Where Are They Now?

Most UFC Heavyweight Champions are pretty large individuals, and because of that, they probably aren’t the best at playing hide and seek. But former champ Ricco Rodriguez is diffi cult to fi nd. Over the past year, he made a couple of appearances at smaller MMA shows, where he steamrolled through his unfortunate foes.

 

And then…..he vanished.

 

Only days after FIIGHT! sent this journalist on a manhunt for Rodriguez, it was learned that he left the country for Zagreb, Croatia, to help Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic prepare for his battle against Cheick Kongo at UFC 75: Champion vs. Champion.

But this isn’t completely out of character for Rodriguez. After all, he’s known for helping others get ready for their upcoming fi ghts, and Cro Cop is just the latest heavyweight to utilize his talent. “Ricco is very, very generous to a fault when it comes to his training techniques and training methods,” Saul Soliz says, who has trained him since 1999. “I think a lot of people have adopted that into their program and have been very successful for what Ricco’s been gracious enough to give him.”

Since he fell out of the spotlight, most MMA aficionados think Rodriguez has ballooned out of shape and is spending a considerable amount of time bonding with Twinkie the Kid. Apparently, that isn’t entirely true. Although he took some time away from the sport, it looks like he is on the verge of making a comeback.

In order to move forward though, sometimes a few steps back are necessary.

**

It’s the morning of September 28th, 2002. The night before, Ricco Rodriguez defeated Randy Couture for the UFC Heavyweight Championship. It was the proudest moment of his career.

Five months later, his time was up. In his first title defense, Rodriguez lost the strap to Tim Sylvia at UFC 41: Onslaught due to strikes in the first round. “I think the success was overwhelming,” Soliz says. “At the time, he probably should’ve taken a little bit of time off just to enjoy the victory and savor the moment of being a champ, but Ricco isn’t that way. He’s pretty competitive. So when they offered him a fight, he took it.”

It didn’t get any better. In a cross-promotional heavyweight showdown, Rodriguez lost a controversial decision to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria at PRIDE Total Elimination 2003, and at UFC 45: Revolution, he dropped a unanimous decision to Pedro Rizzo, who utilized his takedown defense and back-peddling plan to a tee.

That was the last commitment on his UFC contract, and he opted not to re-sign with them, or any other organization. He needed a break from the sport. “I think Ricco had other things he needed to pursue, and he didn’t have a chance because he had dedicated the past six years of his life to MMA,” Soliz explains. “He had some other things he wanted to do that were distracting for him.”

Over the next year, Rodriguez’s fighting took a backseat as he worked through his issues. Since he didn’t work out much during that time period, he gained a massive amount of weight, puffing up past 300 pounds. That isn’t easy to do. “Ricco doesn’t do anything half ass. He trains hard, he has fun hard; everything he does, he does 200 percent,” Ken Pavia, a well-established agent who represented Rodriguez from 2005 until 2006, explains. “And when he started going off track in terms of the diet, he did that hard too.”

Eventually, Ricco started trimming those extra pounds, and went back to the basics by dominating fighters at smaller MMA contests (minus the Ron Waterman and Robert Beraun battles). In 2006, he signed with the World Fighting Alliance (WFA). At their show King of the Streets, he defeated Waterman in a rematch.

But the WFA was short-lived. When Zuffa (parent company of UFC and WEC) purchased the organization in December 2006, they also received the rights to his contract. Rodriguez, however, had other plans. “He had told me back when the WFA was acquired by the UFC, he asked for his release,” Pavia explains. “He didn’t want to fight with them at the time.”

Maybe he needed another break.

**

Rodriguez had to get out of Patterson, New Jersey. It wasn’t a good environment for him, considering that most of his friends had gotten into trouble and wound up in jail.

That wasn’t a path he would go down. When he was 17 years old, the high school wrestler relocated to Los Angeles, California, and he eventually linked up with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu experts Rigan and Jean Jacques Machado. Under their tutelage, he won several tournaments, and in 1999 took home the gold medal at the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) Submission Wrestling World Championship.

Coincidentally, he started competing in MMA that same year. During the fall, he walked through the doors of the Patumwadee Thai Boxing Gym, and was introduced to his now longtime trainer, Saul Soliz. “They had a regional MMA show and Ricco was going to fi ght Sam Adkins,” Soliz recalls. “The promoter for the event brought Ricco into my place because he needed a place to train. We started training, we hit it off, and he started training with me full time after that.”

It paid off. Rodriguez choked Adkins out, and then he went on a tear. After disposing of Travis Fulton at King of the Cage, he traveled to Japan’s PRIDE organization and earned wins over Gary Goodridge, Giant Ochiai, and John Marsh. Then, he returned to King of the Cage and put a nasty knee bar on Paul Buentello.

That was enough to capture the attention of the UFC. His winning streak continued as he decisively beat four top mixed martial artists (Andre Arlovski, Pete Williams, Jeff Monson and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka), thus earning a title shot at then champion Randy Couture at UFC 39: The Warriors Return.

Although Couture was able to put up a strong showing in earlier rounds, Rodriguez turned it up as the fight went on and was able to take him down with relative ease before finishing him off in the fifth round. He took home the UFC Heavyweight Championship and immortalized himself as one of the elite.

During this time of his career, Rodriguez would box and do pad work each morning. In the afternoon, he would lift weights and do sprints. And in the evening, he grappled. It was his discipline and strict training regiment that shaped him into one of the biggest threats in mixed martial arts. “He did everything that everybody else wasn’t willing to do, and I think that’s why he’s been more successful than anyone at the time,” Soliz states. “He set the standard.”

**

In Croatia, Rodriguez is helping Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic train for his next fight. Cro Cop, having spent most of his time attempting to decapitate his opponents with his nasty left leg kick, stands to gain extensive knowledge in grappling and octagon control from the former champ.

“I think he takes into consideration that Ricco was probably the best heavyweight in the cage at one time. I think Cro Cop wanted to pick his brain and get some insight,” Soliz says. “Ricco is an awesome wrestler with good Jiu-Jitsu, and he never had any problem taking anybody down. Cro Cop might want to add that to his repertoire.”

Between training with the dangerous heavyweight striker and a win against Lloyd Marshbanks at a low-key event in July, it looks like Rodriguez could return to the octagon in the near future. However, that is purely speculation, and it may be too early to ponder his comeback. Only Rodriguez knows the answer to that. Still, it leaves room to contemplate.

“I think he’d like to go to the UFC if they’ll have him back. There are plenty of guys who offer good rematches, as well as good PPV action. I think it’s definitely something he wants to do,” Soliz explains. “He’s just trying to get in shape and do his thing. I think when he comes back, everyone will be surprised at how much he has evolved, and how much of a game he introduces and still has. I think he is going to do well.”

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