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Interview: Why Rome-native UFC fighter Alessio Di Chirico is no Gladiator

Rome-native Alessio Di Chirico discusses his upcoming bout with Gareth McLellan at UFC on FOX: Maia vs. Condit, as well as why he doesn’t identify with Ancient Rome’s most famous fighters.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Di Chirico vs Velickovic Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

Alessio Di Chirico is coming off the only defeat in his young career, after dropping a decision to Bojan Velickovic in April, in the opening bout of UFC Fight Night 86. Though the judges gave the nod to his Serbian opponent, the match in Zagreb was a close affair which some scored in favour of the Italian UFC debutante.

Asked if he agreed with the official judges’ scores, Di Chirico was blunt. “I don’t care about this,” he told Bloody Elbow. “No fighter can be satisfied if a match is left in the hands of judges.”

Prior to his match with Velickovic, Di Chirico was undefeated in nine bouts. Of those victories only one was earned via a decision.

“I went always forward,” said Di Chirico, of his performance versus Velickovic. “He was very elusive, but I think I pressured him [throughout the fight].”

The 26-year-old middleweight did concede that he made mistakes in the second round of the contest, in allowing his opponent ample opportunities to attack his arm with a kimura. Despite these mistakes, and being handed the first loss on his record, Di Chirico feels positive about his UFC debut.

“Win or learn,” said Di Chirico - echoing Team McGregor. “I think I learned a lot of things after that match.”

This weekend, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Di Chirico meets South African Garreth McLellan (13-4), who is currently 1-2 in the UFC and coming of off a TKO loss at the hands of Magnus Cedenblad.

Di Chirico respects the 34-year-old McLellan’s veteran savvy, his dangerous submission game (McLellan has 9 submission victories), and his karate credentials (McLellan is a former national champion). However, Di Chirico also believes that McLellan, and fighters like him, are part of a dying breed that may not be cut out for today’s MMA landscape.

“I think he is an ‘old school fighter’,” explained Di Chirico. “He started with karate and then improved his style with wrestling, grappling, etc. I’m an athlete of a new generation, I started my training in MMA.” And it is this MMA-native status, along with an ability to more naturally transition between different aspects of fighting, that Di Chirico thinks will see him victorious on Saturday night.

UFC on Fox 21 marks a special occasion for Di Chirico. His appearance at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver will be the first time he has ever fought professionally outside of Europe. However, he has previously fought in the US and Canada as an amateur. In 2014 Di Chirico competed in the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) World Championships, where he fought three times in a week, winning each bout.

The IMMAF tournament was a grueling experience, but Di Chirico credits it for making him a much stronger fighter. Furthermore Di Chirico thanked the IMMAF for being an outlet for amateur fighters outside the US to compete and improve. Di Chirico believes tournaments like those put on by IMMAF may lead to a wave of what he calls ‘new breed’ international talents, on their way to making big splashes in the world’s elite MMA promotions.

Though Italian MMA fighters are yet to fully announce themselves on the world’s stage, it’s hard to ignore their ancient pedigree for soldiering and - frankly - fighting to the death. Di Chirico was born in Rome, under the shadows of the great Coliseum. The largest amphitheater ever built was opened in AD 80 and allowed up to 80,000 spectators to watch mock battles, hunting demonstrations, and of course gladiatorial combat.

Gladiator combat was a popular attraction for almost a thousand years, until the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state church in the year 380. Despite pop culture drawing many parallels between gladiators and modern prize fighters (who can forget that classic UFC intro), count Di Chirico as someone who is no fan of the comparison.

Asked if he identified with the ancient warriors who spilled blood on his hometown’s soil, Di Chirico replied, “No, not at all.”

“Gladiators are slaves,” expanded the young mixed-martial-artist. Though some ancients did volunteer to be gladiators, the overwhelming majority of them were indeed slaves. “The motto of my team (Hung Mun MMA Studio) is ‘Not Gladiators, we are Knights’,” continued Di Chirico. “Because we consider ourselves gentlemen who are fighting for principle, for an idea.”

“I like my city very much and the history of ancient Rome, but I prefer to consider myself an athlete, not a slave, an athlete of pankration or pugilatus caestis.” Pankration (or Pancrase) has been used as a label for modern martial arts practices and promotions, but the original form has ancient roots that stretch as far back as 600 BCE and the early Olympic Games. Like MMA, pankration (which means “all of might”) utilized boxing, wrestling, kicking, holds, locks, and chokes, but excluded biting and eye gouging.

Pugilatus caestis is one of the earliest documented forms of boxing, which was practiced in both the Ancient Greek and Roman Empires. Ancient pugilists would wrap their fists in long strips of leather to protect their knuckles, just like with modern boxing gloves. However, sometimes these hand-protectors were also re-enforced with metal plates to form crude knuckle-dusters. Other times, the gloves used would sprout a long blade, making head-movement a matter of life and death.

Though he’ll be entering the fighting arena sans fist-knives or tridents at UFC on Fox 21, Alessio Di Chirico steps in against his South African opponent as the betting favourite. And once the cage door closes, we’ll see if this young fighter, with a head for history, has what it takes to prove the oddsmakers right, and take the next step forwards in his very own MMA odyssey.