Phil Baroni and the 11th-Hour Search for Redemption

Suhaimi Abdullah, Getty Images

He'll tell you himself, if you ask him right. Behind the audacious front, Phil Baroni gets it. He didn't always, and if anything, that was the problem. But he gets it now.

A product of a different era, Baroni never particularly seemed like a professional athlete. He was a tough guy, an honest-to-God fighter. The kind of guy who would do this even if it wasn't for a paycheck. He was the "New York Badass," the 26-year-old kid who knocked out Dave Menne in 18 seconds then proclaimed himself ‘tha best eva,' and he'd throw down any day of the week.

But toughness can only take a fighter so far, and the churning neon glow of Las Vegas has a knack for deteriorating raw talent into self-sabotage. "I was caught up in the lifestyle, or whatever that was, and not being a professional athlete," reflects Baroni, now 36 years old. "In my free time, to the say the least, I wasn't getting better at mixed martial arts. I was f--king getting better at everything else, like gambling and smoking, and drinking. I was getting really good at drinking and gambling. Those are two things a professional athlete shouldn't be good at. I should've been recovering and training, getting my skills better. Instead I was getting better at being a degenerate."

Slowly, the excess caught up to Baroni. The 4 a.m. saké bombers, the stacks of money tossed aside in backroom poker games. A runaway train can only survive so long before it crashes, and after four straight UFC losses -- including a notorious sucker punching of referee Larry Landless -- Baroni's train was hurtling straight towards a wall. "I underachieved," he sighs. "I didn't realize what I had in front of me. I was young and dumb. I took for granted a lot of my opportunities and my gifts. I really was a big letdown to the UFC, and to a lot of people who thought I was going to be something. I didn't live up to what I was advertised as. I f--king blew it."

So it went for Baroni, a promising young career turned causality of what he affectionately calls the "insects" that swarm to the bright lights. He gradually became a journeyman, a gun for hire, making stops in Strikeforce, EliteXC, ICON, Cage Rage, anywhere to keep the paychecks rolling and the good times flowing. And the good times were plentiful, even if the wins became more and more sporadic.

Baroni fully admits, he never committed to his craft like he should have. He lived for the night. But as the years piled up, the paychecks became less lucrative, the opposition became younger and more focused, more, for lack of a better term, professional. Nearing middle-age, Baroni began to grasp the consequences of his decisions.

"My wife, she works in Las Vegas. Before he died, Smokin' Joe Frazier was in there. The guy was at the bar, he was by himself," Baroni recounts incredulously. "Smokin' Joe Frazier is by him-f--king-self. That guy fought the Thrilla in Manila, and the whole world watched him. In his day he was an icon. And he's in the bar by himself.

"That's Joe Frazier. So where the f--k is Phil Baroni going to end up? What could happen to me? I've dedicated my life to this sport, but I'm forgotten." Time has a way of kicking you in the guts when it's running out, and such stark self-awareness was new for Baroni. He came to realize, if he wanted to avoid relegation to a footnote in history and lifetime of what if's, he needed to give it one honest shot. A shot where he actually applied himself towards the goal that had eluded him his entire life -- winning a world championship.

Sure, he came close more times than he could count, having had brushes with glory in the UFC, PRIDE, Strikeforce, and even ICON. But he could never quite scale it, never experience the sum of his labors wrapped in gold around his waist. At the very least, he owed it to himself to try.

To do that, Baroni needed out of Las Vegas. So he recalled back to one of the best stretches of his career, a time before he was consumed by the desert nightlife. From mid-2005 to mid-2006, fighting for PRIDE, Baroni competed five times in 13 months, winning three matches, including two classic first-round knockouts by a combined time of 2:05. He was living in San Jose with Josh Thomson and Trevor Prangley back then, and the quieter environment afforded him little chance to self-sabotage, because as Baroni aptly puts it, he "had no time to get out of shape. There was no time to f--king be a degenerate, do derelict things." In other words, just the restart he needed.

And so Baroni packed his bags, venturing out of the Nevada wastelands, back to San Jose to reunite with Thomson at the American Kickboxing Association (AKA). There, studying the championship ways of Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez and Luke Rockhold on a daily basis, Baroni has re-sculpted his life for one last run. Within those walls, at long last, he has become a professional athlete.

It's just a "different lifestyle" in San Jose, says Baroni. A lifestyle of competence, warmth, and structure. The support system has been an unexpected boon, as has Nuvo TV's new Fight Factory reality show, which films the daily comings and goings of the gym and keeps everyone in check. For a fighter looking to reinvent himself, this new life has been the good kind of overwhelming, and the "New York Badass" can't help but thank his new teammates at every opportunity. "I know I'm not lying to myself anymore," he says. "I'm not beating up part-time fighters.

"I'm at AKA, not some Podunk gym beating a bunch of scrubs. I'm the gym everyday fighting and training with some of the best guys in the world.

"I feel blessed by God right now," Baroni finishes with a smile. "My body is still good. I had my both my knees done, I had my shoulder done, my neck, everything. But I'm good now. For the first time, I'm really not in pain and I'm training ... I feel like I'm a freshman in college again."

Of course the questions are still there. They always will be. Anybody who spends their youth barreling down a certain path knows the few years before the end of the line can be rough. Barraged by questions about history and legacies, it's easy to become cynical about a life's work, especially if it's one less than to be desired.

Baroni is no different. Ask him about his legacy now and he'll give you an honest answer. Even if he doesn't like hearing it. "I see the end is near," he grimly says. "And I didn't accomplish the things a lot of guys still competing at my age have accomplished. The Rich Franklin's, the Dan Henderson's; when they're done, they'll have their legacy. They'll have accomplished a lot, and they'll be able to fall back on their career within the sport to make money. What the f--k will I do? Move back to f--king Massapequa, f--king hang out at the barbershop and talk about the glory days when I fought in PRIDE?"

But legacies can change, and as disgusted as Baroni is by his past life, he's bursting with hope for this new one. Last year Baroni inked a multi-fight contract with ONE FC, a Singapore-based promotion already lauded as a potential heir apparent to PRIDE. Plans are in the works to award three inaugural ONE FC championship belts in October, with more likely to follow at a later date. For Baroni, it's the last chance of a lifetime.

But the first step begins on August 31, when the American takes on multi-time BJJ champion Rodrigo Ribeiro at ONE FC: Pride of a Nation. After which, with the help of his partners at AKA, Baroni plans to fight for four or five more years, his eye fixed squarely on the title. Perhaps then he can finally put his mind at ease.

"I want a different ending to this f--king story," Baroni vows. "I can be the first welterweight champion of ONE FC. I'm hoping winning that title really means something. That's why I'm really pulling for this organization, that's why I'm training hard. I'm putting all my eggs in this basket."

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