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Next Aussie up: How rugby, Volkanovski have Jack Jenkins ready for Contender shot

Jack Jenkins is ready to step up and take his Contender Series opportunity when he fights Freddy Emiliano Linares on September 27 Eternal MMA

Australian Jack Jenkins will follow the well-worn path of his countryman while also using the experience of sparring UFC superstar Alexander Volkanovski when he fights on Dana White's Contender Series in Las Vegas next month.

Jenkins will be the second Australian to hit the Contender Octagon this season, after Shannon Ross engaged in a brutal battle with Vinicius de Almeida Salvador. Ross went on to suffer a TKO defeat in the second round, but so tough was his performance that White would later sign him to a UFC deal anyway.

Jenkins hopes to earn a contract with a dominant win over Freddy Emiliano Linares on September 27, however, having honed his craft across a nearly 10-year career that bears eerily similar grounding to both Jimmy Crute and Jack Della Maddalena -- both of whom are graduates of the Contender Series.

"I grew up in Bacchus Marsh just west of Melbourne, I was born and raised there," Jenkins told ESPN. "I started MMA when my brother started kickboxing, he took me up to the gym when I was 14, and I decided pretty early on that I wanted to be a fighter of some kind.

"I watched a couple of UFC events after that, I think the first one I watched really closely was Lyoto Machida vs. Rashad Evans back in the day, and then I have been at it since then. I used to do rugby [union] in the winter and kickboxing in the summer, and then eventually I picked up a bit of JJ [jiu-jitsu] and now here we are some 15 years later.

"The rugby translates over; Alex Volkanovski's the same, he played a fairly decent level of rugby [league] and then came across as well. I played rugby union, Volkanovski was league, I was the same as Della; I actually played in the same state team as Della's older brother."

Jenkins has built a 9-2 record across his professional career, which began in 2016 and has largely been confined to the Hex Fight Series and Eternal MMA, the two defeats coming in his fourth and fifth fights.

But the Australian has since strung six straight wins together, three of which he had to prepare for amid Melbourne's heavy lockdowns through the COVID pandemic.

"I was sleeping at the gym before that happened, purely for travel, but when that [the pandemic] happened we had to get work permits from the combat sports board that would allow us to travel to and from [the gym], and every time I went home I got stopped at a police check point and got my work permit checked," Jenkins said.

"It was hard from the point that you didn't know when you were going to get a fight, so it was hard to stay really fit and ready, which was a mental challenge, but we kept training all the way through. And I think, especially for my team, the results of that have showed because we've been on a bit of a tear since the pandemic has eased up a little bit and we've been able to get fights again."

While their fights haven't aligned lately, Jenkins has had the massive opportunity to spar with Volkanovski at several junctures across his career.

He says the UFC featherweight champion remains a huge inspiration to this day, and the lessons from their sparring sessions still ring true as he sets himself for his biggest fight yet.

"Volk was probably in the position I am in now, right on the cusp of the UFC when I had just started, so he was the guy who you'd look up to in the Australian divisions and say 'that guy is a beast'," Jenkins told ESPN of the first time the duo trained together.

"But he came down to Melbourne to do some sparring and I remember we were doing a five-minute round and about two minutes in I thought to myself 'this is actually going pretty well,' and then he picked up the pace a little bit and a minute later I was thinking 'this isn't going very well' just because he is so fit and he does so well.

"But since then we've sparred a couple more times, he comes down to spar at Absolute [Mixed Martial Arts] whenever he can, and I have looked at going up to Wollongong but it hasn't worked out logistically because our last few fights have been on different timelines. But when we do spar we go really well together, he gives me good pointers and I give him a good push and good rounds, so it works well."

Jenkins was recently signed to Paradigm Sports Management, joining a UFC stable that includes the likes of Israel Adesanya, Conor McGregor and Della Maddalena, but still he had to endure a little wait for his Contender opportunity to arrive.

He says Volkanovski had twice put in a good word for him, while he had also been told that UFC matchmaker Shaun Shelby liked the way he fought, yet still he waited for the call to come.

With no indication of when it might arrive, Jenkins accepted an Eternal MMA fight for September 17, only to later find out that he would instead be heading to the UFC Apex for a crack at the big time.

"I went round to my coach's house on the weekend to watch the footy, he gave me a tour of his house and there was this fight on and he said 'what do you think of this guy who's fighting?' Jenkins told ESPN.

"And I said, 'he's alright, I think I could take him', and then he said 'he just got signed to Contender' and I asked 'really, who against?' My coach said 'just some nobody,' and then it came to the end of the fight and he said, 'that's the guy you're fighting on Contender at the end of September', so now we're full steam ahead for that."

Having watched countryman Ross suffer a defeat, yet still put on a show, Jenkins is aware of the brief that comes with a Contender slot. Victory might not always be enough, while on the flipside an entertaining fight that ends in a loss can still earn a contract proper.

But he says that won't play on his mind once the opening bell tolls, instead he plans to fall back on the skill and execution that have served him well to this point and usually deliver plenty of entertainment regardless.

"Since I've started fighting I've always gone out to impress, if you look at my [last] fight with Rod [Costa], it was just non-stop action all five rounds," he said. "So I can put on a pace that is going to be impressive, but I've also got power in both my hands and my feet, so I'm just going to go out and find the holes in his game which I know are there and exploit them.

"But nothing really changes for me because I always go out to put on exciting performances and I'm always looking for a finish, so I don't necessarily have to change anything I'm doing because that's what I look for all the time.

"And I think if you get in your head about the whole emotion that 'I have to impress Dana,' it can play on you and change the way you do things. I just know that if I perform to the level that I know I can, Dana will be impressed enough to give me a contract."