When Joe Riggs was offered a spot in Bellator’s Fight Master reality show, he promised his wife that if he didn’t win the tournament, he was done with the sport.
Once enough of a rising star to get a UFC welterweight title shot against Matt Hughes at the age of 23, Riggs saw his career nearly fizzle away due to drug addiction. Now, at 30, he’s on the comeback trail as the top seed and best known fighter on the show.
It was a role he was specifically brought in to play.
Everything that took place during seven-plus weeks of narrowing a 16-fighter field down to two is in the can, and what happens is a secret that will unfold on television.
But Riggs gets almost giddy when the subject is brought up. That retirement talk of a few months ago, he doesn’t even consider it now.
"I’m in," he said emphatically about the sport. "I’m all the way in."
Based on what has aired so far, Riggs got "into the house" with a first-round submission win over Rob Mills. He then chose Greg Jackson as coach, even though all the coaches, which included Frank Shamrock, Randy Couture and Joe Warren, made a strong pitch for him. Shamrock, in particular, was visibly disappointed not to get him.
The house is more of a figure of speech, as this isn’t Ultimate Fighter where the 16 guys share a Las Vegas mansion. This is Fight Master where they live in a converted warehouse in New Orleans, adjacent to the gym they train in.
Riggs started out with the coaches ranking him as the No. 1 seed, a position he's sustained throughout what has aired so far this season. On the show that aired on July 31, he defeated Eric Scallan via decision. On Thursday's show, he dominated Evan Cutts, who he called one of the most talented fighters on the show, to win via decision. A third win would get him into the finals, which take place live on Sept. 7, on Bellator’s first show of the fall season from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.
"I wish I could tell you more," he said with a laugh.
"I saw Evan Cutts beat B.J. Penn’s brother," he said. "I actually wanted to fight him. I also think he’s the coolest guy. When times are hard, he always finds a way to win. I wanted to fight him and a couple of other guys."
Now 30, Riggs (39-14, 1 no contest) was recruited by Bellator matchmaker Sam Caplan looking for one familiar face to be one of the contestants in a house full of largely unknown but promising newcomers.
Riggs then went back-and-forth on the idea, at first deciding against it, feeling that seven weeks away from his wife and two young children was something he wasn’t willing to do at this stage of his career. He was already talking about an exit strategy from the sport and becoming a full-time police officer. In reality, he had one foot just about out the door.
"I made 400 grand in the best year of my career," he noted, at a time when sponsorship of name fighters was big. "The last year, I made $67,000 and that was the least I ever made since I first made it. That’s not enough to take care of four people in the family. We were used to living at a certain level. As a fighter, it’s feast or famine. One day, I get a $15,000 check. Maybe then I’ll get another fight for ten grand. Then I wouldn’t make any money for six months. Feast or famine.
"My wife, she’d rather I was going to be a cop full-time," he said. "As a police officer, I’d make $57,000 a year, but it’s 100 percent consistent and there’s not the same risks of getting injured. I told her. 'I agree with you.’ She was crying. She’s been with me since I was 17, when I turned professional. I told her [in regards to the Bellator offer] I’d give it a go. 'If I don’t win it, I’m retiring,’ and she said, 'Okay.'"
Riggs had won five fights in a row after coach John Crouch convinced him to not give up on himself. He went to Las Vegas and talked with UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, but he wasn’t happy with the money offer he got, so he decided to take the opportunity with Bellator.
Riggs traces the revitalization of his career to winning a battle with severe depression in 2011. As he battled it he entered the cage in body, but not in mind or heart, and he was finished quickly in fights against Jordan Mein, Bryan Baker and Kendall Grove. The latter fight ended in just 59 seconds. Seven years earlier, Riggs had knocked Grove out in the first round.
"It was a long battle to be right in the head," he says. "I had ups and downs. I suffered with a form of depression. I didn’t want to train much. I’d never lost more than one in a row in my life. Then I lost three fights in a row.
"I didn’t train for three fights. I didn’t want to fight. It was three fights fought just for a payday. When I fought Kendall Grove, I let him guillotine me. I didn’t want to be in there. I hated the sport. I didn’t want to be there. I fought because I wanted to take care of my family. When I fought Bryan Baker and Jordan Mein, I actually fought and put up a good fight, but I didn’t even train at all. When I fought Kendall Grove, I didn’t even try to fight."
Things changed after that bout, though, which he credits to Crouch.
"He’s turned my life around in the last year-and-a-half. Before, I’d get six weeks of training before a fight to get in shape," he said. "Now I’m in the gym non-stop, training my jiu-jitsu, all my skills, constantly getting better. Now I’m always in shape. It used to be I was never getting better, staying at the same point, just getting in shape when a fight would come around. That’s how I spent my career. Now, I’m getting better. I know in my heart I can beat anyone in the world at 170 on any given day.
"I told Sam Caplan I’d do the reality show, but I was real hesitant," he says. "Then two days before I was supposed to go to Louisiana to start filming, I called Spike TV and Sam and said I’m not doing it. But they coaxed me with words, conversation, but right to the end it was really touch-and-go. Being away from my family for seven weeks freaked me out."
During his time on the show, he wasn’t allowed any contact with his wife, Lisa, who he’s been with since he was a teenager and who'd stuck with him through all his ups and downs. Nor was he allowed to speak with his kids -- three-year old daughter, Jadin, and his six-year-old son, Joe Diesel Riggs Jr.
"Seven weeks, I was unable to have any contact at all," he says. "I can’t stand being two feet away from my wife and kids. That f***ing sucks. It’s the worst possible thing in my life, but I did it and now I’m very proud of myself for doing it."
The flip side is, had Riggs been in contact with his family, he’d have probably given up on the opportunity, and may have packed up and went home quickly.
His daughter was too young to really understand why Daddy wasn’t around. But his son wasn’t.
"He was asking my wife, saying, 'Please tell the truth, is Daddy in heaven?’ If I’d have known, that day I’d have gone back home. That’s sad. When I came home, that was probably the best day of my life."
Riggs said he knew more than the other contestants about what the show was going to be about, with the fighters who won their fights on the first day then getting to pick who they wanted to coach them. But he was surprised by the level of competition.
"I was a little more privy to information," he said. "I knew people in the industry. I knew who were the coaches before I even went out there. I knew who I wanted to be my coach. I’ve always known Greg [Jackson] and always wanted to work with him. It was the perfect opportunity to do so."
He said a number of guys on the show -- and maybe even one of the guys who lost trying to get onto the show -- could have won some recent seasons of The Ultimate Fighter.
"I was surprised how there were a lot better guys than on a normal Ultimate Fighter show," he says. "Look at the records. The guys on Ultimate Fighter are 3-0, 5-2. We had guys who are 19-3 or 13-2. We had a lot more seasoned guys than the rest of the shows. I was a little thrown off my that. The other surprise is that they didn’t really pay attention to the other stuff going on outside the fighting."
The UFC actually approached Riggs to be a part of the original season of The Ultimate Fighter, but instead the decision was made to debut him earlier, in 2004. It was just before the filming of the first season, where he’d have battled the likes of Chris Leben, Josh Koscheck, Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian, had he been a participant. The route allowed him to reach near the top of the division earlier, but Riggs was gone from UFC while they all had lengthy careers.
As for Fight Master, he says when he’s watched the shows, there are things he remembers that would have made for great television that aren’t there. The show, as compared to its predecessor, concentrates more on the training and the fighting, as opposed to drama in the house.
"There was a lot of cool stuff that they left out," he says. "They were trying to make it all about the fights. For reality TV, you’ve got to have some kind of quirky stuff in there. There’s something that happened on the next episode (which airs Thursday) with me. I hope they show it. If they don’t show it, it’s stupid."
Riggs’ career has gone through a number of phases. When he first broke into UFC, he was almost a science project. Once near 300 pounds, Riggs walked around at well over 200, but fought at 170. Through the magic of excessive weight cutting and rehydrating, he would go into the cage at about 205 pounds, looking to be a weight class larger than almost all his opponents at match time. He was also known as one of those guys who was a monster in the gym, which is why expectations were so high for him at such a young age.
There are various viewpoints on cutting that much weight, but years later, Riggs is still doing the same strategy.
"I think I cut the most weight of anyone in the weight class," he said. "When I’m not fighting, I’m 230, and I’m not fat. I still have abs. I’m very muscular at that weight. I’m very good at cutting weight. I make the weight -- 170 is my weight class, and I love it."
On the night of the biggest fight of his career, that strategy backfired. He missed weight for a title match with Hughes on Nov. 19, 2005, before losing via submission to a kimura. Few would have suspected at the time that it was the highest profile fight he’d have inside the cage -- at least for the next seven years.
But his biggest fight was on the horizon, a pain-killer addiction that took him from a top prospect to a flame out.
"I was still fighting at a high level, fighting in the UFC, as a full-blown addict," he says.
Riggs points to his 2006 win over Jason Von Flue, and a 93-second knockout loss to Diego Sanchez, to around the time his problems started. He traces the addiction back to having come out of a couple of surgeries, but losing his first child -- who died shortly after being born -- couldn’t have helped things. That may also explain why he was so reticent of leaving his children.
"I didn’t know what addiction was," he says. "I had a couple of surgeries. I used medication as it was prescribed. When you are somebody well known, doctors seem pretty lenient. I would take it and I wasn’t in any more pain. I stopped taking them. I didn’t know what withdrawal was. That was the worst feeling in the world. It felt like my bones were breaking. I then got back on them real quick."
After being dropped by the UFC in 2006, he was with Strikeforce from 2007 to 2010, posting a 4-3 record and never getting near title contention. He debuted in Bellator against Baker in the first round of a middleweight tournament in 2011. He was knocked out in the second round at a time he admitted to not training and hating the sport.
"I’ve fallen back in love with the sport," he says. "I feel like I’m 19 again and this is by far the best I’ve felt mentally and physically."