The Long, Hard Road Back to the UFC

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

In a perfect world, tonight is just a formality. It's another box to check, another road to get Chuck O'Neil where he wants to go, which is right back where he was.

O'Neil is the tall scruffy guy with pale skin, an overgrown mullet, spandex shorts, and an 11-5 record, pacing back and forth along his section of the cage, the center of attention for the masses swilling from plastic cups in the Twin River Event Center. If you watched season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter, the one with Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos coaching, you'd probably recognize O'Neil, though he looks a little bigger now. He fought his way to the semi-finals of the show. Even in defeat, he impressed enough to earn a spot in the finale. He lost, he was cut, and he set himself on fighting his way back to the UFC. And in the two years since, he's won three of four fights.

Tonight, on a muggy Friday spent underneath the roof of a Rhode Island casino, fighting second-to-last on a card assembled by regional mixed martial arts promotion CES, local rankings have O'Neil number one at 170 pounds. If he wins tonight, that's three in a row. But a win isn't a sure thing. There's another guy in the cage, Gil de Freitas, a cannonball of a Brazilian fighter with a 14-5 record whose wins are equal parts stoppages and decisions. de Freitas once went to the third round with UFC welterweight Erick Silva, the only time he was finished. This is the kind of fight risky enough to derail a trip back to the UFC.

So why is O'Neil here? Because it's also the kind of fight that proves you belong there if you win.

It's been exactly nine weeks since O'Neil's last fight, but the preparation for de Freitas really started some 26 months ago, when the UFC cut him loose. It's been 26 months of hour-long drives and two-a-day and three-a-day workouts. Winning and losing and late-notice replacements. Almost quitting but not giving up.

Now the preparation is over and so are the announcer's introductions. O'Neil steps away from his territory along the fence, touches gloves with de Freitas, and all that's left is the fight itself.

O'Neil (l) and Chris Cope

We know what the UFC says to guys who've lost too many times: Go win a couple and maybe we'll give you a call. Simple enough. And it's not some bullshit line either. John Howard, a fighter who was cut from the UFC in 2011, worked his way back with six wins, five of them for CES. This weekend, he fights overnight sensation Uriah Hall at UFC Fight Night 26 in Boston.

We hear that these guys were cut, and one day we find out they're back. But what happens in between? And where does the path back to the UFC start?

For the 27-year-old O'Neil, it started here at Mass BJJ in Acton, Massachusetts. It's an unseasonably cool and drizzly night in July, but the high ceilings of the gymnasium-sized training room are filled with the toxic heat and pungent stench generated by nine grapplers in waterlogged rash guards drilling single-leg takedowns. After a long round, the puffy-eared students arrange themselves in a distorted horseshoe on a mat, fixing their attention on a man going through the finer points of what they've been drilling. O'Neil is just another unshaven face in the crowd, watching his instructor Nate Ryan cup the heel of his uke and torque his leg up high.

O'Neil's pro career stretches back seven years, punctuated by two regional-show titles and a winning Bellator appearance and tenures at fight gyms throughout Massachusetts. But even though a full-size cage rises in the middle of the training room at Mass BJJ, the school isn't primarily a fight gym; Ryan estimates that just 10 of the students have competed in MMA to one degree or another. Yet O'Neil drives an hour from his home in Bridgewater to Acton specifically for Ryan's guidance. These days, when he walks to the cage on fight night, O'Neil wears a shirt with words "In Nate We Trust" written across the back.

Wearing a short-sleeved rash guard himself, Ryan has a slight build and a voice that only rises above a scholarly tone when he's pairing off his students. Ryan also has a second-degree black belt under Roberto Maia, a man to whom much of New England's old guard of jiu-jitsu experts have a connection, and cut his teeth by fighting challenge matches inside martial arts academies and a victory in Rhode Island Vale Tudo 3 back in 2000. And Ryan is the guy who reared Jimmy Quinlan--a standout Division III wrestler, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion, season 17 TUF competitor, and O'Neil's friend from their days at Bridgewater State University--from white to black belt.

“No one really teaches as well as Nate in all aspects,” Quinlan says. “People kind of look at him as a jiu-jitsu guy because that's what he's best at, but he doesn't really have credentials in kickboxing or boxing. You can't look at some Olympic-level competition that he did. But when you get in the room with him, you find out he knows so much.”

Quinlan was in O'Neil's corner during his loss to Chris Cope in June 2011, the one that led to his getting cut from the UFC. It was a plodding, sloppy fight that O'Neil lost by unanimous decision. Backstage, during the post-fight pleasantries, Cope said that he and his coaches had watched film on O'Neil, broken down his habits, and found training partners to mimic him. It was in stark contrast to O'Neil's bouncing from gym to gym and sparring virtually every day.

“That fight just opened up my eyes,” O'Neil says, sweat-free and sitting in a chair near the front desk at Mass BJJ after the night's no-gi session wraps. “I couldn't just bully somebody around who was equally as good if not better than me. I wasn't knocked out. I wasn't submitted. I was outclassed.”

Through Quinlan, O'Neil made the connection with Ryan and began training at Mass BJJ with the goal of getting back to the UFC. The first step involved sticking the 204-pound O'Neil in a gi and rebuilding his fighting vocabulary to rely on technique instead of power. “I'm not going to say he was bad,” Ryan says. “He was tough right when he came in [but he was] very unrefined. He could get by for so long because he was strong, big, tough. He'd be rolling with guys, and some blue belts were tapping him. Now he's tapping a lot of black belts.”

The next step was finding an opponent. His manager offered the chance to headline a fight card in Florida against UFC veteran Marcus Davis. As Ryan saw it, the fight had little downside--Davis was favored to win so a loss wouldn't be a career killer, but more importantly, O'Neil had the tools to beat him. Ryan restricted O'Neil's free-form sparring and anchored his training camp around five different scenarios that could lead to victory. “We just drilled those over and over, and that's all we did,” Ryan says. “And I remember [Chuck] looking at me like, 'What are you doing?' and being uncertain. But I think Jimmy had trust in me, and he had trust in Jimmy.”

O'Neil beat Davis by split decision, and with the victory, he gave his faith directly to Nate. “With Nate, I feel unstoppable,” he says.

But for his next fight, O'Neil left Ryan's tutelage to join occasional training partner Rick Hawn at Tristar Gym in Montreal. He lived in the city for six weeks, training full-time and scraping by on his UFC earnings. With eight months since the Davis fight and a dearth of competition in New England, he fought Kevin Nowaczyk in Indiana. The judges scored the unremarkable 15-minute fight for Nowaczyk, who himself would soon appear on The Ultimate Fighter. O'Neil says the outcome had him as close to throwing in the towel as he's ever come. “I'm sitting back in the locker room and thinking, Man, what the hell am I doing right now? I haven't seen my friends, I haven't seen my family, I dedicate so much to this [sport] to come out and have this happen,” he says.

Ryan told him to take some time off and think on it. “I disappeared for a couple weeks, I got fat a little bit, and I missed it,” O'Neil says. “I was like, I can't walk away from this.”

O'Neil began sessions at Mass BJJ once again, moved back to Bridgewater to be closer to family and friends, and picked up work as a personal trainer--he holds a degree in exercise science--to take some of the single-mindedness out of his fighting career. He still trained full-time, packing two or more training sessions into each of the week's seven days and splitting his time between Mass BJJ and Bishop's Training & Fitness. Back under Ryan's wing and with the other pieces of his life in order, he fought and beat Keith Jeffrey, then on a three-fight win streak, by unanimous decision in December 2012.

You might think there's a line of fighters wrapped around the block, eager for a chance to beat a UFC vet. “In reality, it isn't like that at all,” Quinlan says. Quality opponents have been hard to come by for both him and O'Neil. Part of the reason is a hesitance of fighters to face someone with a UFC pedigree, and part of the reason is the relationships that develop among fighters. “If you look down the list of the top 10 guys that are in [O'Neil's] weight class in the area, he's beaten or trained with very many of them, to the point where it doesn't make sense to fight them,” Ryan says. It's rare to find an out-of-region promoter willing to fly a fighter from someplace else to compete when they aren't going to draw ticket buyers.

Even when a fight is booked, last-minute injuries or plain old second thoughts can torpedo the match. Before his last fight on June 7, O'Neil watched three prospective opponents come and go before his management lined up a fourth two days before the fight: Ralph Johnson, a 5-6 fighter whose best chance was on the feet. O'Neil won by TKO in a minute and a half but only after getting floored with a right hand in the first exchange, perfectly illustrating the danger in facing opponents you're expected to demolish. “When you're fighting someone you should beat, there's a little more pressure,” Ryan says. “Those are the fights you have to win if you want to keep doing what you're doing.”

Since being cut after The Ultimate Fighter, O'Neil has averaged a fight every six months. The two months between the Johnson fight and the bout with Gil de Freitas represent the quickest turnaround in O'Neil's post-UFC career. Realistically, another month off to lift and recoup the muscle mass that he loses during camp would be nice, but he says he's always ready to go anyway. “And hell, if I didn't take this fight,” O'Neil says, “who knows when the next one would be?”

Here's what O'Neil knows about de Freitas: He's 14-5. He fights for Team Link, a highly regarded gym in the northeast with UFC veteran Gabriel Gonzaga in its stable. He hits hard and he's good on the ground. It's the kind of opponent O'Neil's team wants, and it's the kind of outcome that isn't assured. As Ryan understands it, the UFC puts more weight on a fighter's win streak than the quality of opponents they've faced. But there's no value in pummeling tomato cans until you get a phone call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, only to find out the hard way that you didn't deserve the chance. “We've talked about this,” Ryan says. “If you want to be in the UFC, you have to be able to beat these guys, like de Freitas.”

O'Neil (l) fights Keith Jeffrey

For more than three minutes, the fight between O'Neil and de Freitas is the sort of evenly matched affair you don't usually see in regional MMA. O'Neil steps in with quick, hard combinations and hops back outside, while de Freitas throws power punches and lands leg kicks that thwack. They clinch against the fence, they break, they return to the center. There's no clear advantage. At one point, O'Neil gets caught with his back against the cage--a small mistake, but he extricates himself with front kicks. Later, he lands a solid uppercut on de Freitas's chin.

In one breath, the game plan is working. In the next, it isn't.

de Freitas throws a pair of overhand rights, one of which wobbles O'Neil. His back is against the fence again, and it's hard to find a way out with de Freitas in front of him, turning his hips over on every shot. O'Neil tries to circle out, but de Freitas continues to swarm, crumpling O'Neil to the mat with an overhand right. And that's it--the referee, Dan Miragliotta, steps between the two and waves off the fight. Consumed with emotion, de Freitas hops the cage and climbs through the crowd. Elsewhere, O'Neil is slumped against the fence with a flashlight shining into his eyes before he rises back to his feet.

It's a TKO at 3:37 of the first round. It's only the third time O'Neil has been stopped in seven years, the first by strikes. Those times that he had his back against the cage, those were the difference makers. You can't get away with shit like that against guys like de Freitas. Just imagine if that happened in the UFC.

The defeat puts him at 3-2 since The Ultimate Fighter. At 27, O'Neil says, he has the ambition to make a final push to get back to the UFC. It's worth reflecting on what the really means, the sacrifices and austerity involved in making unarmed combat the center of your existence.

“Most people don't understand: A fighter's life is a pretty crappy life,” Ryan said two weeks before the fight. “You're in a sweaty gym with a bunch of sweaty guys all day. You probably drive a pretty crappy car and don't have a lot of money. It takes a weird type of person ...You see people in MMA like that, like 'I was just a tough kid and I didn't know what I wanted to do, here's this outlet for me, and as I'm doing this I'm becoming a better person. I'm surrounding myself with people and learning how to grow and be a better person through this.' That's not everybody's story, but I think it's kind of Chuck's story. And I think he's going to give this a certain amount of time--he's not a dumb guy, he went to school--and he's either going to make it back or he's going to say, 'Okay, I gave it my best shot. I'll move on with my life.'”

Victory is better than defeat. But there are lessons to be learned from falling short to de Freitas. They are lessons O'Neil might not have learned if he beat a guy with a losing record. “Even if that was to be my last fight, which it's not, I'd look back on my career with no regrets,” O'Neil says. “Because at all times, I try to fight the best.” 

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