Cool Under Fire
Amir Sadollah isn’t phased when people slip into an unconscious state or become dangerously close to getting their arms ripped out of the socket. It’s part of his job to maintain composure. Also, it was the 27-year-old who knocked out rivals and submitted the toughest competition Zuffa was able to round up for The Ultimate Fighter: Team Rampage vs. Team Forrest. Composure still maintained.
Before the rising middleweight entered The Ultimate Fighter house, he worked as a surgical technician at VCU Health Systems in Richmond, Virginia. This is where he developed his mental toughness. The gig required Sadollah to regularly be in the operating room. One of the fi rst times he was present, he was given a souvenir that would irk him for months. Composure lost.
“I don’t know if this is a tradition, but it seems like the surgeons do this to everybody who is new to this job. When they’re doing amputation, the new person gets passed the freaking leg,” he says. “I remember they cut off a dude’s leg, they handed it to me and I kinda got a little lightheaded. It’s like, ‘Oh dude, there is this guy’s leg in my hand. It used to be attached to him, and now, it’s not.’ I remember that vividly.” Sadollah didn’t keep the leg.
In any event, working alongside professional surgeons and maintaining composure under high stress situations has transferred to his fi ghting career. There were many times when Sadollah was busted open and looked to be in trouble during The Ultimate Fighter, but he kept his game face on and became the only cast member to fi nish off every opponent tossed in his way. But that’s also because he had passion. To be honest, there isn’t much of anything else he is passionate about.
Throughout his childhood, Amir Sadollah never really committed to anything. The Richmond transplant (by way of Brooklyn, New York) was intelligent, but considered himself the “smart kid who didn’t care to be smart.” Though he played football, soccer, and wrestling during his early teenage years, he quit before attending J. R. Tucker High School, because he was “more focused on trying to be cool and hang out with chicks.”
He graduated high school in 1999 and enrolled in J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, but not by choice. “My parents were giving me the evil eye, pretty much telling me to grow up. So I mostly went there to keep my parents quiet,” Sadollah admits. “I was taking courses in liberal arts, which is the biggest ‘I don’t know what to do degree’ there is, so I just took courses here and there. There was no real direction with it. I was doing whatever. I defi nitely hadn’t found what I wanted to do and I was in a state of limbo.”
Although Sadollah didn’t have any direction, his stepmother, a respected doctor, helped him get on track. She recommended him for a job delivering boxes to hospitals. Just like he did in school, the “smart kid” would goof off with his friends while on the clock. But making those deliveries led him to the fi rst thing he was truly passionate about: surgical technology. “A couple of friends and I were sometimes in the OR and were fascinated by the surgery. One of the doctors allowed us to come in and watch the surgery. I remember just being blown away,” Sadollah remembers. “I heard about the surgical technology program cause I used to talk to a ton of people in the operating room. We both agreed it was probably better carrying boxes all day and thought it would be cool to be in surgery.”
In 2002, he earned his surgical technology degree, and began assisting surgeons in the operating room. Over time, he stopped getting lightheaded from holding an amputated leg.
While Amir Sadollah didn’t show any strong interest in school or contact sports when he was an adolescent, he was always attracted to the idea of being a warrior. Jean-Claude Van Damme’s role in Bloodsport ignited that fi ghting spirit.
But Richmond didn’t have any places that taught kickboxing – at least that’s what the middleweight juggernaut thought. One day when Sadollah was bench pressing at a local gym, he saw a friend from school who told him about a place called Prodigy (a gym later renamed Combat Sports Center) where Muay Thai was being taught. Sadollah went the next day and never looked back.
He wasn’t able to dive into it, however. “I just started my surgical job, so I wasn’t able to dedicate a lot of time to it. I wasn’t learning at an astounding rate. I just kinda did it to do it,” he recalls. “I enjoyed it and liked working out, and especially the fi rst couple of months, I never actually thought I was going to fi ght and never put pressure on myself to do it. All I knew was for two hours a day, I went there and came out happy.”
Months after taking Muay Thai classes, Sadollah decided to add grappling to his arsenal. That’s when everything clicked. “About a year in, I realized I really wanted to fi ght and I realized if I wanted to do that, I better know as much about everything as possible,” he explains. “I started feeling more comfortable with my stand-up and grappling, and I actually did my fi rst competition. It was grappling competition and I lost my fi rst match, but it was okay. Even though I lost, I lost on points. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just realized how awesome it was and how much I liked competing, and I wanted to continue to get as good as I could.”
Sadollah kept entering grappling and Muay Thai competitions, and even compiled a 5-0 amateur record. The middleweight had plans of going pro in the summer of 2007, but he was sidelined with a shoulder injury. “It didn’t turn out to be anything too major, but due to my surgical background, I knew not to push it and to get diagnosed fi rst,” he says. “It took a long time getting bounced around to different specialists and getting MRIs and stuff, and of course doctors are real conservative. They’ll scare the crap out of you. They were like, ‘You can take three months off, or you can take three years off when you completely rip something.’ That summer was a dark time for me. I didn’t have any answers.”
Although Sadollah was feeling down, he maintained his composure. Once he healed, he was determined to test himself against professional fi ghters, and headed to the IFL tryouts in October 2007. He partook in a grappling match, a kickboxing match, and an exhibition MMA fi ght, and did well enough to be part of the draft, which according to Sadollah meant, “Nothing other than your name is in a pool of guys they might use.” Nevertheless, it was a confi dence booster and even Pat Miletich gave him props via email.
Shortly thereafter, the fi ghter traveled to New Jersey to audition for The Ultimate Fighter. After demonstrating his grappling and striking skills, he earned an interview with the producers. His laid-back attitude and keen sense of humor must have delighted them, because he was invited to Las Vegas in December for another round of interviews.
Weeks later, Sadollah was in the operating room while his cell phone went off. When the middleweight checked his voicemail, he learned he was cast for the reality show. “I actually still save that message on the phone,” he says. “It was crazy. I listened to the message in the back hall at work and I wanted to yell, but I couldn’t because I was in the middle of surgery in the operating room.”
Soon, Sadollah was on the plane, weighing 190 pounds – just like all the other contestants. When he arrived at the UFC Training Center with seven other cast members, he saw sixteen other men in the room. He fi gured they were cameramen who happened to be big and in shape. But once all thirty-two folks were in the room, the UFC President burst everyone’s bubble; they would have cut weight to 185 pounds within 24 hours, and fi ght their way on the show within 48 hours.
Fortunately, the 27-year-old had made friends with Dante Rivera and Matthew Riddle during their fi nal interviews in Vegas weeks prior, so they cut weight together. 48 hours later, Sadollah fought UFC veteran Steve Byrnes. Despite not having any professional bouts, he submitted him and secured his slot in the house.
Over the next several weeks, he trained closely under the tutelage of current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Forrest Griffi n, though he was constantly pegged as the underdog. But to most people’s surprise, Sadollah defi ed the odds. He knocked out former IFL veteran Gerald Harris, submitted tough guy Matt Brown with a triangle choke in the quarterfi nals, and tapped out odds-on-favorite C.B. Dollaway in the semifi nals with a slick armbar.
Pretty impressive for the so-called underdog. “I felt like I wasn’t outclassed, but I wasn’t a clear favorite,” he says. “I was just real with myself. I see a lot guys do that and I think they’re too into themselves. You gotta try to fi nd that balance between confi dence and concept of performing, and being realistic about things without being negative.”
Originally, he was slated to clash with his teammate Jesse Taylor at The Ultimate Fighter 7 Finale for the six-fi gure contract, but plans changed. A few nights after winning his semifi nal match against Tim Cretdeur, Taylor partied a little too hard and went on a drunken rampage that included terrorizing women and kicking out a limousine window. Taylor was bounced from the competition. In a last minute replacement bout, Dollaway defeated Credeur to gain a rematch with Sadollah at the fi nale.
Though he defeated Dollaway once before, he didn’t mind fi ghting him again. “The Jesse situation was something none of us could’ve helped, or after the fact anyway, but I wasn’t angry they brought C.B. and Tim to fi ght for that right. They just didn’t give it to anyone. C.B. fought another fi ght right after he got back home and started training again. He earned it, so I wasn’t mad at all,” Sadollah explains. “Stylistically, it was a hard fi ght for me, and I didn’t wanna win that show and not have earned it.”
The Richmond native earned it when caught Dollaway with an armbar yet again. All of his work is a testament to his character, considering the stiff competition he was up against. “I felt like I had a really hard path – probably the hardest path – and the second time I beat C.B.,” he says, “I thought, maybe I am the ultimate fi ghter.”
Sadollah, without a doubt, is the ultimate fi ghter. On July 19, Taylor was invited back into the UFC and took on Dollaway in a campaign to declare that he should have won the reality show. But Taylor can’t make that case anymore; Dollaway submitted him with a Peruvian necktie in the fi rst round.
Though Sadollah is in the midst of relocating to Las Vegas to train with other top caliber athletes at Xtreme Couture, he is motivated every day by the surgeons at VCU Health Systems back home in Richmond.
“I actually credit it with giving me the outlook I have on training and fi ghting,” the middleweight admits. “I was around surgeons and nurses all day, and the personality traits I really admired in them was their ability to handle stress and high-pressure situations. They literally handled life and death situations on an everyday basis. Just watching people in that fi eld and looking death straight in the face… they don’t get beat. They just respond, and I really admired that. And the hard working and dedicated mentality of it all…the kinda taking responsibility for your own actions and doing the best you can. I try to put that in my outlook on being a fi ghter.” It’s all about maintaining composure.