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Junior Albini’s breakout moment in Long Island won’t soon be forgotten

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

At his UFC debut in 2013, Conor McGregor filled in a good many blanks when he beat Marcus Brimage in just 67 seconds. He was fighting on the Facebook prelims in Stockholm, a couple of bouts before Tor Troeng submitted Adam Cella, nothing more than an intrigue in the fodder area of the card. After showing that the hype preceding him had been warranted, McGregor told Kenny Florian that Brimage had made the “contest” a little too emotional (thus informing people that he himself hadn’t). Before Florian let him go, McGregor yelled into the mic, “Dana Whitesixty G’s baby!” and laughed.

That moment made him instantly likeable. And it was a feel good moment for a fighter who’d gone through his share of hard times, with McGregor having had to borrow money from his coach John Kavanagh just to keep going towards his dream. If you knew anything about McGregor’s back-story before that fight, you knew that there were plenty of nights that he spent in the gutter staring up at the stars. He came from nothing, and had began to emerge on the other side right there in Stockholm.

Those are the memorable moments in fighting.

Junior Albini isn’t Conor McGregor. In fact, until Saturday night he wasn’t anybody. He was just a guy on the UFC on FOX 25 prelims in Long Island for his fight with Tim Johnson, who drew more attention to his mustache than Albini could towards his nine-fight winning streak.

Turns out he was on a silent crusade. Not just to make the first real money of his professional fighting career, but to prove that his pursuit was worth it — that he was worth it. That everything he’d been doing had meant something, and that any suffering that his family had to go through was, at last, paying off. It was, in essence, a confirmation of belief. He took extra care to point out that his coach, whom he thanked in the cage after the fight for sticking by him in lean times, was still standing by him at the moment he emerged on the other side.

The fight game sometimes has these stories.

The UFC has them.

Albini, a nondescript Brazilian heavyweight with leftover pudge from his much bigger days, snuck into Long Island and made his fight with Johnson about something more — he made it about everything. He made it about his late father, who died two days before his MMA debut, whom he promised he would one day make it to the UFC. He made it about chances, and possibility. He withstood Johnson’s early clinchwork on the fence and toiled in wait for daylight. When it came midway through the first round, he seized his opening. He slammed a knee to Johnson’s body, then looped a left hook to his chin, followed by a beautifully timed right in sequence.

Slam-bop-boom. Johnson went down.

Albini won. His limbs were celebrating before he could even get up, flapping in uncoordinated ways, the brain sending early signals down through the outposts that here he was, on the biggest stage, having done it.

“This has been my dream, since I was a kid,” he said in the post-fight speech. “I started fighting like 15 years ago. I’ve watch the UFC since the beginning of my dream. But this is only the beginning for me. I can do much more.”

It wasn’t until later on, when he was backstage of the Nassau Coliseum answering questions rarely asked of him, that Albini said he’d never known what it’s like to have money. That his last nine fights had been done essentially for free. That his two-year old daughter had not known even the most basic privilege of owning a toy.

“I was never able to buy her a toy or something like that,” Albini said during his media scrum. “All of her toys were like shampoos, empty bottles, because we didn’t have much money. My wife was following my dream, too, together, so it means a lot to me right now that I can make a living and give back to them what they suffered together with me — the pursuing of this dream.”

The 26-year-old Albini got $10,000 to show, and another $10,000 for the win. Later it was learned that he earned a $50,000 bonus for Performance of the Night. A grand total of $70,000. It might as well have been $10 million. What Albini had done on a Saturday night in July, on the Fight Pass portion of a card, was priceless. Say what you want about the level of UFC fighters, or the politics involved with the UFC, or how outdated the show/win model seems in modern prizefighting, but there are those for whom such things matter. It mattered to Albini. It mattered to his family. It mattered to his coaches. It mattered to just about anyone that listened to “Baby” Albini pour his guts out about his own poverty — his fight to get to the fight — to fulfill a dream, and justify his cause.

Next month, McGregor will fight Floyd Mayweather in a boxing bout of historical magnitude. He will earn in the range of nine figures. Sometimes that’s where the fight game leads. Even on the prelims of a plain-looking fight card, there is open-ended possibility in play. That possibility speaks to a certain kind of person, those who are willing to suffer in silence to gauge just how far possibility goes. Sometimes it’s nine-figures. Sometimes it’s enough to buy a house, or enough to find an identity. Sometimes it’s a toy for your baby girl.

After Saturday, Albini doesn’t have to merely content himself with the latter. He can savor it forever.