"I’m looking at this as an opportunity to take this dude out, to knock
him out, and to show everyone that I’m still a great fighter and can
still beat anybody on any given night, and if I’m given the opportunity,
I can still be a title contender and I can win the title.”
It was called Mega Fight 1 – Enter The Lions Den. UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock wasn’t just the promoter, he was the main event. And on a card featuring Shamrock protégés like Vernon White and Joe Hurley, a 25-year old from Long Island, New York – Phil Baroni – brought a little local flavor to the Tropicana Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City.
It was Baroni’s third pro bout, and six months earlier he has made his UFC debut with a three round decision win over Curtis Stout at UFC 30. This was a ‘keep busy’ bout for “The New York Bad Ass” before his return to the Octagon, but he didn’t fight like it was. Instead, when he took on Robert Sarkozi, he fought as if a middleweight title was on the line. 65 seconds later, the fight was over.
“I knocked him out five times,” chuckled Baroni. “The referee didn’t even know he was knocked out.”
Less than three months later, Baroni was back in the UFC to face Matt Lindland, and while he had his ups and downs over the ensuing nine years, he never disappeared, and when a Baroni fight was on television, you were watching it. But one thing has been missing the last couple years for the now 34-year old, and it was the one element he had an abundance of on the night of August 10, 2001 in Atlantic City. Now he’s bringing it back.
“I’ll be honest, maybe over the last couple years I lost the mean,” he admits. “But I’ve gotten it back. In training camp I’m trying to control it a bit because I was almost untrainable and a maniac. We did some hard sparring here at AKA (American Kickboxing Academy) and there were temper flare-ups and in a lot of ways I’m back to my old mean self. (Trainer) Javier Mendez told me, ‘anyone else, I would have kicked you out for that kinda stuff, but we love you and we want you to win. I don’t want you to wreck my gym, but I’m happy to have you back. I haven’t seen you like this in the last couple years.’”
Owner of a 3-5 record since a memorable (and successful) 4-2 run in PRIDE, Baroni tried to figure out what was missing in his career, and why winnable fights were now ending in crushing losses. Changing training camps didn’t help, and when a welterweight experiment saw him lose back-to-back bouts to Joe Riggs and Amir Sadollah, many, including Mendez, wanted Baroni to retire. The welterweight fix was anything but.
“It was really hard making the weight and thinking about it, it might have been a stupid decision,” he said. “Lighter isn’t always better. I wrestled 177 my senior year of high school and I was cutting weight to make that. 22 pounds in 24 hours was a lot, and I lost some fights against guys I feel I should have easily beaten.”
Baroni, who returned to the UFC for the first time in nearly five years to face Sadollah in an exciting, but ultimately losing effort at UFC 106, was going to get another shot – this time at his optimum weight of 185 pounds. The question was, did he really even want it? To find the answers, he took a trip to Thailand to train at the Tiger Muay Thai camp in Phuket.
“I had to escape, because I was pretty disappointed,” he said. “I waited for years to get back in the UFC and fight in the big show and that was definitely not a great performance (against Sadollah). Nothing was going right, I had a horrible training camp leading up to the fight and I don’t make excuses, that’s never been my style – but everything was just bad and I needed to escape, needed to get away, and to be in as different an atmosphere as possible. Thailand was a perfect fit for that. (Laughs) I was so burned out on MMA and I didn’t want to train MMA. I just trained Thai boxing as a Thai boxer. I trained twice a day like I was preparing for a Thai boxing fight for two months, six days a week. It was a great experience.”
The training was undoubtedly top-notch and got Baroni back in a fighting mindset, but what he took away from his two month journey was something more important. And it came not just from watching poverty-stricken kids training and competing for a dream ticket out of their current situations, but from regular folks who used their time in Thailand as an escape from their everyday lives.
“It made me get that hunger back,” said Baroni. “What I really took out of it was how lucky I am and how blessed I am to have the life I have. I used to feel bad for myself, avoid training at all costs and do the bare minimum to get by. I was having the shortest training camps possible to try to get results and I half-assed it. What I saw over there were people from all walks of life, all parts of the world – whether it was Finland, Australia, America, Canada, Brazil – and they would save up their money, some for over a year, to be able to train for two weeks or maybe a month in Thailand and be able to do what I get paid to do. Their escape was doing what I get paid to do? It made me realize how lucky I am, and I have to make the most of this opportunity while I still have it. It may be my last chance.”
That last chance, last stand, or whatever you want to call it for Baroni takes place this Saturday night against The Ultimate Fighter alum Brad Tavares at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Tavares, despite his relative inexperience (just six pro fights), is a talented up and comer who is hungry to add a high-profile name to his resume. Baroni, with his back against the wall, welcomes the challenge.
“I look at it like this,” he said, “I lost to a guy my last time out who I feel I should have beat, but maybe the UFC sees me as a guy who gets fed to guys they want to promote. Maybe that’s who they think I became. So this is an opportunity for me to show them that I’m still a legitimate fighter, I’m still a contender. And this is a great opponent because he’s good. Out of the last four to six guys I’ve fought, this guy is by far the best guy. He’s talented, he’s young, he’s well-rounded, and he’s the new breed of MMA fighter. But I’m looking at this as an opportunity to take this dude out, to knock him out, and to show everyone that I’m still a great fighter and can still beat anybody on any given night, and if I’m given the opportunity, I can still be a title contender and I can win the title.”
And in an interesting twist, Baroni – who once embraced the idea of being the fighter you loved to hate – has become a sentimental favorite, the gutsy battler you can’t help but root for as he looks to climb the mountain once more. That’s not something lost on “The New York Bad Ass.”
“I didn’t realize it before, but I was really fighting from behind, and the more the fans were going against me and the more I would go against them back, it was an unwinnable situation,” he said. “I had everyone against me, and I’m a human being – you want people to like you. It was horrible, and when I look back at it, I played it up and I tried to prove everybody wrong, but after a while it gets old and unsatisfying. You want people on your side and you want to prove them right. People want you to lose so bad and you want to shut them up every single time, it’s not a good feeling. It’s a lot of pressure and it hurt a lot of my performances. I didn’t like that nobody liked me, but it was partly my fault and I relished the role because I thought there was no turning back. But the last UFC, I may be hearing things (Laughs), but at the weigh-ins in Vegas I think I had the loudest support. At least I felt like I did. And instead of people booing me and wanting me to lose during the fight, I had people cheering for me, and I heard cheers when I landed a punch. That was a tough fight I went though, and it really helped to keep me going. I wanted to win for the people because they were behind me. Just hearing the cheers for the first time in the UFC meant a lot and I definitely want to experience that again.”
Now he’s back on track – not only physically, but mentally – and when the bell rings Saturday night, he’ll have a familiar face in the corner in his old friend Javier Mendez.
“Javier told me, ‘Honestly, after your last fight, I wanted you to retire. But this camp, it’s like a different guy. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know what’s happened, but you can fight as long as you want now. You’re back to when I first met you, fighting in PRIDE.’”
Those were the words Baroni needed to hear, and he is firm in belief that while the pressure’s on, “I’m gonna rise to the occasion, something I haven’t always been able to do in my career, and I’m gonna do it this time, when it matters most.”
Why will it be different this time? It all goes back to Long Island and a time when the world outside of his circle of family and friends didn’t know who Phil Baroni was.
“When I was a little kid in my yard, other kids were winning the World Series by hitting an imaginary a home run with a count of three balls and two strikes, and some kids were sinking the three pointer with two seconds left to win the championship basketball game,” he said. “I was shadowboxing Mike Tyson or I was fighting in the Kumite in Bloodsport. That’s what I always wanted to be – I always wanted to be a fighter and a world champion. I never wanted to be Don Mattingly, I never wanted to be Patrick Ewing or Mike Bossy; I wanted to be Mike Tyson and Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. I have the opportunity to be that again, and I’m gonna make the most of it this time. I’m gonna give it my all – a hundred percent – and I’ve always done that in my fights, but now I’m doing it in my preparation. I’m doing the most I can and I plan on winning this fight. I’m looking really good right now and I’m happy because I’ve got that meanness back. I don’t know what it is, but you’ll see it on the 1st.”