(Editor's note: This story was written with the assistance of ESPN's Jeff Wagenheim)
I remember the first time I ever saw a prizefight. It was sometime in the 1980s, and I was a young kid. I went to my next-door neighbor's house with my old man to watch Mike Tyson.
It was late at night and a bunch of my dad's friends were there, all hyped up for the big fight. I don't remember who Tyson was up against -- it might have been Michael Spinks -- but I do remember Tyson going out there and getting a quick knockout. The men were pissed that they'd bought a fight that ended nearly as soon as it started.
But even in that short time, it became a memorable night.
Then, I saw MMA for the first time in seventh grade. It was right around the start of the UFC, either UFC 1 or UFC 2. My buddy and I heard about this new no-rules thing, this spectacle, and I went to his house to watch. I was already wrestling by then, so I was interested to see how the wrestlers would do. But what got me was Royce Gracie. He was winning and I had no idea how he was doing it.
None of us at the time understood what jiu-jitsu was. All we knew was this little guy was somehow putting it on these bigger dudes. That's what made an impression on me. I was always the little guy in a fight, too, going back to when I was very young and scrapping with other kids. I was never in a fight where I was the bigger guy, just like Royce in the day.
Now, nearly 20 years later, I'm about to close out my fight career at UFC 281, and I'm doing it practically in my backyard over at Madison Square Garden in New York (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV). There have been a lot of big moments over the years, lots of ups and downs -- sometimes both ups and downs in the very same fight. And I'm looking forward to making more memories and contributions in the next chapter of my life.
Here are a few personal highlights from my MMA career and some things I look forward to.
Rumble in The Bronx: My first MMA fight
It happened on a brutally hot July night in 2005, a few months after I graduated college, in a boxing gym in the Bronx. The place had no air conditioning and was sweaty, loud, and wild. I remember people drinking 40s in the stands. There were no medical people anywhere in the building, no ambulance. And no rules, literally no rules. They pulled one guy out of the crowd to replace a no-show fighter, and the dude fought in jean shorts. We were told our fights would be one 15-minute round, with no breaks. I just said yes to everything.
Why was I there? It had something to do with how my college wrestling career had ended. I'd set high goals for myself but didn't accomplish them. In my senior year at the NCAA tournament, I lost in triple overtime in the "blood round," which determines the top eight in each weight class. If I had won that match, I would have been an All-American. So I was devastated. The sport left a bad taste in my mouth. Then something came along that changed everything.
That spring, "The Ultimate Fighter" made its debut. I remember noticing that the Season 1 cast included Josh Koscheck, who I knew. He had wrestled for Edinboro University, and I had wrestled for Clarion, both in western Pennsylvania. Our teams had wrestled each other several times. So when I saw Josh on the show, I thought, wow, there's an avenue for wrestlers to continue to compete. I decided right then I wanted to give this a shot. I wasn't thinking of it as a career, just an outlet to compete a little longer.
Right around graduation, I started training in the other MMA disciplines beyond wrestling. And just three or four weeks in, one of the coaches in the gym mentioned that there was going to be an underground MMA event over in New York and asked if I wanted to fight. I said, "Yeah, absolutely." I was working full-time as a plumber then and wanted to get in there and see if I had what it took.
When we got to the Bronx, the gym was filled and practically everyone was there to see my opponent, a New York guy. From what I had heard, he had experience in MMA. He was on the UFC's radar -- that's what everyone in the back was saying. When I walked out, the crowd was screaming, talking junk to me. And as soon as the fight started, the guy put me in a Thai clinch and blasted me with two pretty hard knees to the face. But I got a couple of takedowns, and the second time, while on top of the guy, I headbutted him. No rules, right? Eventually, I got to full mount and started dropping punches until I got the finish.
Afterward, on the way home to New Jersey with my family and a couple of teammates, we stopped in Newark at a Portuguese restaurant. I didn't mind being out in public, because I looked pretty good for having been in a fight. I had a bloody nose and my face hurt from those knees, but that was it. Then, during dinner, I went into the bathroom, and while in there, I blew my nose -- and my whole face blew up with air. I could feel the air beneath my scalp and cheek, and my eye was all droopy. I came out and my family couldn't believe what they saw. My mom started bugging out. They took me to the hospital, and I had broken my orbital bone. Welcome to MMA.
Not TUF enough?
About a year into my career, I was 6-0. I had just fought Jim Miller in a regional showdown in Atlantic City, and yeah, I won, but he had landed a head kick that ripped a piece of my ear off. So my ear was mangled when I got the call to fly down to Hollywood, Florida, to try out for Season 5 of "The Ultimate Fighter." I got there and met Dana White, and the first thing he said to me was, "You don't look like a '55-er."
They put me in with a monster of a guy for the grappling round, and I passed that test. Then I hit pads for Joe Silva, the matchmaker, and I thought I impressed him, too. The last step was talking to the TV producers, who told me they'd be in touch afterward. I'll be honest: I thought I was in. But I never got the call.
I was disappointed, of course, but by the time the season aired, I was actually in the UFC anyway. That made watching the show easier, and it was a great season, one of the best. Nate Diaz. Gray Maynard. Joe Lauzon. A bunch of excellent fighters. And while I did think about what could have been -- a finale against Nate? -- I came away wondering how I would have done living in that house. In those days on the show, there was a lot of drama that had nothing to do with fight training. I wonder if I would have taken it so well if guys had started messing with me. Not that I'm some tough guy, but I have principles I live by. So I was thankful things worked out the way they did.
Winning (and surviving) my UFC debut
Not long after the TUF tryout, I was signed to fight at UFC 67 in Las Vegas. I fought Tyson Griffin, and I won by decision -- but it didn't come easily. In the final minute, he locked in a knee bar, and it was tight. I felt confident I was ahead with the judges, so no way was I tapping. I heard the knee pop twice. But I was able to wiggle my knee past the fulcrum point in the last 30 seconds, and I made it to the horn, punching his leg again and again to finish strong.
I've been told that during the fight Joe Rogan's commentary on the telecast went from talking about us being two wrestlers to him complimenting my hand speed and footwork. This is what I wanted for my MMA career. I wanted to be well-rounded. Back then, the UFC would ask us how we wanted to be introduced, and I would always list myself as a "freestyle fighter." To me, that's a true mixed martial artist, when you can do everything. If I had to stand with the best standup fighter in the world, I wanted to do that. And if I had to go to the ground with the best grappler in the world, I wanted to do that as well.
One interesting thing about UFC 67: It was the UFC debut for not just me but also Mirko CroCop, Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida. I was still new to the sport, but my teammate Chris Liguori was filling me in on who everyone was. So I was aware of those guys and their places in MMA, but I kept to myself backstage. I was never one to go take pictures with people. I wanted to act like I belonged there. I didn't want to be a fanboy. I remember during weigh-ins someone went over to CroCop to ask for a picture, and CroCop gave him the stop sign. And I was like, damn.
My one interaction with a fighter from the card happened after the fights. We were back at the hotel, a bunch of my friends and me, and were partying up pretty hard in our room, getting loud and probably a little obnoxious. And Marvin Eastman, who had taken a beating from Rampage and just wanted to get some sleep, came out of his room on our floor and started yelling for us to be quiet. I was like, my bad, my bad.
Beating a legend for the UFC lightweight championship
I got my title shot against BJ Penn in April 2010 at UFC 112, which was held in an open-air venue built just for this event in Abu Dhabi. It was the first UFC fight card held outdoors, and there hasn't been one since.
Weeks before the fight, I went on the UFC's press tour to Abu Dhabi and got to see how much of a legend BJ was. Everyone over there wanted a piece of the champ. BJ was a gentleman to me the whole time, but as far as everyone else was concerned, it was almost as though I wasn't there. It's not that people were trying to dog me. They just loved BJ. I mean, this is a guy who was celebrating wins by licking the blood of his opponent off his gloves. Legend. I was brought in as a sacrificial lamb. I don't think anybody took me seriously. Except myself.
This ended up being my favorite among my 35 fights as a pro, because I got my hand raised and the belt put around my waist. That was special -- and a long time coming. In high school, I took second place in the state wrestling tournament. I took second in the high school nationals. In college, I missed out on being an All-American in triple overtime. So to finally accomplish my goal of being No. 1 in the world, that was one of the most fulfilling days of my life.
After I won, the UFC quickly booked a rematch for about four months later. I was going to have to prove for a second time that I was better than BJ. But I didn't really have a problem with that -- I feel like you have to prove yourself every time you go out there. And for the rematch, my mindset was different. Going into the first fight, I believed I could beat BJ. I didn't know, but I believed. Going into the second fight, I knew I could. I think that's why the gap between us was a lot bigger the second time.
The first fight with Gray Maynard was the first loss of my career, and that was tough to take. It was 2008 and this was my first fight as a full-time fighter. Up until then, I was still working as a plumber. But even though I was now fully devoting myself to MMA, I was a young fighter and didn't know how to use my training time well. I didn't belong to a gym and was just bouncing around, getting in training wherever and whenever I could. I remember thinking, man, this is not how a professional athlete should be preparing for a fight. So after the loss I sought out Ricardo Almeida as jiu-jitsu coach, and having his gym as my training home from then on was a huge, huge asset for my career.
Almost three years later, after I had won the title, Gray and I fought again. It didn't start well for me. And honestly, I don't remember much more than that about the fight. At some point in the middle rounds, I became aware of a lot of pain in my ankle and I didn't know why. It wasn't until afterward that I was told that when I got dropped in the first round it looked like I sprained the ankle pretty badly. The one vivid memory I have from the fight is being in my corner between rounds and my coaches telling me there was one round left, and me thinking, "Jeez, just one more round? What happened to Rounds 2, 3 and 4?"
Even though the fight ended up as a draw, not a win, I was proud of myself. I went through a lot to make it to the finish line. Still, it's not like I go back and watch the fight -- I'll save that for something to do with the grandkids. I just chalk it up as a testament to my toughness.
I faced another test of my toughness in the third Maynard fight. Another bad start, another comeback. And when I knocked him out in the fourth round, I remember losing my mind. I jumped up on the cage and kissed the TV camera, getting blood all over the lens. I was screaming, flexing -- that's not really my style, but emotions take over. In those moments, you don't know what you're doing. Other than winning the belt, this was the favorite moment of my career.
Those three fights will connect me and Gray forever. When I'm in Vegas, I usually stop at Xtreme Couture and sometimes I'll see him. He and I took a photo together at last year's wrestling nationals. It's all love. When you share a cage for, what, almost 12 rounds, you develop a bond.
Don't call me a gatekeeper
Not long after my second title-fight loss to Jose Aldo in 2016, the UFC booked me against Yair Rodriguez, a rising star on a winning streak. He had just knocked out BJ Penn, and I guess I was the next guy in his way. I understood what the UFC was doing. The promoter's job is to build up these young guys, and the best way to do it is to put them in with an established name. It's the nature of the game.
I didn't look at it as the UFC doing me dirty or anything, but as a fighter you have to take it personally, you know? In my mind, my response was, You wanna build this guy up at my expense? Well, I'm gonna ruin your plans. That's what I did, winning by second-round TKO. My job was to turn his spotlight into my spotlight.
Never thought the time would come: My retirement fight
After getting knocked out by Chito Vera in my last fight, I didn't know what to do next. I was in a rough stretch, and I wasn't sure if I would fight again. But over the summer I called my manager, Ali Abdelaziz, and told him I wanted to fight. He mentioned the November card at Madison Square Garden. "Perfect," I said.
I was thinking a matchup that made sense would be me versus Dominick Cruz. We're both former champions and around the same age, and our careers are on similar trajectories. Our styles are different, but we both have wrestling backgrounds and move a lot on our feet, very energetic with great conditioning. It seemed like a great matchup. But Cruz fought in August, and when that fight ended with him being knocked out, it meant our timing for a meeting in the fall didn't line up. So I just told Ali and my coach, Mark Henry, to get me a fight, I didn't care who it was. I ended up with Chris Gutierrez at UFC 281, and because it's in New York, close enough for a lot of friends and family to be there, I decided it made sense to make this my retirement fight.
It's fitting that this personal milestone is happening at The Garden, because the place feels like home. I fought on the first MMA card ever there, UFC 205 in 2016, and a lot of my training for the fight happened just a couple of blocks away at Renzo Gracie's place on 30th Street.
But I go back way farther than that with The Garden. I remember watching the Goodwill Games there in '98, when I was a sophomore in high school. USA vs. Russia in wrestling. USA vs. Iran. In 2003, the world championships were held at Madison Square Garden, and I was there for that, which was special. And, actually, I got to wrestle there in 2014 at the Grapple at the Garden event. MMA wasn't yet legal in New York, so I thought maybe it would be my only chance to compete in the building. Turns out it wasn't the only time.
My next chapter: Expanded horizons, not waistline
After Saturday, I will be done fighting but I won't walk away from the sport. I will remain involved. My boys wrestle, and they've both said they want to get into other martial arts training eventually. I plan on opening an MMA school in my hometown. And I'm also interested in the managerial side. Ali started with me -- l was pretty much his first client -- and look what he has today. I think I could help the next generation.
I'd also love to travel a little. Luckily, fighting took me to places around the world that I'd never dreamed of going. But to be able to go places just to visit, not having to focus my attention on a fight, that is something I look forward to. My family is from Italy, the Naples area, and I'd love to get over there. I'd love to get to Greece, too, and maybe Morocco.
But even right here at home, life will be a little looser. I'll no longer have to make weight anymore, so I can allow myself some Jersey delicacies. I'll definitely be having a breakfast of pork roll, egg and cheese very soon. I'm not going to go crazy with it, though. I will continue to work out, and I won't be getting too big. But I'll be eating well. You just know I'm gonna be hitting Mark Henry's pizza place.