in exchange for a raffle ticket for a chance to win prizes that will be given away at the end of the weigh-ins.