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Former WWE reality star Tanner Saraceno believes his wrestling experience can be ‘advantage’ in MMA


Tanner Saraceno is 7-2 with three straight wins. All seven of his pro victories have come via finish.

In his last bout, Saraceno choked out UFC veteran Dominic Waters. He’ll get the opportunity against another former UFC fighter, Jonavin Webb, at LFA 49 on Friday night in Atlantic City, a bout that will air live on AXS TV.

A victory for Saraceno this weekend could very well mean a call from the UFC. He’d have the résumé for it. But the South Carolina welterweight has no idea if that will happen or not.

“It’s kind of tough to say what they’re looking for,” Saraceno told MMA Fighting. “It’s kind of not just about winning anymore. There’s other things that go into it.”

It’s good that Saraceno knows all about some of those other things.

More than three years ago, Saraceno was training in MMA and competing at the amateur level when he was discovered by WWE — through his Model Mayhem page, of all things. The pro-wrestling organization recruited him for its reality show, Tough Enough. And Saraceno took the plunge.

Initially, Saraceno said he thought he was being catfish’d until a driver picked him up from the airport and said he was affiliated with WWE. The entire experience, Saraceno said, was “surreal.” But there he was, competing on the sixth season of Tough Enough. Chris Jericho was the host, Hulk Hogan was one of the judges, John Cena showed up as a guest.

Saraceno, 27, made it all the way to the penultimate episode, going further than Daria Berenato and Patrick Clark, who WWE fans know better now as Sonya Deville and Velveteen Dream, respectively. But Saraceno wasn’t able to win and WWE said it didn’t have room for him at that point.

Since then, Saraceno has gone pro in MMA and made a name for himself on the regional scene. What he learned in the world of WWE sports entertainment, he said, has only helped him in mixed martial arts outside the cage. For one thing, Saraceno became a pro fighter with a built-in fan following.

“That’s definitely a huge advantage for me,” Saraceno said. “It was a blessing to get into that and I learned a lot. They have a different way they run their organization and the way they see things. And there’s definitely things that translate over to the mixed martial arts community. It’s not a night-and-day difference. There’s a lot of things you can take from those, especially the social marketing. That’s all pretty much universal, wherever you’re gonna go, whatever realm you’re gonna go into. There’s only so many ways you can market yourself on social media. I definitely got a big advantage jumping into that world.”

While most fighters at his level are struggling through days of striking, grappling and wrestling, far too busy to be worried about promoting themselves, Saraceno has a leg up.

“I definitely think those worlds have a lot in common,” Saraceno said of MMA and wrestling. “They’re both about building your character, expressing your personality and entertaining. It’s just one you’re helping someone do a move and the other you’re trying to stop them from doing that move. Essentially, they come down to the same things — are they entertaining fans and are they selling tickets? So, I definitely think there’s a great blend that could be done with that and definitely a crossover.”

While he won’t rule out pro wrestling in the future, MMA is Saraceno’s complete focus now. He is interested in getting to the UFC, but that’s not where his goals end. The Revolution MMA product has designs on making a name for himself on the worldwide level.

“That’s just a matter of time in my head,” Saraceno said of the UFC. “That’s not the end goal. The end goal is to become a legend of the sport and to win championships and do things that other fighters haven’t done or don’t have the ability to do. Getting to the UFC is just in the process of doing those other things. It’s on the way there.”

Saraceno has an idea of how he wants to carry himself, portray himself in MMA. He wants to be a fighter that children look up to, not a brash, profanity-spewing heel.

“The way I look at it is, I’ll work for money,” Saraceno said. “I’ll do certain things for money. If being a character is one of those things, I could do that. A Conor McGregor, I won’t portray myself as someone like him, because at the end of the day I want to be a role model for young kids. I’m gonna have kids of my own one day. I don’t want that kid in 20, 30 years, when they’re showing their kids, ‘Hey look at your grandfather,’ and I’m flipping the bird to someone or saying something outlandish and plain out stupid.”

What Saraceno believes makes him stand out among his peers trying to work their way up is his mindset. He’s not trying to just accumulate wins. Saraceno said his approach to fighting is not from a sporting perspective — he’s trying to beat people by stopping them. He said he has only won once by decision, as an amateur, and that didn’t sit well.

“I don’t go into a fight thinking, how can I win this competition?” Saraceno said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that set me apart from other fighters. I don’t go in there trying to win a sporting event. I go in there trying to end a fight. That’s how I look at things and that’s how I approach the fight game. I treat it as such — it is a fight. Not, ‘Can I get a takedown and lay on you? Can I outpoint you and get a couple more strikes than you?’ I wouldn’t sleep right if I went to a decision and didn’t finish the fight.”

Entertainment is of the utmost importance to Saraceno and that’s one of the things he learned working with WWE. There have been a number of former UFC fighters making the jump to WWE lately, including Ronda Rousey, Shayna Baszler, Matt Riddle and Jessamyn Duke. The relationship between MMA and pro wrestling is a storied one and Saraceno said he’s not shocked at all by the crossing over.

“I certainly don’t see it as something stupid,” he said. “I definitely don’t see it as something surprising. Those two worlds are blended together. If you think about, you’re talking about exceptional athletes who are experts at manipulating the human body and doing theatrical things with their bodies. The two biggest organizations in the world at doing those things — why wouldn’t you combine them?”

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