Modestas Bukauskas got his second chance with the UFC, but it didn’t come easy.
After parting ways with the promotion in October 2021 following a loss to Khalil Rountree, Bukauskas picked up a pair of wins for Cage Warriors, which included regaining the promotion’s light heavyweight title in December. Now, in his third fight post-surgeries, Bukauskas got the call to step in on short notice to face Tyson Pedro this Saturday at UFC 284.
The recovery time prior to his Cage Warriors return left Bukauskas in a dark place, even getting to the point to full-on erasing his white dry-erase board with all of his professional goals. But once the cap came off of the marker, things went full speed ahead for “The Baltic Warrior.”
“I was trying to recover, and I ended up having a second operation,” Bukauskas told MMA Fighting. “That just halted everything. I would end up drinking most days, because the feeling of getting drunk was more like, ‘Get me away from this world.’ It was for me to have my escape of what had been going on in the real world. I just wanted to be in la-la land, and this is not a great thing to do, and I’m certainly not proud of it, but I just wasn’t being myself.
“As the recovery started building, when I started seeing progress in my leg and saw that it was getting better, that’s when I started writing down my goals again. I could get my extension back, I could do squats, put more pressure on it every single day, the progressions were massive, the checkpoints were getting ticked off and I started writing things back on the board.
“Momentum is everything. I was down, down, down, and then I started going up, up, up. That momentum brought be back to the UFC for my third fight. This is how the journey had to happen, it couldn’t have gone any other way.”
Bukauskas’ first stint in the UFC ended with a 1-3 record, including three straight losses. Following his release, Bukauskas spoke with MMA Fighting and vowed to return to the promotion in due time — which led to fans thinking he was, perhaps, a bit overly optimistic.
That didn’t stop Bukauskas, who turned 30 on Friday, from accomplishing his mission. After over a year away from competition, Bukauskas earned a decision win over Lee Chadwick at Cage Warriors 145 this past November — a performance he admits wasn’t his best. Bukauskas returned a little over a month later to finish Chuck Campbell with a beautiful right hand knockout to become a two-time light heavyweight champion at Cage Warriors 148 on New Year’s Eve.
With hopes of getting on the short list for a UFC return call, Bukauskas found himself in a position where he believed he would have to keep climbing that ladder to get back on the radar. But soon after, everything changed after a Facetime call from his manager Jason House.
“[My manager] messaged me in the middle of the day [in January] saying that Cage Warriors had a fight for me to defend my belt in March, and I was like, ‘Well, if I haven’t earned my way back to the UFC, I don’t mind bagging another body to get my way back,’” Bukauskas told MMA Fighting. “At that point, I had my 20 seconds of [sadness], but I went to training, and I have to drive an hour and 20 minutes to get there, so I get a call on my way home — and I live in the middle of nowhere, people think I live in the middle of Narnia, or Hogwarts, or something.
“I’m five minutes away from where the signal goes out and I get the Facetime call, and I don’t know why I was thinking it, but I literally swerved to the side of the road because this must be important. I thought he was going to say my Cage Warriors opponent declined the fight, but then he goes, ‘What’s your weight like?’ I told him I wasn’t fat but I’m in pretty good shape, about 220 pounds. The next thing he says was, ‘You’re fighting in Australia in two weeks time,’ and I was like, ‘No way, don’t tell me this is the call.’ That was probably the more emotional phone call than the first one. I was genuinely in tears.”
After climbing out of one of the darkest holes of his career, Bukauskas was back in the UFC, and he basked in the moment with a lot of reflection with his manager, remembering the countless bumps in the road — which was a sentiment he shared with his parents shortly thereafter.
“I just kept saying to him, ‘We did it. I can’t believe all the crap we had to go through to get here,’ it was from the most raw, and deepest emotion,’ Bukauskas said.
“I rushed to get back home because my dad and my stepmom Rose are still awake. So I’m listening to this f****** warrior music, bass booming in my car, and I’m going mad, just screaming for five minutes to get to my house. I get out of the car, run up to the house out of breath and I say, ‘Rose, I need to tell you something,’ and she thought something was wrong.
“So I go to my dad’s room and I go, ‘Dad, I got something I need to tell you,’ and he rolled over [half asleep] saying, ‘What the f*** do you need to tell me? My body hurts, I had a long day of work.’
“He gets out of bed and we’re all in the sitting room and I told them, ‘We’re back in the UFC, baby,’ and we all started crying and got emotional. But that moment just gave me even more motivation, more determination. Crazy, crazy times.”
While some in Bukauskas’ position would be happy with being back in the world’s top MMA promotion and looking at the short notice bout as a house money play, Bukauskas isn’t going to do that.
Instead, he’s looking at it as an opportunity to do what he was supposed to do the first time around, and to get to share the octagon with a fighter like Pedro — who had his own issues with injuries and layoffs throughout his career — Bukauskas is aiming towards writing his next chapter in a memorable way.
“I’m going in there to win,” Bukauskas explained. “I’m not going in there just to participate. This is my second chance, this is what I’ve been waiting for. This is what I’ve fixed all of these aspects of my game — my mental, physical — this is what I did all this work for. I’m not going in there to try and get by.
“I know that Tyson Pedro is going to give me everything he’s got. Guess what? I’m going to give him everything that I’ve got with the most vicious intensity. I’m going in there to have the best performance of my life, and literally go for broke. I’m going out there to finish Pedro, but that’s what I’m there to do.”