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Todd Duffee returns two years later as a man we barely know

Zuffa LLC via Getty

LAS VEGAS – On Saturday night, Todd Duffee will celebrate his 29th birthday by trading fists with Anthony Hamilton. And at just 29, Duffee has become sort of like a human oxymoron; he’s a veteran prospect -- a guy who’s been around that we know all about and yet don’t really know at all.

As Duffee gets set to fight in his fourth UFC bout, he strikes you as a guy who’s been through many versions of himself and has finally arrived at something tenable. He’s been hyped, humbled and thrown through hoops, and now he’s just…a little different. There’s a lightness of being. For a guy who burned the candle at both ends at the beginning of his career, who was accused of having an attitude problem, who bounced between gyms and didn’t make a lot of friends, who had to overcome serious a health issue just when momentum was swinging back on his side, Duffee appears comfortable in his own skin. 

But he’s not about to blow out any candles.

"Dude, I’ve always ignored my birthday," he says. "What am I celebrating? Last year I took my mom out to dinner. That’s what you should do on my birthday. That day’s for her. It’s a party for her that I made it this far. It’s a testament to what she did."

These days Duffee will tell you about his dear mother, who he says doesn’t care all that much for fighting, and therefore won’t be celebrating his birthday with him at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.

"She’s just not into it," he says, shaking his head. "She’s a sweet lady. She gave me many greater opportunities to succeed. I could have a doctor degree right now, and she knows that. But she never stopped me, she’s very proud of me, and she’s happy for me. By no means does she ever put her foot down.

"I remember she put me on a train when I was headed to the airport to go fight Assuerio [Silva] in Brazil. I had no money, and she knew it. She rode the train with me to the airport and gave me $20. That’s all the money I had. So, she supported it. She didn’t like it -- what kind of parent wants to see their kid get into a fight? -- but she supported it. She’s happy I’m doing what I love."

Duffee’s back to doing what he loves, but sometimes the thing he loves doesn’t love him back.

His UFC career began with a big bang. He knocked out Tim Hague at UFC 102 in Portland in seven seconds. With a prototypical linebacker look, and a physique like a modern-day Ajax, Duffy picked up a lot of hype fast. Expectations half soared. To the point that he was a massive favorite to win his next fight against the cop Mike Russow at UFC 114.

After dominating about twelve minutes of the fight -- a fight that had become almost monotonous in its one-sided nature -- Russow threw a Hail Mary haymaker midway through the third round and knocked Duffee out. All the hype fled the room. Somehow Duffee had been part of two of the craziest fights in UFC heavyweight history, and had experienced both ends of the spectrum. He would be cut abruptly from the UFC not long after, and ended up fighting Alistair Overeem in Japan on less than two week’s notice. He lost badly, getting knocked out in 17 seconds.

Duffee went from heavyweight prospect to punch line in six months. He was standoffish with the media, and somewhat aloof toward how things were playing out with his career.

"I hate the media," he says, laughing at making the declaration to media. "No offense, but you guys are terrible. You guys could do a way better job. I am joking…sort of. No, but I didn’t want to be known for being a personality or having good looks. And I thought that, I was a purist of the sport and I felt like I was getting too much attention too soon. I felt the same way that everybody else did. They hated me. And I didn’t want it. People were pissed. They were like, ‘what did this guy do?’ I was like, listen, I’m right there with you guys. I’m a purist, and I wanted to earn it."

After the Overeem loss, Duffee didn’t fight again for over a year. He ended up signing on to fight in the India-based Super Fight League, and he traveled to Chandigarh to face Neil Grove. It had been two-and-a-half years since his last victory over Hague, and this time he needed only 34 seconds to once again get his arm raised.

That was enough for the UFC to give him another chance. Duffee returned at UFC 155 to fight Phil De Fries as a late replacement for the injured Matt Mitrione, and he needed only a couple of minutes to score a TKO victory. He got a Knockout of the Night bonus. Just as quickly as he vanished, Duffee re-materialized.

"The media definitely portrayed me in a way that wasn’t me," he’s saying, all that stuff long behind him. "That was very frustrating to me as well. They treated me like a high school jock. And I feel to this day that it was just based on how I looked.

"But I got here on my own accord. I didn’t have this magical support system that happens now to guys. I was out there. I threw my stuff in my car and went. My buddy let me stay at his place for free."

Duffee, who now trains at the American Top Team in Coconut Creek, says that the day-to-day grind took its toll on him early on.

"The grind for me came out in my personality after awhile," he says.

These days Duffee’s not afraid to elaborate.

"Because I had such high expectations, not even of myself but just in life," he says. "I wanted to do certain things, and I grinded too hard. I over-trained consistently, and when you’re over-trained, it affects your state of mind, it affects your perspective. That was a big thing. I was burning myself out but I wasn’t, because I was still going. I was responding like somebody who was burning out. I was acting that way."

He’s laughing a lot now. There’s joy in the fact that he’s mentioning this stuff as items getting smaller in his rear view mirror.

After he beat De Fries, and we’d come full circle back to Duffee as a prospect in the heavyweight division, things went south again. This time Duffee was sidelined with a diagnosis of Parsonage Turner Syndrome, a nerve issue that caused him to begin losing feeling in his arm. Once again, Duffee slipped into the shadows just as he was getting rolling.

He battled his health issues in relative quiet.

Two years later, here he is telling media members he hates them in the chummiest of spirits. On his 29th birthday, he’ll get to compete again, this time against the Jackson-Winkeljohn fighter Hamilton. Duffee has been through a lot in his years.

"It’s a crazy roller coaster, for sure," he says. "But I’ve definitely enjoyed it."

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