This is number fifteen in Jack Brown’s series of interviews with MMA fighters and personalities, and for this particular interview, we’re excited to feature the New York Bad Ass, Phil Baroni. Baroni has been fighting since the turn of the century (2000), and he has done it all over the world and in many of the top organizations, including two stints in the UFC and one with PRIDE FC. All the while, he has done it in style. At 37, he’s still passionate about fighting and still looking for that belt. But he’s honest about it too. There’s only one NYBA, and he’ll break your heart. Please enjoy our conversation below.
Jack Brown: What was your first experience with martial arts/combat sports and how did it become more than just a hobby for you?
Phil Baroni: I was a wrestler. I wrestled from seventh grade through college. I did some kickboxing and boxing my redshirt year. And I followed the UFC since UFC 2. I was always rooting for the wrestlers – Mark Coleman, Randleman, and Kerr. When I was done wrestling, MMA seemed like a no-brainer. I had some striking and I was already a wrestler. I wanted to still compete and avoid the nine to five. Ha-ha. Growing up I always wanted to be Rocky. I wanted to be a world champion fighter. The UFC was how I thought I could make that dream a reality.
JB: Your first professional MMA fight was a TKO win back in 2000. What do you recall about that victory and how prepared did you feel going into that fight?
PB: I went to Nassau CC, where I wrestled my freshman and sophomore years and did some training. I found some guys who did some jits. I think they were blue and purple belts. And I went to my kickboxing gym, Bellmore Kickboxing Academy. Fuck. Basically I just winged it.
JB: You entered the UFC in just your second professional MMA fight and got a decision win over Curtis Stout at UFC 30. How important was that victory for you at the time and what do you remember about the early days of the UFC?
PB: It was the wild, wild west. We had no idea how to train and prepare for fights. I was just a tough, strong kid with heart. I wanted to fight and I really thought I was the baddest motherf—er around. I thought that nobody could beat me up and I’d be a UFC champion in a matter of time.
JB: Your first loss came via decision against Matt Lindland at UFC 34. How did that loss affect you at the time and did it motivate you at all in your next two knockout victories in the UFC?
PB: The loss f—ed me up. I still to this day think I won the fight. I watched the fight thousands of times. I couldn’t believe I lost. I really thought I was going to be the Mike Tyson of MMA. I was crushed and I just couldn’t comprehend that I got beat.
JB: After your initial eight-fight run in the UFC ended, you fought in PRIDE for a few years. What were the highlights of your six fights, and your overall experience, as part of that legendary promotion?
PB: It was winning my first fight there after I was released from the UFC. Dana White told me I should retire. I was crushed. I was 27, and I was like, “What the f— now?” But I became friends with Mark Coleman, when he was training in Vegas for Cro Cop, and he took a liking to me and got me my shot in PRIDE. At the time PRIDE was the best of the best. And it had a ten-minute first round that I had to deal with. The highlight was winning my first fight against Minowa . I was brought in to lose to Minowa, who had a pretty good win-streak going beating all the novelty guys like Kimo and Butterbean, Stephan Leko, and the likes. It was the co-main and I had all the pressure of the world on my back, or so it felt. Knocking him out, especially by head kicks and stomps on the ground after a war, really meant a lot to me. I proved a lot of naysayers wrong. That was a huge win. And winning PRIDE in America was big. I had a lot going on personally, and winning in my hometown, Las Vegas, and having a big after-party and all the PRIDE fighters attending, and getting to be with my friends and family after a win, after two years fighting overseas, was really great.
JB: You have fought a number of legends and a lot of tough guys over the years. Who impressed you most and are there any you’d like to rematch?
PB: Nowadays I got to say everyone’s tough. I respect everyone I fought over the years. I don’t have any hard feeling or want any rematches.
JB: Throughout all the adversity that you’ve faced, who are the persons that have supported you and enabled you to continue fighting during your lengthy career?
PB: The truth is it’s been a different person every time. I’ve had people say things that gave me my belief in myself again after it was lost – people like Mark Coleman, One Kick Nick, Dewey Cooper. They were all there at the right time to give me advice and get me back on track when I needed it. As of late, I’d have to say my wife. There are a lot of times when it feels like nobody believes in me. But my wife does, and she makes a lot of sacrifices so I can still try and accomplish my goals and live the dream. Even when I’m down she believes in me, and I’m very lucky and grateful for that. I have had a lot of people jump off the bandwagon lately.
JB: MMA has come a long way since you began fighting nearly thirteen years ago. What do you find most remarkable about the developments that have taken place over the years?
PB: It’s how big and how mainstream the sport is today. Everyone trains nowadays. UFC fighters are a dime-a -dozen. It’s a completely different animal. When I was first in the UFC, we weren’t on PPV or legal in Las Vegas. It’s crazy to watch the sport grow. It’s nuts how big it is and that the UFC is on FOX. I never would have thought it would be this big, yet I always knew it would be at the same time. It’s great, but I kind of miss the old days when we were kind of an underground subculture and it was kind of a secret that only the people in-the-know knew about.
JB: What do you want to accomplish during the remainder of your fighting career and what are your plans for your future outside of fighting?
PB: I want to win fights in ONE FC. I’d like to fight in MSG when the UFC goes there. I want to win some fights and go out on a good note. Seeing Wanderlai Silva win in Japan the other night makes me rethink a lot of things. I have a lot more hope. I have been inspired.
JB: Last question, Phil, and it has been an honor. What does it mean to you to be a fighter and how much do you enjoy it?
PB: It has become my identity. I don’t know what the f— I’m going to do when I’m done. Where do old fighters go to die? It’s meant a lot of things to me being a fighter – some great and others terrible, heart breaking. I’d like to win a title in ONE FC – that would be icing on the cake. I’d also like to fight in the UFC again. I’d like to fight in NY and get a f—ing Win.