(Editor’s observe: This story was written with the help of ESPN’s Jeff Wagenheim)
I bear in mind the primary time I ever noticed a prizefight. It was someday within the Nineteen Eighties, and I used to be a younger child. I went to my next-door neighbor’s home with my outdated man to look at Mike Tyson.
It was late at night time and a bunch of my dad’s associates have been there, all overrated for the large battle. I do not bear in mind who Tyson was up in opposition to — it might need been Michael Spinks — however I do bear in mind Tyson going on the market and getting a fast knockout. The lads have been pissed that they’d purchased a battle that ended practically as quickly because it began.
However even in that brief time, it turned a memorable night time.
Then, I noticed MMA for the primary time in seventh grade. It was proper across the begin of the UFC, both UFC 1 or UFC 2. My buddy and I heard about this new no-rules factor, this spectacle, and I went to his home to look at. I used to be already wrestling by then, so I used to be to see how the wrestlers would do. However what received me was Royce Gracie. He was profitable and I had no concept how he was doing it.
None of us on the time understood what jiu-jitsu was. All we knew was this little man was in some way placing it on these larger dudes. That is what made an impression on me. I used to be at all times the little man in a battle, too, going again to once I was very younger and scrapping with different youngsters. I used to be by no means in a battle the place I used to be the larger man, similar to Royce within the day.
Now, practically 20 years later, I am about to shut out my battle profession at UFC 281, and I am doing it virtually in my yard over at Madison Sq. Backyard in New York (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV). There have been plenty of huge moments through the years, a lot of ups and downs — generally each ups and downs in the exact same battle. And I am wanting ahead to creating extra reminiscences and contributions within the subsequent chapter of my life.
Listed here are just a few private highlights from my MMA profession and a few issues I look ahead to.
Rumble in The Bronx: My first MMA battle
It occurred on a brutally sizzling July night time in 2005, just a few months after I graduated school, in a boxing gymnasium within the Bronx. The place had no air-con and was sweaty, loud, and wild. I bear in mind folks ingesting 40s within the stands. There have been no medical folks anyplace within the constructing, no ambulance. And no guidelines, actually no guidelines. They pulled one man out of the group to switch a no-show fighter, and the dude fought in jean shorts. We have been instructed our fights can be one 15-minute spherical, with no breaks. I simply stated sure to every part.
Why was I there? It had one thing to do with how my school wrestling profession had ended. I might set excessive targets for myself however did not accomplish them. In my senior yr on the NCAA match, I misplaced in triple additional time within the “blood round,” which determines the highest eight in every weight class. If I had received that match, I might have been an All-American. So I used to be devastated. The game left a foul style in my mouth. Then one thing got here alongside that modified every part.
That spring, “The Ultimate Fighter” made its debut. I bear in mind noticing that the Season 1 forged included Josh Koscheck, who I knew. He had wrestled for Edinboro College, and I had wrestled for Clarion, each in western Pennsylvania. Our groups had wrestled one another a number of occasions. So once I noticed Josh on the present, I assumed, wow, there’s an avenue for wrestlers to proceed to compete. I made a decision proper then I needed to provide this a shot. I wasn’t considering of it as a profession, simply an outlet to compete a bit of longer.
Proper round commencement, I began coaching within the different MMA disciplines past wrestling. And simply three or 4 weeks in, one of many coaches within the gymnasium talked about that there was going to be an underground MMA occasion over in New York and requested if I needed to battle. I stated, “Yeah, absolutely.” I used to be working full-time as a plumber then and needed to get in there and see if I had what it took.
Once we received to the Bronx, the gymnasium was stuffed and virtually everybody was there to see my opponent, a New York man. From what I had heard, he had expertise in MMA. He was on the UFC’s radar — that is what everybody within the again was saying. After I walked out, the group was screaming, speaking junk to me. And as quickly because the battle began, the man put me in a Thai clinch and blasted me with two fairly exhausting knees to the face. However I received a few takedowns, and the second time, whereas on high of the man, I headbutted him. No guidelines, proper? Finally, I received to full mount and began dropping punches till I received the end.
Afterward, on the best way dwelling to New Jersey with my household and a few teammates, we stopped in Newark at a Portuguese restaurant. I did not thoughts being out in public, as a result of I regarded fairly good for having been in a battle. I had a bloody nostril and my face damage from these knees, however that was it. Then, throughout dinner, I went into the toilet, and whereas in there, I blew my nostril — and my complete face blew up with air. I might really feel the air beneath my scalp and cheek, and my eye was all droopy. I got here out and my household could not consider what they noticed. My mother began bugging out. They took me to the hospital, and I had damaged my orbital bone. Welcome to MMA.
Not TUF sufficient?
A few yr into my profession, I used to be 6-0. I had simply fought Jim Miller in a regional showdown in Atlantic Metropolis, and yeah, I received, however he had landed a head kick that ripped a bit of my ear off. So my ear was mangled once I received the decision to fly right down to Hollywood, Florida, to check out for Season 5 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” I received there and met Dana White, and the very first thing he stated to me was, “You don’t look like a ’55-er.”
They put me in with a monster of a man for the grappling spherical, and I handed that take a look at. Then I hit pads for Joe Silva, the matchmaker, and I assumed I impressed him, too. The final step was speaking to the TV producers, who instructed me they’d be in contact afterward. I will be sincere: I assumed I used to be in. However I by no means received the decision.
I used to be dissatisfied, after all, however by the point the season aired, I used to be really within the UFC anyway. That made watching the present simpler, and it was an awesome season, top-of-the-line. Nate Diaz. Grey Maynard. Joe Lauzon. A bunch of fantastic fighters. And whereas I did take into consideration what might have been — a finale in opposition to Nate? — I got here away questioning how I might have finished residing in that home. In these days on the present, there was plenty of drama that had nothing to do with battle coaching. I’m wondering if I might have taken it so nicely if guys had began messing with me. Not that I am some robust man, however I’ve rules I stay by. So I used to be grateful issues labored out the best way they did.
Profitable (and surviving) my UFC debut
Not lengthy after the TUF tryout, I used to be signed to battle at UFC 67 in Las Vegas. I fought Tyson Griffin, and I received by choice — however it did not come simply. Within the closing minute, he locked in a knee bar, and it was tight. I felt assured I used to be forward with the judges, so no approach was I tapping. I heard the knee pop twice. However I used to be in a position to wiggle my knee previous the fulcrum level within the final 30 seconds, and I made it to the horn, punching his leg many times to complete robust.
I have been instructed that in the course of the battle Joe Rogan’s commentary on the telecast went from speaking about us being two wrestlers to him complimenting my hand pace and footwork. That is what I needed for my MMA profession. I needed to be well-rounded. Again then, the UFC would ask us how we needed to be launched, and I might at all times listing myself as a “freestyle fighter.” To me, that is a real blended martial artist, when you are able to do every part. If I needed to stand with one of the best standup fighter on the earth, I needed to do this. And if I needed to go to the bottom with one of the best grappler on the earth, I needed to do this as nicely.
One fascinating factor about UFC 67: It was the UFC debut for not simply me but additionally Mirko CroCop, Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida. I used to be nonetheless new to the game, however my teammate Chris Liguori was filling me in on who everybody was. So I used to be conscious of these guys and their locations in MMA, however I saved to myself backstage. I used to be by no means one to go take footage with folks. I needed to behave like I belonged there. I did not wish to be a fanboy. I bear in mind throughout weigh-ins somebody went over to CroCop to ask for an image, and CroCop gave him the cease signal. And I used to be like, rattling.
My one interplay with a fighter from the cardboard occurred after the fights. We have been again on the lodge, a bunch of my associates and me, and have been partying up fairly exhausting in our room, getting loud and doubtless a bit of obnoxious. And Marvin Eastman, who had taken a beating from Rampage and simply needed to get some sleep, got here out of his room on our flooring and began yelling for us to be quiet. I used to be like, my dangerous, my dangerous.
Beating a legend for the UFC light-weight championship
I received my title shot in opposition to BJ Penn in April 2010 at UFC 112, which was held in an open-air venue constructed only for this occasion in Abu Dhabi. It was the primary UFC battle card held outdoor, and there hasn’t been one since.
Weeks earlier than the battle, I went on the UFC’s press tour to Abu Dhabi and received to see how a lot of a legend BJ was. Everybody over there needed a bit of the champ. BJ was a gentleman to me the entire time, however so far as everybody else was involved, it was nearly as if I wasn’t there. It is not that individuals have been making an attempt to canine me. They only beloved BJ. I imply, this can be a man who was celebrating wins by licking the blood of his opponent off his gloves. Legend. I used to be introduced in as a sacrificial lamb. I do not suppose anyone took me severely. Besides myself.
This ended up being my favourite amongst my 35 fights as a professional, as a result of I received my hand raised and the belt put round my waist. That was particular — and a very long time coming. In highschool, I took second place within the state wrestling match. I took second in the highschool nationals. In school, I missed out on being an All-American in triple additional time. So to lastly accomplish my purpose of being No. 1 on the earth, that was some of the fulfilling days of my life.
After I received, the UFC shortly booked a rematch for about 4 months later. I used to be going to must show for a second time that I used to be higher than BJ. However I did not actually have an issue with that — I really feel like it’s important to show your self each time you go on the market. And for the rematch, my mindset was totally different. Going into the primary battle, I believed I might beat BJ. I did not know, however I believed. Going into the second battle, I knew I might. I feel that is why the hole between us was rather a lot larger the second time.
The primary battle with Grey Maynard was the primary lack of my profession, and that was robust to take. It was 2008 and this was my first battle as a full-time fighter. Up till then, I used to be nonetheless working as a plumber. However regardless that I used to be now absolutely devoting myself to MMA, I used to be a younger fighter and did not know easy methods to use my coaching time nicely. I did not belong to a gymnasium and was simply bouncing round, getting in coaching wherever and every time I might. I bear in mind considering, man, this isn’t how knowledgeable athlete needs to be getting ready for a battle. So after the loss I sought out Ricardo Almeida as jiu-jitsu coach, and having his gymnasium as my coaching dwelling from then on was an enormous, large asset for my profession.
Nearly three years later, after I had received the title, Grey and I fought once more. It did not begin nicely for me. And truthfully, I do not bear in mind far more than that in regards to the battle. In some unspecified time in the future within the center rounds, I turned conscious of plenty of ache in my ankle and I did not know why. It wasn’t till afterward that I used to be instructed that once I received dropped within the first spherical it regarded like I sprained the ankle fairly badly. The one vivid reminiscence I’ve from the battle is being in my nook between rounds and my coaches telling me there was one spherical left, and me considering, “Jeez, just one more round? What happened to Rounds 2, 3 and 4?”
Though the battle ended up as a draw, not a win, I used to be pleased with myself. I went by way of rather a lot to make it to the end line. Nonetheless, it is not like I am going again and watch the battle — I am going to save that for one thing to do with the grandkids. I simply chalk it up as a testomony to my toughness.
I confronted one other take a look at of my toughness within the third Maynard battle. One other dangerous begin, one other comeback. And once I knocked him out within the fourth spherical, I bear in mind shedding my thoughts. I jumped up on the cage and kissed the TV digital camera, getting blood all around the lens. I used to be screaming, flexing — that is not likely my fashion, however feelings take over. In these moments, you do not know what you are doing. Aside from profitable the belt, this was the favourite second of my profession.
These three fights will join me and Grey perpetually. After I’m in Vegas, I often cease at Xtreme Couture and generally I am going to see him. He and I took a photograph collectively ultimately yr’s wrestling nationals. It is all love. Once you share a cage for, what, nearly 12 rounds, you develop a bond.
Do not name me a gatekeeper
Not lengthy after my second title-fight loss to Jose Aldo in 2016, the UFC booked me in opposition to Yair Rodriguez, a rising star on a profitable streak. He had simply knocked out BJ Penn, and I assume I used to be the following man in his approach. I understood what the UFC was doing. The promoter’s job is to construct up these younger guys, and one of the simplest ways to do it’s to place them in with a longtime identify. It is the character of the sport.
I did not have a look at it because the UFC doing me soiled or something, however as a fighter it’s important to take it personally, ? In my thoughts, my response was, You wanna construct this man up at my expense? Effectively, I am gonna break your plans. That is what I did, profitable by second-round TKO. My job was to show his highlight into my highlight.
By no means thought the time would come: My retirement battle
After getting knocked out by Chito Vera in my final battle, I did not know what to do subsequent. I used to be in a tough stretch, and I wasn’t certain if I might battle once more. However over the summer season I known as my supervisor, Ali Abdelaziz, and instructed him I needed to battle. He talked about the November card at Madison Sq. Backyard. “Perfect,” I stated.
I used to be considering a matchup that made sense can be me versus Dominick Cruz. We’re each former champions and across the similar age, and our careers are on related trajectories. Our kinds are totally different, however we each have wrestling backgrounds and transfer rather a lot on our ft, very energetic with nice conditioning. It appeared like an awesome matchup. However Cruz fought in August, and when that battle ended with him being knocked out, it meant our timing for a gathering within the fall did not line up. So I simply instructed Ali and my coach, Mark Henry, to get me a battle, I did not care who it was. I ended up with Chris Gutierrez at UFC 281, and since it is in New York, shut sufficient for lots of family and friends to be there, I made a decision it made sense to make this my retirement battle.
It is becoming that this private milestone is going on at The Backyard, as a result of the place appears like dwelling. I fought on the primary MMA card ever there, UFC 205 in 2016, and plenty of my coaching for the battle occurred simply a few blocks away at Renzo Gracie’s place on thirtieth Road.
However I am going again approach farther than that with The Backyard. I bear in mind watching the Goodwill Video games there in ’98, once I was a sophomore in highschool. USA vs. Russia in wrestling. USA vs. Iran. In 2003, the world championships have been held at Madison Sq. Backyard, and I used to be there for that, which was particular. And, really, I received to wrestle there in 2014 on the Grapple on the Backyard occasion. MMA wasn’t but authorized in New York, so I assumed perhaps it will be my solely likelihood to compete within the constructing. Seems it wasn’t the one time.
My subsequent chapter: Expanded horizons, not waistline
After Saturday, I might be finished preventing however I will not stroll away from the game. I’ll stay concerned. My boys wrestle, they usually’ve each stated they wish to get into different martial arts coaching finally. I plan on opening an MMA college in my hometown. And I am additionally within the managerial aspect. Ali began with me — l was just about his first consumer — and look what he has at present. I feel I might assist the following technology.
I might additionally like to journey a bit of. Fortunately, preventing took me to locations all over the world that I might by no means dreamed of going. However to have the ability to go locations simply to go to, not having to focus my consideration on a battle, that’s one thing I look ahead to. My household is from Italy, the Naples space, and I might like to recover from there. I might like to get to Greece, too, and perhaps Morocco.
However even proper right here at dwelling, life might be a bit of looser. I am going to not must make weight anymore, so I can permit myself some Jersey delicacies. I am going to positively be having a breakfast of pork roll, egg and cheese very quickly. I am not going to go loopy with it, although. I’ll proceed to work out, and I will not be getting too huge. However I will be consuming nicely. You simply know I am gonna be hitting Mark Henry’s pizza place.