It was only five years ago that Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar helped to usher in a new age of mixed martial arts. "The Ultimate Fighter" tradition has continued to introduce up and coming talent to the fastest growing sport on the planet and while some fighters go on to successful careers, others walk away knowing that took their shot.
Between the lines lies another category of TUF alumnus who rather than win the tournament style competition, used the hit Spike TV reality show as a platform to get another audition in the live fire of the UFC. Season 11 competitor Rich Attonito is the perfect example for the case study at hand.
The ATT fighter looked impressive during his time on the show but was ultimately sidelined due to a hand injury. A healthy Attonito was then invited back for the season ending finale and was pleased when the organization matched him up with Season 10 villain Jamie Yager. The New Jersey native used his aggressive and powerful style to take the victory with an impressive second round stoppage. The win earned Attonito another opportunity to perform when the UFC lined him up with Brazilian Rafael Natal at UFC Fight Night: Marquardt vs. Palhares. Once again the ever improving Attonito used a versatile mixture of power and control to earn a unanimous decision victory.
Up next for Rich Attonito is another tough challenge when he faces Dave Branch at The Ultimate Fighter 12 Finale this weekend in Las Vegas. Branch has only suffered one defeat in his career and Attonito knows that he will have to be at his best if he is to issue Branch another loss on his record. A few hours before he departed for Las Vegas I caught up with Attonitio and in this Bloody Elbow Exclusive interview he shared his insight on Branch, what it takes to be an exciting fighter and the TUF phenomenon.
Attonito came into the public eye during his time on "The Ultimate Fighter" but I wanted to start at the beginning and asked him what brought him to mixed martial arts in the first place.
"I mainly got into MMA because after I wrestled in college I was looking for something to keep the competitive fires burning," Attonito stated. "I started training Jiu-Jitsu and did some grappling tournaments but it just wasn't enough to satisfy my appetite. After going to some local fights I decided that I could go in there and beat the guys I was watching fight so I got started. I fought in Boston, New Jersey and then I was given an opportunity to come down to American Top Team in Coconut Creek Florida. From there I tried to build my record and take care of some injuries that I feel hampered me getting the amount of fights that I wanted. I feel like I should have twice as many fights but I have had to overcome some injuries and obstacles. Basically I was just trying to follow the dream and make it to the UFC until I finally got that break with The Ultimate Fighter Show."
More from Rich in the full entry.
There were bigger personalities on the show but Attonito did not travel to the Las Vegas desert to make good television. After winning his bout against Kyacey Uscola, Attonito learned that his MRI came back showing a fracture in his hand which forced him to withdraw. Attonito has since recovered and put on two strong performances inside of the octagon. Now with some time between his career and the TUF house I asked Attonito if he felt he had to work hard to shake the stigma that becomes attached to The Ultimate Fighter competitors.
"For some reasons the fans do not think that some of the TUF competitors are that good," Attonito responded. "I think if people paid attention to the success that guys have coming out of the show they will realize that there are a lot of up and coming prospects going into the show as well. I believe it gets judged differently because it is a reality show or whatever but if you look at the success all of these guys have had and are having, maybe people would change their thinking. Every guy that goes into the show is not able to make it into the UFC and get the opportunity. If you are in the UFC then that means something. Look at the first season and all of the guys who have done well there. Even take a look at recent seasons and see those fighters who are winning in the UFC. I feel the bad rep is because it comes from reality TV."
During his bout with Rafael Natal in September, Attonito landed a big right hand early in the fight that altered Natal's game plan and helped the TUF alum take the decision victory. After the fight Attonito returned to the gym and I asked what lessons he took from the bout and what major changes he employed to his camp.
"There were no major changes but there were some areas I felt that I wanted to improve upon," Attonito answered. "After every fight you see things that you need to work on. At least that is the way I train and it makes me even more motivated to get in the gym. I always try to up the ante in my training and improve the little details. Just work on all facets of my game. In the striking and grappling departments I've worked very hard. I've refocused on my wrestling in order to keep my base strong going into this fight."
Up next for the New Jersey native is Dave Branch, who most fans remember as the fighter who suffered the power slam knockout at the hands of Gerald Harris. While the highlight reel finish may have brought unwanted notoriety to Branch, the assumption that he is an easy night's work in the cage is not a mistake that Attonito is going to make.
"Dave is a very successful fighter. His only loss was to Gerald Harris but before and after that he has been unbeaten. He is well rounded and had a solid ground game and is a black belt under Renzo Gracie."
Attonitio continued, "He has technical striking, solid footwork and you see him utilize it in his fights. I know he has been working on his wrestling too so I think he is a good challenge for me. I am really excited and I think it will be a great fight. We both like to mix it up on our feet and there is not going to be any lull in the action. I just think it's one of those fights that wherever it goes both guys have the ability to threaten each other."
While Attonito may have twelve fights under his belt he is still considered a relatively young fighter in the sport. With last week's headlines impossible to avoid Attonito joined the collective masses who were puzzled by the UFC's release of Gerald Harris. I asked Rich to share his thoughts on how news of this nature affects a fighter's mentality as he scraps to establish himself in the sport's most successful organization.
"It's definitely a balancing act," Attonito answered. "The way that I fight is just the way that I've always competed. I like to be aggressive and go after my opponent where I dictate the action and force the pace. Second of all I kind of feel that I'm already in that gear that the UFC is looking. They want guys in there fighting hard and going after it. Obviously you are going to put that in the back of your mind but you have to get in there and perform...let your stuff go but in the back of your mind there is the motivating factor to make sure you don't leave anything in there. When you see guys get released it makes you think twice about your own position. That is why I take fights one at a time because if you look past what is in front of you it's possible that you can lose sight of what you are doing. You see a guy like Gerald, who had some fantastic finishes to his fights and unfortunately the last fight wasn't the same result. There are a lot of critical eyes when you step into the octagon and that adds pressure. But that is why you train so hard so you can go out and perform every time."
While other sports are known to have rabid fan bases, nothing comes close to the relationship between MMA and its fans. The MMA community is extremely active in internet based news media and just as headlines spread like a brush fire, the same can be true for opinions and criticism.
"Critics are always going to be critics. Anybody who hasn't fought in there doesn't fully understand what it's like and how much different it can be from what you see on television," Attonito answered as he addressed the subject. "It's easy to sit back and criticize what was or wasn't done but when you are the one in the fight, psychology becomes a factor. You might see things from your perspective that can't be seen from the audience. Things you see your opponent trying to do that the casual fan simply would not understand. Even people who do understand MMA and follow it closely still do not always get the right perspective. Two fighters going at it in the cage will start to notice thing about each other. They start to pick up tendencies like what their opponent is looking to counter with. When I'm in there it can sometimes become a telepathic type thing where I start to understand what my opponent is thinking and trying to do. For instance, my last fight against Rafael Natal, we got into a cat and mouse game. He was trying to counter what I was doing and I was trying to get the jump on what he was going to do. When I watch the fight afterwards I feel like there were some openings that I missed or things that I could have taken advantage of better. But I also have to remind myself that every time I attempted to do something he was immediately trying to counter that move. The psychology of the fight when that happens changes what you are trying to do and what you want to do so it makes it hard for people to understand."
A victory over Branch this Saturday will not only make it five straight for Attonito but will also bolster his resume. I asked Attonito what he felt a victory over Branch would accomplish.
"Another win...as far as I'm concerned would give me another opportunity with the UFC. As far as who they would put me up against, that is something that I leave up to them. I'll just be happy with another opportunity as soon as I accomplish my goal for this fight," he replied.
On Saturday night in Las Vegas Rich Attonito will return to the system that opened the heaviest doors in the sport...and as grateful as he is for the chance, there is still unfinished business from his time spent on The Ultimate Fighter. With the interview winding down Attonito took the final moments to give thanks to the people who have been with him from where he started to the bright lights he now fights beneath.
"Thank you to all of my family, friends, fans and teammates for the tremendous support. People can stay up to date with me on facebook and Twitter @richattonito."