When he steps into the Octagon for tonight’s Ultimate Fighter season 19 middleweight semifinal match against Dhiego Lima, Roger Zapata will be one win away from the UFC and a long time removed from the days when he was fighting in bars and banquet halls on the east coast circuit.
“I fought in bars where they just put a cage in there and threw seats anywhere they can, and in a tiny banquet hall on a reservation,” laughed the New Yorker.
For proof, just check out youtube.com, but despite the humble surroundings, the 28-year-old has no regrets about those days.
“To be completely honest, I love the small venues,” he said. “They’re cool because you can slam somebody and hear the crowd erupt. I like that whole experience. Back in the day, I didn’t really care about who was there or what was going on; I just wanted to knock somebody out.”
The stages have changed, but the attitude hasn’t, and with three of his four pre-TUF wins coming by knockout, he’s still swinging for the fences. That even goes for his days in the gym, where he admits that he’s been involved in his share of wars with some of the best in the game, including fellow Dominican (and UFC welterweight) Alex Garcia.
“Me and him battle,” said Zapata, who travels to Montreal’s Tristar Gym and New York’s Renzo Gracie Academy from his home in Albany. “When we first met, I think he was pissed that there was another Dominican that fought. (Laughs) He didn’t respect me until we went toe-to-toe and tried to take each other’s head off.”
Now it’s all good between the two Dominican power hitters, a description usually saved for other athletes from the Caribbean island.
“We’re busy playing baseball, man,” Zapata laughs when asked why there aren’t more fighters of Dominican descent in mixed martial arts. “I think that’s why. A lot of us Dominicans are into the MLB, so I guess we stick with baseball.”
Well, the two who remain – at least in Montreal – have developed a bond that includes interacting with a surprisingly vibrant Dominican community in the Great White North.
“There’s Dominican spots all over Montreal,” said Zapata. “I thought we were all in the Bronx or Washington Heights.”
It’s almost like a home away from home, and that’s even before you look at who he sees on a daily basis whenever he’s in town to train. It’s a Who’s Who of the sport, and they give him an education that is priceless. So when he got the call for The Ultimate Fighter so soon in his career, he had no hesitation about taking the shot.
“The difference between me and a lot of other fighters is that I got amateur fights under me, so if you ever see me fight, people say I fight calm and collected and I don’t get nervous,” said the Team Penn member who has defeated Tyler Minton and Ian Stephens on the show, the latter decision victory being one of the most controversial in the series’ history. “I fought at the highest amateur stages in boxing and MMA. I was training with Garcia and Georges St-Pierre and Rory MacDonald and I went toe-to-toe with everybody. When he (GSP) knew he was going to fight (Johny) Hendricks and when he was getting ready for (Nick) Diaz, I was pretty much his main sparring partner because I’m a lefty. And when Rory was getting ready for (Jake) Ellenberger, that was another lefty, so I’m sparring them all the time and I’m ready for the shark tank, ain’t no doubt about it.”
So it’s safe to say that he’s seen worse situations in the gym than in any fight?
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’ve had some killer sessions in the gym. None of my fights have ever felt like what I went through in the gym.”
Well, if he gets over this lack of confidence problem, he should be okay.
“There’s no way you’re not gonna have that confidence because you’ve been with those guys and been with them when they’re at their peak getting ready for their fights, so I’ve got to be confident.”
But is the UFC ready for another New Yorker?
“The UFC is ready for this New Yorker,” he said. “I’ve got it tattooed on my arm, and I’m as New York as it comes. I left New York for six months and came right back. This is my state for life.”
TUF 19 Profile - Roger Zapata
Meet the semifinalists of TUF 19 - next up, Roger Zapata...