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The Surprising Return of Todd Duffee

"I’ve had to make some crazy sacrifices from friends, family, all that
stuff, but if I go out there and I perform, it’s gonna be worth it." - Todd Duffee

UFC heavyweight Todd DuffeeTodd Duffee wasn’t taking phone calls. Not from his manager Bob Cook, not from anybody.

Frustrated with the business of mixed martial arts after only fighting a combined 53 seconds in nearly two years, Duffee was about to take a leap into the world of kickboxing and begin training overseas, so he was showing his apartment to a buddy when his phone began ringing off the hook just before Thanksgiving.

Finally, Cook stopped calling and simply texted Duffee: “You need to call me, it’s serious.”

What followed next was what the heavyweight prospects described as “a pretty big deal, and it was a big shock too, I’m not gonna lie. It was pretty intense.”

Todd Duffee was back in the UFC.

If you’ve been paying attention to the heavyweight division over the last few years, you know who Duffee is. In 2009, he was the next big thing among the big men of the sport, an unofficial title bolstered by his then-record seven second knockout of Tim Hague in his UFC debut. But a few months after an upset loss to Mike Russow at UFC 114 in a fight he was winning easily until getting caught and finished in the third round, Duffee was released from the organization. What followed was a walk through the MMA wilderness of sorts for the Raleigh, Illinois product, as he moved from team to team, had difficulty finding fights, and dealt with more than his fair share of injuries.

During that time, he would only compete twice, getting knocked out by Alistair Overeem in a December 2010 bout that he took on a week’s notice, and knocking out UFC vet Neil Grove in 34 seconds in April of this year. So when Cook called with a UFC offer, it wasn’t just welcome; it was a shock.

“I thought I had another year and a half to go (to get a call from the UFC,” said Duffee. “I had a lot of problems getting fights, and it’s not from lack of trying and not from lack of trying to get things done. It was a real big surprise.”

The signing of Duffee to step in for Matt Mitrione (who replaced Shane Carwin against Roy Nelson in the Ultimate Fighter 16 finale main event earlier this month) against England’s Phil De Fries this Saturday at UFC 155 in Las Vegas was a surprise to fight fans too, but it should be a welcome one, given Duffee’s obvious potential. The question is, did the last two years help or hinder his progress?

“I started out a long time ago, before things really picked up with the sport, so I did have an idea that I’d have to travel to Timbuktu and do these things,” said the 27-year-old Duffee of his nomadic career. “It kinda adds to the excitement, but it also adds to the stress, and there are just a lot more obstacles when you’re traveling to places you’ve never been. But it definitely teaches you a lot about yourself and you learn a lot. There aren’t a lot of distractions out there for me anymore that I haven’t seen.”

He laughs, more of a ‘can you believe this’ sort of laugh, and it is hard to believe that a fighter with such an upside has had such a rough road. But ever since touching down in San Jose to train with the American Kickboxing Academy squad that is home to elite heavyweights like Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier, Duffee has found the stability he’s needed.

“It’s no secret, I’ve been around the block,” said Duffee of his various training situations. “At one time I looked at the top ten list and I trained with seven or eight of those guys. And not just trained with them, I spent time with them, and that gave me confidence to know where I’m at. But the biggest thing about heavyweights is it’s hard to get them to show up on a consistent basis. Our bodies are a little different, their egos are a little different – not all of them, just the majority, and it’s the truth. There are few guys that are like me, DC (Cormier), and Cain that are willing to show up every day and get through that grind and make those sacrifices. Other fighters don’t take the hits we take, they don’t get twisted up the way we do; we’re different. And this is the one place that I’ve got to that I don’t have to make five phone calls to make sure I have one training partner. I walk in and I usually have two or three and I don’t make one phone call. I’m comfortable and it’s changed my stress level a lot. I have guys that I know I can count on, and that’s what I’ve always wanted.”

That’s not all though. No one is as blunt about Duffee’s past in the UFC as Duffee is, and he admits that there was always a misconception about who he was, but he didn’t know how to address it properly. Add in the fact that he didn’t let family or friends help him on his fighting path initially, and there were plenty of struggles that had nothing to do with what happened in the gym or on fight night.

“When I first came to the UFC, I was very alone,” he said. “I couldn’t trust anybody, and I didn’t, and it affected my personality to a large degree. So I’ve learned how to present myself as who I am. I wasn’t aware of how people perceived me because I’m from a small town where everybody knows me. They know I’m this regular, nice guy. I’m not this robot killing machine or this arrogant jock a**hole. If you look at a picture of me, those are the two things that you perceive. So I’ve learned to present myself a lot better, but the biggest thing for me is that I walked into this thing alone and feeling very alone, and now I know I’m not alone. Instead of getting so much hate this time around, I’ve gotten a lot of positive energy, and that feels good and it makes it easier to give it back.”

Duffee refers back to the fight with Russow, the night in May of 2010 that began the downward spiral that he has now fought his way out of. For two rounds, Duffee dominated his opponent, with those watching wondering how the Chicago native could possibly remain standing under the hot prospect’s two-fisted assault. But in the third, Russow’s right hand began and then capped off one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history, leaving Duffee with his first loss in seven fights, and a lot more on his mind.

“Within my family and friends, I didn’t know how much they cared because I never let them,” he said. “I never wanted to put anybody out. But in this sport, if you lose, you lose big, and it’s not just you losing; it’s the people around you that lose too. I remember when I lost with Russow, the first thought I had was ‘oh God, my father’s here. Oh God, my brother, my girlfriend. How are they?’ The second thought I had was ‘man, I’m not even tired,’ which is another disgusting feeling.”

The day after the Russow bout, Duffee’s father was rushed to the hospital. He passed away two weeks later. Duffee would lose a good friend and a coach in rapid succession after that, just beginning his woes. But two years later, he realizes that while every man steps into the Octagon alone, he doesn’t get there or go through the process alone.

“Maybe when you close that cage door you are alone in there to fight, but you really aren’t,” he said. “And I always kinda knew that, but I didn’t want them (friends and family) to be a part of it because if I lose, I want to lose on my own. I don’t want them to have to feel that. But whether you want them to feel it or not, they’re going to.”

Talking to Duffee, who is more than grateful to be back in the sport’s premier organization, it’s clear that he’s a survivor. Most would have packed it in a long time ago, but when you ask him why he carried on, there is still a sense of unfinished business.

“Some of it, I’m sure, is my ego,” he said. “I have not lived up to my own potential, there’s no question. And everybody that’s trained with me, everybody that’s seen me, they know that. I have a lot of potential and I owe it to my coaches and I owe it to my family and friends to see it through. I’ve had to make some crazy sacrifices from friends, family, all that stuff, but if I go out there and I perform, it’s gonna be worth it. I’ve gotten life experience that most small town kids from Raleigh, Illinois don’t get. That alone is pretty special to me. To get where I’m at now from where I was, a town of 351 people, it’s a pretty big deal, and I’m proud of that.”

So begins Chapter Two of the Todd Duffee story.