Ricci climbs out of basement to Las Vegas lights
Going into Saturday's live finale of "The Ultimate Fighter," Canadian Mike Ricci is convinced he has already vanquished greater demons than Colton Smith.
The 26-year-old from Montreal survived a life-altering knockout and 10 months of depression to piece his life back together. Now only Smith, a 25-year-old U.S. Army Ranger with a 5-1 MMA record, stands in his way from earning a contract to fight in the UFC via the long-running reality TV show.
Ricci (8-2) was riding an MMA wave as 2010 opened.
Young, good-looking and talented, he was 5-0 coming off a decision win over highly regarded Jordan (Young Gun) Mein at welterweight, a division above his normal lightweight.
Ricci was training at Montreal's Tristar Gym, alongside UFC champion Georges St-Pierre.
"It's a long road to become the next GSP, but Ricci is the farthest along that road of anyone we've got," coach Firas Zahabi said in a release announcing Ricci's signing with Bellator Fighting Championships.
The six-foot-one Ricci was expected to win the tournament and challenge champion Eddie Alavarez.
"This is really going to make me evolve as a fighter," he said in a TV interview at the time.
Little did he know.
Midway through the first round at the Chicago Theatre on April 15, 2010, Ricci ran into a piston-like right hand from Pat Curran and crumpled. Curran hit the defenceless Ricci, lying prone on the canvas, with three more blows before the referee could step in.
"That is a very bad look out of the eyes of Mike Ricci," said the Bellator announcer as doctors worked on the fighter.
"One of the greatest knockouts we've ever had in Bellator Fighting Championships,'' Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney said in a July 2011 interview.
Ricci left the arena in an ambulance.
He escaped serious injury other than a mild concussion. But the KO left its mark.
After his medical suspension expired, he didn't return to the gym. Ricci began to slip into a black vortex of depression.
"I haven't openly spoke about what happened that year with anybody," he told The Canadian Press. "It's a mystery to everybody, even to a lot of people in my inner circle.
"A lot went on that year, a lot, and I disappeared and it wasn't in a good way. It wasn't respectful, I didn't say bye to anybody, not to my coaches, not to my friends or training partners.
"I didn't work. I didn't go back to school, I didn't do anything. I was in a very, very, very deep depression."
Ricci had gone into the fight on a high. All the praise had gone to his head.
"I thought I was untouchable, I didn't listen to anybody. So I didn't believe I could lose. I didn't care if people had lost before in the past, that was never going to happen to me. And when it did, it was an eye-opener.
"And I'm not happy about how I handled it. I don't think I handled it properly, how a man should have handled it. But at the end of the day I worked my way back into the sport."
It took 10 miserable months to get there.
"At the time I was living in my mother's basement, not very happy and not making the right decisions, not living the right way," he said. "I found myself in a lot of bad places, with a lot of bad people.
"And I think I was ashamed. I was sent to represent my country and I brought so much ego and pride into the cage and that's why it hurt so much more. ... I didn't realize why I didn't want to be around anybody. But I know now. I was ashamed and embarrassed to show my face, I was knocked out on national TV in front of everybody and I couldn't show (my) face."
Ricci started to numb the pain.
"I was drinking a lot, drinking a lot. Painkillers too was a big thing for me during that year off. ... But I always had to do a something every day, because I had to escape that reality.
"It started by going out. I would go out and I would drink and when I would get drunk, I would feel better. So I would continue to go out. But then I realized I didn't want to be out. I didn't feel better because I was out, I just felt better because I had a few drinks. So I then I would just start drinking in the daytime."
"After 10 months of that I was just like a shadow of myself," he added. "I was very pale, my hair was getting long. I was frail, thin, I wasn't as strong as I was before. And it took a lot to climb out of that, a lot."
Coach Jon Chaimberg saw his young fighter struggle.
"It was sad for me because we were just getting to be close at that time," said Chaimberg, a renowned Montreal-based strength and conditioning coach. "He was putting in good work at the gym.
"There was a lot of hype behind him going into the (Bellator) tournament, he was the favourite to win. Just the way it happened, I remember weeks would go by and you wouldn't really hear from him.
Ricci credits Chaimberg, friend and fellow fighter Rory MacDonald and his family for helping him escape the abyss of that basement.
MacDonald had moved to Montreal and was setting an example of hard work and training dedication. Chaimberg, a friend as well as coach, offered a safe haven in his gym.
"That whole thing turned me around and I knew I had to give it one last shot," Ricci said. "And then my dad pulled me aside — and this was the day I decided to fight again — he pulled me aside, he said 'Look son, if you go out the way he did, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.' He said 'You have to get back in there one more time, even if it's just one more time. Just go out on your terms, don't go out like that.'
"That's when I decided, that's when I called Jon and I called Rory and said 'All right, we're going to this one more time.'"
Ricci asked Chaimberg for a job at the gym and gradually resumed training. That eventually led to a return to Tristar and full-fledged fighting.
Almost a year to the day of the Curran knockout, Ricci returned to the cage to face Jesse (The Bodysnatcher) Ronson.
"I remember going into the Bell Centre before the Ronson fight and — to top it all off I'm fighting a striker too — I remember looking at the ambulance and stretcher and I remember telling myself that I would never end up on that stretcher again, never again."
The hangover of the Curran KO continued, however.
"I always compare being knocked to being attacked by a shark," said Ricci. "When it happens, it happens out of nowhere. You don't see it coming. You get hit and you get hit hard and it's like it's over and you don't even realize what went on.
"And then when you get into the cage again, it's like getting into the water again. Because you never know when it's going to happen ... So getting into the cage again was like getting into the water again for me. I didn't know what was going to happen."
Ricci stopped Ronson by TKO in three minutes 12 seconds.
"When I won that fight I jumped up and I just screamed as loud as I could. I let out like a year of just built up emotion and just let it out in the middle of the cage. And even after that, I didn't know if I was going to fight again. Still wasn't sure."
In October 2011, Ricci lost a five-round decision to future UFC fighter Daron Cruickshank in a Ringside MMA fight at the Bell Centre.
"I got this Daron Cruickshank fight and I was kind of wishy-washy about it. I didn't know if I wanted it," said Ricci.
"Then I decided after I beat Tony Hervey (by decision, in March 2012) that I was going to fight seriously again."
A welterweight from Tristar tried out for Season 16 of "The Ultimate Fighter," only to get injured after making the second round of casting.
With no other welterweight from the gym available, Ricci got a chance to move up in weight and feature on the TV show.
Filming started in September and he won four fights in seven weeks to make this weekend's live finale.
Ricci's boyish looks prompted UFC president Dana White to dub him "the accountant'' and "stockbroker,'' then marvel at his predatory skills in the cage.
"He don't fight like an accountant,'' White said during the show. "He is definitely a fighter and he is tough.''
But the labels stuck. The introduction to the final episode referred to Ricci as a "Canadian pretty boy" with "stunning power."
Some fans came up with other descriptions.
With his everpresent shades and his request to fight fellow Canadian Michael Hill, Ricci proved to be somewhat of a lightning rod among fans.
Ricci said he was accused of being smug and stuck-up
"But I'm not, I like the way my life is. I love my family and my friends above everything, above my career and everything."
"I feel like I'm being portrayed as like this cocky, arrogant guy," he added. "And that's really not my thing. I learned my lesson being cocky and arrogant when I was 23."
Ironically he advanced to the final with a brutal knockout of Neil Magny, felling him with an elbow to the head and then another as he crumpled to the canvas.
"I know what it's like to be Neil. I've been knocked out before,'' an emotional Ricci said on the show. "That feeling where you wake up and you don't know what happened. And you know all your dreams are shattered and all the opportunity you thought you had is gone.
"But if I didn't do it to him, he would have done it to me so I had no choice.''
The well-spoken Ricci has come out the other side of his personal tunnel. He's travelled quite a journey.
"Yeah, he has," said MacDonald, who is in Las Vegas to cheer Ricci on just as his friend did for him last week in Seattle for his win over B.J. Penn. "He's had an interesting life.
"I have full confidence in him that he's going to win this tournament."
Win or no win, Ricci has come a long way from that painful 2010 loss in Chicago.
Hard lessons were learned along that road from his mother's basement to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
On one level, Ricci learned not to circle into an opponent's power zone, not to stand too tall and to remember to feint as he cuts the distance.
Then there were the larger life lessons.
"Obviously there were some technical errors to that knockout but a lot of it had to do with my ego, and mentally just being cocky and not thinking it would happen," he said.
"It was something I needed. ... Sooner or later somebody was going to do what Pat Curran did."
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