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Eric Spicely returns to regional scene with UFC, WWE still in his sights

Eric Spicely returns to the CES cage on Saturday in Lincoln, R.I.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Eric Spicely wears his love for pro wrestling on his sleeve.

While MMA remains his calling at the moment, the Ultimate Fighter and UFC veteran (who owns a memorable first-round submission victory over current light heavyweight contender Thiago Santos) has dabbled in mixing it up in the squared circle and hopes to make that a regular part of his schedule in the future.

The 32-year-old is set for his first fight since his UFC release earlier this year, taking on short-notice replacement Leo Pla in a middleweight bout at Combat Entertainment & Sports 54 on Saturday at Twin River Casino back in his home state of Lincoln, R.I. Spicely’s original opponent, top CES prospect Stephen Regman, withdrew for undisclosed reasons.

In December, Spicely had a tryout with World Wrestling Entertainment, the sports entertainment giant that he’s been a fan of since back in the day when it was still known as the World Wrestling Federation. Unlike some of the other hopefuls, he’d had in-ring training, working with New England area independent standout “Biff Busick” (now known as “Oney Lorcan” on the WWE’s developmental brand NXT), and that meant Spicely was prepared for the drills they were asked to go through at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando.

“He was really also into the whole MMA thing, so we would teach him some jiu-jitsu stuff and me and my buddy Chuck O’Neil, who also used to fight in the UFC, we just kind of swapped information,” Spicely told MMA Fighting of training with Busick. “And it was just like, we’re already in shape, very athletically inclined so it was really easy to kind of pick it up. I think we wrestled our first match a month after we started training.”

A cast member on TUF 23, Spicely pointed out differences and similarities between trying out for the WWE and trying out for the UFC’s long-running reality series. The emphasis was primarily on testing fitness and cardio on TUF, with fighters typically bringing their own distinct skill sets to the show, while the WWE audition was meant to see who could follow instructions and pick up some basics, not to mention weeding out the stragglers.

“Right away, one guy quit during the warmup,” Spicely recalled. “He was like, ‘I’m going home,’ because it was intense.”

However, on both shows, those tests helped to build up a camaraderie even among a group of people all competing for the same prize.

“It was just like everybody shows up, nobody really knows each other, everybody’s kind of eyeing each other up,” Spicely said. “And then it was like as the days went on everyone became a lot cooler and nicer to each other and you kind of become friends instead of just, ‘I’m competing against this guy.’ Right away it was right into hard work. I remember the first day of TUF it was like, ‘Holy shit,’ they just killed us with two sessions in the first day.”

Eric Spicely at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando

Not only did Spicely get a chance to reunite with Busick in Orlando, he also rubbed shoulders with some of the most respected trainers in the wrestling world including Robbie Brookside, Norman Smiley, Terry Taylor, and WWE Hall of Fame member Gerald Brisco.

The tryout participants didn’t receive a lot of feedback after it wrapped, but Brisco offered words of wisdom to Spicely during his time there and also offered some public praise for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt:

Spicely actually began wrestling before making his UFC debut in July 2016 after filming TUF. His plan was to balance both MMA and pro wrestling, but then-matchmaker Joe Silva put the kibosh on that. Maybe the request rubbed Silva the wrong way too, because in his second UFC fight Spicely was matched up with Santos, one of the most feared strikers in the sport.

In what was an enormous upset, Spicely brought the fight to “Marreta” right out of the gate and ended up taking the Brazilian’s back en route to winning via rear-naked in under three minutes. Santos has claimed many scalps since the loss to Spicely, but Spicely remembers the moment fondly and plenty of people — including Tristar training partner Georges St-Pierre — still bring it up to him.

“I’m always excited to watch [Santos] fight and I see the way he fights and I’m very happy that ours did not go that way because I really like my brain and I’d really hate — I mean, he was one of the scariest people I’ve ever fought in my entire life,” Spicely said. “I thought I was going to die and my only goal was don’t get head kick knocked out in the first 30 seconds. That’s all you can really hope for.

“It’s funny because I was actually grappling with Georges and he just randomly in the middle of the round stopped and goes, ‘Man, you submitted Thiago Santos, right?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ And he was like, ‘That’s crazy. He’s so good.’ It was so random, because I feel like Georges doesn’t keep up with a lot of stuff, but he just randomly said this and I was like, ‘Yeah, Georges that was two years ago.’ It was such a crazy experience. I think the UFC wanted me to get crushed and then they kind of gave me a lot more respect after that, especially after beating Alessio (Di Chirico). I think about that all the time. That guy is the scariest guy, I don’t even know how he was making 185, he’s so big, and he’d already beaten a couple of Tristar guys before that. He had knocked out Steve Bosse, he beat Elias (Theodorou), so I feel like even here they didn’t want to say anything, but they were like, ‘Eeeeeeeeh… it’s not the best fight in the world.’ And he was ranked top 15 at the time, it was just like, what is going on?”

Spicely’s run with the UFC ended at 2-4, but he’s optimistic that a few wins on the regional scene could get him back to the Octagon, where he’s ready to pull off some more upset magic. He’ll have to avoid an upset of his own first when he takes on the relatively unknown Pla at CES 54, which will air live on UFC Fight Pass.

Then again, all of that could become a moot point if it turns out that his WWE tryout wowed the company enough for him to receive a contract and put him on the path to joining his friend and fellow fighter-turned-pro wrestler Matt Riddle over in NXT. Looking back, Spicely wonders if he could already have been fighting and wrestling simultaneously with a more carefree attitude.

“I was pretty devastated when Joe Silva told me not to do pro wrestling,” Spicely said. “Especially because Tom Lawlor had done some while he was signed too and I was like, ‘What the heck, man?’ He was like, ‘I didn’t ask, I just did it.’ Damn it, I messed up by asking.

“I would love to wrestle. I really hope the WWE calls me and they’re like, ‘We want you to come to NXT’ because that would be amazing. I’m just keeping my options open for whatever works out and comes to fruition.”

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