Had things worked out differently, he might have been one of the biggest stars in the sport. Instead of being unrecognized as he stops for a coffee days before a fight in Las Vegas, he might have been mobbed by fans. If it wasn't for bad luck, Phil Baroni would have no luck at all.
"The UFC released me just as they got on SPIKE. I think if people had seen me, seen fights like the one with (PRIDE star Ikuhisa) Minowa, I would be a really popular and big name fighter," Baroni told Bloody Elbow in an exclusive interview. "But unfortunately I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. When PRIDE was at its best, I was in the UFC. When the UFC blew up and PRIDE was crumbling, guess where I was? I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Baroni was on the ground floor with Zuffa, one of the knockout machines Dana White loved when he and the Fertitta brothers first purchased the company at the turn of the century. His speed and power awed fans when he blasted former middleweight champion Dave Menne again and again as Menne slumped against the cage.
"I remember hitting him with a right hand and seeing him stagger against the cage. I remember thinking that was my opportunity - that I could be somebody in this sport," Baroni said. "To beat Dave Menne who had been a former champion and had won that tournament in Kuwait, I can really make my mark and have a future. At that moment all that was going through my mind. I just let my hands go and unleashed all the power and speed I had on him. To get what I wanted so bad. To be somebody."
It made his name. For years the clip was a staple of any UFC highlight reel. No one who saw it would forget the vicious power - or the passionate celebration that followed, the claims of being "the Best Ever!" As great as the knockout was, it also had a dark side. It helped turn a well rounded fighter into a head hunter, making it easier for opponents to game plan for a Baroni fight. Despite being a college wrestler at Hofstra and Central Michigan and a former North American Grappling Association tournament winner, Baroni threw out the ground game entirely to concentrate on the KO.
"Unfortunately, I got caught up in the knockout game after I knocked out Dave Menne," Baroni admits. "It was a great fight for me, but it was almost a double edged sword. After I won that fight I was trying to be the Mike Tyson of MMA and just knock out everybody. I tried to replicate that knockout over and over again. But you can't force it. You have to just let it happen."
It was a lesson Baroni learned the hard way. He struggled after the Menne bout, losing four in a row and was sent packing. He landed on his feet in PRIDE, having good success against Japanese icons like Minowa and Yuki Kondo. Then PRIDE was gone and Baroni was wandering. For the last four years, Baroni has drifted, finally returning home last year for a fight with Amir Saddolah. Unlike other UFC icons of days gone by, Baroni has a good relationship with White and UFC matchmaker Joe Silva. Everyone remembers the good times and were happy to give the "New York Bad Ass" a second chance at success.
"I go back with those guys a long time," Baroni said. "I don't get to talk to them as much anymore because they are busy, traveling around the world and doing great things. Joe Silva was my good friend. I'd drive him around because he didn't have a car. We'd go to find him comic books and he'd take me out to lunch at The Cheesecake Factory. It was cool. I'd go to Joe's office and watch tapes and it was like a soundtrack to the world. Back then the tapes were in different languages. We'd watch fights from Brazil and they'd be in Portuguese. We'd watch fights from Japan like Pancrase and SHOOTO and it was cool. I got to be real tight with those guys. Dana, when I tore my back and was out for almost a year, he took me to Hawaii for the first time. Those guys were good to me. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to win for them and it's a business. But I plan on winning now and getting back into the Zuffa family. I got to know these guys back then when they started and I'm proud of them. I want to be a part of what they are doing today."
Baroni was a polarizing figure during his first UFC run, a hero to some, but to most the big mouthed villain. Part of that was an act, part of that the product of being a hot headed kid from New York. In his latest flirtation with fame, Baroni has reinvented himself with the power of Twitter. He shares a lot with his fans, talking about what's going on in his life and offering plenty of self help and motivational tidbits. It's hard to recognize the man who once smacked referee Larry Landless in the cage. Baroni, it turns out, is much more than a caricature.
"I found Twitter through my friend Joey Odessa. I was in Hawaii staying at T.J. Thompson's house and I had just lost to Amir Sadollah. I was like 'man, I'm f**king done dude.' This guy Odessa who used to do the odds for the UFC shows, he's a cool guy, and he told me I needed to share this stuff. I would be a hit on Twitter," Baroni said. "People say I'm different on Twitter, but I'm the same as in life. I'm trying to change and be a better person. It's not good being miserable, being down and looking at the bad side of things. I'm trying to be a different person...I have a better outlook on life."
A believer in the "Pay it Forward" principle, Phil has harnessed the good vibes he's created on the internet and used it to his advantage. He launched a Twitter campaign to get his fight Saturday with Brad Tavares on the air. Dana White yielded to the legions of Baroni fans. Former WEC Featherweight champion Mike Brown will remain on the untelevised undercard. Baroni and Tavares will take a slot on national television. It couldn't have happened without Twitter.
"I send all that positivity out there, hoping it would come back to me. And it does. The fans will write and say 'That quote made me feel better.' And it works. It came back, like The Secret," Baroni said. "Dana White called me today, texted me to say they were putting my fight on ION TV. Then he called me. 'People are asking for you. The fans still care about you.' Now I just need to prove to the world that I can still fight. I can and I want to do it in the UFC."
Baroni takes on Brad Tavares at UFC 125, live on ION Television. Join us later this week as we take a look back at two of his most memorable fights, legendary battles with Matt Lindland and Ikuhisa Minowa.