Phil Baroni circled left and pawed out his jab. He promised himself he'd stay calm, patient, but that's easier said than done when your lifelong dream is staring you straight in the eye, so close you could reach out and snatch it.
All Baroni ever wanted was to win a world championship. To feel the belt hugging around his waist, his arms outstretched to the heavens. He had and lost so many chances before, back when fighting was a second priority to the vices of the night. But now, this was different. He was a changed man, and this was his moment to seize.
Nobutatsu Suzuki bulled forward, muscling Baroni against the fence. And then it happened.
"I knew right away," Baroni sighs.
"I was so close. I could taste it. I knew if I beat that guy, I was getting the fight. I've been dreaming my whole career for that fight."
Baroni was promised a shot at the inaugural ONE FC welterweight title if he defeated Suzuki on May 31. Instead, his ankle snagged in the cage, and the next thing Baroni knew, arena officials were trying to wheel him out on a stretcher, his right foot twisted the opposite way like a grotesque action figure. The bone, dislocated. The ligament, torn. Baroni's storybook ending had just become a nightmare.
Baroni traveled 12 days with the pain untreated, flying from Manila to San Francisco, driving to Santa Fe to pick up his belongings, then flying back to Las Vegas to finally undergo surgery. All the while, his mind raced. Was this it? Is this really how things would end? He'd dominated Suzuki for four minutes. Why couldn't he have just sealed the deal earlier?
Then came the diagnosis. First doctors said Baroni would be out of the gym at least a year. For a 13-year veteran who's fast approaching the big 4-0, that was precious time Baroni didn't have. He panicked, did some digging, asked a few acquaintances and discovered an experimental stem cell treatment available in Jamaica. An NFL player with a similar, but more severe, ankle injury vouched for Baroni on its effectiveness. If the procedure works, and Baroni catches a few breaks along the way, he may find himself back in the gym within six to nine months.
The thing is, Baroni is a fighter. It's what he does best. Treatment costs money -- a lot of money -- and if Baroni can't walk, he can't fight. If he can't fight, well, that income is a bit harder to come by.
"It worries me a lot. I'm not rich or making big bucks," Baroni sighs deeper.
"I could easily fall off the wagon right now on one leg. Roll up in my wheel, roll my ass into a casino, put the little money I won down on a f--kin' blackjack table and drinks. It'd be pretty easy. Maybe the old me would've done that, but I can't afford to do that. I need to save money and hopefully find some work."
Baroni knows he'll figure something out. He always does. Honestly, what's more frustrating is all the chatter, the incessant background noise. The crowd that just see the result of his fight -- a first round TKO loss -- scoff to themselves, then tell Baroni to hang up his gloves. They don't know what this meant to him; what it still does mean to him.
"A lot of people think I'm done," Baroni says. "I ain't going out like this, dude. I ain't going out breaking my ankle, getting carried out of the ring. The whole argument while I was on the ground, however long I was left in the ring, was because they brought out a stretcher. Motherf--kers, stand me up and carry me the f--k out. I ain't going out of the ring on a f--king stretcher. They're like, ‘But your ankle.' They wouldn't f--king do it. That's what took so long to get me out of the ring, because I was arguing with them. The last time I'm going out of a ring isn't going to be on no f--king stretcher. There's no f--king way. I'm not going out like that. I gave my life to this sport. I made a lot of sacrifices. I beat up my body and punished myself, but the last time I leave the cage is not going to be on a f--king stretcher with my foot twisted off. I had to walk out under my own power."
Last August I spoke with Baroni after he inked his deal to fight for ONE FC. That same deal guaranteed him a title shot if he won his first two bouts, and the thought of redeeming his career consumed him. It was all he talked about. He'd reshaped his life to fulfill this one goal. Gone were the neon succubi of Las Vegas nightlife, the backdoor poker games and four a.m. bingers. Baroni didn't want to become a forgotten man, one of the names we look back on and say, ‘He could've done so much more.'
A ONE FC title may seem trite to some, but in his eyes, it represented something far greater. Validation, in a sense. Validation that he still managed to get it done, even if it was in his eleventh hour.
Baroni said it himself back then, he just needed "a different ending to this f--king story." Now that mantra means more than it ever has before.
"This is the worst ending that I could ever imagine," Baroni says, dolefully eyeing the casted foot that rests on his living room table. "But it's just not going to be. I'm not going to let it be. I'm not even entertaining that. I know a lot of people are already counting me out. I know a lot of people think that's it. But that's not it. That's not it. I'm going to f--king get better and get back in there.
"The first day I put on a pair of boxing gloves, I wanted that fight. A world championship fight. I fought the Pride Grand Prix twice, I didn't win. I fought (Frank) Shamrock for the Strikeforce title, I didn't win. I was one fight away two times in the UFC to get a title shot. And f--k man, I still haven't gotten it. I still haven't won that world championship. I was right there. I felt great. I could almost taste it.
"It's not going to end this way," Baroni vows to himself. "I'm not going to let it end this way."