Today, the UFC middleweight division ruled by Israel Adesanya is one of the most exciting in the sport. Back in 2003, though, it was wide open and in search of a king after Murilo Bustamante was stripped of his belt in October 2002 for leaving the promotion to fight in Japan for the PRIDE organization.
Enter Phil Baroni, a charismatic knockout artist from Long Island, New York who began 2003 fresh off a first-round stoppage of Amar Suloev and an 18-second blitz of the first man to hold the UFC’s 185-pound title, Dave Menne, in 2002.
He had the punch, the confidence and the charisma to become a star in the Octagon, and while he lost his first bout of 2003 in a rematch against former Olympic silver medalist Matt Lindland, “The New York Bad Ass” knew a victory over veteran Evan Tanner at UFC 45 in November 2003 would put him in prime position to challenge for the middleweight belt.
Here’s what Baroni had to say before that pivotal meeting with the future champion.
Like most of my colleagues who cover mixed martial arts, I remember my first impression of Phil Baroni being a loud one. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the “NY Bad Ass” who made that impression, but his sister.
Sitting at ringside for Baroni’s UFC debut against Curtis Stout in February 2001, I couldn’t even hear the packed house at the Trump Taj Mahal over the screaming of Baroni’s sibling.
“Go Phil! Get him Phil!”
After Baroni was announced the decision winner over Stout, I asked this young lady, “Do you know him?”
“He’s my brother,” she said proudly, and proceeded to tell me how her brother, a then-unknown, was going to become a champion.
I kept that in mind and - all Italian New Yorker bias aside – kept a close eye on Baroni, who, without the benefit of an expansive amateur background or steady fight team atmosphere, roared through the UFC ranks, aided by not only punching power but a demeanor that was so brash, it had to make you smile. This was a kid who got it right – he came in yapping, went to war inside the cage, and win or lose, the mouth kept going.
That’s the “It” factor. Baroni has “It”, and on Friday night, he will bring those qualities back to the Octagon against tough contender Evan Tanner at UFC 45 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. And if you think the fact that this is his first fight since suffering a torn pectoral muscle in April has mellowed him, come on, this is Baroni.
“When Evan Tanner’s picking up his jaw off the floor, ask him how my rehab went,” deadpans Baroni.
And away we go.
All bluster aside, Baroni respects the fighters he gets in the cage with, no matter what he may say. And against Tanner, he’s facing a fighter who will be coming down from light heavyweight to make his middleweight debut. The last Team Quest-trained fighter who dropped a weight class was Randy Couture. And we all know how that one turned out.
“Evan Tanner’s a good fighter,” Baroni admits. “He’s fought for the title at 205, he’s like 6-2 in the UFC, he’s got a well-rounded game, and he works out with Team Quest. He’s a good fighter and a good test. And when I knock him out it will prove that I deserve a title shot at 185.”
But a pectoral tear is a serious injury, and not one to be taken lightly. Yet Baroni, in true warrior style, ignored doctor’s recommendations as to his recovery.
“It happened in April,” said Baroni. “It was supposed to be a year recovery before I could train full blast. (During the layoff) I ate a lot. I was like 238 pounds. I just ate a lot in Vegas, going to the buffets. August 1st, I cleaned out my diet and started training all out. You will see a bigger, stronger, faster, meaner, more pissed off Phil Baroni than you’ve ever seen before this Friday night. This is my reward for all the hard training, the suffering, and the sacrifices I’ve made since August 1st. I’m gonna take it out on Evan Tanner. This is the happy time for me. I just can’t wait to go in there and do my thing. And you know me, when my head’s right, I hurt people. And my head’s right.”
But is Baroni making a mistake taking such a tough fight in his first bout back from surgery?
“I don’t have no idea why he would sign to fight me,” said Baroni of Tanner, who is coming off a knockout loss at the hands of Rich Franklin earlier this year. “That’s the dumbest thing he could ever do. As a matter of fact, it’s not a wise thing for anyone to sign a fight with me because I have one intention – and that’s bad – and that’s to hurt people.”
It’s that bluster that has made Baroni loved and hated in the world of Internet chat forums. But while Baroni, a psychology major in college, seems to be the master of marketing himself as the villain, the Long Island native takes offense to the suggestion that he is putting on an act for show business’ sake.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I’m sick of that s**t. I’m just me. I ain’t afraid to say what I say and I say what I think. I don’t pull no punches and the writing is on the wall with me. What you see is what you get. I’m not a phony. I’m the real f**king deal. I say the s**t that everybody else is thinking, and they’re just afraid to say it. It’s not marketing, it’s just me. And I’m just enjoying what I’m doing. I’m having fun with my life and I’m living my dream. I’m getting to do what I want to do. These other guys, they’re trying to parlay their fighting career. They want to be movie stars, actors, and broadcasters. All I want to be is the best fighter in the world, pound for pound. I could give a f**k about movies or TV or all this other stuff. I want to be the best fighter in the world. If anyone in this sport could be a movie star, it would be me, but that’s not my thing. I’m a fighter, and that’s why the real fans like me. They know I come to fight, I bring my heart into the ring, and I never say die. And the ones that hate me are just jealous. They don’t like guys who set goals and accomplish them. They’re afraid to take risks.”
If you’ve followed Baroni’s career for any length of time, you’ll see that not only his career, but his entire life, has been one giant risk. He’s been through every possible peak and valley you could imagine, some self-inflicted, others due to politics and a general apathy from those around him, but through it all, he’s still scratching and clawing at the top, willing to do whatever it takes to get to the top. Yet when you ask him where this type of drive comes from, he hesitates and falls to silence for a moment (which for Baroni may as well be an eternity).
“That’s a tough question,” Baroni says, before continuing.
“I would say my biggest influence has been a lack of influence, of not having anyone there and me choosing my own path,” he said. “I made mistakes and fell flat on my face, but I didn’t give up and I persevered and got things done. If you asked me who my role model was, I didn’t have any. There was no one I ever looked up to really. Maybe that’s unfortunate, but it’s made me who I am. And I’m not saying that I’m in any way, shape, or form, a role model, but I do believe that hard work will solve anything. And when things aren’t good, don’t give up; just keep going and keep trying. And I show that in all my fights.”
He’s had his ups and downs in the cage, with the ups being every fight not including the name Matt Lindland, who he lost to in November of 2001 and February of 2003. Yet despite the losses, he’s still among the most popular fighters in the UFC, and one of the few bright lights in a relatively boring 185-pound division. Baroni’s not waiting that long though. In fact, he has verbally performed a coup d’état on the currently champion-less division.
“I declare myself the number one middleweight in the UFC and as of this day forward, I am the middleweight champion of the UFC,” said Baroni, 27. “So every time I fight, it’s a middleweight title fight. I’m the best fighter in the UFC’s middleweight division. As far as (former middleweight champion Murilo) Bustamante coming back, I think he left his brains in Japan after the last Pride, so I don’t think he’ll be back. That goes to prove what I would have done to him if Dan Henderson is able to do that. I’m glad things are working out the way they are. I’m just gonna beat everyone up. I’m beating everyone’s ass and I’m going to make them give me a title.”
We’ll wait until he does it the conventional way, but title or no title, Baroni is always going to be must-see TV for fight fans. There’s no lay and pray or jab and grab tactics, just a constant motion of shock and awe style bombs raining down. And when the fight is over, he leaves the “NY Bad Ass” in the cage and becomes Phil Baroni again. If you doubt that, just check him out when the cameras are off.
“I’m the first one at a show, taking pictures and signing autographs for the fans, and I’m the last one to leave, doing the same thing,” said Baroni. “I appreciate the fans because basically, they’re the ones who write my checks. Without the fans there would be no sport. So I appreciate them greatly. And the ones that hate me, keep hating. They can drink all their haterade and go to bed pissed off. I go to bed every day happy. I’ve got a girl, a car, a house, a life. I don’t hate. I hope everybody does good in their thing. I don’t get it actually.”
It’s what happens when you’re successful and won’t get any easier if Baroni’s star shines even brighter in the coming years. He knows it, yet to his friends, his family, his sister (the one who screams for him to win), and most importantly, to himself, he’s still just Phil.
“This is who I am and who I’ve always been,” he said. “If you ever saw me when I was wrestling in high school, I was just like this. When I was kickboxing and boxing, coming up, I was just like this, and I always will be. I like being me and I like doing my thing.”
But it wouldn’t be a Baroni interview without asking for a prediction: not for Friday, but for the coming year…
“This year is gonna end with a vicious, vicious, vicious knockout, and then I’m gonna start 2004 off the same way, knocking out everyone that’s fighting in this division,” said Baroni. “I don’t care who they are or what they know, where they’re from, or whatever. I’m knocking them out and I see myself being declared the number one middleweight in the world. You can ask Dana White; I refuse to fight the chumps. I only fight the best fighters. That’s why I chose Evan Tanner. He’s fought for the title, he’s won a bunch of fights in the UFC, and everyone knows him. People think coming off this injury I’m a big underdog. I’m never an underdog.”
A controversial stoppage loss at UFC 45 continued a losing streak that included a second defeat to Tanner and a 2005 submission loss to fellow Long Islander Pete Sell. Baroni would ultimately take himself to PRIDE, resurrecting his career with a 4-2 run in which he finished all of his victories. He would struggle in his next seven bouts, going 3-4, but he did return to the Octagon, losing to Amir Sadollah in 2009 and Brad Tavares in 2011. Baroni has fought sporadically since then, but in victory or defeat, “The New York Bad Ass” always gave the fans a show.
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