If there's been a near-universal theme among the hundreds of fighters who have appeared on The Ultimate Fighter over the course of 16 seasons, it is this: Living in the TUF house is not something they'd want to experience again.
Sure, most of them came out the other end of their TUF experience better fighters with higher public profiles than when they entered. But six weeks alone in the Nevada desert, cut off from friends, family, and any real contact with the outside world, all while a camera films you, is enough to test the psyche of even the strongest-willed men.
But few fighters seemed to take his time in the house as hard as Mike Ricci. The Montrealer, who fights Colton Smith in the welterweight championship fight at Saturday night's Ultimate Fighter Finale card in Las Vegas, says he still feels the repercussions from living in the house. He explained his feelings in-depth during a gripping MMA Hour interview on Monday.
Ricci, who trains at Montreal's famed Tri-Star gym, jumped up from lightweight and was the smallest fighter in the house during a welterweight season. He says that while he knew what he was getting into, the effects of the seclusion was more than he could have imagined.
"It was an absolute nightmare, I wanted to sue for psychological damage, I wasn't the same person," Ricci said. "I actually thought I had a case, ‘I'm not the same person, I can do this and win.' But, I felt like don't get me wrong, I knew what I was getting into I knew how I was going to react. Even some of the producers in the house toward the end were like, ‘Geez, you're the most institutionalized fighter we've ever seen, we've done 11 seasons and we've never seen anyone like you, you're like a robot now.'
"I was taken away from my family and from my friends and from life, you literally, you vanish, you're gone, there's no sign of you whatsoever," Ricci continued. "Its almost like to everyone in the outside world you're dead and you're gone. There's no sign of you whatsoever. And, things like for instance I didn't know what was happening with my people on the outside, it was upsetting, people had gotten new jobs or changed their hairstyle or experienced different things I missed out on, it iust upset me. It still upsets me to this day."
Ricci has watched himself on TUF as the season has aired, but he says doing so is a difficult task.
"I watch it and it brings back a lot of emotions for me," he said. "It's hard to watch, when I watch it I don't even realize it, five minutes into the show I'm frowning and my eyebrows get lower and I have this look on my face and I'm getting right back where I was just by watching. But, and also with my situation it was even harder, I was the smallest guy in the house, lightweight, looking the way I look and being quiet it just kind of made me a target for the jokes in the house and being picked on and whatnot. It made my situation a lot harder."
All of this begs the question: Why did Ricci join TUF in the first place? According to the fighter, in the long run, the opportunity to gain the same benefits so many other TUF winners have gained over the years outweighed the negatives.
"I feel it was an opportunity for me to get ahead and go faster than I would have by the usual route, fighting your way up on undercards," Ricci said. "I know that it was a lot of work that was going to be crammed into a short amount of time, but if I looked good and was successful ... I feel like I brought in just as much exposure and gone as far forward fighting four fights for TUF than I would have four fights outside of TUF. But the time status is those four fights could be in a year, and I did it all in the span of a summer. That's why I did it."
With one more win, Ricci will have accomplished that goal. As the fighter with the chance to become the first Canadian TUF winner, he's garnered more interest than most TUF contestants in recent years. Now it's just a matter of getting the job done.
"There's a lot of successful people around me," said the Tri-Star competitor. "Rory MacDonald, Georges St-Pierre. I train with these guys day in and day out and I know where I deserve to be and TUF was my ticket."