Take a look back through the history of TUF, and the list of fighters who went 0-2 out of the gate and remained on the Zuffa payroll is virtually nonexistent. It's a stark fact, and one that former TUF 15 favorite Cristiano Marcello now faces at UFC 153, after crumbling to Sam Sicilia via second-round knockout on last season's finale.
However, Marcello, a 15-year veteran and native of Rio de Janeiro, isn't like most TUF contestants. As a former Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach at the famed Chute Boxe Academy, the 34-year-old Marcello trained world champions like Wanderlei Silva and Shogun Rua in their heyday. And as he readily admits, that kind of experience changes the way you look at things.
"I don't feel any pressure," Marcello explains. "I think my opponent [Reza Madadi] is going to feel something like that, because he's never fought outside of Sweden, with 17,000 [Brazilian] people screaming against him. For me, I'm going to be totally comfortable. I'm the only guy in the planet who fought in PRIDE, UFC, and TUF."
It's true, Marcello's tenure in mixed martial arts extends much farther back than any of his TUF castmates. He made his professional debut in 1998, submitting Claudio de Souza in the first round of a Vale Tudo event in Brazil. From there he fought sporadically, instead electing to travel the world with Chute Boxe, including a notorious backstage incident where he choked Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett unconscious at Pride Shockwave 2005.
That sort of worldly experience is the reason many believed Marcello to be the darkhorse to win the show after Team Faber selected him with their second pick. But, in just the second episode of the season, Marcello was knocked out by Team Cruz's Justin Lawrence, prematurely ending his tournament bid. Now looking back, he believes his past experience may have actually been a hindrance due to TUF's unusual format.
"Man, fighting inside the house, fighting on the show is totally different than a fight in your own camp, in your own gym, having time to train," reflects Marcello. "It's hard to be inside the house for 14 weeks and keep the same quality.
"My entire life, I'm the head coach. I decide how the training is going to be, and the way I have training, or I follow the guys I put to coach me. So it was totally different. Because all of the guys were younger than me, it was a new experience. Everybody was so happy to [be there]. I was happy to be inside the house, but that was nothing new for me. I'd been in PRIDE, I'd been in huge shows, with high-level fighters. It's a strange situation to be comfortable."
For that same reason, Marcello is confident his second showing in the UFC will end far differently than the first. Along with the luxury of a normal training camp, Marcello is buoyed by the fact that his UFC 153 meeting with Madadi takes place inside his native country of Brazil, which he calls "a dream come true."
Most fighters speak freely about their desire for title shots, but at his age, with an 0-1 UFC record, Marcello isn't willing to get ahead of himself. Instead, he simply hopes the homecoming serves as a vehicle that allows him to continue testing himself against the best competition the world has to offer.
"The thing is, I love fighting," Marcello says. "I love what I do. If I say something about titles, or something like that, it's a little bit far [off] from me right now, because I need to be inside the UFC first. But I've loved fighting my entire life. I started training jiu-jitsu at 10 years old. I never stopped.
"Now, for me, to be between the best fighters in the world, that's my goal."
For Marcello, that goal starts on Saturday. His opponent, Madadi, is a fellow submission wizard who recently choked out Yoislandy Izquierdo in his UFC debut. However, that fight took place in Sweden, where the Swedish-Iranian Madadi was the resounding hometown favorite. This time around, the local edge will rest with Marcello, and the longtime veteran doesn't intend on wasting it.
"Reza, it doesn't matter for me if he's a nice guy or bad guy," Marcello finishes. "Take this off, he's a great opponent. He's tough, he has his wins. For sure, he's going to come and try to beat me. But, I can say something, he better come [prepared], because it's going to be a war. Having 17,000 people on my back, screaming my name, it's going to be gasoline for me. That's the most important thing, because I have in my mind just one thing: I'm going win."