The experienced lightweight out of Seattle lost in 44 seconds at UFC 96 in March against Nelson when the referee intervened in a stoppage universally agreed upon to be premature.
In this exclusive interview with FanHouse, Riley, who trains with the acclaimed Greg Jackson camp in Albuquerque, N.M., reflects on the loss as he enters this weekend's fight eager to put behind the setback.
Ray Hui: When did you finally make peace with the loss?
Aaron Riley: Well, I'm hoping after this fight I'll have peace without ordeal. I've moved on, obviously. You have to go forward and whatever, but I definitely feel my career has been sitting on the sidelines for the past five months. Because I've kinda been in a limbo stage where the fight didn't really have a conclusion – it really didn't have a definite finish. I was definitely able to keep fighting. The referee screwed up, and I know this is definitely a fight that I don't think Shane can take a lot of pride in the win and it's a fight I definitely don't feel was a loss. There'll be resolution to it Aug. 8.
Looking back to the fight, you were throwing a kick when he came at you with the punch.
Yep, we're both southpaws, and I was throwing an inside leg kick. He clipped me with a punch. You know he caught me with it, and it hit my shoulder as well, and it drove me back. I was standing on one leg when he was throwing the punch. I didn't have the best balance. I hit the floor and he dove on top of me and as soon as we get on the ground the ref stops the fight. This isn't boxing, this is MMA. Give the guy a chance to fight out.
In Dana White's UFC 96 video blog (NSFW), the UFC president watches the stoppage backstage in disbelief and proceeds to tell reporters how Riley was robbed of a potential bonus and the fight.
So it was simply a case of falling because you lost your balance more than the actual power of the punch?
Yeah it was more of a balance shot. I mean he timed it well so I'm not taking anything away from him. He timed the kick, and he landed the punch. It was my bad for not having my hands in the right position for him to get through anyway. But yeah, it was way more of a balance shot than anything.
Do you hold anything against the referee?
I don't hold anything against him in the sense of... I know that he was just trying to look out for the fighters but he really did not need to be there. He obviously didn't have the experience to know what to look for. I mean, I just really can't see John McCarthy, Herb Dean, Yuji Shimada – that Japanese PRIDE ref, guys like that aren't going to make that mistake. I mean he doesn't even have to be that experienced of a ref. There are guys on local shows that have reffed several MMA fights that wouldn't have made that mistake. That was just terrible. No excuse for that.
And for better or for worse, you're a guy well known for being in wars. Should that be taken into account from a referee's perspective?
Well sorta, see that's the other thing. An experienced ref probably would have known that about me and probably given me the benefit of the doubt. When a fighter's in trouble, a fighter's in trouble, but that's the whole point, I wasn't even near in trouble. (Laughs) That's why it was so tough to swallow and deal with.
Do fighters put into the consideration that when the UFC comes to a new area, the UFC is forced to use local referees that may not be used to officiating a big show?
It's never been an issue before, honestly, I actually am not aware of a referee when I fight. He's there to monitor the action. I've never had a referee give me a raw deal like that ever in my life. This is going to be my 40th mixed martial arts fight, this one come Aug. 8, and I have never had anyone drop the ball that bad in a fight. Like I said, it's never even crossed my mind.
For this fight, are you curious to find out before hand who will be the referee?
(Laughs.) I don't know. When I get there I'll try my best to find out. I would definitely look to have a little bit more experienced guy in there. If anything is in my control... (Chuckles.) Yeah I'll definitely make sure I have the more experienced guy. The more experienced guy who knows what he's looking for.
The fight only lasted 44 seconds but did you learn anything from that fight that you used while training for this one?
I got a feel for him so I kinda have a couple things. It was definitely good, it was definitely a benefit to get in there and get a feel for the guy. But at the same time Greg [Jackson] has been looking at some video, he's seen my performances in sparring and he's putting together a game plan. We trying to look at a couple of different avenues to go about this time.
When you fought Robbie Lawler at UFC 37, despite the loss, that was easily one of the best fights of the year. Why did it take you over four years for your return to the UFC?
There was just a host of a lot of different things going on. I had changed camps after I left. I was in AMC Kickboxing in Seattle at the time when I had the Lawler fight. I just wasn't satisfied with the training at the time and there were a lot of different factors involved and just I moved camps, I went down to American Top Team and I was out of the loop for a little while. I just needed a few more wins together to get back in the UFC so it took some time to get back on track. I felt like I was back on track after that Gurgel win and I was really looking forward to the Nelson fight. And then like I said, the ball really got dropped and I have to try to get back on track once again.
UFC 101 is headlined by Nelson's trainer BJ Penn vs. Kenny Florian. How do you see that going?
I think a lot of people are not giving Kenny enough of a chance. I think Kenny has a lot of tools. I think he is a really strong-minded fighter and a great coach. I've had the opportunity to work with [Mark] DellaGrotte before and I know he is really talented. I think people got to give Kenny a little bit more of a chance in this fight. It's not like its so much like its 90/10 or 80/20. It's a little bit more 50/50 than I think people are kinda giving it credit for.