"It (The Ultimate Fighter) was what I needed as an athlete and what I needed to mature for this sport." - Mike Ricci
It’s not always a bargain being named Mike Ricci in Montreal. Usually you’ll tell someone your name or sign something, and there’s that slight hesitation, followed by “Are you related to that guy?”
“That guy” was the Mike Ricci who put in 16 seasons for various teams in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996. Anywhere in Canada, that will make you a household name.
“I always got that, especially being in Montreal, which is a hockey city, and I was always kinda in his shadow,” said the latest Mike Ricci to make his name in the world of professional sports. This new Ricci? He does it as a mixed martial artist, one who is one win over Colton Smith on Saturday from becoming the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 16 competition and earning a UFC contract. And these days, people in Canada and around the world are starting to catch on. “When I first started fighting, I would write my name on Google and I’d always get this hockey player, and now it seems like you write my name and you get me and not him.”
For good reason. Not just the latest prospect from the renowned Tristar Gym in Montreal, Ricci is a fighter who has been getting plenty of notices for his time on TUF and in a segment of the “Road to the Octagon” show with his friend and training partner, UFC welterweight contender Rory MacDonald. And this week, as the TUF Finale approaches, Ricci has made headlines for his no nonsense take on his six weeks of taping in the world of reality television.
“The closest thing is jail,” he said. “If I get sent in, that’s the only way I’m gonna experience anything like that ever again.”
That may be the harshest assessment of the TUF experience yet, but as the 26-year-old points out, he did know what he was in for going in; he just didn’t know to what extent it was going to be horrible for him.
“I knew it was gonna suck beforehand,” he deadpans. “And I think that’s the reason why it gets easier as the seasons go on because guys have been in there and they’ll give advice to guys who are going in so they can mentally prepare a lot better. I was told it was gonna bad.”
It wasn’t initially, as Ricci blasted out Jason South in less than two minutes to earn a spot in the house. In fact, for a few moments afterward, he couldn’t have been happier.
“I won and I was happy when I won and I remember being ecstatic,” said Ricci. “‘This is sick, I just won my first fight in front of Dana White,’ and I got out of the cage and I was like ‘whoa, wait a minute.’ Here comes the production team, they’re miking me up, saying ‘okay, sign these papers, get ready, get in the van, we’re outta here.’ They just rolled through. Next thing I knew I was in a van, I was in a different change of clothes, there’s a camera in my face, and I’m like ‘what’s going on here?’ Okay, it’s about to start.”
Yet despite the shock of the whole thing, Ricci, a member of Team Carwin, won three bouts in a row over Dom Waters, Michael Hill, and Neil Magny to take his spot in the final alongside Team Nelson’s Smith. If this was a test, he passed with flying colors.
“I knew what it was gonna be and I accepted the fact that I was going to go through something different and I knew it was gonna be a test,” he said. “So the entire time I was there, every time I felt down, every time I felt like quitting, I said ‘okay, this is the test you gave yourself; are you gonna pass it or not?’ I haven’t been out of Montreal for more than a week, I always fought at home, I always had my coaches and my family, and now I strip myself of everything, and I really tested myself above and beyond what people know. And for me it was what I needed as an athlete and what I needed to mature for this sport.”
And as soon as he returned home to Montreal and Tristar, everything returned to normal immediately for him.
“When I came back from The Ultimate Fighter, it was pro training day and all the pros were at the gym,” said Ricci. “I walked in and the whole atmosphere changed. Everybody was warming up and it’s an intense sparring day, and everyone stopped and came to shake my hand and hug me and say ‘welcome back.’ It was a good feeling and it made me realize what I have at that gym.”
It’s all hindsight now, with Ricci making it to the finals and on the verge of getting his UFC contract stamped, but considering what he signed up for with TUF, why do it in the first place, especially with a 7-2 pre-TUF record and the likelihood that being with Tristar would have given him exposure to the UFC brass he wouldn’t receive training elsewhere?
“I always knew that I was a couple fights away from the UFC and I could have stayed and went that route, but I knew The Ultimate Fighter would speed things up,” said the four year pro. “At the end of the day, I think I would have got to the same place, but one was a little more intense as far as how hardcore it was, but it was also faster. So I went with short and intense rather than the long and regular, usual path that everyone has taken, fighting on undercards and what not.”
Given the amount of UFC fighters that make their home in Tristar, along with those visitors who show up for some top-level training and sparring, it must have been tough for Ricci to be around that atmosphere and not want to speed things up as well, a notion the talented up and comer agrees with.
“You can always gauge your level because you’re always training with these guys, and when you know you belong somewhere and it’s not happening for you, it gets frustrating,” he explains. “There are a lot of great guys out there who deserve to be in the UFC that aren’t. At the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to business and timing, so it was frustrating, but I was never upset or jealous with any of the fighters at my gym and I was always happy for all of them. We’re like a family at Tristar. People say ‘when you go to war we all go to war,’ and a lot of gyms say that, but at Tristar that’s actually the way it is. When one guy goes into the cage, everyone rallies behind him and everybody would take his place in an instant. Everyone wants to be in there and help them, and they’re probably just as nervous seeing their friends fight as they would be, fighting themselves. We have a good group, a good family over there.”
So is it to safe to say all’s well that ends well for Mike Ricci?
“In the end, everything worked out well,” he said. “Now I feel like winning this show and passing this test is just the beginning of a whole bunch of new tests that are going to be put in front of me.”
And maybe when ex-hockey player Mike Ricci introduces himself, people will ask, "are you related to that fighter?"