Last February, Tom DeBlass was in a cage in Atlantic City, headlining a regional show called Ring of Combat and coming perilously close to ripping off his opponent’s foot. Forty-one seconds was all it took for the New Jersey native to snag the submission and the win, and that, plus the fact that he was almost 30 pounds lighter than his foe and about a third as experienced, only added to DeBlass' rocketing upward trajectory. Two months later, he was fighting in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Too bad it may have been too soon.
“I definitely could’ve used a few more fights before I went to the UFC,” Tom tells me a few weeks after his second UFC fight in early November. His first one had him flying to Sweden on twelve days’ notice – not enough time to get his cardio where it needed to be for a three-round fight. He gassed out and lost a majority decision. DeBlass then lost his second UFC fight in Macao, via unanimous decision. Both fights were wars, but they were losses.
To earn a spot on one of the early UFC cards in the mid-90s, you could answer an ad in Black Belt Magazine, send in a videotape of yourself breaking boards, or simply barge into the matchmaker’s office and look menacing. But the sport has evolved since then. Now there’s a patchwork of regional MMA shows, held in gymnasiums and casinos and under tents at fairgrounds, and aspiring fighters must work their way up the ranks. It’s usually a process that takes years. However, thanks to a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a stellar grappling résumé, a fight team that includes former UFC champ Frankie Edgar, Ring of Combat championship belts in two weight classes, and an undefeated record as a pro, Tom was able to make it all the way up the ladder in just under two.
But now what? What do you do when you’ve achieved your goal of fighting in the UFC but find victory there elusive? Many put their UFC contracts on hold, go back down to the minor leagues, and hope that a win or two over quality opposition will help them get their mojo back. But what if you’ve already cleaned out your local circuit? What if there is no quality opposition? What if, after tasting what life is like in the majors, you realize that anything less would leave your palate sour?
For DeBlass the answer didn't lie in another UFC bout. Nor did it seem to lie in a squash match in Atlantic City. Instead, the answer was retirement.
"After the Macao fight I was more disappointed than I let on," DeBlass says. "I put a lot of hard work into that fight. I was really nervous about it. And you know, when you come up short … I didn’t go to China to lose; I went across the world to win. New Jersey got hit with a terrible hurricane the week before; I almost pulled out of the fight, to be honest. I just felt that Jersey really needed that win, and I came up short, so I was like, ‘What’s this worth?’ Even if I would’ve won, what’s it worth, you know? I’m away from my family, my academy, I’m away from everyone I love. I got my eye poked the first few minutes of the fight. If that was over about three more centimeters, I could’ve been blinded.”
In an era when the word “retirement” is usually associated with the sport’s aging heroes, like Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and Tito Ortiz, the announcement that DeBlass – a newcomer to the Octagon – was done caused a bit of head-scratching. It even elicited a phone call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva.
“Joe is the man,” DeBlass says. “He called me and was like, ‘Listen, I respect whatever you decide to do, but you’re not a guy I look at and say you should retire.’ He said, ‘The only thing you’re really lacking is experience. You fought tough, you fought with heart, and I really enjoy working with you. You have the potential to be very good. But experience would definitely help you.’”
That conversation with Silva, plus a little time, seems to have made DeBlass pull back ever-so-slightly from that decision to retire.
“There’s something real inspiring about a fighter,” he says. “Unfortunately, being an inspiring fighter takes years off your life. That’s the struggle that I’m dealing with right now: What do I really, really want to do?”
DeBlass doesn’t know. He doesn't know anything other than that he wants to take some time off from fighting and be with his family and his students. Unlike most struggling UFC fighters out there, he’s got a thriving jiu-jitsu school that pays the bills; he doesn’t need to fight to live. But right now he's in a nebulous, in-between realm. where he's too good for lesser competition and not quite able to get a win in the Octagon -- halfway between the gutter and the stars.
I ask DeBlass how his experiences in the UFC have changed him. “I have losses now,” he says with a laugh. “Now I understand the real world of MMA and what it is. I understand what a real war is. That’s all that’s different. I tell everybody, 'Whether I was a UFC champion or not in the UFC, or any kind of champion or not a champion at all, I’m just me. I’m no different than I was.' And sometimes it’s even hard to believe I was in the UFC. Like, ‘How did I get here?’ Two and a half years ago I wasn’t even fighting, and now I’m in the UFC?
“Let’s see what the future holds.”