(Rich isn’t looking at you, tough guy. He’s looking through you.)
American Top Team fighter and New Jersey boy Rich Attonito is the latest “Ultimate Fighter” guest blogger for Cage Potato, following in a rich history that features former contestants such as Gerald Harris, Santino Defranco, and season eight winner Efrain Escudero. He’ll be giving us his thoughts and reaction to each episode, so make him feel welcome and remember to check back every Thursday for his inside take on things. To learn more about Rich, and to hear his pretty solid Schwarzenegger/Jersey Shore impressions, watch this short video. If you missed his elimination fight last night, watch this.
It was 6.00 a.m. when I arrived curbside at the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. The sun was starting to rise and it was the start of another typically beautiful day in South Florida. However, I was about to embark upon an extraordinary journey far from typical. I hugged and kissed my wife goodbye, knowing I was not going to see her for six weeks if everything worked to plan.
Before I knew it the plane had taken off and I was watching the palm trees and beaches shrinking beneath me until they were out of sight. I arrived hours later in Las Vegas, where the sky was covered in dark clouds and rainy weather. I could see snow and cloud cover on the peaks of all the surrounding mountains. The continuous rain seemed to only get worse, creating small floods and soaking everything in sight. This is not the Las Vegas you see on the postcards. It reminded me of the weather I got used to for so many years growing up in New Jersey. I thought to myself that this was great fight weather; it put me in the mood to kick someone’s ass.
The shuttle took me straight to the hotel, where I was brought up to my room to spend the next two days in isolation. If there was anything I needed, I filled out a form and slid it under the door. The only time I left the room was to cut weight and interview. This was truly a psychological test of mental toughness. Later I would learn that many of the guys were going stir-crazy in their rooms. I didn’t allow the circumstances to effect me, because I was focused on the task at hand. Being stuck in a room for 48 hours with only a TV and a window to look out of assured me of one thing: it must suck to be in jail.
Eventually we were taken over to the UFC Training Center, where the fights were announced and we made weight. When we arrived back at the hotel I focused all my attention on re-hydrating and powering up for the next day. I was excited and couldn’t wait to fight. Finally all the hard work I had put in for all of these years was going to pay off. I knew I had a once in a lifetime opportunity and wasn’t going to let anyone stand in my way. I spent most of my time sitting by the window, enjoying the miserable rainy weather, thinking about all of the years of sports that I had competed in and some of the goals I had fallen short of. This made me more determined to accomplish my goal of getting in the UFC. Winning my fight to get into the house was the first step towards that.
The next morning we were back at the UFC Gym and it was fight time! The mood was very serious and you could sense the tension in the air. Everyone knew how much was riding on these fights today – half of the people here would be going home with shattered dreams and severe disappointment.
I found my way to the blue corner, where my close friend and boxing coach Howard Davis Jr. was. This season he would be one of Chuck ‘s assistant coaches. There was no way of knowing whose team I would end up on, which meant the possibility existed of having Howard coaching against me, but not today! I felt very fortunate to have one of my mentors present in such a life-defining moment. Anyone who has had the pleasure of working with Howard understands the calming and confident presence that the 1976 Olympic Champ brings to the table. He made it feel like this was just another day at the office for him and I.
Before I knew it the fights were on and rolling. One by one guys were called out of the dressing room to make their way to the Octagon. I went through my usual warm-up drills and preparation. It was far from your typical fight warm-up because the coaches for the corner were constantly in and out for each of the fights. So you had to rely on yourself to get ready.
I remember grabbing Josh Bryant so we could drill takedowns and shadow box. Court McGee had asked me to help him get ready a little bit as well. His warm-up ritual seemed a little bizarre to me as he asked me to kick him in the ribs and legs, hard! I would kick him and every time he would ask me to do it harder, and I was kicking him pretty damn hard. I thought to myself, this guy is nuts. He is about to fight and he wants me to kick him full on? What a maniac! I guess he is in the right place, though.
The first group of guys from the blue corner had all lost their fights. They came back in the room and looked like they wanted to shoot themselves. I remember hearing someone say, “Looks like it’s the lucky day for the red corner.” I said out loud, “F— that!! I make my own destiny.” Many of the other fighters who had not gone yet chimed right in with the same sentiments. Then the moment arrived and my name was called to head out to the Octagon.
With Howard next to me, I calmly made my way to the cage. I saw Dana, Chuck, and Tito sitting at the table in front. I was fired up to showcase my skills in front of them. I remember there being a creepy silence in the gym. It didn’t feel like a typical fight when you’re surrounded by the noise of thousands. It felt more like I was sitting in on an execution.
Then my opponent, Lyle Steffens, was in the cage across from me. He was wearing American Flag Tapout shorts and I remember thinking I was gonna have to beat up Captain America. The next thing I knew, everyone had cleared out and the ref yelled "Fight!" I came out circling, looking to score with punches, and found my opportunity for a blast double. From there I was all about control and domination. I looked to advance my position and score with effective ground and pound. Lyle is a very strong guy so I didn’t give him any chances to threaten me and at the end of round one I was clearly ahead.
In round two I came out looking to punch but Lyle did a good job of staying away and then countered with a takedown attempt. I stuffed his shot into the canvas, but he was one strong dude and sucked up my leg and drove me to the cage. I was able to break away where I almost landed a knee flush to his chin, but instead the momentum took me off my feet and I landed on my ass. I quickly grabbed his leg and secured a takedown. The rest of the round looked the same as the first with dominant top control and effective ground and pound. When the bell sounded closing out the second round I knew I had won.
Dana announced me the winner by unanimous decision. I was in the house! I could breathe a short sigh of relief and knew that the journey would continue. I had done exactly what I expected of myself and was looking forward to the challenges in front of me. I was able to catch most of the other fights and begin to meet the other guys who would be joining me in the house. One thing that was clear as the other fights unfolded was how many tough guys were going to be in this season. I knew I was gonna have my work cut out for me.
Keep checking back every week for more post-episode recap and analysis from Rich all season long. In the meantime, he’d like to thank his sponsors, Buffalo Wings & Rings Coconut Creek, Institute of Human Performance (IHP), and American Top Team.