(Almeida puts it on Matt Horwich at UFN 18. Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC.)
Ricardo Almeida is enamored of his surroundings. He loves the beach – especially during the winter when there are bigger, fiercer waves for the surfer to Hang Ten. The nearby mountains provide a respite. Pointing north or south there’s a choice of two major metropolitan areas that offer varying forms of entertainment.
Almeida grew up in Rio de Janeiro, a paradise to visitors with an alluring pull to consider relocation. Thirteen years ago Almeida made a move – to Hamilton, N.J., a junction of ocean and peaks. Leaving Rio for Jersey sounds crazy, even mad, but Almeida’s life is defined by discovery and he found something in the Garden State not seen in Rio’s carnival celebrations.
“I love the demeanor of the blue-collar, East Coast people,” Almeida said. “I think people here are a lot more grounded and I think that’s what drew me to the East Coast. [Being] close to New York is like the brewing of different cultures and it’s become a home for fighters because it’s densely popular. You’ve got some of the best trainers in the world who live around here.”
Kurt Pellegrino left Florida for a return to his Jersey roots. He was born in Point Pleasant and placed second in the state high school wrestling tournament his junior and senior year. The Sunshine State provided a yearly escape from Jersey’s brutal winters, but was also a haven for retirees, and the way Pellegrino’s MMA career was going, retirement from the sport was coming way too quickly.
“After losing to Nate Diaz (triangle choke in April, 2008) and moving back to New Jersey, I had a lot of soul searching to do mentally,” Pellegrino said. “For me it was either, quit now, or push through. Obviously I decided to push through. I even now have a ‘local’ sponsor in Ecko (Unlimited), who have been awesome to me thus far.”
Pellegrino joins Almeida and Jim Miller for a homecoming on March 27 that is setting up to be the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s most important show. More than 100 UFC events have entertained MMA fans from hardcore to those just arriving to learn more about how and why the sport’s popularity has exploded. There is, though, one goal that has eluded the cult following and their masters: New York City. State lawmakers have fought like angry wildcats and cried like children over sanctioning MMA and allowing the UFC and others to hold live events within their borders.
In response, UFC president Dana White is firing missiles from eight miles across the Hudson River. Newark is New Jersey’s largest city and host to UFC 111, a vitamin-packed fight card with two co-main events that would headline any MMA event worldwide. The supporting cast features a group of Jersey Boys competing on their turf. For Pellegrino, it’s a battle with newcomer Fabricio Camoes along with the satisfaction of one of his academy students, Greg Soto, stepping in to fight Matthew Riddle as a replacement for Ricardo Funch.
For Miller, it’s a major opportunity to climb up the lightweight ladder against Mark Bocek. After spending the bulk of his career at 185, Almeida makes his welterweight debut against TUF Season 7 alum Matt Brown. The buzz around his town has been palpable. Young fans have stopped him at the local supermarket. Local business owners and the neighborhood pizza parlor have said go get ’em.
Almeida’s prelim bout will also air live on Spike and it’s a big weight to carry. Before a national audience he’ll represent his home state, and there’s no choice but to win and look good doing it.
“The fact that my fight will be showcased on Spike for sure brings things to another level,” Almeida said. “I’m taking this fight very seriously. I can’t remember preparing for a fight that I’ve been more sore (laughs). I want to put forth my best performance ever. That’s what I’m training for.”
For the UFC it’s their biggest salvo fired in hopes of a direct hit to their biggest goal of holding a major show at the venerated Madison Square Garden. Newark and the Prudential Center, the metropolitan area’s newest indoor arena, is the next best thing. Opened in October 2007, “The Rock” played host to UFC 78 a month later, Zuffa’s first Jersey show since UFC 53 in Atlantic City two years prior. The card drew 14,071 to a building with a seating capacity of 19,500 for concerts. Twenty-eight months later UFC 111 is a complete sellout and a viewing party is being held at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall, a stunning indicator of how fast MMA and its fan base is growing on the East Coast.
“Anytime they get here it’s great for the East Coast fans, especially since New York isn’t sanctioned right now,” said Edgar, who with family members will be watching from luxury boxes. “It’s a treat for everybody this side of America.”
Fans at the Rock, Radio City, sports bars, movie theaters and those staying home will be treated to Almeida’s biggest step since ending a three-year retirement in 2008. He was supposed to compete against Fitch at UFC 106 until suffering an MCL tear in his knee. Lighter and stronger since rehab, Almeida (11-3, 4-3 UFC) is after his third straight win and 10th in his last 11 fights at the expense of Brown, a bull who comes forward and wears you down physically.
“Maybe I get caught with a big kick and get dropped in the first round,” Almeida said, “and be able to have the mental fortitude to come back from that and still be able to turn things around. He doesn’t really come with a game plan other than wearing you down. I’m getting ready for a guy that’s going to just come, a shootout.”
Resilience has been Almeida’s trump card. It makes sense considering how he gave up three years of exclusive time spent running his Hamilton-based Jiu-Jitsu Academy and two children including son Renzo, diagnosed with autism three weeks before his submission win over Rob Yundt in his return bout. He thought about calling White and Joe Silva to back out and re-retire. Then he called his father, crying, not knowing what autism was nor fully understanding it.
“I was like, ‘Dad, I can’t do this,’” Almeida said. “He was like, ‘Ricardo, your son will be going in therapy and he’s going to have to do things that he doesn’t want to do, but he’s going to have to swallow the pill because it’s good for him.’
“It really spoke to me. I felt I didn’t want to be miserable sitting at home thinking what could I do for my son or what did I do wrong, like why is my son a little different? Why does he need help and other kids don’t? Our obligation is to put our best face out there and be what we can be. If we fall short, we fall short. Ever since he started therapy he’s progressing great. Life is about personal development. I don’t want my son to be different from anyone else.”
Miller’s been a different fighter since switching his regimen from evening training, getting home after midnight and rising at 7:30 the next morning to the 9-to-5 philosophy of home, dinner and a good night’s sleep. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist and Whippany resident (16-2, 5-1 UFC) owns 10 submission wins and is a winner of his last three entering his main-card bout with Bocek, a tough Canadian grappler also on a three-fight win streak, the last two via first-round rear-naked chokes.
“He’s a great grappler,” Miller said. “He probably poses the biggest threat of choking me out of all the guys I’ve fought to date. I know he’s good at chokes but I’m not afraid to hit the mat with him. It’ll be fun to see what I got. It’ll be one of those fights where the first guy who really makes a mistake on the mat is probably going home a loser.”
Rare have been the times Pellegrino’s worn the loser label, though you’d chalk up some of his childhood success to a charm he wore closer to the vest than Linus’ blanket: a t-shirt with the Batman logo that led to other kids calling him “Batman,” a nickname that’s stuck ever since. Unlucky was herniated discs that forced him out of a showdown with Edgar at last December’s Ultimate Finale last December. Relocation and a complete overhaul of his camp pulled Pellegrino (14-4, 6-3 UFC) out of a 1-2 slide and into a three-right winning streak. Ongoing Active Release Therapy to his back has him fit for “Morango” Camoes, himself on a 6-0-1 run and off a draw with veteran Caol Uno.
“I feel like every aspect of my game has really been clicking,” Pellegrino said. “From my boxing to wrestling, and my strength and conditioning, I’m feeling stronger and faster than I have ever felt. I thought my wrestling would just always be good and that was it, but (coach) Donnie DeFlippis is taking it to another level I never knew was there.”
A polished Pellegrino outpointed Josh Neer down the New Jersey Turnpike in Philadelphia last summer before a capacity crowd that included 300 ticket buyers from his Pellegrino MMA academy and a Pennsylvania combat sports record total gate of $3.55 million. A month after the UFC hit a grand slam in Australia, the Jersey Boys may one day look back and know they were a part of something special, the show that clears the last hurdle and justified MMA’s powerful presence on the East Coast and the country’s biggest city.
“I hope this pushes us over the edge in New York and gets us sanctioned,” Edgar said. “There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. I believe it’s going to happen this year – I do believe it. The World’s Most Famous Arena is not the same without MMA there.”