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For Mike Ricci, lessons of Lawler-MacDonald 2 loom large ahead of WSOF 25 tourney

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MESA, Ariz. -- Mike Ricci was in Montreal, surrounded by family, when the greatest fight of 2015 -- and perhaps ever -- built to a slow and gory crescendo at UFC 189. Like everyone else spellbound by the car crash violence, he couldn't look away. And by the time Tristar teammate Rory MacDonald collapsed in agony in the fifth round of a fight against Robbie Lawler he was winning, clutching his broken face as medical personnel rushed to his aid, the Ricci household was in tears.

"It was hard watching that fight, I won't lie," Ricci told MMA Fighting. "We're all human, you know what I mean? None of us want to see our friends or the people we love get hurt. And I'm not going to sit here and act like I'm some [emotionless] cagefighter. I'm a normal person and watching that fight hurt me. If I could, I would've jumped in there.

"But seeing him go through a rough fight, I makes you realize, this s**t's for real. There might be one of those nights where you have just to f**king man up. Pull up your shorts, tighten your nuts, and f**king take a beating and keep going, man. So seeing that, as much as it hurt, it was motivating too. I was proud of him for what he had done. That, for me, was the pinnacle of the sport."

Few who saw the wonder on display that July night would disagree with Ricci's assessment. MacDonald and Lawler's iconic welterweight rematch was the kind of anomaly this sport gives only so often, one that evolves from out-of-body viewing in the moment, to Zapruder style footage in retrospect, destined to be explored and broken down and marveled over for decades to come. It was the kind of fight that shakes even the professionals, a reminder to the guys who take punches for a living how quickly the fun can end and the soul-searching can begin.

And for Ricci, it was validation of a mindset he had already been feeling since his UFC tenure ended with a quiet announcement in the winter of 2013.

Ricci knows now why he was cut. He can even go so far as to appreciate it, at least a little bit, even if he doesn't agree with the logic. Nearly two years after he became an unexpected free agent at the age of 27, with his only UFC loss at his natural weight class coming in an uninspired decision against future top-10 lightweight Myles Jury, Ricci admits that the wave of victories and aggression he rode into the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 16 never translated to the real Octagon, mostly because once he was there, he became too comfortable with the idea that being there was enough.

"I have a chip on my shoulder," Ricci said. "At the beginning of my career, I feel like I progressed really fast and I did so well and I beat a lot of good guys because I had that chip on my shoulder. When I went to the UFC, I started to get recognized for The Ultimate Fighter and I kind of chilled out. I was like, finally, people know that I'm f**king for real. And I kind of just laid back a bit and let everyone else kind of squeak by me.

"I got that chip on my shoulder back when I got that phone call, ‘hey, you've been cut.' And actually I found out online, I didn't even get a phone call. I went online and I found out. So do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yeah, I'm pissed off."

Ricci's wake-up call was felt most by the aging ranks of the ex-UFC. He signed back to the regional circuit with Titan FC and promptly demolished two men, Jorge Gurgel and George Sotiropoulos, who counted 18 fights of shared Octagon experience between them. Neither has fought since.

It is cruel irony that now, as Ricci makes the next step of his resurgence, a reminder of the past and what could have been sits alongside him on the MMA schedule. The footage of Ricci imploding the wiring in Neil Magny's head with a hellish left elbow on TUF 16 still sits on YouTube, a bizarre reminder of the promise many believed Ricci once had. Yet Magny is now a top-15 UFC welterweight, set to headline his first UFC event the day after Ricci debuts as a competitor in World Series of Fighting's eight-man, one-night tournament, while Ricci is left to burn with righteous anger at the thought of everything that could've been had he given himself a fair shot.

"The UFC was going though a lot of bulls**t with fights starting to become boring, guys were playing it safe, and they needed to make an example," Ricci said. "Let's be honest. If you remember that point in time in the UFC, a lot of guys were fighting really, really safe. I was on a big stage, on a Jon Jones card, and they were like, ‘you know what, we're going to make an example out of this kid.'

"I think they really, really did a good job of f**king me, to be honest with you, but I did the best I could with what I was given, and UFC made me so much better. I showed it when it ended and I went into Titan. I took on guys who were UFC vets and I f**king just tooled them. Like I literally could've had a coffee while I was fighting those fights. That was because the UFC really put me under so much pressure, had me fight seven times in a year. And it did me well.

"Now I'm just looking at this tournament as something that's like a missing piece for me as a fighter. I feel like after TUF, I got better. After the UFC, I got better. After my fights in Titan, I got better. I think this is a piece that, once I have it, I'm going to be that much better. I really feel like I'm going to push into the top-five, top-10 in the world, as far as talent and skill. So that's what I'm more focused on."

And so Ricci circles back to MacDonald, the training partner that has become like a brother, and the resolve and mental majesties that "The Red King" showed that summer night in Las Vegas. Friday's tournament will be different, of that there is no doubt. Someone with the might of Lawler isn't walking through the doors of Comerica Theatre as a surprise entrant at the eleventh hour. But it will be grueling all the same, and Ricci is ready to welcome the same erstwhile test that the legends of the past all struggled through on their road to becoming something greater.

"The emotional test, the mental test, testing your will and your desire -- I'll be honest with you, going through this tournament, fighting three times, I guarantee there's going to be more than one time where I feel like quitting," Ricci said. "That's for sure. Any fighter in this f**king place who thinks he's not going to be doing that, might panic once he realizes he wants to quit. If he didn't mentally prepare for the fact that he might want to quit, he's going to be in trouble. I've prepared for that. I know. I know there's going to be points where I want to quit, and I'm going to push through them. I feel like I'll be ready for anything.

"It's going to be a tough f**king night, man."