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Former UFC fighter Matt Riddle thinks pro wrestling might be his 'shot to make it'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Halloween night means parties or trick-or-treating for most 28-year-old couples with three kids. For former UFC fighter Matt Riddle, and his wife Lisa, they are less than two weeks into a new direction in life -- trying to become pro wrestlers.

Riddle fought 12 times in UFC between 2008 and 2013, after coming in through the Ultimate Fighter reality show. He was a New York high school state champion at Saratoga Springs High School in 2004, then wrestled for two years at East Stroudsburg University, before working as a roofer. He had no fights nor formal training when he tried out for The Ultimate Fighter.

In those days, contestants on the show were selected jointly by the UFC and Spike. The UFC was picking based on people who could go on to be fighters in the organization. Spike would pick people based on personality or looks. One of the reasons they started doing the fights to get into the house was to weed out the guys who may have made for fine television characters, but weren't real fighters. Riddle had a good look, and a big smile and seemed to always be happy, but he never fought, even though he had a solid real wrestling background.

He walked into the cage for the first time and promptly scored such an outrageous knockout, breaking the jaw of Dan Simmler in two places, that he was the second guy picked by coach Rampage Jackson for the seventh season of the show. He lost to Dan Cramer in his next fight (a loss he would avenge a year later).

Those at the UFC recognized Riddle had potential. In fact, he was a name brought up specifically in those days when the idea of a UFC developmental system was being talked about, taking guys who had potential and athletic ability, but from an experience standpoint, weren't ready for UFC. But no such thing existed. He was in the UFC from day one, and, armed with his wrestling, won his first three fights. Then, by his own admission, he showed up out of shape for a fight with Nick Osipczak in Manchester, England, and learned a lesson. He got finished late in the third round.

"That was a bad night," Riddle recalls.

He never reached the top in the UFC. Still, he was competitive. He would have won his last four fights, except two of his wins were overturned for testing positive for marijuana. The second one led to his being let go by the organization after a run of going 7-3, with the two no-contests. Bellator wanted him, but he and CEO Bjorn Rebney had a public falling out after he blasted the organization, said he was retiring, then came out of retirement, pulled out of a fight, and was let go. His only fight since being released by the UFC in early 2013, was on Feb. 28 for Titan Fighting Championships, which he won via guillotine in the second round.

Fighting in the UFC was more something he fell into. As a kid, he and his wrestling dummy would spend all day on the trampoline with him practicing pro wrestling moves and he'd do backyard matches.

In late-2014, Riddle's trying to go back to his childhood.

Three times a week -- every Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- Riddle says that and his wife travel 90 minutes each direction to head to The Monster Factory in Paulsboro, N.J. It's one of the oldest pro wrestling schools in the country, opening up in the early-'80s by Larry Sharpe and one of the legendary names in pro wrestling history, the late "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers. Among the stars who have trained there include the wrestler who put the gym on the map, the late Bam Bam Bigelow, along with King Kong Bundy and current WWE stars The Big Show and Sheamus.

"We get here early," says Riddle. "At 7:20 p.m., we start practicing what we know. Then we go over new material. I train Tuesday and Thursdays in MMA. I lift every day. This is the next part of my life. This is what I'm committed to. Tuesday and Thursday I'm doing MMA to pay the bills, and it covers the groceries for now. I make a decent penny doing privates (MMA lessons) and stuff."

When not train training at the school, he and his wide train at home going over what they can.

"It's his third day, he's every energetic, and respectful, and I don't have to get in his ear about things like being strict and getting right down to business," says Danny Cage, a former pro wrestler who now runs the school. "A lot of new students will have wandering eyes, and start daydreaming. He and his wife come in and get right down to business."

Cage did say during actual training he had to separate the two because they were talking to each other too much during class.

"It's understandable," he says. "They are married."

Cage says Riddle is way ahead of the game because of the tools he brings to the table, most notably that he doesn't need to be taught to get into shape and he's far ahead of most athletically. He's way ahead in cardio training. Plus, Cage believes it's a major advantage to have strong amateur wrestling experience, even though there are a number of habits amateur wrestlers have that are hard to break, including things that are hard to notice. For example, in amateur wrestling, you lock up with your right hand. In American-style pro wrestling, everything is done on the left side. But a lot of the basic moves and reversals come from amateur wrestling.

"Some people like to crap on a professional athlete going into pro wrestling," Cage says. "As someone who coaches these guys, if I can take their passion in one sport into this one, it's an advantage. They already have a track record of training hard. He wanted to be a pro wrestler first, but the UFC presented itself. He came in. Every once in a while he wants to do hardcore wrestling, like anyone who comes in, but I told him, `Let's get a base and we'll take it one step at a time.' He'll be patient."

Right now, they are still concentrating on just tying up, headlocks and taking the wrist for the first two weeks. Then they'll start inside the ring, learning to safely take the bumps off moves like arm drags and hip tosses.

"We can't speed it up just because he's a good athlete," says Cage. "It's a formula we have and we've done it this way for the last 30 years."

Cage says he could call the WWE tomorrow and Riddle -- with his look and background -- could get a tryout, but he thinks it's best for him to go there first with training. He doesn't want him going there as a pro athlete with no basics and no understanding of the backstage games and inadvertently rub somebody the wrong way. In the WWE developmental, there are guys who were solid athletes, and even star athletes like college football players, pro soccer players and top level college and even ex-Olympic wrestlers. And in the other corner, there are guys who spent years doing small-time pro wrestling shows. There are even those who have practiced the trade in places like Mexico, Japan and Europe and, in the ring, are actually better than the biggest stars on national television.

The former group are usually bigger, stronger and more athletic, but the latter group, with their ring experience, can often blow them away when it comes to wrestling. It's often frustrating for the guys who were star athletes in legitimate sports, who have worked hard to become the best at what they do and with the confidence of star athlete, to be so far behind guys who are not anywhere close to the same level of athlete and often have no sports background at all.

Even at The Monster Factory, Cage sees the issues between the two groups, but he sees non-athletes without the worldwide experience resenting athletes trying pro wrestling.

"Someone having any kind of a pro athletic background, I'll take that any day," Cage says. "There's a ton of people who want to be a pro wrestler. They come in at 24, and they are out of shape, but they think because they watch WWE all the time, it makes them more passionate about pro wrestling than someone who played professional sports. But there's a difference between a fan and somebody doing pro sport. It's a different animal."

"If everything goes as planned, I'm hoping he'll be gone (signing with a major company) in six to eight months, but that's not my call. I can't tell people to sign him. He's 215 legit, 6-foot-2, shredded, his build reminds me of Steve Cutler (a wrestler Cage trained who is now in WWE's developmental system)."

"I watched ECW, WCW, WWF, I watched it all," Riddle says fondly about the so-called Attitude era, the period from 1997 to early 2001, when pro wrestling peaked in U.S. popularity. "My parents hated me. All I did was watch pro wrestling and I wrestled with a heavy bag on the trampoline. That was my childhood."

His wife, who is not a wrestling fan, but was an All-American gymnast at Louisiana State University, and later a fitness competitor post-college, comes with him.

"We met in Las Vegas, I was training for a fight and she was running sprints. She liked the way I looked. I liked the way she looked, and now we have three kids."

"Fitness competition is a lot of hard work and there's no paycheck in that," he notes.

"She's doing great," Cage says. "She's tough. She was a gymnast and has great instincts in there. She doesn't complain. She doesn't back down. She does everything the guys do."

The two went to a seminar two weeks ago put on by Ring of Honor, the country's third-largest pro wrestling promotion, which happened to produce one of Riddle's favorite wrestlers, Colby Lopez, who is WWE's current star villain, Seth Rollins.

"My wife doesn't watch wrestling, but she watches the (Total) Divas on E!," he says. "I told her how interested I was and she's a pretty physical person, so she was interested. She saw some of the  Divas doing it and she's quite confident. She's put together pretty nicely and she can move. I told her, `I'm going to try it, why don't you try it?' She's determined and she's doing great."

Riddle has the right look, naturally wide shoulders, a small waist and eight-pack abs. He said his ultimate goal is not to win championships, but to do crazy things in the ring that leave people with their jaws hanging open, like spots he remembers to this day from his own childhood. He said he can already do wild acrobatics and was a natural at running the ropes, but he's got no foundation.

"When I watch wrestling today, it's not the mat technicians, but the guys who can draw you in with `Oh My God' moments, `Holy s*** moments, those are the moments I want to create," he says. "Even when I fought in the UFC, I wanted to get fight of the night. You get into a fight and get the fans roaring, I like guys like Seth Rollins, because they're willing to push the tempo harder than other people. If someone does something big earlier in the night, he's going to go out and take it that much farther. I don't know if it's everyone's goal in wrestling, but I want people to get excited.

"The one thing that's square one, is getting in the ring trusting people," Riddle says. "Running off the ropes, jumping, that came natural to me. It's the fundamentals I need to learn. I need to learn how not to get hurt, and how not to hurt other people. I'm pretty sure I already have x, y and z, but I need a, b and c. That's why I came to The Monster Factory. I was told that's where you need to be to pick up the basics.

"I don't want to come off bad, but I have a lot of potential at this," he says. "I'm a world-class athlete and what I always wanted to do was be a pro wrestler. It was always my passion. I'm not in the UFC anymore so I'm not getting paid decent money to fight, so I wanted to do something I love. I'd rather wrestle professionally and have fun than fight for no reason at all."

It was the pro wrestling that inadvertently got him into a winding road that led to the UFC.

"I started wrestling in seventh grade," he says. "I had about 200 backyard matches under my belt by then. I saw every wrestler, or at least every wrestler who was good, had an amateur background. I went to college wrestling, then started doing Jiu Jitsu, then I was in the UFC for six years."

"I did it for a while. It wasn't something I wanted to do, it was something I was good at. They wanted me to fight at 170 or 185 pounds. When I get below 190, my kidneys hurt, my lower back hurts, it's not safe for my body. I don't get joy out of suffering, especially if I don't get paid. I'm no longer 22, I don't care about tough man contests. This has been my goal my entire life. I looked in the mirror four months ago. I was tired of cutting weight, getting sick, I got the (WWE) network for $9.99 and started reliving the Attitude Era and got that spark that I've been missing since I was 20. I knew I could make money doing that. I saw the guys I grew up watching, I'm watching the new guys and these guys aren't bigger than me, I'm a little more ripped than they are, I'm a cage fighter so I have skills, so maybe this is my shot to make it. If worst comes to worst, they say 'No.' I'm going to keep trying. I've proven people wrong in the past."

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