Most mixed martial artists make their professional debuts in humble venues. Low-rent casinos and high school gyms around the country have given birth to many a fledgling MMA career.
Mike Ricci, though, aimed big from the start. He was a 22-year-old Montrealer with three amateur fights under his belt in 2008 when he heard local promotion TKO had an event planned for the city's 23,000-seat Bell Centre, home of the NHL's Montreal Canadiens.
"Everyone thought I was nuts for wanting to be on that card," said Ricci. "But as soon as I heard, I just knew. I just pushed Firas [Zahabi] and pushed him until finally they found a spot for me on the card, I think just to shut me up."
Ricci justified his place that night at the Bell Centre, as he finished fellow Montreal native Stephane Chretien via strikes with two seconds left in the final round of their fight. Still, his pro debut was all a little surreal for the current UFC lightweight.
"You know, I was so zeroed in on my fight that I never even took the time to stop and consider my surroundings," Ricci said. "Afterwards, everyone told me it was probably a good thing, like I was too young to even be aware of what I was doing," he said. "But once they stopped the fight, once it was over, that was when I had a chance to look up at the Habs banners and think about it. That was pretty special."
So when Ricci returns to the Bell Centre as a polished veteran on March 16 at UFC 158 to face Colin Fletcher, any sense of hometown jitters will have long since disappeared. This will be Ricci's fifth fight at the arena, making him almost as much a regular in the building as the hockey team which wears the bleu, blanc et rouge.
"When I fight at Bell Centre now, I feel like I'm fighting at my home arena," said Ricci. "Obviously it's different when it's a UFC event, because it's so much bigger in scope and you know you've got everyone in the sport watching you. But I know I'll be the home team on March 16."
Regardless of the setting, of course, UFC 158 marks an important juncture in Ricci's career. The Tri Star fighter was one of the most memorable characters on "The Ultimate Fighter 16," not only because of his emo portrayal on the show, but also because he was a natural lightweight fighting up at welterweight -- and succeeding -- simply in order to get a chance in the house and gain exposure.
Ricci came up short in his TUF Finale championship fight with Colton Smith on Dec. 16, and while he took some time off afterwards, he couldn't say no to the opportunity to make his return to 155 pounds.
"I took a few weeks off after the fight, and honestly, I probably would have taken some more time off if I wasn't offered a hometown fight," said Ricci. "But honestly, I'm glad to have the chance to get right back into things. I didn't hesitate to take the fight when it was offered."
When Ricci appeared on The MMA Hour in December, he tore into his time spent on TUF, referring to it as "an absolute nightmare." But with some time to reflect on what went down, he now sees it as a positive career move.
"I have no regrets," Ricci said. "I'm a better fighter now than I was before I entered the TUF house because of the experience. Fighting up a weight class I had to push myself like I never had before. I feel like when I come back down to lightweight, I'm going to be a faster fighter, a physically stronger fighter, I just feel like I'm going to be a better all-around mixed martial artist simply because I pushed myself the way I did."
Ricci is being matched up with a fighter in a comparable career position. Fletcher, a native of Sunderland, England, came up short in the "TUF: The Smashes" Finale in Australia against Norman Parke, one day before Ricci lost to Smith.
"It's not like I went out of my way to ask for him, or have an opinion on him either way," Ricci said of the tattooed fighter known as "Freakshow." "I knew he's got good submissions, but other than that, I'm just looking to get back to action and fight in front of my hometown fans and let the rest take care of itself."