After tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the British Army, Jay Cucciniello wasn’t going to get rattled too much by not having his phone with him for six weeks as a participant on season 27 of The Ultimate Fighter.
“When I was younger, I was quite a lonely person,” he said. “I had family around but I wasn’t that attached to them, so going away on these tours and not having a phone was quite easy. But coming on to the show, I had a real connection with someone and spent a lot of time with her over the years, so it was definitely hard. But I think it just goes down to burying my head and getting on with the task at hand and concentrating on what I had to.”
It’s the attitude that separates the haves from the have nots on the long-running reality show. Of course, UFC President Dana White put it most succinctly on season one when he asked, “Do you want to be a f**kin’ fighter?” but over the years, there are those who couldn’t hack being away from the outside world for a month and a half. Some left. Others checked out mentally. Cucciniello isn’t one of those guys, and as one of the elder statesmen on the show at 31, he’s developed a thick skin to any form of adversity.
“In my younger years, I was deployed a lot and traveled around a lot with the Army, so I grew a switch in my head where I could just turn it off, I suppose,” he said. “You can have a lot of happy times in the military, but there’s obviously a lot of sad times – losing close friends, and seeing a lot of death and stuff like that – and it definitely scars you, but I think I grew up trying to not let it control me. I did the switch off thing and got on with it.”
Tonight, he has his first fight on the show against Bryce Mitchell. It’s a sentence he didn’t expect to read as he was putting together a perfect 8-0 record with eight finishes. But there was something about there being a TUF season with only undefeated records that appealed to him, even though there was already obvious interest from the UFC.
“The Ultimate Fighter just came out of nowhere,” Cucciniello said. “I never pursued a career in MMA to get to the UFC. I pursued a career in MMA to leave a legacy and travel and do big things everywhere I went and fight the toughest guys. So when the opportunity came up for The Ultimate Fighter, I had always been a fan of it, but just that season of undefeated fighters, it jumped out at me. I had a lot of people messaging me and telling me about it, so I couldn’t turn away.”
He was also able to get a little advice from an alumnus of the show, UFC vet Luke Barnatt, a longtime friend and training partner.
“I knew Luke when he competed on the show himself,” said Cucciniello. “He gave me a bit of a down-low about it all, and I think a lot of it has changed since then as well, but the tips he gave me gave me some good direction going into the tryouts, and even getting on to the show, he gave me some great advice as well.”
Now it’s time for Cucciniello to put that advice into action. Soon, we’ll find out whether he is able to make it through the toughest tournament in sports unscathed, but in the meantime, he wants his story to be more than just about fighting.
“Life itself is pretty tough and a lot of people go through a lot of s**t,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter where you come from, there’s always a bit of hope and you’ve just got to dig deep for anything you want in life and go for it. I learned that on that show. Having a lot of things that happened in my life put me in this position. The world is a cruel place, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel. People will see the determination and that toughness and everyone will face that nemesis or that hard grind and no matter what, when you come out through the ramp, you just gotta keep the hope up and just really dig deep.”