As a UFC veteran who now coaches fighters seeking a spot on MMA’s premier roster, Romie Aram has one mantra for his team.
“You guys need to stay ready all the time. You never know when it’s gonna happen.”
For Joe Merritt, it happened last week when he was asked if he was interested in stepping in on short notice to face Alex Oliveira at UFC Fight Night: Machida vs. Romero in Hollywood, Florida.
“It caught me off guard,” said the unbeaten prospect. “I’m gonna be a little star-struck, but I know how to keep my composure and conduct myself in the right way, so I’m not worried about it.”
Perfect in seven pro fights, with each victory coming by way of knockout, the training partner of tomorrow night’s co-main eventer, Lorenz Larkin, was likely on his way to the Octagon sooner rather than later. Not this soon, probably, but the 31-year-old admits that his new plans for Saturday are preferable to the usual training grind.
“This is a lot better,” he said. “I had to sacrifice, but I’ve got to make things happen for myself. You have to always be prepared when you’re a fighter.”
As a former college football star for the University of Louisiana at Monroe, the 31-year-old knows about hard work and about being ready when his number is called. His track record proves it. But what makes Merritt even more intriguing as a prospect is that he comes into the UFC as not just a fighter, but an actor as a model as well.
“This is a story in the making,” he said. “I’m a fighter, I played college football and I’ve always been an athlete. Modeling, hey, thanks mom and dad, I appreciate the genetics. (Laughs) And with the acting, it’s all going to come into play. Fighting, to me, is going to elevate it even more. I’m trying to be a triple threat and do it all.”
That works great for those in the fight game, as anything that can bring more eyeballs to the sport is a good thing, but what about those who deal with Merritt in the modeling and acting business? Do they plead with him to not mess with his moneymaker by getting punched in the face?
“All the time,” he laughs. “They’re always telling me ‘you’re an actor and a model, you don’t have to do that. If you spent at least 10 percent of the time over here, you can become more famous and make money.’ But it’s not about being famous. Of course you have to eat and make money, but I enjoy the overall craft of fighting.”
And in the Millennia Gym, he didn’t get any special treatment. In fact, he had to go above and beyond to prove that he was dedicated to that craft.
“Here in California, to be called a fighter I had to earn it,” he said. “Everybody thought I was in Hollywood, and they were going ‘Oh, he’s gonna skip practice. Watch, he’s not gonna be here every day.’ And I basically live in the gym. I really am homeless (Laughs) because I live in the gym. I live and breathe fighting.”
He’s looking to prove it Saturday against a tough test in Oliveira. But Merritt is up for the challenge and he doesn’t want to just win – he wants to leave an impression.
“I always look at the UFC as the NFL – Not For Long,” he said. “You don’t even have 15 minutes of fame; you may only get five minutes if you get knocked out and kicked out. So you have to show something. A lot of guys don’t understand that people like to see action and they want to see electrifying excitement. You can’t just be like ‘I’m a fighter’ and go in there ‘yes Sensei, no Sensei.’ You’ve got to show some type of charisma, some type of character, and discipline. This is chess, not checkers. You’ve got to outthink your opponent and you have to have the total package.”
Is Joey “Slash” Merritt that guy?
“People will want to come back and watch me again because I threw down and I dedicate myself to this.”